Ecology of Fear: Human Agency and Nature Result in A Wave of Fear and Anxiety

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Environmental histories seem to stress the relationship between human actions and their impact on the environment. Often, the relationship involves human exploitation of nature and the consequences that arise.

Mike Davis’s work is no different. His Ecology of Fear presents a similar discussion on human agency in nature. Davis opens his book with a quote from the Los Angeles Times that hints at the hope awarded to the city of Los Angeles in 1934: “No place on Earth offers greater security to life and greater freedom from natural disasters than Southern California.” The first six chapters of this book demonstrate only irony associated with this statement. Davis describes the natural disasters that hit southern California today and finds roots in past human agency that caused the current catastrophes. Los Angeles has such a varied plant life, landscape, and weather, and human settlement and agency combined with this diversity impacted the city greatly. While human actors play a large role in this narrative, natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fire wreak havoc on LA. To recover from the disasters, money must be spent to rebuild the destroyed buildings impacted by disaster. A circle of chaos emerges, where money is spent to keep fixing disaster-stricken Los Angeles while the problems that cause the disasters never get fixed. Take, for example, the “total fife suppression” caused by placing fuel stockpiles near homes and allowing dry winds to wreak havoc on houses (101).

Davis’ central claim is that the citizens of Los Angeles have imagined disasters through a lens of fear and misunderstanding, resulting in a society that is catastrophically and consistently out of balance with the environment. He argues that, for a time, Los Angeles was not affected by some of the disasters like other places. This changed, however. In the first chapter, he argues that disaster in Los Angeles will result in “higher body counts and greater distress” in the future” (55).

The second chapter deals with the “selfish, profit-driven” attitudes that took over southern California, despite the people that warned against doom. Chapter three connects wildfires in Malibu with urban tenement houses that burned to the ground and received little media attention compared to the upscale city. He essentially connects environmental disasters with social inequalities. Chapter four focuses on tornadoes and the secretiveness of their existence, although they experience tornadoes at a rate twice as high as Oklahoma City. In chapter five, he discusses a growing fear of mountain lions and other animals as urban sprawl occurred and mankind moved in on the wilderness. In Chapter six, he discusses the “disaster genre” in cinema and literature. Specifically he talks about the Asian hordes, aliens, monsters, bombs, cults, pollution, gangs, terrorism, floods, riots, volcanoes, sandstorms, mudslides, and plagues that frequently attack Los Angeles, and how this pop-culture reflects racial anxieties.

Davis finishes up his work with a discussion on how Los Angeles will eventually become an urban city of homeless people, violence, blue-collar crime suburb, affluent gated communities, and prisons surrounding the outskirts. He bases his beliefs on the current situation in LA that involves southern Californians giving up civil liberties to curb social fears and keep them at bay. He updates Ernest W. Burgess’ urban zone diagram from the 1920s, building on the social hierarchy of the city and the zones they occupy.

His work is left wing and political while also adding an interesting analysis of human nature as a whole. He appears to place more emphasis on mankind as the main actor and decision maker in a place where disaster and catastrophe are a normal occurrence in the environment. It is where humans decide to live, what they decide to do, that causes issues.

Davis does a nice job of creating a direct relationship between man and nature. One seems to directly affect the other. Humans impact their environment in a negative way through their market-driven, individualistic attitudes. The environment wreaks havoc on society, creating fear and paranoia that also reflects social attitudes of the times.  Davis sums it up referencing Henry David Thoreau’s work by calling Los Angeles “Walden Pond on LSD.” (14) Mother Nature should not be blamed for disaster, he says. Instead, wonder why humans decide to live in the path of disaster and what this can tell us about societal values and concerns. He decides to make nature an important actor in his work, but emphasizes that humans are the bigger actors at play here with their societal anxieties and public policy. Society can be just as chaotic as nature.

Steinburg Does It All

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Ted Steinburg’s all-encompassing book Down to Earth: Nature’s Roll in American History is a sweeping environmental history of America. This is worth pointing out as a merit because this is the first we’ve read with so broad a scope, seeking to include pretty much all of the themes we have examined in American environmental history thus far. I like how he begins the book with a geological history of the land spanning back to the formation of North America out of Pangaea, which shows how our landscape is made up of the same stuff as the other continents. This is also cool because Steinburg takes us from there to the BP oil spill.

I would agree with Manish that space is an important theme in both Steinburg’s work and in this course. We saw in Nature’s Metropolis how capitalism spawned the first skyscrapers in Chicago and annihilated space and time to increase efficiency. In Steinburg this has also come to include waste management, which is still an issue of space today (168).

The Role of Nature and Human Agency in American History

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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.

Steinberg Has the Final Say

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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.

A Great Way to Wrap up the Course

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This week we read Ted Steinberg’s book Down to Earth and like Sean, I thought it was a great way to finish up the course. While we could have read this at the beginning of the course to really lay out for everyone what environmental history is, I liked reading at the end as a way to sum up everything we’ve been discussing. The book is quite ambitious, detailing the huge role nature has played in all aspects of America’s entire history. For example, in the first part of the book, Steinberg analyzes the process by which New England’s landscape shifted from its original state of being covered in forest as American agriculture expanded.


One of the things we’ve been discussing nearly every week is whether the ways Americans have changed the landscape and interacted with nature have been “natural” or not. I prefer to look at the questions in terms of their economic intentions and consequences. So, consider the example of farming in general. I consider a small-scale farmer who simply looks to support himself through agriculture to be participating in a more “natural” interaction with nature than a big industrial farm that is creating food that will be sold to the masses. The lone farmer is simply using the natural resources he needs to survive individually—he is himself a part of the food chain. However, once the intention of the interaction with nature is to participate in the capitalist economy (something created purely by humans), I would consider it to no longer be a “natural” interaction. I am not negatively judging such activity, but I would definitely not consider it all that natural. That kind of interaction between nature and the economy has been my biggest takeaway from the course.

The Process of the Environment

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One of the popular themes we have looked at in this class is the growth of the modern city.  From Chicago to New England, we have discussed how the elimination of space, the development of new technologies and the process of commodification all helped to develop a space that can no longer be considered natural.  Steinberg adds another complication to our understanding of cities by introducing what he calls “organic cities.”

This is not the first time we have encountered a qualification of nature.  William Cronon based much of his argument in Nature Metropolis on the qualification of ‘first’ and ‘second’ nature.  In particular, Cronon looks at the process of how first nature is turned into a commodity through the process of commodification.  This process reminds me in many ways of Steinberg’s argument.  The example of cows is particularly relevant to Cronon.  Steinberg describes how cows once roamed the streets of Atlanta.  However, in 1881 the city passed a law that made it illegal for cows to roam around the streets.  Cow no longer became an inherent part of the city, rather they were tuned into a commodity that was used to support the city.   Steinberg also looks at how horses were crucial to the development of the in-organic city.  He looks at how horses were paired with more efficient ‘horse cars.’  In this example the commodity actually contributed to the annihilation of space. The parallels between these stories and the examples in Cronon show how commodification plays a part in the development of all cities and in the annihilation of space.

I believe this qualification is useful for Steinberg’s argument because it forces us to think of cities as a process rather than just an entity.  By thinking of the modern environment in this way I believe we can help answer the question that Sean and Manish raise in their blog posts; does the modern environment contain an aspect of human interaction or are these two things separate?  I believe when you look at the process of human development you see that nature and human development are inevitably linked.  They both effect each other and thus can not be viewed as separate.

Steinberg also debunks a prevalent myth about the so-called ‘death’ of the organic city. He shows that not all these development were negative because they were inherently un-natural.  He points out that the deconstruction of the organic brought about the construction of health clinics, better schools and more sanitary public spaces.  I think Steinberg raises an important issue to consider when looking at commodification and the development of cities as a whole.  People tend to view commodities as inherently worse than their natural states.  I think it is important to see both sides of the process.  Yes, the thing is being taken from its natural environment but it is also being used to improve and support life in another environment; a city.  In every example we have looked at this semester, commodification has been a necessary part of human development.  It should be treated as such and never pinned as something inherently evil.

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

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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

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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.

Revisiting Themes through Down to Earth

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In his book Down To Earth, Steinberg writes a stirring but surprisingly persuasive text about the role of the environment in shaping American history. This book reminded me of several themes we have discussed over the course of the semester and also introduced me to several new ways of thinking about how nature has guided the history of the United States.

While reading Down to Earth, I was struck to see how this work connected with numerous other texts we have read this semester. In beginning his narrative with the split of the mega-continent Pangaea 180 million years ago, Steinberg paralleled his history with that of Crosby’s in Ecological Imperialism (3).  Furthermore, Steinberg’s characterization of nature as the primary actor in history has similar qualities with that of Ecological Imperialism. For example, Steinberg notes that after farmlands in New England were abandoned, the old oak and chestnut trees that once stood on the land did not return. Rather, new forests of white pine trees emerged because of their adaptability to growing in open landscapes (53). I found this section reminiscent of Crosby’s discussion of weeds and their ability to grow on land often uninhabitable for other plants.

Steinberg’s book also shared many themes found in Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis. First, both authors acknowledge the ability of “industrial capitalism” to redefine perceptions and uses of nature. Steinberg and Cronon even use similar examples, including the evolution of markets for grain and lumber, to demonstrate how capitalism quickly transformed natural resources from entities originally processed in small amounts to mass- produced market commodities (71). Both Steinberg and Cronon also discuss the problems wrought by the uncontrollable consumption of natural resources in American cities. Examples of this include the inability to dispose of garbage in cities like Chicago, and much of this waste was eventually dumped into bodies of water like Lake Michigan (168).

Apart from being able to compare this book with themes presented throughout this semester, I also especially enjoyed reading Steinberg’s chapter “King Climate in Dixie.” While Steinberg’s argument that the climate conditions of the South facilitated slavery is apparent to most historians before approaching history through an environmental lens, it does provide valuable insight into the development slavery in the South. Steinberg provided particularly interesting analysis when discussing how nature precipitated the emergence of the task system of slavery. Due to the partitioning of land into quarter acre lots and the hardiness of the rice crops, slave labor on rice plantations in the Low Country of South Carolina evolved from the gang labor practiced across cotton and tobacco plantations (79). I also found it interesting how Steinberg noted that cotton’s boom in single crop agriculture came after the introduction of Mexican cotton allowed slaves to pick five times as much cotton as they could using green and black staple varieties – this meant more profits for plantation owners (84). This, accompanied with the emergence of the Cotton Belt, helps to bolster Manish’s claim about our desires to exploit with sights only set on the benefits of our actions and not the consequences. As Steinberg indicates, the desire to exploit cotton ultimately led many southern farms to produce cotton as their only crop (83). Eventually, this lack of foresight would cost the South in the Civil War, as cotton farms were incapable of producing food for Confederate soldiers (98). Moreover, this struggle with nature during the Civil War hearkens back to the battles with the environment presented in Brady’s War Upon the Land. With this in mind, Steinberg’s Down to Earth provides an excellent medium through which to reflect on all we have read, discussed, and learned in class this semester.

The Evolution of Space

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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?