DOWN TO EARTH: Nature's Role in American History

Theodore Steinberg, Author . Oxford Univ. $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-19-514009-5

Steinberg, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University, examines the dynamic interactions between America's economic, political and cultural institutions and its geography, plants, animals and natural resources. He presents two predominant themes. The first is that the ecological balance is precarious and can be undermined, even completely destroyed, by unintended changes that flow from the smallest of events. The second is that the capitalist impulse to treat everything within its horizon as a commodity, and the corollary compulsion to assign a dollar value to every commodity, is fundamentally at odds with the existence of the diverse and healthy ecosystems that existed prior to the country's settlement. Steinberg makes a strong case, choosing examples that range from the environmental changes that followed the mysterious extinction of the carrier pigeon to the ecological effects of the mundane—garbage disposals, lawns, highways, pesticides and even the salt spread on roads to melt snow—to demonstrate his points. He is a historian with strong opinions, and in later chapters political commentary is increasingly prominent. Much of his commentary will offend conservative readers, who will disagree with Steinberg's harsh attacks on American business. For example, he chides the meatpacking industry for "corporate slaughterhouses [that] dehumanized workers" and the biotechnology industry because "feeding the malnourished has never been the driving force behind [it]. Profits, more than people, motivated this bold new science." Interestingly, he is also critical of mainstream environmental groups, who he believes have been coopted by contributions from corporations. Steinberg (Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America) is provocative, backing up his opinions with facts and well-honed arguments, and it will be hard to ignore his major theses. The writing is professional although occasionally stilted. 65 b&w photos, 5 maps not seen by PW. Agent, Michele Rubin. (June)

Reviewed on: 05/13/2002
Release date: 05/01/2002
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 361 pages - 978-0-19-803210-6
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