Hiding in Plains Sight: Tracing the Emergence of the Technosphere between Kansas’ Dust Bowls

The dissertation project explores the socio-ecological dynamics that contributed to the emergence of the technosphere, using the example of Western Kansas’ groundwater irrigation crisis. The project analyzes the physical, technological, and societal rebirth of Western Kansas at the inflection point of the Great Acceleration, following the extreme events of the 1930s and 1950s Dust Bowls. It examines the emergence and transformation of the cultural, economic, legal, and technological drivers that enabled this socio-ecological transformation. In this way, the geoanthropological study raises the question of whether the same drivers that enabled this transformation are now trapping Kansas in its technospheric present.

In 1952, twelve years after the end of the 1930s Dust Bowl and two years before the 1950s Dust Bowl, High Plains farmer and entrepreneur Frank L. Zybach patented a “self-propelled sprinkling irrigation apparatus” that would radically transform the environment of the semi-arid High Plains region within the following two decades. Extracted from a central well, the rotating machine automatically irrigates a circular field, securing harvests against the recurring droughts of the High Plains’ extremely volatile climate. Liquid fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, or insecticides can be added easily to the irrigation water, further automating the application of agrichemicals.

Today, the cumulative effect of (over-)applying groundwater and agrochemicals makes center-pivot irrigation evident as an apparatus of the technosphere: on a regional scale, the apparatus significantly cools Western Kansas’ climate, changes regional precipitation patterns, and contributes to the disturbance of biogeochemical cycles in the Mississippi watershed as well as the depletion and pollution of Kansas’ groundwater. Meanwhile, center-pivot irrigation guarantees a constant superabundance of grain for regional ethanol plants, dairies, and the world’s largest feedlots to satisfy the global demand for supposed green energy and cheap meat. On a planetary scale, the groundwater irrigation revolution triggered on the High Plains might soon become the greatest terrestrial contributor to sea-level rise, equaling the current contributions of glaciers and ice caps. Already today, global groundwater extraction has displaced so much water to the surface that it has significantly shifted the Earth’s tilt.

The success of center-pivot irrigation was driven by a cultural, economic, and legal transformation at the onset of the Great Acceleration that it then, in turn, accelerated further. By following the drivers' emergence, interactions, transformations, and present persistence, this route study of Kansas' path into the Anthropocene aims to make visible how a region like Kansas got onto the technosphere trajectory and was reshaped by global industrialized humanity’s influence in this process. Consequently, today's High Plains groundwater crisis raises the question of how places like Kansas have become existentially vulnerable in this planetary transformation process they contributed to and continue to do so.

The project is accompanied by the mapping project hidinginplainssight.org, developed in collaboration with Brian Holmes. Through the ongoing website project, Brian and Georg aim to make the emergence and socio-ecological impact of technosphere institutions and infrastructures in Kansas visible.

The mapping project also contributes to the MPI-GEA project Teleconnections: A Spatiotemporal Topology of the Technosphere.


Anthropocene, Technosphere, Spatiotemporal mapping, Agriculture, Land use change


Schäfer, Georg N. (2023). Hiding in Plains Sight: Tracing the Anthropocene Mode of Production's Emergence Between the North American Dust Bowls. In I. De Gennaro, G. Schäfer, & S. E. Schuster (Eds.), Geld Und Gewinn: zur Erweiterung monetär-ökonomischer Logiken (pp. 195-227). Baden-Baden: Verlag Karl Alber. doi:10.5771/9783495998953-195.

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