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The Downfall of Efficiency: A Socio-Material Study of the Inequality at the Center of the Midwest's Agriculture System, 1850-Present
From the beginning of the United States, enlightenment liberalism combined a for-profit zeal with an alienation of the non-human world. That false dichotomy between what was considered human and what was considered non-human laid the foundation of American land use patterns and American society. From the 1850s on, altering the midcontinent’s aquatic systems was central to building the Midwest as a well spring of national power in agriculture production. After the forced and federally orchestrated removal of many Indigenous populations, Agri-ecological technologies, including tile drainage, open ditching, and dredging, applied throughout the Mississippi River Basin to improve drainage efficiency, restructured the midcontinent’s water apparatuses creating ecological and human crises. Like many midwestern states, Indiana, lost approximately eighty percent of its eighteenth-century wetlands to development between 1850-1980. Subterranean tile drains, placed at the lowest point of a crop field, lowered the water table by removing surface waters. That water, once piped into human-made ditches scattered across the Midwest like a spiderweb, traveled into streams, creeks, and rivers. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, the success of drainage efficiency helped generate hundred-year floods every ten years in the Ohio, Wabash, White, and Mississippi Rivers. These floods created millions of dollars of damage, lost hundreds of lives, and made hundreds of thousands homeless. In tandem with soil exploitation, drainage also brought Dust Bowl-like conditions to Northwestern Indiana in the mid-1930s. Furthermore, this system transformed the speed with which water flowed and created a direct pathway for agriculture particulates. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and soil particles traveled this network to the sea. From the 1970s to today, this subterranean network was and continues to be identified as the root cause of the Gulf of Mexico’s hypoxic zone. As conservation efforts continue to ignore tile drainage as an unsustainable practice and climate change continues, the increasing usage of industrialized agriculture chemicals and the rising prevalence of hurricanes will transport particulates further out to sea.