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Coping with the 'World's Biggest Dust Bowl'. Towards a History of China's Forest Shelterbelts, 1950s-Present

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Since the early 2000s, numerous instances of severe dust storms affecting large parts of northern China have resulted in alarming reports on the socio-economic and ecological threats emanating from soil degradation in China's drylands. Given the magnitude of the problem, external commentators readily compare the present situation in China with the US Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. Chinese scientists and officials, by contrast, hardly ever mention the American experience on the Great Plains in view of China's deteriorating arid and semi-arid regions. However, the repeated attempts to plant huge forest shelterbelts in order to protect the vulnerable rangelands and croplands throughout the country bear witness that from the 1950s onwards the Chinese government based its campaigns against wind erosion on concepts that transcended political and ideological boundaries. The paper analyses China's holistic approach to transform nature and society on the country's arid frontier against the background of the Dust Bowl legacy. It shows to which extent 'high modernist' ideas of soil conservation, as expressed earlier in Roosevelt's 'Great Plains Shelterbelt Project' (1935) and the 'Great Stalin Plan for the Transformation of Nature' (1948), were adapted in China and translated into the construction of 'green Great Walls' during the latter half of the twentieth century.
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Keywords: China; Dust storms; dryland afforestation; geoengineering; shelterbelts; soil erosion

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: October 1, 2015

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  • The half-yearly journal Global Environment: A Journal of History and Natural and Social Sciences acts as a forum and echo chamber for ongoing studies on the environment and world history, with special focus on modern and contemporary topics. Our intent is to gather and stimulate scholarship that, despite a diversity of approaches and themes, shares an environmental perspective on world history in its various facets, including economic development, social relations, production government, and international relations.
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