An Environmental History Magazine

Why I Fell in Love with Environmental History

Rebecca Öhnfeldt, 2022

The Dust Bowl was a dark moment – an ecological disaster – that hit the southern plains of North America 1 alongside the Great Depression in the beginning of the 1930s and lasted around ten years. The area had up until the late 19th century consisted of ecosystems with a rich diversity of species – amongst them different kinds of perennial grasses which held the soil in place through their root systems. But during this decade the soil of these vast plains started to erode and was taken by the wind. Something had changed. Drought and an increasing number of sandstorms led to enormous clouds of dust moving across the plains – hence the name of this disaster. 


The storms did not just occur occasionally. They kept the dust moving around almost day in and day out during this decade, forcing people to leave their homes since it made many areas practically uninhabitable. The stories of life during the Dust Bowl are horrifying; children getting lost and suffocating, crops being ruined, animals dying, people shutting up their houses as tightly as they could and still finding themselves and everything they owned completely covered in black dust. For many it became unbearable, and the dire circumstances led to a steady stream of refugees leaving the great plains. Around 3.5 million plains people left their homes between 1930 and 1940 in order to find better lives elsewhere. They were not always met with solidarity and were given demeaning nicknames such as ‘Okies’ and ‘exodusters’. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath famously features a family – the Joads – who depart Oklahoma for California alongside thousands of other “Okies”. 

I first encountered the Dust Bowl through the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Donald Worster’s book Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s 2. Donald Worster is one of the leading figures in environmental history and this book is the perfect introduction to the subject. Worster’s work is emblematic of the detective-like approach often characterising environmental history. Through a wide array of sources ranging from newspaper articles to recorded interviews, archive material, academic literature, scientific articles, telegrams, novels, reports, songs, and photographs, Worster paints an intricate picture. In his hands the Dust Bowl takes the shape of a puzzle – its pieces helping us better understand some of the relations between humans and their environment. Through this book I began to understand how intriguing environmental history can be. I quickly realised it was a discipline I had to pursue. 

The Dust Bowl could at first glance be mistaken for a misfortunate series of ‘natural events’ – drought and storms – leading to people losing their livelihoods and being forced away from their homes. But Worster provides a more complicated account that demonstrates there were also elements of this ‘natural’ disaster which might be considered ‘man-made’. Here it is worth pausing for a moment to note that one important aspect of environmental history is to broaden the view of the so-called natural landscapes. To always move beyond the deeply questioned nature vs. culture dichotomy. There is a well-known either/or view present in contemporary debates, meaning a landscape is either pristine or destroyed (by humans), a picture that stems from the idea of there existing such a thing as a nature in balance. 3 But landscapes are not dead backdrops to human actions. They are manifestations of all sorts of on going relations between biological and non-biological agents. Landscapes are in a constant state of change and in that sense they become active agents in these processes. This was certainly the case with the southern plains during the Dust Bowl, even though the discussion in Worster’s book tends to enact the nature-culture dichotomy. 4


To return to the Dust Bowl, as I mentioned something had happened in the plains that made the effects of the droughts and storms during this period so severe. One possibility could be that the perennial grasses were no longer there holding the soil in place. This change can be traced back to the expansion of industrial farming in the area. Worster explains how a growing demand for beef and the possibility to make money had turned the plains into a ‘cattle kingdom’ in around 1880. Mismanagement led to the land not being able to support the large amount of cattle and the industry eventually broke down. However, the awakened demand for capital made the settlers turn to extensive crop farming instead. These people carried with them dreams of setting up a farm and making money and they began increasing their standard of living, meaning people needed more land in order to keep up. A chase started – everyone wanted a better way of life. The grasslands of the southern plains were soon turned into a wheat factory. The farms grew in both number and size and around World War I the demand for wheat from Europe made business even better. The wheat farmer of the plains became a cog in the international wheel. The surplus money from the increased demand paved the way for a more efficient, mechanized kind of farming since the farmers could now afford to invest in technological aids such as tractors, ploughs and threshers. Due to the high prices of these investments, it became more and more important to earn money, not just make a living. Hence the wheels turned even faster. Land became capital that had to be made to pay as much as possible and it was the plough that led the way. The soil structure was destroyed, and more and more perennial grasses were replaced by wheat. Wheat is an annual crop lacking the more solid root system of the grasses and the equation is simple – something has to hold the soil in place, otherwise it erodes. 


A capitalistic view on soil as just another commodity is considered by Worster to be a major reason for causing the events of the Dust Bowl. The land of the southern plains had been farmed to some extent previously by the indigenous peoples in the area, but when intensive monoculture farming was paired with a lack of long-term knowledge regarding the ecosystems of the plains, the conditions started to shift rapidly. The settler-farmers of the southern plains must however not be seen as disproportionately foolish, they were not the first – or last – to overrun the limits of their environment. However, the lack of long-term knowledge and an increasing capitalistic view on natural resources led to disaster. The conditions of the soil and the area of the southern plains were not respected once it was under the plough. 


One could perhaps stop the analysis there, however, an environmental historian can always try to push the inquiry even further. The causes of the Dust Bowl are still an ongoing dialogue – evidenced by a text written by Hannah Holleman (2017) 5 which I read after I had finished Worster’s book. In short, Holleman thinks most of what has been said and written regarding the Dust Bowl focuses too much on nearby causes rather than on broader social drivers. The Dust Bowl period should instead be seen as a case that uncovers the connections between the ecological problems and the social domination that some people have over others on a global scale due to colonialism. Colonialism caused an uneven division of nature and labor on a global scale and shaped – and in some cases drastically changed – farming practices all over the world. The southern plains were a victim to this widespread ecological imperialism that coexisted with the growth of capitalism. Approaching the Dust Bowl from this wider analytical lens provides us with important insights regarding the effects of global processes and reminds us to never be too myopic in our analysis. 


What I have explained here, with the help of Worster and Holleman, are examples of how we can begin to approach complex events such as the Dust Bowl. For me it was Worster’s book that first opened my eyes towards how it could be done. It was as if he took my hand and said: “Come along and I’ll show you something that is equal parts exciting and troubling.” What he showed me was environmental history. 


The dark images of the Dust Bowl and the misery it caused often come to my mind these days when I think about the challenges we face on a global scale. Soil is continuously being treated as a commodity worldwide and soil erosion is happening everywhere. Industrial farming is still practiced in a way that goes against the natural ecosystems. In that sense I see little evidence of the lesson being learned. What I do know is that environmental historians study the past in order to grasp the present and the future. By adding layers upon layers, we strive towards understanding the drivers behind complex events and how humans affect the various ecosystems of which we are part in different ways. Even though we can never be sure, we can hope that this type of knowledge could help us meet the future with an open mind and prevent us from repeating past mistakes. Perhaps that sounds a bit utopian, but that should not stop us from trying. 


It will not be easy, and it will require a lot of work. A landscape is truly an entangled web and once you try to unravel all the different threads you might find yourself stuck in that ball of yarn for a long time. However, to try to entangle this intricate, ever-changing web is – I believe – the task for the environmental historian. And that is what makes it all so exciting.


  1. The southern plains is a vast area containing more than 100 million acres and encompasses parts of the five states Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
  2. Worster, D. 2004 (1st ed. 1979). Dust Bowl: The southern plains in the 1930s. Oxford University Press, New York.
  3. Marris, E. 2011. The rambunctious garden. Saving nature in a post-wild world. Bloomsbury, New York/London, p. 65.
  4. For further perspectives of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ see for instance: 

    Chakrabarty, D. 2009. The climate of history: four theses. Critical Inquiry, 35, p. 197-222. 

    Emmet, R., S. & Nye, D., E. 2017. The Environmental Humanities. A critical introduction. The Mit Press, Cambridge/London, chapter 7. 

    Soper, K. 2010. Unnatural Times? The Social Imaginary and the Future of Nature. The Sociological Review, 57:2, p. 222-235.

  5. Holleman, H. 2017. De-naturalizing ecological disaster: colonialism, racism and the global Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Journal of Peasant Studies, 44:1, p. 234-260.
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