One More Look at Down to Earth
Friday, December 04, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
I remember someone saying to me they thought Ted Steinberg's Environmental History textbook, Down to Earth, was stronger when he was exploring contemporary issues than when he was covering colonial and early America. I can't remember who said it, but I think the reason might be that Steinberg seems to have taken an editor's advice. The text tries to organize itself thematically from the outset. Steinberg divides the book into three thematic sections: Chaos to Simplicity, Rationalization and Its Discontents, and Consuming Nature. That's one of the reasons, I think, that I consider this as more of a "History Majors" or even a "Grad Survey" textbook than as a "Gen Ed" text or a survey for popular audiences.
But to get back to the comment on the more contemporary chapters, I thought they were very effective and I think it's more appropriate to handle the contemporary material thematically, because so much of it overlaps. Especially the closer we get to the present. Also, I think Steinberg's focus on the law is extremely useful and gives the legal elements of environmental change attention they don't get in other texts.
In the Moveable Feast chapter, for example, Steinberg outlines how food regulation went beyond the Pure Food and Drug Act's response to The Jungle. Laws like the 1917 Fresh Fruit, Nut, and Vegetable Standardization Act not only helped turn agricultural produce into an "identical commodity," they were sponsored and supported by the representatives of the big growers who would benefit the most. Later in the same chapter, Steinberg outlines the 1937 Central Valley Project, which brought northern California water to the southern growers and "left agriculture largely in the hands of the corporate growers--the main beneficiaries of government intervention" (183). I have family in the Central Valley, so I visit there occasionally. There's such a strong sense of inevitability about the way California ended up, that I think is probably echoed in a lot of other places. We need to talk much more about issues like this.
Another passage with a lot of law in it is Steinberg's discussion of how environmentalism led to legislation in the 1970s in the chapter titled Shades of Green. Although he doesn't describe each piece of legislation, the list of specific laws is useful for people wanting to learn more. Steinberg calls the legislation "a gigantic handbook on how to counter the ills of a corporate, consumption-oriented society" (251). I'd like to read more about how the legal and cultural overlapped. Personally, I'm much more comfortable tracing actions (like "In 1932, GM launched a plan to buy up urban transit systems throughout the nation" on page 208. There's probably a great story in that!) than culture and mentalities, so that's an where area I'd love to have the dots connected a little more.
Maybe that's my overall reaction to Down to Earth. There are some really great descriptions of interesting moments and events (another one is the Planned Obsolescence movement pioneered by GE in the 1930s, 228), that I'd really like to learn more about. But not quite enough events to be a complete survey of what happened in American Environmental History. And there are some really interesting hints and suggestions about culture, which I'd also like to know more about. But there aren't quite enough of either, and how the two fit together isn't clear to me. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Probably means there's enough material here for a bigger (or two-volume) new edition.