Down to Earth, by Ted Steinberg

Worldviews are good because they help us filter, organize, and comprehend the relentless flood of information that threatens to drown us. (Sometimes I wonder if pre-modern man was able to do without a worldview, simply because his world was narrow and local and the information available to him was limited.)

Worldviews are bad because they enable us to filter out, misfile, mischaracterize, misunderstand, and selectively ignore those parts of the information flow that are inconsistent with our worldview. Douglas Wilson is currently reading through Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a book I have also read—but as I read his notes on it I wonder sometimes if we read the same book. For example, in his post “Let Us Not Inquire About the Chitlins” he simply dismisses Pollan’s portrayal of the cattle feedlot system as an unhealthy, inhumane, unnatural mechanism for putting cheap meat on American tables by saying this [emphasis added]:

The bulk of this chapter depends on a truth that has nothing to do with the advent of industrial farming. The manufacture and preparation of food can be . . . well, unappetizing. I can easily imagine following my food chain back upstream in 13th century Milan, 19th century New York, or 10th century Rome, and discovering at some point that I was not nearly as hungry as I was before. As Bismarck famously put it, "Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made." It is probably wise to not inquire too closely into how chitlins come to be either.

Now, to someone like Wilson who has a strong conviction that modern living is fundamentally good and has adequate safeguards in place to insure his well-being, there is actually little to be gained from inquiring closely into such things; why spend time reconciling difficult facts to a conclusion that is already embraced? But to those who are less confident that private vices really do combine to create public virtues, who worry instead that food purveyors are all too adept at evading the safeguards that cut into their profits, then a close inquiry into the unappetizing details of how a pound of supermarket beef is produced will have a profound effect in shaping their own worldview.

I’ve suffered plenty from the complacency that a strongly held worldview can induce, and in recent years I’ve tried to be diligent about examining my assumptions and discarding those which don’t fit comfortably with everyday reality. I’ve also cultivated a reluctance to replace discarded assumptions with new ones, no matter how much explanatory power they seem to contain; once bitten, twice shy. And, strangely enough, it’s not all that difficult to get along in life without strong convictions about how to fix the economy, or health care, or the family, or the church, or the weather. And it turns out that the lack of strong convictions on a topic make it much, much easier to notice important things that would have otherwise been quickly filtered out or explained away.

Of all the things I have completely missed seeing over the years, the biggest one is probably the role of nature in history. I don’t feel too awfully stupid about this, because it is a topic that has largely gone unexamined. But I do clearly recall several times when I ran across a Big Important Fact that pointed to the topic, and proceeded to ignore it. For example, years ago I was reading the first volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson, which has a chapter on the settling of the Texas Hill Country where Johnson was raised (and where I lived at the time). Caro noted that since the first settlers came it had been subject to a boom-and-bust cycle that was tied to the weather.

That part of Texas is just on the edge of being arid; a hundred miles to the east the land is lush, while a hundred miles to the west the land is desert. The average rainfall is just barely enough to allow for crops. However, that average is actually the centerpoint of a fifteen-year cycle, where during the seven fat years there is more than enough rain to sustain crops while during the seven lean ones crops will not grow. The settlers came in during the wet years, planted with abandon, thrived for awhile but then were destroyed when the dry years came. Seven years later the cycles began again, both for the rain and for the settlers.

That fact impressed me when I first read it, and I’ve told it to many others over the years, but mostly as a curiosity that explains something about why the Hill Country is how it is. And I’ve read similar things over the years, but somehow they always remained one-off curiosities in my mind and never led me to the deeper realization that weather is not simply a static backdrop to the activities of man but in fact an active and continually present factor. Fortunately I’ve come across several books recently that have broken new ground in explaining how nature (climate, topography, fertility, resources) has had a significant and ongoing role in shaping civilization.

Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History is a fine, fine book. It is a work of geography, or maybe ecological history, very much like two other excellent books that I discovered recently, Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Decay and William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. The books by Brechin and Cronon are probably better, being efforts to thoroughly understand the history of a particular place. Steinberg’s book sacrifices detail and subtlety, but makes up for it sevenfold in breadth of vision. By tackling American history, he is able to look at the interactions of man and nature over the course of four hundred years during which society evolved at a rapid pace, in a context where patterns for those interactions were being freshly developed. The overall story gives a fairly clear picture of both the extents and the limits of man’s ability to subdue the natural world.

Steinberg’s writing is clear, and the ground he uncovers is so unfamiliar that the rapid pace at which he surveys American history never seems superficial. He assumes that his reader is familiar with the political history of the country, and focuses on episodes which highlight the fact that various political developments did not spring fully formed from the minds of men, but were often a direct response to ecological circumstances that are generally ignored by conventional histories. Each chapter confronts the reader with many, many neglected facts which are simple and obvious but at the same time quite difficult to integrate into the conventional man-centered view of social progress.

The tales told in this book are entertaining as well as informative, and it is tempting to quote passage after passage. But I’ll resist, and try to convey the flavor of Steinberg’s presentation by looking at a single short section, an example of how New England colonists first went about taming the region, which begins with this paragraph:

Long before water became a commodity for powering New England’s factories, before the dams and canals produced energy, farmers relied on rivers and streams to provide food for the family economy. In the spring, when winter stores ran low, the colonists went fishing for shade, alewives, and salmon, species of fish that return from the ocean to freshwater streams to reproduce. Salon were so plentiful during the colonial period that as late as 1700 they sold for only one cent a pound. Shad were even more copious, so much so that some felt embarrassed to be caught eating them. As one observer recalled, “it was discreditable for those who had a competency to eat shad.” One New Hampshire farmer visited a fishing place on the Merrimack River for six straight days in June 1772 and returned with a remarkable 551 shad for his efforts. The spring profusion of fish brought farmers descending on the region’s rivers, turning the most productive fishing spots into veritable carnivals, replete with drinking and card playing. Securing an important supply of dietary protein at precisely the point in the seasonal cycle when they needed it most, farmers may have also turned to fishing to relieve feelings of loneliness brought on by a long, hard winter.

It’s hard to imagine now that only two hundred years ago that a large portion of one’s wealth could consist of a natural bounty that was free to anyone for the work of harvesting it—and that such an arrangement could be stable. But two things put an end to that circumstance. The first was the advent of mills run by water power, which required dams and produced turbulence, both of which put an end to the annual upstream migration of the fish. But not just the presence of mills—grain mills had long existed on the rivers, and happily co-existed because they operated during the fall harvest months and were able to leave the river undisturbed during the spring spawning season. What put an end to the arrangement was the use of water to power textile factories, a year-round operation.

Was this one of those episodes where the effects of a well-meant technological innovation went undetected until it was too late? Not at all. Farmers and mill operators both knew full well from the beginning that the mills were depleting the rivers of fish, and farmers tried (unsuccessfully) to assert that their rights to the fish were being infringed upon. Even more, the laws as they existed tended to side with the farmers against the mill operators. But, unsurprisingly, mill owners arranged for the laws to be changed.

The second factor, not so important in the case of New England fishing but increasingly important as the settlement of America proceeded, was the new understanding of natural resources as commodities that could be bought and sold. Steinberg explains this in an early chapter, which concludes:

The passenger pigeon’s decline [due to being hunted to extinction for commercial sale] was simply one example of the power of industrial capitalism to systematically rearrange the components of an ecosystem, packaging them up and delivering them to where demand was greatest. In the process, resources such as common cloth, pigeon meat, and lumber lost binding ties with their place of origin and the human and natural processes responsible for their existence. When the cotton cloth produced at Lowell found its way into a shirt, who, aside from perhaps a mill agent or disgusted fisherman, would ever think to inquire about the true costs of the energy that went into the item, the water that was literally drained away from farmers in one state and made to flow according to a production schedule dreamed up by industrialists in another? Who would possibly see in a roofing shingle the complex set of processes—the federal government’s land subsidies, the fires that plagued the land—bound up in this small but essential piece of wood?

Conceiving of things as commodities allowed people to reduce all that was complex and unique, whether pigeon meat, lumber, apples, or oranges, to a single common denominator: price. In a world moving toward such a state, where something as elusive as water could be owned and sold, where grain did not even exist yet could be purchased, where so many aspects of the natural world were being rendered equal before the almighty dollar, it was easy to overlook what separated one thing from another. Commodities have a special ability to hide from view not just the work, the sweat and blood that went into making them, but also the natural capital, the soil, water, and trees, without which they would not exist. Money, to quote nineteenth-century German sociologist Georg Simmel, had become the “frightful leveler,” reducing the uniqueness and incomparability of objects to a state of “unconditional interchangeability.”

The development of America is critically bound up with the question not only of who owns what, but the question of to what extent an owner can exploit what he owns. For example, hydraulic mining in the California hills devastated the rivers that flowed from those hills, and the farming that depended on those rivers, raising their beds sixteen feet (!) in some places, before legal action finally brought the mining to a halt (but without requiring restitution).

How do we judge this particular episode? Did the system bring about a just resolution? Were the mine owners unfairly inhibited in exploiting their land? Should they have been allowed to proceed as long as they compensated those downstream? Should such activity simply have been prohibited in the first place? Practical considerations give us very little guidance in how to proceed, and the modern church is a long way from being able to make even tentative comments on what is right and wrong here.

My own suspicion is that early on we mistook rapaciousness for industry, proceeded to build a society that catered to rapaciousness, and have finally come to a place where we are proud for having stripped the landscape bare. When Chris was reading Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, he would read me portions of the story of Easter Island, whose society collapsed due to the overexploitation of natural resources. He was particularly struck by the idea that the island was completely deforested, and wondered what that fellow was thinking as he chopped down the island’s last tree. I told him it was something along the lines of “I’m glad I got here before that fellow coming over the hill.” And I suppose if he was a dominion-taking Christian he probably thought “I can’t wait to see in what marvelous new ways God will be providing for our needs!”

I should point out here that, even though there are hints of a viewpoint in the above two paragraphs (“industrial capitalism,” “almighty dollar”), this is about as close as Steinberg comes to advocacy—and it is pretty tame. Mostly Steinberg lets circumstances speak for themselves, and even occasionally takes the opportunity to counter some lazy assumptions the reader might make about an ecologically-centered history—there is a chapter which looks at the conservation movement which began in the early 1900s, spurred on by Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot and John Muir, and Steinberg ends up taking a dismal view of it all.

Although I enthusiastically recommend Down to Earth, it’s hard for me to judge how others will react to it, particularly those who are comfortable with modern industrial society. I loved the book because it covered a lot of material I had already encountered, tied it together by applying some important basic concepts (e.g. commodification), and then showed how those ideas explained many, many other episodes in American history. I was ready for Steinberg’s interpretation of events, but only because I had already been questioning the official party line in these areas.


7 thoughts on “Down to Earth, by Ted Steinberg

  1. This is a fascinating topic, and it sounds like a really interesting book. I may read it. (I say may only because the list is so long already.)

    I also find your comments about how the church interesting, though I don’t know how to respond. Like you say, there’s a lot of wisdom simply in realizing that we don’t know it all, so we should tread cautiously.

    I put myself in the category of not being comfortable with modern industrial society, but also acknowledging that I most definitely live in it, benefit from it at least in the short term, and may not know how to live any other way.

  2. I’m tempted to put this one on my list, too.

    I’ve been reading Wilson’s reviews of Pollan’s book with mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, having encountered my share of (Christian!) vegans who look down their noses at those of us who dare to eat meat and butter, I have appreciated his emphasis on discouraging food snobbery and so on. On the other hand, that particular post you linked ruffled my feathers. I fail to see what virtue there is in ignoring how food is being prepared and grown, especially when the question is being asked on a cultural level. I thought that the worldview movement, among other things, was an attempt to really look at hard questions and see what the Bible might say about it.

    I cannot grow my own beef, but I have visited the farm where we buy our ground beef and our raw milk, and it was a very pleasant place. When I compare this to the condition of the (very stinky) feedlots I drove by on my way to the dairy, I cannot help but judge it to be superior to its industrial counterparts.

    Returning more directly to your subject: I had never considered the weather’s connection to history before beyond brief thoughts upon reading the Little House and Little Britches books to my children. However, I see your point. I also FEEL your point about water. We here in the Southern San Joaquin Valley made the mistake of believing that rerouting our water through a city and into the Northern California deltas was somehow to our advantage. And now we are griping about, for instance, the 40%+ unemployment rate when they turned off the water. No water, no crops, no surprise.

    When dealing with water issues, though, it does seem to quickly become very complex. Because the nature of water is to flow, rather than stay in one place, it is hard to anticipate all of the consequences that might come with tampering with it.

  3. Laura,

    I also find your comments about how the church interesting, though I don’t know how to respond. Like you say, there’s a lot of wisdom simply in realizing that we don’t know it all, so we should tread cautiously.

    I think the modern church does exactly the wrong thing by insisting that the Bible provides a pat answer for every one of life’s puzzles. To my mind, the Bible raises far more questions about how to live than it answers—and it also provides critical guidance for confronting those questions.

    I put myself in the category of not being comfortable with modern industrial society, but also acknowledging that I most definitely live in it, benefit from it at least in the short term, and may not know how to live any other way.

    These days I’m thinking that an important role for a Christian, perhaps the central role, is to help others live as righteous a life as possible in very uncongenial circumstances. Modern industrial living is far from idea—how far is something we can argue about—and both believers and unbelievers can use as much help as they can get in figuring out how to respond to it righteously.

    Just to take one food example, which I learned from my organic farming friend Jerome, conventional cantaloupes grown for market are now irrigated with water containing a systemic poison which is designed to kill any insects foolish enough to chomp on the plants. Jerome calls them “poison cantaloupes”, and has done an informal survey which confirms his belief that you can sense the difference between conventional and organic cantaloupes; as he puts it, he can eat organic cantaloupe endlessly and still crave it, but after a short while he gets “tired” of eating conventional cantaloupe and doesn’t want any more.

    But Jerome will still eat conventional cantaloupe, just not too much of it. Same with a McDonalds hamburger, if the situation demands. As he puts it, he is not phobic about eating industrial food, he just wants to know as much as possible about what he is putting in his mouth. And his eating habits are guided by that knowledge.

  4. Brandy

    When dealing with water issues, though, it does seem to quickly become very complex. Because the nature of water is to flow, rather than stay in one place, it is hard to anticipate all of the consequences that might come with tampering with it.

    You are right about that, and although Steinberg often touches on how our changing attitudes towards water rights have had unanticipated consequences, he doesn’t take a comprehensive look at water rights themselves. Another very good treatment of water issues in California history is Gray Brechin’s Imperial San Francisco, although it deals mostly with mining and with supplying San Francisco with water, not the conversion of the Central Valley into farmland.

    One thing Steinberg mentions in passing is that before industrialization the guiding principle behind water rights was that anyone using a stream or river had to do so in a way that did not infringe on those further downstream, e.g. you had no right to catch all the fish upstream and pack them up for sale. Obviously this is too restrictive for an industrial economy. But it seems that every effort to relax the restriction has end up doing more damage than good.

  5. I was hoping you could talk a little more about the worldwiew idea. Is it something more than a consistent theological understanding, and living accordingly, as best we can? Also, perhaps I misunderstand you, but how do you teach your children to love and understand the truth without strongly held convictions? Are not the things that you believe in strongly what motivate the way that you live your life?

  6. I was hoping you could talk a little more about the worldwiew idea. Is it something more than a consistent theological understanding, and living accordingly, as best we can?


    I think most people who advocate a particular worldview do not stop at consistency, which is a good thing, but proceed on to completeness. The definition of weltanschauung (which translates as “worldview”) is “a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it,” which I take to mean that anything you might want to know about the universe and our place in it can be deduced from it. But I would stop at a much earlier point, developing just enough worldview to ensure the consistency of what I am fairly confident is true, but not so comprehensive that it had a pronouncement for every last situation whether I know anything about it or not.

    To continue picking on Douglas Wilson, here is another quote from a post about Michael Pollan’s book, responding to Pollan’s claim that it is a bad thing that industrial agriculture is so critically dependent on fossil fuels:

    My initial response to this would be “cool.” What a great use of fossil fuel. But the assumption here is that getting energy from the ground to feed people is bad, or at least unnatural. Fossil fuels are “finite and irreplaceable” (p. 7), and so Pollan argues against using them the way we are doing.

    But why? First, we don’t know that they are irreplaceable, but if they are, we can then figure out some other energy source to use to drive our farm equipment. [Emphasis added.]

    The emphasized sentence above is the statement of a man who believes that the resources of the earth are at man’s disposal and nothing bad can ever come of his exploiting them. However, if we are simply neutral about this, assuming that it is at least possible that exploiting natural resources could have bad consequences, then we would be very much interested in studying up on whether the critical element of modern agriculture, cheap energy, might run out at some point.

    My point is not to argue that Wilson is either right or wrong here, only that his statement is unsupported by facts but is simply derived from his worldview. I think, though, that it is wiser to at least suspend judgment in such a case, even better to look at the facts honestly and see if they are consistent with one’s worldview.

    Also, perhaps I misunderstand you, but how do you teach your children to love and understand the truth without strongly held convictions? Are not the things that you believe in strongly what motivate the way that you live your life?

    We teach our children to seek out the truth, but also to thoroughly test candidate truths, and to not be afraid to admit when they don’t know what is true, or when their certainty about what is true is less than 100%. Quite often when one of them starts pontificating about something I will challenge them to show that they know what they are talking about—even if what they are saying is true.

    I don’t want them to simply know what is true, I want them to have arrived at those truths personally. I think it demonstrates more love for the truth to continually seek after it than it does to just accept it as an off-the-shelf package. Hard-won truths are the ones that will form the firmest foundation for subsequent living.

  7. Could you possibly give me an example of what you mean by having them show you that they know what they are talking about? Do you mean “I read it in…,or verse X says…” or something like that, or are you talking about something different? I am woefully ignorant about how to teach my children. How do you teach them to test candidate truths? Do you teach them a systematic theology? If not, how do you explain Biblical truths to them, or do you wait until they ask of their own accord?

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