Ted Steinberg’s book Down To Earth: Nature’s Role In American History offers a broad discussion concerning the impact of nature and the environment on the development of America. The scope of the work allows for a surface level investigation of various aspects of American history. One event that Steinberg discusses, the Civil War, was the subject of an entire book written by Lisa Brady, which we read earlier in the semester. Steinberg’s analysis of nature’s role in the Civil War, though, adds substantively to Brady’s argument and does not simply rehash her claims. In his discussion of the Civil War, Steinberg argues that the Confederacy’s dependence on cotton contributed to its defeat. This perspective on cotton was new to me, and also quite convincing. Obviously cotton production, which required large amounts of slave labor, is often listed as one of the causes of the Civil War. Even so, never have I heard cotton listed as a factor in the Confederacy’s downfall. Steinberg defends this claim by arguing that the Confederacy’s focus on cotton prevented the production of corn to feed its troops. In addition, Steinberg argues that economic greed was not the sole reason plantation owners were hesitant to replace cotton with corn. Instead, plantation owners feared the repercussions that would result from their slaves having more downtime since corn was a far less labor-intensive crop than cotton. Slavery, which was at the forefront of the struggle between the Union and the Confederacy, essentially limited the Confederacy’s options in terms of food supply and contributed to its defeat. Steinberg’s presentation of the interdependent relationship between slave labor and cotton, which is generally depicted as the major strength of the Southern economy, as a fatal flaw in the Confederate war strategy was both intriguing and persuasive.
Another aspect of Steinberg’s work that I appreciated was his effort to demonstrate the impact of seemingly irrelevant events on American history. For example, Steinberg details how a volcanic eruption in Indonesia in 1815 resulted in a severe cold spell across New England the following year, which wreaked havoc on the region’s agricultural production (p. 49). Examples such as this helped Steinberg articulate his overarching theme of an interrelated world. Although America is restricted to an outline on a map, it cannot be understood simply by examining occurrences within its boundaries. Whether it was the breakup of Pangaea, volcanic eruptions in distant countries, or diseases and invasive species transported via European ships, the history of America has been greatly influenced by factors outside the geographical United States. As Manish notes in his post, a portion of Steinberg’s work is devoted to examining and understanding various human attempts to shape space to benefit humans. In regards to this effort, I believe Steinberg’s goal is to demonstrate the impossibility of such a desire. For, as Steinberg shows, America’s history is subject to factors well outside of its geographical borders. Nature is too expansive and powerful to ever be completely controlled. Thus, American history has been, and will continue to be, a struggle between natural and human forces.