Down to Earth : Nature's Role in American History

Ted Steinberg

Published by Oxford University Press, USA, 2002
ISBN 10: 0195140095 / ISBN 13: 9780195140095
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Synopsis: A tour de force of writing and analysis, Down to Earth offers a sweeping history of our nation, one that for the first time places the environment at the very center of our story.
Writing with marvelous clarity, historian Ted Steinberg sweeps across the centuries, re-envisioning the story of America as he recounts how the environment has played a key role in virtually every social, economic, and political development. Ranging from the colonists' attempts to impose order on the land to the modern efforts to sell the wilderness as a consumer good, packaged in national parks and Alaskan cruises, Steinberg reminds readers that many critical episodes in our history were, in fact, environmental events: the California Gold Rush, for example, or the great migration of African Americans to the North in the early twentieth century (in part the consequence of an insect infestation). Equally important, Steinberg highlights the ways in which we have envisioned nature, attempting to reshape and control it--from Thomas Jefferson's surveying plan that divided the national landscape into a grid, to the transformation of animals, crops, and even water into commodities (New Englanders started trading water rights by the early nineteenth century). From the Pilgrims to Disney World, Steinberg's narrative abounds with fascinating details and often disturbing insights into our interaction with the natural world.
Few books truly change the way we see the past. Down to Earth is one of them: a vivid narrative that reveals the environment to be a powerful force in our history--a force that must be examined if we are truly to understand ourselves.

Review: "This book will try to change the way you think about American history," writes Ted Steinberg in the opening line of Down to Earth. That's an ambitious claim, but not far off the mark. His fascinating book is essentially an environmental history of the United States, with the author paying particular attention to how elements of nature became commodities and thereby isolated Americans from the natural world. Readers don't have to subscribe to this neo-Marxist concept in order to appreciate Steinberg's observations about everything from the old-time urban problem of horse excrement ("the nineteenth-century equivalent of auto pollution") to the massive amounts of garbage produced by fast-food chains (McDonald's, he says, requires "an area equivalent in size to more than 450,000 football fields" to supply its paper needs). He also tells what may be the first-ever natural history of the Civil War. This may sound idiosyncratic, and to some extent it is, yet Steinberg weaves it all together and makes the underappreciated point that "it is quite simply wrong to view the natural world as an unchanging backdrop to the past." It changes all the time, he writes, and it has shaped Americans in ways that few of them understand. --John Miller

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Title: Down to Earth : Nature's Role in American ...
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Publication Date: 2002
Book Condition: Good

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