Ted Steinberg, Space, and the Greater Themes of this Course

Ted Steinberg’s work Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History definitely made me think more about the greater themes in this class, and helped me solidify my constantly fluid opinions I’ve developed this semester. This is a perfect book for our class to finish the semester with, as it ties everything we have studied together with how it connects the environment and the history of the United States.  While one could argue that we should have started the course with this book, I don’t believe I would have appreciated Steinberg’s work as much without having read the previous works in this class.  Steinberg makes a number of bold proclamations about how the environment shaped American history (ie: the environment in Indonesia impacting America, as Brandon mentions below).  I don’t believe I would have bought some of the connections he made when I first entered this course, however, because of how we have looked at environmental history from multiple angles, I was thoroughly convinced by Steinberg’s claims.

While we have spent a lot of time in this class discussing things such as what the term natural means to us and how it has changed, I believe the biggest thing we should take away from this class is a greater understanding of how the natural world and environment (regardless of how you define them) have shaped the world we live in.  People usually worry about the future of the environment (as they should), yet they overlook the role it has had in the past, and we were able to fully appreciate that in this class, especially with Steinberg’s work.

I really enjoyed Manish’s discussion of space in his blog post, as the closing space in the modern world is why the environment is changing drastically so quickly, with human’s ability to close the gap between spaces with advanced transportation.  I found it interesting as the idea of humans closing the gap in their westward expansion and privatization of the land applies specifically to my final paper.  When the government built the Boulder Dam (now Hoover Dam), they felt that they could privatize and expand in Arizona and Nevada despite the desert environments by building a man-made reservoir.  While they were able to help create some semblance of sustainable life, their lack of foresight into how a fully grown city in that area would not be able to thrive in an environment despite what the dam provided.  Just like “King Cotton came back to bite [the South] in the end” (98), the government’s hubris and desire to close the space has resulted in a city that has struggled through water scarcity issues.

While I have (and still do) see nature as an interaction between humans and the environment and cities as a new form of nature, the lack of space complicates this greatly.  I think the modern environment is one in which human’s have a greater role, and cities have developed as a result, however the questions Manish poses and Steinberg doesn’t answer as to “What should we do with things such as trash? Where would pollution go?” are not answerable as long as humans continue to privatize space and insist on a more dominant role in the greater environment.  Human’s greater role in nature is inevitable, but people need to start living in greater harmony with the other elements of the natural world or soon they will feel the consequences. While I don’t have an answer to the issue with the closing amount of space, I don’t believe preserving national parks or doing anything similar that separates humans and the environment completely is a good idea.  Somehow, human’s need to reach a point in which they interact with the environment rather than dominate it, but this is a pipe-dream, and most likely the environment will fight back at some point and human’s will feel the consequences (maybe the crumbling ozone?).

The Struggle for Control: Nature vs. Humanity

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.