Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth: Natures Role in American History is a fascinating text that explores a period stretching over millions of years all the way up to the present day. The number of themes and ideas that Steinberg touches upon is staggering and can leave the reader feeling slightly overwhelmed upon the conclusion of the book. However, Steinberg’s goal of reminding humanity of nature’s influence on the development of our societies and cultures is commendable and somewhat justifies his need to present what feels like every detail of American history.
In many ways Steinberg’s perspective on nature and landscape is the opposite of what Lisa Brady presented in her book. As Emily noted in her post “Brady’s notion of ‘landscape’ is a helpful way to think about how humans shaped the environment.” Steinberg on the other hand chose to explore how nature and the landscape shaped human history.
He begins from the very beginning with the formation of multiple landmasses during the period when the original landscape was called Pangea. I really liked how Steinberg provided this perspective to begin his narrative for it helped strike home how much of human history was the result of a random division of the landscape that led to the formation of our current continents. If Pangea had not divided the way it did with the separation of North America away from the central continents then the story of the Old and New Worlds that we are all familiar with would never have taken place.
This transcendent perspective also reminded me of how open the world was. There was so much space that possessed unlimited possibilities. The theme of space would come to be an important theme throughout this book and its evolution in human history would be a more subtle narrative that ran its course throughout the book. This narrative began with the competition of the land between Indians and settlers. Privatization and commoditization of the land led quickly to overuse and the need for more was what helped spur movements westward. The development of new technologies in transportation also helped change the American perspective on space. No longer were spaces located long distances away an afterthought. They became viable opportunities for the invention of things such as the railway made those spaces more easily accessible.
The improvement in the transportation of water and power furthered American’s abilities to interact with new spaces. Suddenly what seemed like inhospitable areas became habitable. These spaces were made even more attractive thanks to the invention of the automobile by Henry Ford. Mechanized transportation was finally individualized and allowed people to travel at their leisure. The growth of highways only served to grow the popularity of the automobile. The invention of the car made it possible for people to live in places outside of cities but remain connected to the industrialized world. The sphere within which workers needed to live in order to get to work had expanded. Suburbs developed and the wastelands between cities became populated. No longer was there any untouchable space. All space now could be consumed and shaped to benefit humans.
However, the lack of space now posed a new problem to humans. Suddenly we find ourselves with no more areas to expand into. What would we do with things such as trash? Where would our pollution go? It is at this point that we find the narrative of space merging into Steinberg’s greater narrative on responsibility. Throughout human history space and nature had always been viewed as something to commodify. Our want to exploit everything without thought to the consequences has led us to a place where the benefits of our actions no longer outweigh the negatives. The world no longer seems like a great space of unlimited opportunities. Instead we find ourselves in a growing crisis. Steinberg is unable to provide any solutions to the situation but perhaps the history of “space” in human thought can be used to predict the next step in human history. We have always found ways to utilize open space and so the next step seems like a logical leap. What better place to find “space” than in space?