The Course

Environmental Cataclysm: An American Case Study

In a modern world defined by climate change, environmental disasters are becoming commonplace: floods, wildfires, droughts, extreme and erratic weather, a warming planet is a changing planet.

This class, a case study of the worst man-made environmental disaster in American history, is designed to provide students with a set of tools to help understand environmental change and how different constituencies respond to catastrophe.

Between 1915 and 1930, American farmers destroyed one the greatest grasslands in Earth’s history, a biome that had thrived for over a thousand years. When hit with a prolonged drought, this ecosystem, stripped of its vegetative cover, devolved into desert deathscape of blowing sand and twenty-foot dunes. Scientists warned of an American Sahara.

Most people called it the Dust Bowl. This slow-motion disaster captured the attention of scientists, artists, poets, filmmakers, and politicians and has been the subject of excellent scholarship in history, geography, environmental studies, literature, and botany.

In this research-based seminar we will explore the Dust Bowl as a critical site of how Americans responded to environmental disaster and hopefully come away with a model of how to understand humans’ responses to the challenges of our contemporary world.