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 Evolution of Space

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?