Down to Earth

by Ted Steinberg

Published by Oxford University Press

347 pages, 2002

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Informing the Debate

Reviewed by Ed Voves


In 1836, Thomas Cole painted one of the first great masterpieces of American landscape art. "View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm -- the Oxbow" is a vista of a river meandering through sunlit plains and rolling hills. In the foreground, a swathe of untamed wilderness stands in contrast to the gentle habitat of civilization.

After reading Down to Earth, Ted Steinberg's study of the role of nature in U.S. history, it is disturbing to reflect on how Cole would paint such a scene today. Given the ravages of suburban sprawl and pollution, would Coles' pastoral panorama instead be one of "Paradise Lost"? Steinberg, who teaches history at Case Western Reserve University, carefully refrains from presenting North America as an Eden before the arrival of European colonists in the 1600s. Yet the prodigal abuse of nature's bounty which his book surveys makes for unsettling reading.

The use and abuse of America's natural resources predates European settlement by many centuries. Steinberg studies the controversial role of Native American hunters in the extinction of mammoths, giant ground sloths and other prehistoric species after crossing the Bering land bridge from Asia around 12,000 years ago. Despite these early depredations, Steinberg contends that Native Americans became gifted stewards of their environment, hunting, gathering and farming in tune to what the ecosystem of North America could sustain.

Exploitation quickly followed exploration by the next wave of immigrants. Early hopes of finding gold and silver in the English colonies quickly faded, followed by the rise of intensive harvesting of lucrative crops or the trapping of animals. The use of "buck" as a slang for money in America refers to the exportation of deer hides -- buckskins -- from the southern colonies for use in glove making and other forms of leather manufacturing.

This economic system survived the end of the colonial period, as the United States began flexing its economic muscle. The emphasis on a small set of cash crops, often one per region, took hold with a vengeance. Tobacco, "King Cotton," rice from the South Carolina lowlands, timber from the virgin forests of the Great Lakes, Texas cattle and wheat from the Great Plains made the young nation's fortune -- but at a devastating cost to biodiversity. Steinberg maintains that the major factor for ecological change in America is "putting a price tag on the natural world." Nature, according to this almost universally held ideal during the 1800s, existed to be turned into a commodity, a prominent word in his narrative. As a consequence, a sense of "ecological amnesia" came to characterize American attitudes. The citizens of the United States seemed oblivious to the effect on nature of ruthless exploitation despite the mounting evidence. And every form of overproduction -- from soil-exhausting tobacco farming to the manufacture of gas-guzzling SUVs, has had a baleful impact on the environment.

Some of the historical events which Steinberg surveys occupy prominent places in American folk memory. This is especially the case with the slaughter of the buffalo and the rise and fall of the Cattle Kingdom on the Great Plains following the Civil War. Other developments, notable the author's analysis of 19th century urban life in the United States, provide new insights of considerable value.

Steinberg contends that America's cities were "organic" habitats during much of the 1800s. Life was roughhewn to be sure, but to a surprising degree city living was self-sufficient. Much of the food was locally grown -- farms flourished in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn during much of this period. Herds of pigs roamed the streets providing fresh meat and consuming garbage. Manure from the vast urban horse population, along with some human waste, fertilized local farms, thus completing the cycle of nature.

As the major cities of America were flooded with immigrants, the specter of contagious diseases like Cholera led to a major series of reforms. While generally successful, these efforts at raising health standards had long-term effects, as serious in some ways as the problems they addressed. By flushing waste into nearby rivers and lakes and shipping garbage to local dumps, urban governments surrounded their cities with lifeless, oxygen-starved rivers and blighted waste lands.

Steinberg's trenchant analysis of the tragedy of lead poisoning demonstrates that some of the worst abuses were foreseen and could have been prevented. In 1924, Dupont Chemical Company, a principal stock holder in General Motors, and Standard Oil of New Jersey combined efforts to produce leaded gasoline known as Ethyl. They ignored warnings from the scientific community and adroitly manipulated U.S. Government investigations to rule in their favor. This corporate collusion was especially heinous since non-polluting alternatives to lead were available. Yet leaded gasoline remained in use until 1986.

Despite this grim catalog of events, Steinberg does not approach his subject with a polemical agenda. Written in a crisp, articulate style, Down to Earth aims at informing the debate on ecology rather than promoting simplistic solutions.

The advice which Steinberg does offer, however, is both succinct and perceptive. Americans need "to embrace a more humble view of human agency," he writes, "and acknowledge the unpredictability involved in incorporating nature into human designs." | August 2002


Ed Voves is a news researcher for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. He frequently reviews books on a wide range of topics, chiefly history and the life sciences, and has interviewed many writers including Maurice Sendak and Umberto Ecco.