The Great Plains Population and Environment project examines the recursive relationship between human impact and environmental change. We investigate both how human activities shape the environment and how the environment influences population dynamics. In our analyses, the human population and the broader environment each serve as both independent and dependent variables.
Changing land use, population, and environment drive our study, and four headlines emphasize the significance of this project:
- The limits of human action on the environment: how human intervention has been stymied by the characteristics of the land, and how farmers choose to work within environmental constraints instead of driving over them.
- The shift from local to global scales of human changes to the environment: the determinants and consequences of increasing farm size.
- human impacts on the environment: estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration.
- Environmental impacts on population: how environment shapes family processes and migration patterns.
Through these interrelated approaches, we intend to obtain a fuller understanding of how environmental conditions have influenced demographic change, and how human land use has shaped the environment.
Over the period of our study, the white population of the U.S. Great Plains converted much of the native grassland to cropland, with significant environmental impact. However, our work has shown how the plowing and planting of the Great Plains, and the resulting environmental effects, were not monolithic. Moreover, human impact on the environment was limited by environmental constraints.
In On the Great Plains, Geoff Cunfer demonstrates that less than half of the land in the Great Plains has ever been used for crops, shifting the ground under the assertion that the region's agricultural transformation was total. Our research reveals that, while humans can decide where to plant crops, it is the environment that determines where crops will flourish. Furthermore, farmers in the plains responded to environmental constraints: almost all the variation in agricultural land use in the Great Plains is explained by environmental variables, especially precipitation, temperature, soil texture, and slope.
This evidence confirms our hypothesis that humans and the environment impacted one another: while crop-based agriculture did change the Great Plains environment, Great Plains farmers also responded to their environment and adapted their land-use practices accordingly. New sources from which we are currently extracting field-level data will allow us to further refine our understanding of this process.
Most studies of the relationship between population and environment focus either on the details of local processes or on the environmental effects of population change at the global level. Our project bridges this divide in three ways:
- Examining the complex articulation of the local to the regional and global over time.
- Investigating regional and global influences on local land-use decisions, primarily decisions about irrigation and farm size.
- Tracing the subsequent regional and global effects of those decisions.
Based on aggregate data, we hypothesize that the scale of population effects on the Great Plains has changed from local to global over the course of the twentieth century. In the early years of settlement, agriculture responded to the needs of the local population. Today, local population shapes the environment in urban, urbanizing, and recreational areas, but agricultural land use is now driven by global markets.
Over the course of the twentieth century, our data show that farm size in the Great Plains has grown as the population in agriculture has contracted, suggesting a shift from local to extra-local determinants of land use. This shift raises several important analytical questions about the relationships between farm size, population, economy, and the environment:
- What is the precise connection between increasing farm size and declining agricultural population?
- Is farm size driven by local, regional, national, or global forces?
- Is there a recursive relationship between farm size and the environment?
- Does the environment of the Great Plains drive decisions about farm size?
- Do larger farms have different impacts on the environment than small farms, for example by devoting more land to pasture (positive) or by using more pesticides and fertilizers (negative)?
We evaluate these questions by analyzing the economic context in which farm size grew over the course of the twentieth century. Our county-level data provide the intermediate scale for these analyses, while new data will fill in the picture at the field level and at the regional, national, and global scales.
Land-use transformations on the Great Plains since 1870 have altered the global carbon cycle. Our project contributes to the ongoing debate about environmental change by pioneering methods for measuring the effects of Great Plains agriculture on greenhouse gas production and carbon sequestration. In a region as large and significant as the Great Plains, it is crucial to measure the impact of the human population on the environment at a variety of scales, and to refresh those measurements as new data and new techniques become available. We have made fundamental progress in this area, first with the first accurate descriptions based on historical county-level data of the pace at which land was transformed from native grassland to cropland, and then with biogeochemical model results that show how land conversion and changing agricultural land use depleted (and then in some cases partly restored) soil carbon and nitrogen.
We are now both extending this approach to about 475 counties and refining our models with finer-scale data for a sample of these counties. These new analyses will allow us to engage in the crucial scientific and policy debate about the role of agricultural landscapes in producing greenhouse gases and sequestering carbon.
The other side of the population-environment equation includes the ways that environment shapes population. Our research thus far places the population of the Great Plains into two broad and overlapping contexts:
- The family settlement process: Family dynamics on the settlement frontier are shaped by the environment, the availability of resources, and a family and farm life cycle that develops out of the age and marital structure of the settlers.
- Migration: The various driving factors, notably drought, the rise of recreation, long-term economic change, and environmental hazards that draw and repel population and affect the family structures of migrants.
In both contexts, the overriding question is the same: how do people behave demographically in a complex social, economic, and environmental setting?
With the population growing in some parts and among some ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes in the Great Plains, and shrinking in other parts and among other ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes, we foresee valuable new research that relates the environment to rural and metropolitan populations.