Writers are always trying to find that “hook.” It is that one sentence or caveat that gets a reader’s attention, keeps him or her entertained, and therefore unable to put the book down. I guess you could say Steinberg does exactly that. However, I am not so certain about my incapability of being unable to put the book down, but regardless of the book that is usually the case for me. Furthermore, Steinberg captures one’s attention with the satellite image of Earth and proceeds to explain how U.S. history books begin with an image of the states and ignore the history of how lands moved to form the nation we know today. These history books immediately talk of immigrants who arrived to the lands but hardly ever do these works explain how the land came to be in its current formation. Turn the page and there it is, the exact image of the U.S. that Steinberg warned us about. Does having that image four pages later really make that much of a difference? Is my notice of this trivial to the overall quality of his work? He mentions Pangaea, but then, in my opinion, does almost exactly what he criticizes textbooks of doing. Where is my history of Pangaea? Maybe I am being a bit picky here…
There are positives to Steinberg’s work. While it reads much like a textbook, I think that is helpful in getting historians, specifically younger historians at understanding the role environment plays in U.S. history. Human and environment interactions have been the major topic of this semester’s class. I think Chelsea makes a good point in her post from two weeks ago. She states, “I found it interesting that the conservation movement began when American lawmakers redefined what was considered legitimate uses of the environment.” When humans overstep their boundaries is when conflict between humans and the environment develops. However, humans are not always the ones who overstep a boundary. For instance, Steinberg mentions slavery and its inability to function in a cool climate. Thus, the South had the environment to support such a system. Nature allowed for the system, but it was man who allowed the system to happen.
This entire semester we have been trying to figure out the relationship between humans and nature. And even though I was critical of Steinberg’s introduction, I think he makes his readers understand that history cannot be told without all of the key players, and these key players do not always involve animate actors. The environment is not always the innocent bystander.
For a bit of praise–I commend Steinberg for the amount of information he manages to present in his relatively short “textbook.” Steinberg’s work is useful for grounding the many themes we have talked about this semester. Thankfully he did not do so in eight hundred pages.
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?).