“We speak of farmers and plows on the plains and the damage they did [to the Great Plains], but the language is inadequate. What brought them to the region was a social system, a set of values, an economic order.”
– Donald Worster
The scene is the United States, the early 1900s. A population blooming like algae across the Eastern seaboard seeks more space to unleash its expansionist fever, galvanized by the gasoline engine and maturing industrial revolution. Farmers descend onto the Great Plains, plowing their way through pristine grasslands with newly mechanized farming equipment. Agricultural production booms, supporting ever larger populations settling into the rich frontier. Life seems good.
But subtle changes to the Great Plains go unnoticed. Plows used with unsustainable farming practices wipe out the grass roots that held together the loose soil typical to the region. Rainfall is initially adequate but begins to decline. In 1934, the first of three droughts hits; the other two span the next six years. Lack of rain and strong winds kick up the uprooted soil, billowing dust storms throughout Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, and destroying any chance of harvest. Families abandon farms no longer viable for food production as 3.5 million people evacuate Great Plains to find work and sustenance elsewhere.
This scene was one of human tragedy and economic catastrophe. By the end of the droughts in 1939, more than 75% of the topsoil had blown away in the storms, and erosion had eaten away at previously healthy soils amid the grasslands. Only after such extreme disruption did the United States government act. President Roosevelt initiated policies to educate farmers about sustainable anti-erosion practices and to regrow plants that held the peripatetic soil in place.
Have we learned from such a disaster? Have we gathered more data about the effects of overzealous economic expansion and responded more quickly when necessary?
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Allred, B., Smith, W., Twidwell, D., Haggerty, J., Running, S., Naugle, D., & Fuhlendorf, S. (2015). Ecosystem services lost to oil and gas in North America Science, 348 (6233), 401-402 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa4785