Ted Steinberg. Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xiv + 347 pp. $30.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-514009-5; $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-514010-1.
Reviewed by Mara Drogan (History Department, The University at Albany, State University of New York)
Published on H-Environment (April, 2004)
In the Classroom
On the first day of summer school at Baruch College in Manhattan, the twelve business students enrolled in my "Themes in American History" class informed me, in no uncertain terms, that they were taking my class only because it fulfilled a requirement. They were uniformly uninterested in history, they declared. My promise that our theme for the next six weeks--the role of the environment in American history--was an engaging and important one, and that our primary text--Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History--was unlike other textbooks forced on them in the past was met with dubious silence. (Their blank stares and barely contained resentment will perhaps not be unfamiliar to the readers of this list.)
It was a far different group of students who assembled two days later, having read the introduction and first chapter of the book. "It's so interesting!" they exclaimed. "It's like a novel or something you'd actually want to read!" They said they had never thought of nature having a history ("I thought history was just dead presidents and stuff"), nor considered the ways in which the environment shaped people's choices and therefore affected the history of this nation and the world. Thus began a lively and wide-ranging six-week conversation on American environmental history. My students came to each class after a long day of work while the rest of New York City was watching baseball in the boroughs or swing-dancing at Lincoln Center, but their interest rarely flagged, thanks in large part to Steinberg's excellent work.
Down to Earth consists of sixteen chapters organized into three parts. A brief prologue challenges students to consider why U.S. history textbooks begin the way they do--with the Bering Strait or Columbus or Jamestown--and introduces the basic geology of North America. The three chapters in part 1, "Chaos to Simplicity," take the reader quickly from Paleoindians to the rise of the market in the early nineteenth century. The seven chapters in part 2, "Rationalization and Its Discontents," focus on key issues in the nineteenth century, including southern agriculture and slavery, westward expansion, conservation, and Gilded Age urbanization and industrialization. The six chapters in part 3, "Consuming Nature," move into the twentieth century and explore topics such as consumerism, environmentalism, and globalization.
Steinberg states in the introduction that the layout of the book corresponds to his thesis that there are three key turning points in U.S. environmental history: the arrival of Europeans on American shores, Jefferson's adoption of the Cartesian grid as the logic by which the United States would be settled, and the "rise of consumerism in the late nineteenth century" (p. x). He argues that "the transformation of nature into a commodity was the most important single force behind these shifts" (p. xi). In adopting an openly thesis-driven approach, Steinberg provides a useful pedagogical tool. Throughout the term, we returned again and again to these arguments to debate their strengths and weaknesses, offer other turning points, and consider how current events supported or challenged Steinberg's key arguments. Down to Earth is well written and provocative; each chapter spurs classroom debates and conversations. The chapters are sometimes uneven, yet for each student who criticized a particular chapter or topic for some shortcoming, several more students were quick to defend it as informative, interesting, or thought-provoking. Such debates enabled us to consider the role of evidence, values, and interpretation in the study of history.
My experience in using Down to Earth in the classroom was positive, but I would add some caveats in recommending Steinberg as the primary text in an undergraduate course. Because Steinberg takes a topical approach, students who are not well-versed in U.S. political and social history will need additional guidance in placing each chapter in context. This is easily done through lectures and supplementary readings, but I would strongly recommend that a future edition of Down to Earth include some basic timelines so as to make the book more classroom-friendly. Additional maps and pictures would also augment the text.
Similarly, every historian and teacher will quibble about key issues or events that were excluded. My students and I wished that more attention had been given to the colonial and early republican periods. The chapter on the Civil War was very strong, but we lamented that other wars were not given the same attention. Likewise, in the latter twentieth century, the military-industrial complex, space race, and nuclear industry receive very short shrift. Other readers will no doubt have other topics that they would add. But of course, this too provided an opportunity for learning as we debated why Steinberg made the choices he did and as students proffered their own suggestions for a second edition. But the very fact that they wanted to see a second edition is testament to the first edition's strength. (It was a singularly unique experience to have my students suggesting that a book should be longer.)
My experience working with Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History was highly positive and I recommend it to other teachers looking for a stimulating and engaging text for the undergraduate classroom.
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Mara Drogan. Review of Steinberg, Ted, Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History.
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