Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History

By Ted Steinberg | Go to book overview

4
A WORLD OF COMMODITIES

Henry David Thoreau, despite his work as a surveyor, never believed that landownership conferred any true claim to nature. Indeed, he remained, in his writing at least, dead set against the worlds of both property and exchange. In one of his journal entries, he wrote of an encounter with a townsman where he condemned the idea of putting a price tag on nature: “Remarking to old Mr. B the other day on the abundance of apples, ‘Yes,’ says he, ‘and fair as dollars too.’ That's the kind of beauty they see in apples.” 1 Thoreau, for his part, saw in apples, not dollar signs, but the wondrous glories of life on earth. The bard of Walden, however, was out of step with one of the ruling passions of his time.

The most striking thing about the century following 1790 was the way that new technologies and social innovations helped to redistribute natural wealth— water, soil, trees, and animals—among regions. This recycling of natural capital, more than anything else, sets apart the industrial age. The single most powerful tool for parceling out resources was the concept of a commodity. By conceiving of such things as water and trees as commodities, rather than as the face of nature, and putting a price on them, it became possible to efficiently manage and reallocate what had now become resources. Reduced to economic units, elements of nature were moved about the country like pieces on a chessboard, redressing resource deficiencies wherever they arose and contributing to one of the greatest economic booms in the nation's history.


FACTORY WATERS

In 1790, the United States was a reasonably prosperous nation of four million people—mainly farmers—packed into a narrow strip of land stretching from Maine to Georgia. Seventy years later, the country had become one of the world's leading economic powers, with a population of 3 1 million. It led all nations in the amount of wheat it exported and ranked third in manufacturing behind only Britain and France. Average per capita wealth boomed in the first half of the nineteenth century; goods once available only to the wealthiest Americans became ordinary, everyday items. Economic development, in turn, led to the expansion of cities. Between 1790 and 1860, the urban population increased more than 30-fold from 202,000 to 6,217,000. An industrial revolution swept across the North, transforming the nation into an economic powerhouse.

Factories, machines, railroads—these are the images that typically come to mind when we think about this new economic order. But industrial capitalism was not

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