The Unintended Consequences of Technology

Learn how the Great Plains became profitable cropland, leaving behind its grasslands, diminishing its bison, and trading in technology for sustainability.


Even before World War I, buffalo were effectively out of the picture in America. That war, and the one that followed twenty years later, intensified the pressure to create on the Great Plains a future that was radically different from the past that had served humans for tens of thousands of years. This new vision did not include buffalo. The difference between the past and the future visions of the Great Plains was wrapped up in the differences between hunting and farming, nomadic and sedentary culture, living with and fighting against nature. At its core, the new thrust of humans on the Great Plains would be to achieve a kind of pastoral paradise through the use of technology. The first step had been to clear the stage, and that meant getting rid of the buffalo and their Indian cousins. That task was mostly finished by 1900, but to completely change the nature of the Great Plains was a job even more massive than the near extermination of a couple of species. A string of perceived problems would have to be overcome: lack of people, lack of soil fertility, lack of water, lack of suitable crops, and a plethora of pests that preyed upon and competed with the crops that were intended to cover the land.

To the European mind, the Great Plains always seemed empty. Of course, this was a misconception, the Great Plains were always full of life, but it was the kind of life that was not centered on human beings, and that troubled the early pioneers, religious people, industrialists, and developers. The drive to expand the numbers of humans and their store of material goods was in full swing by the first decades of the twentieth century. If America, and indeed the entire world, was to double, triple, quadruple its human population it would need more human food. A good way to do that would be to increase the fertility of land that was flat enough to farm, and that included the Great Plains of North America.

Nitrogen makes things grow; the atmosphere is 80 percent nitrogen, but nitrogen in the air is not directly accessible to plants. There are some plants that suck it out of the air and deposit it in the ground, where other plants can use it to grow verdant and tall. Unfortunately, during the settlement of the Great Plains, most native nitrogen-fixing plants were not deemed particularly useful for humans and, if they were considered at all, they were usually considered weeds and destroyed where possible. Besides, they could never produce the volume of nitrogen fertilizer that would be needed to convert the prairies to farm fields.

The solution to the Great Plains’ fertility problem came from experiments with military munitions during the twentieth- century wars. A nearly endless supply of nitrogen fertilizer was found by two German scientists — Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch — in their quest to supply their country with enough explosives to wage worldwide war. The chemical difference between nitrogen for fertilizer and nitrite for TNT is small, and once Haber figured out a way to extract nitrogen from the air Bosch went to work industrializing the procedure. The Haber-Bosch process was demonstrated in the lab in 1909, and by the beginning of World War II the combatants were producing millions of pounds of TNT annually — enough to destroy many of Europe’s cities and kill millions of people. A great irony was that both Haber and Bosch won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in the years leading up to World War II.

But, in an even greater irony, we now produce about five hundred million tons of nitrogen fertilizer per year, and though much of it is intended to increase land fertility, it is dramatically decreasing the biodiversity of the old buffalo kingdom by spreading industrial monoculture farming across the Great Plains and poisoning most of the waterways on the continent. When Europeans first set foot in the New World they found a phenomenally diverse ecosystem where a human could drink freely from almost any stream. The nitrogen fertilizer that was a byproduct from the Haber-Bosch process was more lastingly devastating to the Great Plains than the nitrite bombs were to European cities.

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