The Process of the Environment

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

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.

Revisiting Themes through Down to Earth

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

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?

Class Conflict in American Environmental History

In Crimes Against Nature, Karl Jacoby looks at the American conservation movement in a more class-based way than many previous historians have. As he outlines in the epilogue, a big part of his argument is the way that the elites in control of ecological movements demonized and illegalized the environmental practices of poor, rural Americans in order to exert control over both them and the land. (194-195) As Justin notes in his post, the conservation movement seemed to create new norms of ecological practice that were favorable to those in charge. I also noticed something interesting about Jacoby’s research in the book’s preface. He says that he did not originally intend to focus on conflicts between those in charge of the state park movement and poor people breaking the law, but that he found so many instances of that happening in his initial research that he decided to change his topic around. (xv-xvi) He also says that his perception of such conflicts was that they only happened in third world countries in places like Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where the conservation movements were led by European colonists. (xv)


This peaked my interest because of an African environmental history class I previously took at Davidson, where we learned a lot about such movements in colonized countries in Africa. Many authors we read argued, much like Jacoby does, that the Europeans in control of these countries used environmental policies to oppress the native Africans under the guise of a desire to protect resources. For example, colonists in South Africa prosecuted poaching quite severely and enacted rules banning natives from owning hunting dogs, claiming that their efforts were guided by a desire to protect hunted animals. Like Jacoby, I find it especially interesting how easily comparable the conservation movements of Africa and the U.S. are in regards to what it points out about the relationship between elites and non-elites. If one accepts Jacoby’s argument, then in this particular aspect of environmental preservation, there are legitimate comparisons to be made between the way elites treated poor Americans and the way Europeans treated Africans. I believe most people would be quite surprised to hear such a comparison be made. And ultimately, that sense of surprise is why I enjoyed Jacoby’s book. It was very interesting to see the American conservation movement studied in this new light, and I believe it represents a big corner being turned in the historiography of American history, both environmentally and in regards to class conflict.

A Subaltern Environmental History

Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature is a history that strives to take a look at the underbelly of the Conservation movement in American history. His “bottom-up” approach chronicles the evolution of a moral ecology which straddles the fence between official conservation standards and traditional ecological practices. I would say that this reminds me of the populist politics class I took last semester, except the fact these areas being conserved by the government were too sparsely populated for effective populist action. As a result, the conflict was very one sided and Jacoby notes that the history reflects this as an environmental crusade waged by the “pantheon of Conservationist prophets” (1).

Like Wade, I was also reminded of our discussions about the role of capitalism in shaping environments while reading this book. What I found most interesting about Jacoby’s take on this, however, is the unconventional intersection of morality and capitalism. In this class, the focus when discussing capitalism has been primarily the economic and ecological aspects. Unfortunately, the chances of morality and capitalism working together to create a better method of conservation as they remain “separate guiding stars in a dark night sky” (198).

Crimes Against Nature: Conceptions of Nature and Morality

Karl Jacoby, in his Crimes Against Nature, discusses the land set-aside during the conservation movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the “the law and its antithesis-lawlessness” (2). I found it interesting that the conservation movement began when American lawmakers redefined what was considered legitimate uses of the environment. The philosophies that shaped these lawmakers and their decisions trickled down to the ordinary folk and their interactions with the environment therefore changed. Jacoby refers to the moral universe that shaped the local transgression of conservation laws that gives historians a look into the beliefs and traditions of the people as “moral ecology” (3). Poaching, arson, and squatting take center-stage in Jacoby’s work on conceptions of nature and environmental crimes.


Jacoby argues that there is more to the traditional story about the elite imposing their ideas about nature on rural places and rural folk. The country folk did not ignorantly break the laws, but actually resisted conservation programs that threatened livelihoods and “fashioned a variety of arrangements designed to safeguard the ecological basis of their way of life” (193).  Studying the formation of the Adirondack Park by New York State, the federal government’s attempts to manage Yellowstone National Park, and the Grand Canyon conservation plans, Jacoby shows how these actions impacted the resident peoples. With the involvement of the military, conservation schemes affected those living in and using the parks, such as those who desired to use the public land for hunting. Conservationists even opposed the supposed American rights to take timber, water, and minerals from the preserved lands. He points out that sometimes, “Americans have often pursued environmental quality at the expense of social justice” (198). In this way, the conservation movement challenged American republicanism and democracy, interfering with traditional conceptions of American rights and living.


An interesting myth that Jacoby also challenges is the myth that conservationists protected unchanging wilderness, when, in fact, conservationism transformed the countryside itself. Fire, hunting laws, and restocking wildlife helped transform the country in this way. With the transformation of nature, the Yellowstone Act of 1872, and the American obsession with claiming property, I agree with Anthony’s statement that these actions “reflect our obsession with fencing off and owning property and reflects our abuse of the world ‘natural.” Yellowstone Park, protected by conservationists, ironically prevented people from performing previously conceived “natural” actions. This irony echoes the discussion we often have in class: whether or not the actions of mankind can be considered natural or not. How do lawmakers and conservationists decide what is natural on one side of the fence when that action can occur without consequence on the other side? I find this absurd. Jacoby’s work made me ponder what is considered a “crime” and how “crime” is truly a man-made concept, easily impacted by lawmakers and evolving ideas about morality and the environment.

Capitalist Ideas of Land

Whether we realize it or not, we as a people have a specific way that we think about and view nature.  This way is not the right or wrong way, but is different from the way other peoples might see it.  We seem to have a fascination or an innate desire to separate and own land.  The notion of ‘property’ is crucial to the foundations of democracy and thus the foundation of this country.  John Locke, the founder of modern democracy, first established the right to life liberty and property.  While we switched the words around to include “the pursuit of happiness,” the idea of property never left the minds of our founding fathers.  As a people we have a desire to mark territory that we alone own.  The idea of ‘fencing off’ what we posses is very prominent in our society.

This is never more transparent that in the Yellowstone Park Act of 1872.  The wording for this act provided a legislative model for subsequent efforts for all types of conservation.  The act stated that the land in the park was retained in “its natural conditions” and “set apart” for people to enjoy.  Any person who operated against “the conditions of nature” was not allowed to touch the land.  While this legislation was motivated by a positive good, its wording reflects our views about the environment.  It reflects our obsession with fencing off and owning property and it reflects our abuse of the word ‘natural.’  This legislation suggests that our country knows what is truly natural.  Yet how can we truly claim that anyone is acting against the conditions of nature?  The way we define the conditions of nature may be different than the way a Native American would or anyone else would.  Who are we to deem something against the laws of nature?  Some people might even argue that fencing off any nature at all is inherently unnatural.

Karl Jacoby’s most captivating argument in the book for me was her argument that we often try to legitimize particular conceptions of nature and criminalize others.   While I agree that this process goes on all the time, I don’t believe that it is just limited to the urban elite and kept separate from rural citizens.  I believe that it stems from a fundamental capitalist and democratic understanding of land that was established by our forefathers.  Jacoby talks about the elite because they are the easiest targets and they were the most successful at using our conceptions of nature for their benefit.  I would love to see a study of this type of rhetoric among farmers and other rural Americans.  I believe that it would be just as prominent.  I think Justin makes an intelligent point in his post about the importance of binaries in this work.  I think Jacoby seeks to set up this binary opposite between these two groups of people.  While it effective for the argument I would love to see more.

Binaries, Language, and This Interlocking System

This weeks its back to the binaries with Karl Jacoby’s Crimes Against Nature. His research tells the rise of conservationism in American history. This is the story of the battle between law v. lawlessness, East v. West, urban v. rural–the transformation of once acceptable environmental practices into illegal acts. The nineteenth century saw a change in the manner in which language concerning environmental acts shifted. A battle erupted between those who lived in the rural West and rural areas of the United States. Jacoby’s work not only calls out those who attempted to colonize people and places disguised as environmental conservatism but also historians who have perpetuated environmental practices between urban and rural folk, the rural folk portrayed as the antagonists. He states, “Historians have largely concurred with such judgments, viewing rural folks as operating a flawed understanding of the world” (2).  Jacoby acknowledges that primary sources authored by rural folk are extremely limited, but there are other routes to finding information about their lives and their interactions with the environment. He wants to debunk the following myth: “the belief that prior to the advent of conservation, rural folk, in keeping with the supposed rugged individualism of the American frontier, did as they pleased with the natural world” (193).

I like to think of people’s relationship in relation to Emily’s commentary from last week. She stated, “Finally, disasters were understood to be, though destructive, also creative of new life. In disasters, authors found a way to understand their local concerns about social change as possibly a good thing in the end.” Thus, is it not natural that humans have a destructive element in how they interact with the environment? Of course conservation is important to slow any process of degradation, but were/are not these actions inevitable?

As Jacoby states, “Conservation thus extended far beyond natural resource policy, not only setting the pattern for other Progressive Era reforms but also heralding the rise of the modern administrative state” (6). Thus, Jacoby’s story suggests more than just the rise of environmental preservation came with its supposed birth. Once the system was defined according to those in charge, each event was then (and continues to be) based off of the created “norm” or in this case “law.” These laws determined how society was “supposed” to be organized, not how it was supposed to be. The history of conservation in the United States is all about language and those who have the means to enact what they want to happen. If there is opposition, whether good opposition or bad, is irrelevant (at least to them). It is crucial to be aware of a system that has the potential to cause good but also cause bad–not only towards the environment but also towards different groups of, often marginalized, people.