The Role of Nature and Human Agency in American History

The Prologue of Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History ends with a statement that refers to a discussion consistently brought up in class: “Suddenly the earth itself becomes an actor, a force to be reckoned with, instead of a simple line drawing inside a book’s cover.” (7) In his book, Steinberg makes nature a significant player in America’s history since the beginning. Justin makes an interesting point that “history cannot be told without all the key players, and these key players do not always involve animate actors.” This seems to be one of Steinberg’s main points in his work. Working forward from Pangaea, Steinberg argues that Americans ultimately shaped their environments through the commodification of nature. In this American history textbook, Steinberg describes the settlement of the country, the surveying of the land, and the rise of commercialism to depict both the implications of human action and natural phenomenon on American history.

Something I found particularly interesting about Steinberg’s book is that he makes some interesting points about Native Americans and their relationship with nature. He makes a comment that early in American history, Indians were intimately aware of the environment around them and their rituals reflected their dependence on nature. Steinberg states, “they farmed the soil, hunted game, set fires, and gathered berries and nuts, engaging in a spiritually rich relationship with the land, while shaping it to meet the needs of everyday survival” (11). This resourceful and spiritual relationship with nature describes the kind of Indian connection with the environment I am used to reading in typical history textbooks. Steinberg acknowledges this unique Native American connection with nature, but also argues that they eventually began to see nature as a commodity as they became more and more influenced by American habits and presence. For example, the Cheyennes began to acquire more horses than needed. Indians, Steinberg argues, contributed to their own demise by keeping tens of thousands of horses, more than the land could support. (123) He therefore argues that a combination of human agency and environmental factors played a role in the demise of peoples and in the annihilation of space as humans began to use nature in ways beyond those needs required for survival.

Steinberg doesn’t simply blame human agency for the use and overuse of resources and the exploitation of land. Steinberg emphasizes that nature played a huge role in the development of American history. His statement at the end of Chapter 8 wraps up this main argument: “plants and animals are not merely a backdrop of history. They are living things that have needs that make demands on the land. Sometimes the land lives up to the task, and sometimes, because of a variety of factors both human and nonhuman, those needs outstrip the ability of the environment to provide.” (123) His interesting textbook on American environmental history not only contributes to some of our main discussions on actors, Native Americans, and the role of human agency, but also sheds new light and perspective on our conversations.

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