More thoughts on Part 2 of Steinberg's Down to Earth


Once again, because this book is one of the de facto EnvHist textbooks, I thought I'd look at it very closely. So I'm being much more critical than maybe I ought to be. This is a fine book -- but it's also a model and an opportunity to explore the choices the author made and consider other options.

Down to Earth is broken into three parts (I've already said some things about Part 1). Part 2 is called "Rationalization and its Discontents." As before, I question the idea of going with a thematic organization. I wonder if everything that needs to be said to cover the "middle" of American Environmental History can be captured in this net of "rationalization?" What if the theme of the early industrial era was conceived not as the rationalization of nature but the uneven distribution of outcomes? Wouldn't a chronological presentation help us explore more perspectives and find themes that present themselves from events?

Chapter 4, "A World of Commodities," commences with Henry David Thoreau, who we are told "saw in apples, not dollar signs, but the wondrous glories of life on earth" (57). I know I'm repeating myself here, but is anybody else even a little suspicious of the degree to which we lean on Thoreau for our critique of modernity? There are plenty of other critics of early commercialism and industrialization. Some of them even offered alternatives. The conversion of nature into a mere input for the capitalist mill is a serious issue. I'm not sure a guy who fled to a woodlot he didn't own and lived on the largess of his rich friends is really the best champion for the other side of the argument.

Steinberg, of course, is aware of the distributive dimensions of this "rationalization." He concludes the pages devoted to water power in New England (based on his own fine work in
Nature Incorporated) by suggesting that there's an element of class conflict in the struggle over nature. Industrialization, he concludes, "led to a major rationalization and reallocation of natural resources, enriching some at the expense of others" (61). I might emphasize that element a bit more -- maybe even to the point of titling the chapter "A Class Conflict Over Nature."

In the next sections, Steinberg tells the story of the grid and grain, and then of the timber business. The template for this material seems to be Cronon's
Nature's Metropolis, and like Cronon he talks about how monocultures spread and how wheat became an "abstract commodity." Again, I may be nitpicking here, but is abstraction really the historical point here, or is it a point that's attractive to historians? Put another way, is the abstraction of actual grain into futures contracts on the CBT really the crucial historical change? I'd suggest that although it's an interesting and sort-of postmodern cognitive shift, the bigger and more widespread change was the consolidation of sacks of grain belonging to particular farmers into an undifferentiated pile of grain in elevators and rail cars. The point is not what happens in the mind, but what happens on the ground when farmers go from being identifiable people providing a product to consumers, to faceless suppliers of a raw material for an industrial process. Again, it's about who benefits and who loses in this altered transaction.

Similarly, Steinberg points out the lumber barons' carelessness regarding both future yields and ecological consequences in the forests they clearcut. This seems like an opportune time to talk about the alienation of public resources. About the idea that a distant capitalist is
naturally going to be less concerned with these issues than, say, a local community that controlled nearby resources. The outcome wasn't inevitable, but on the other hand, you can't really blame the lumber barons for their "stick-and-move" strategy. Or, if you want to blame them, you'd need to examine more closely how they helped create the social and legal regime in which they operated.

A passage I particularly liked was Steinberg's discussion of industrial change as "a kind of war waged against seasonal variation" (71). Or really, variation of any kind. He goes on to say that commodities "lost binding ties with their place of origin." That the "almighty dollar" became a "frightful leveler" that eliminated uniqueness and identity in favor of "unconditional interchangeability." This is what he means when he says rationalization, I suppose. But I like it better when he spells it out. The local becomes global. The particular becomes generic. Individuals fade into masses. And most important, who benefits and how does society change when this happens?

Part 2 continues with a look at "King Climate in Dixie" that incorporates a reference to E.P. Thompson's moral economy and a passage describing the importance of Peruvian guano in the mid-19th century. I liked the suggestion that the guano trade helped start a process where "Farming began to lose its attachment to place." And I thought Steinberg's conclusion was right on: that the "commercial farming of staples split production off from consumption" and made the social and ecological costs less visible to consumers. The next couple of chapters, about the Civil War and the Reconstructed South, continue these themes and throw in a few more interesting elements. I was particularly fascinated by the story of chestnut trees. And by the fact (which I had not known) that Gifford Pinchot had been the forester for George Vanderbilt's hundred thousand acre estate.

Next come a chapter on the "Unforgiving West," following Marc Reisner's
Cadillac Desert, which illustrates the wishful thinking and bad science that led to problems like the Dust Bowl. Interesting points include the fact that the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo "respected the prevailing Hispanic property rights regime" (120). A key feature of Latin American property law was the long tradition that subsurface resources (minerals, oil) belonged to society, not to the individuals holding deeds to the acreage. This tradition was repudiated by a series of California legal decisions between 1859 and 1861 which "overturned the public nature of mineral resources." That probably warrants a closer look. Similarly, the story of the early cattle industry and the overstocking of the plains shows how incredibly inefficient and careless people were. In the winter of 1871-2, half the cattle in parts of Nebraska and Kansas died. In 1884-5 in Nebraska and Colorado, "cattle die-offs reached as high as 90 percent" (131). Steinberg mentions that some people blamed fences. But it's pretty clear that overstocking the plains with a creature that wasn't adapted to survive harsh winters was the real problem. Ignorance and greed.

Finally, Steinberg reaches the Progressive Era, with chapters on conservation and urban sanitary reform. The conservation chapter discusses the battles between the conservationists and preservationists and criticizes the idea of "efficient use" of nature, comparing Gifford Pinchot with time-study pioneer, Frederick Taylor. Steinberg criticizes the forest managers' extermination of predators and suppression of fires, which led to unanticipated problems. But he doesn't really connect the fire-suppression program to the dozens of devastating fires that swept the cutover region in the last decade of the 19th century and first decade of the 20th. The Peshtigo Fire, which happened the same day as the Great Chicago Fire and killed at least five times as many people, was just one of the disasters that followed the clearcutting of the pines in the upper midwest. Hubris and unintended consequences are also central to the story of the national parks, which follows Karl Jacoby's
Crimes Against Nature. And the final chapter, "The Death of the Organic City," compares the relatively closed system of waste-composting and local market-farming of 19th-century cities to the "flush-and-forget" sanitation and globalized commercial agriculture of today. This is a really interesting section -- I'm looking forward to reading more about this in Gotham Unbound.