Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview
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This book will try to change the way you think about American history. It deals with some familiar topics—colonization, the industrial revolution, slavery, the Civil War, consumerism—and some not so well-known—the Little Ice Age, horse manure, pig sties, fast food, lawns, SUVs, and garbage. I will argue that the natural world—defined here as plants and animals, climate and weather, soil and water—has profoundly shaped the American past.

Historians of course have not completely overlooked nature. Virtually every U.S. history textbook, for instance, has an obligatory section on Theodore Roosevelt and the conservation movement. Sometimes there is also a brief discussion of the environmental reforms that began in the 1960s. Nature as politics—that has long been the main concern. You are unlikely to learn anything about the role of climate or soil fertility in history. Little about how Americans and Native Americans before them went about the task of feeding themselves. Virtually nothing about pigs, chickens, cows, and corn—or hamburgers, despite the fact that McDonald's plays a major role in the lives of so many people. Nothing about global warming or cooling. Not a word about volcanic eruptions across the world that led to hunger in America.

For most members of the profession and, almost by definition, for most Americans, history unfolds against a stable environmental backdrop. Nature is taken for granted and passed over in the rush to discuss what really mattered—wars, elections, and the other mainstays of political and intellectual history. Social history, pioneered during the 1960s and centered on exploring the lives of ordinary people, has proved no more receptive to the idea of nature as a dynamic force. Practicing history “from the bottom up,” as some of the new social historians put it, meant digging down into the nitty-gritty of everyday existence, into work, family life, sexual orientation, gender relations, and race. But by and large, the social historians put away their shovels when they reached the land and soil itself.

And yet a shift as important as the industrial revolution, for example, did not take place in a setting from which nature was somehow magically excluded. Industrialization never would have unfolded in the way that it did were New England not blessed with the ample precipitation and water resources required to power the cotton mills—water that had to be controlled with dams, which in turn put an end to spring fish runs and ultimately brought factory owners into conflict with distant rural farmers for whom salmon and shad represented their next meal. Even a political and military event like the Civil War was shaped by ecological factors. Soldiers and horses needed to be fed, and for that to happen both


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