Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:2 (Spring 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


In March 1985 the Center for Great Plains Studies of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln held its ninth annual symposium "Social Adaptation to Semiarid Environments." The relevance of that topic was evident alike to specialists and to the reader of daily newspaper stories about drought and accompanying starvation in Africa, recurring crop failures in Russia, China's struggle to feed its teeming population, out-of-control grassland fires in Australia, and depletion of ground water supplies and continued soil erosion in the North American Great Plains. Specialists in a broad range of disciplines explored the ways in which different societies have adjusted in the past, are currently responding, and can adapt more effectively in the future to the problems of a semiarid environment. A number of the sessions focused upon the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, a fitting concentration, as the term had first been used almost exactly fifty years before. More important, however, the Dust Bowl has become the paradigmatic example of ecological failure in mankind's struggle to adapt to a semiarid environment. In the process, the term Dust Bowl has taken on two distinct meanings. In a strict sense, it refers to a particular locale, northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, western Kansas, and the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles. More broadly, Dust Bowl has become a shorthand label for the complex of difficulties-drought, low farm prices, and human distress-afflicting the Great Plains as a whole during the depression decade. The following papers explore some of the concerns suggested by the phrase Dust Bowl.