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.

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.

Nature’s Place as a Product

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William Cronon’s Parts II and III of Nature’s Metropolis analyze the commodification of various goods which became national commodities through Chicago as a major trading center. Through these two sections, Cronon describes the standardization of grain production, the significant rise in the trade of lumber,  as well as  the development of the intercontinental meat packing industry, all of which passed through Chicago as a bridge into the national market of the USA.

One of the most interesting chapters of Cronon’s Part II is his work on the growth of the lumber industry in Chicago, specifically in the way humans used natural forces to their advantage. In describing the seasonality of the lumber industry, Cronon indicated that loggers often flooded skidways with water, which then froze, allowing them to easily move the enormous loads of logs from point A to B (156). This tactic seemed incredibly innovative to me and represented both humans “using” their environment, as well as shaping it. In terms of using it, the loggers knew that water naturally froze when cold enough, which it often is during the winter months of Chicago, so they took advantage of this natural occurrence for their benefit. Meanwhile, they also altered their environment by flooding and freezing a region that would not have faced these conditions without human alteration. Though Cronon does not mention any negative effects of this change, it would be interesting to see how the transportation methods of the Chicago logging industry in the 1870s effected the environment and its natural inhabitants (outside of humans).

Again on the topic of water, Cronon makes similar claims compared to Theodore Steinberg regarding the pollution of water through its usage to dispose of waste. In his description of the waste from the Chicago pork packers, Cronon indicates that they used the water to dispose of these materials, taking on the perspective of “out of sight, out of smell, out of mind” (249). Steinberg, in his work of Nature Incorporated indicated that New Englanders also took on this ignorant perspective regarding their effects to the environment. The similarity between the ideologies of these two areas provided an answer for me regarding our question in class about country wide claims we could make about water politics. It seems that across the country, Americans in the 19th century viewed water as their tool for whatever they deemed fit, instead of a natural resource that could be destroyed. Through their negligence, both the purity of the water in New England and Chicago was diminished through the dumping of waste.

I believe Chelsea’s comment about capital dominating human life defines my comments about the way both Cronon and Steinberg indicated American perceptions of water. Rather than water as a natural commodity, something for everyone to enjoy, it seems that people only saw it for the benefits it could provide them in terms of financial gain. With the Chicago Meat Packers, water for them was an easy and free way to dispose of waste, saving them money but costing the environment. Similarly in New England, the industrialists also took on this ideology, while also viewing the water as a controllable energy source to provide them power for their factories. Though I agree with Chelsea’s description, I believe her statement about humanity’s priority of financial gain only sometimes effecting nature needs to be expanded in order to truly incorporate all the effects that human monetary decisions have had on the environment, specifically in the 19th century. The killing off the buffalo for robes and leather, the laying of the railroad throughout the land, and the establishment of cities into the west all were based off economic growth, each effecting the environment in a number of ways. I would love to be wrong about this, as it would reflect a better humanity, but our past large scale economic decisions seemed to have affected the environment in a number of lasting ways.

Humanity’s Domination of Nature in “Nature Incorporated”

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Theodore Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated for me helped further enforce the idea that humanity and nature coexist in his discussion of the industrial growth in New England and its interactions with water.  Steinberg discusses the relationship between nature and society, both economically and legally, and in doing so shows how humans coexisted with nature by controlling it, but despite this control, the nature could counteract it as humans became dependent on it (ie: water/typhoid fever).

Throughout this class we have looked at how nature and humanity have interacted and coexisted, and Steinberg brings in a new perspective.  William Cronon discussed in Nature’s Metropolis the economic relationship between nature and human urbanization with the railroad system, seeing railroads as natural.  Steinberg creates an economic relationship between nature and human urbanization as well, but with a more obvious component of nature (water).  He effectively argues how water instigated economic competition and made water a privatized commodity controlled by man.

At first glance I thought Manish’s connection between War Upon the Land and Nature Incorporated was a stretch, as in the former there was a clear distinction between nature and humanity while in the latter I read the two as one and the same.  However I bought the connection once Manish argued that nature was a setting in Steinberg’s work, not a character, a point I find intelligent that helps explain how humans could try and control nature yet be a part of it.  The idea of nature as a setting rather than a separate actor allows humans to exist within it, even if the human element has negative effects on the prior existing environment.

A lot of this discussion has been centered on human’s “conquering” of nature in Nature Incorporated, and I believe that this “conquering” is just indicative of humanity’s greater role within the environment, not human’s overtaking the environment.  As Emily noted in her post this idea of domination is reinforced with Steinberg’s word choice, yet I interpreted Steinberg’s points as industrialization being another stage of nature’s evolution.  Throughout human history people have used elements of nature to survive, whether it be collecting lumber or hunting for sustenance.  For me, Steinberg’s discussing of humanity and water convinces me further that urbanization and industrialization is nature and that human’s new usage, dependence, and privatization of water is just a new role water is playing relative to societal evolution, and that the domination is a sign of humanity’s greater role within the environment.

As Ian wrote in his discussion of the chapter “Fouled Water,” industrialization had a clear negative impact on the environment through pollution.  The effect on water obviously was a negative one, and Steinberg is critical of this industrialization.  I believe that despite the negative effects human had on the New England environment, that doesn’t mean that the humans moving in and industrializing the area means they are not a part of the environment, but instead a dominant part.

The Bond between Nature and Industry

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Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated provided an interesting and convincing argument about the significance of water in the development of nineteenth century New England. One way in which I think Steinberg was so effective in presenting his claims was through his linking the growth of industry with transforming views about nature. In his first chapter, Steinberg outlines the ways water was used for commerce and for navigation throughout the eighteenth century. He then contrasts this utilization of water with that of the burgeoning textile industry that emerged in New England and created a demand for waterpower (59). As more textile companies flocked to the Charles and Merrimack Rivers, this demand for waterpower – and thus for control of the water – spiked. As Steinberg clearly indicates, the competition fostered by industrial capitalism soon “necessitated” the privatization of water (46). The agreements over who was entitled to water quickly fostered the idea that water was no longer a force of nature, but rather it “turned water into an instrument” (49). In this way Steinberg asserts that without the forces of industrial capitalism in New England, it is unlikely that water would have become viewed as merely a means to earn profits. Competition throughout industry accelerated ideas about controlling natural resources – in this case water – and consequently distorted nineteenth century views of nature.

In response to Manish’s post, I largely agree with his commentary that man can never divorce himself from nature. However, I would argue that industrialization – at least in the eyes of Steinberg – did “conquer” nature. While humans remain reliant upon nature and can fall victim to its elements, I think that the force of industrialization in New England “conquered” water in such a way that the resource could not return to its original state. An example of this occurs when Steinberg discusses attempts to restock fish populations in the Merrimack. Although efforts to privatize fish and restock waters in New England were largely failures, the attempts demonstrated how nature was so tightly woven into “human agendas” and how people strove to “redesign nature” to fit their economic needs (203-204). These endeavors, compounded with the pollution of rivers discussed by Ian, illustrated how humans had, in effect, conquered nature.

Lastly, I thought that it worked in Steinberg’s favor to narrow the focus of his narrative to New England. While we have largely criticized this approach in class, especially for the last two books we have read, Steinberg does well to articulate the importance of selecting New England. He asserts that the Merrimack Valley held systems for controlling water that were unprecedented in the nineteenth century, and he states that the valley was at the “heartland of waterpowered industry” (95, 243). Unlike previous authors, Steinberg was also able to reiterate that his study centered only on the industry of New England. With that being said, the case of industrial and urban development in nineteenth century New England was so dynamic that we could likely find elements of this type of water and environmental politics throughout the United States. An example that came to my mind was the Chicago described by Cronon in Nature’s Metropolis. Much like Chicago forged the frontier and created a new kind of ecological development in the Midwest, Steinberg argues that the industrial capitalism of New England established a new “ecological relations” with water (11). I found that Steinberg, akin to Cronon, effectively demonstrated how industry transformed not only the environment, but also human perceptions of nature in nineteenth century America.

William Cronon’s Changes in the Land

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In Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, Cronon uses a two-pronged approach to understand how the ecological and cultural changes in New England during colonization. The changes in modes of production between Indian and European dominance are central to his thesis, which contends that the complex ecological and cultural relationships are tied directly to the influence of capitalism in early America. Capitalism drove the most robust changes in not only how the Europeans treated and organized the land, but also how the New England Indians reacted to these changes. Though, “capitalism and environmental degradation went hand in hand,” Cronon makes it a point to show that the Indians also shaped their environment, for better or for worse, just as the Europeans did. (14)

To construct an ecological history, the backbone of evidence came from descriptions made by travelers and naturalists. Part of the difficulty in using this wealth of information was judging both their naturalist skills and ideological commitments. (6) Also, the patchwork nature of local descriptions means they cannot be perfectly representative of a regional landscape. Another source is court, town, or legislative records, but they are more vague. However, these can still be used for relatively accurate accounts of deforestation, the keeping of livestock, conflicts between Indians and colonists over property boundaries, the extermination of predators such as wolves, and similar matters.

For Cronon, part of the challenge of writing this book was using ecological evidence outside of the historical discipline. For example, Ecologists have analyzed tree rings, charcoal deposits, rotting trunks and stumps to discover the history of New England woodlands. (7) Archaeological evidence can be used to assess human interactions with their environment over time. He does a very convincing job at seamlessly weaving the different disciplines together.

Changes in the Land is split into six different sections pertaining to the ecological transformations of New England. The first section focuses on Indian manipulation of the landscape before European contact. He emphasizes that while Europeans first encountering New England believed that they were seeing forests and habitats unchanged by humans, the environment had in fact been modified by the same people for over 10,000 years. Rather than being passive beneficiaries of a virgin landscape, the Indians (and later the Europeans) “sought to give their landscape a new purposefulness, often by simplifying its seemingly chaotic tangle.”(33) The most significant instance of this was the practice of periodically burning the underbrush to make the topography more manageable on foot. The Indians of Southern New England also practiced agriculture, resulting in an ecological patchwork.

The periodicity of New England’s temperate ecosystem resulted in a mobile way of life for the Indians. However, “English fixity sought to replace Indian mobility.”(53) The Indian way resulted in more ephemeral housing and landscape alterations. When the English settled in what were empty settlements, the Indians returned with the season to find the place they knew was gone. The conflict was over two ways of living and using the seasons of the year, and it expressed itself in how two peoples conceived of property, wealth, and boundaries on the landscape.

The landscape was directly affected by different concepts of property and ownership. The Indian idea of property involved co-ownership, or basically no ownership, and resulted in open forests pockmarked by communal fields tended by the women. The English idea of ownership introduced hedges and fences, and established roads and massive pastures for domesticated animals. The deforestation that went along with the English concept of property ownership and land usage changed the ecosystem where it occurred drastically. The English saw it as the “progress of cultivation” rather than deforestation. (126)

The commodification of resources in New England based on capitalist principles not only brought colonists in large enough numbers to transfer epidemic diseases, but also changed how the Indians hunted. Before the introduction of a demand for furs, Indians took only what they needed because a mobile lifestyle did not lend itself to accumulation of wealth. This created needs and wants which were not present in the Indian mode of production before.

Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang, 1983.