Down to Earth

Nature’s Role in American History

Oxford University Press, 2002 (3rd. rev. edition, 2013)

Winner: National Outdoor Book Award


In this ambitious and provocative text, Steinberg offers a sweeping history of the United States—a history that, for the first time, places the environment at the very center of the narrative. Down to Earth reinterprets the story of America “from the ground up.” It reveals how focusing on plants, animals, climate, and other ecological factors can radically change the way that we think about the past.

51yum321b9L._SY300_Examining such familiar topics as colonization, the industrial revolution, slavery, the Civil War, and the emergence of consumer culture, Steinberg recounts how the natural world influenced the course of human history. From the colonists’ attempts to impose order on the land to modern efforts to sell the wilderness as a consumer good, he reminds readers that many critical episodes in U.S. history were, in fact, environmental events. Americans have attempted to reshape and control nature, from Thomas Jefferson’s surveying plan, which divided the national landscape into a grid, to the transformation of animals, crops, and even water into commodities.

Now in its third edition, Down to Earth addresses the role of corporations in U.S. environmental history, in part by exploring the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Steinberg also tackles climate change in order to offer a fuller assessment of U.S. policy and its world-historical importance.

Critical Acclaim:

“In this brilliant synthesis, Steinberg offers us the most exciting and fundamentally new view of the national past in a generation. American history, in every sense, has never looked greener.”—Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, The Ecology of Fear, and Late Victorian Holocausts

“Steinberg is a refreshing historian because he writes from an environmental perspective. And he’s a refreshing environmentalist because he’s not hysterical.”—Ted Mumford, Globe & Mail

“In this marvelous new synthesis, Ted Steinberg sets out to integrate the environmental with the political, social, and cultural…. The stated goal…is not to rewrite American history but to change how we think about it. Down to Earth does that, and does it insightfully, intelligently, readably, and with one more element sadly lacking in most environmental histories—a sense of humor.”—Elliott West, author of The Contested Plains and The Last Indian War

“In this sweeping chronicle of the American landscape, Case Western Reserve professor Ted Steinberg considers not only how we have reshaped our forests and prairies, but how the natural world has shaped us…. Steinberg looks at changes in the land from 9,000 B.C. to Earth Day 1998, a subject that in less talented hands could have bloated into a mind-numbing textbook. Instead he keeps the writing sharp and his eye on the bigger picture.”—Bruce Barcott, Outside

“Ted Steinberg’s book is a delight…. This book will certainly shake up many conventionally held views.”—American Historical Review

“[Down to Earth is] a meditation on the overlooked role of nature in American history.”—Mark Rozzo, New Yorker

“Steinberg makes a fine case for the importance of nature as an engine of history everywhere…. [H]is long chapter called “The Secret History of Meat” is lively, even entertaining, and it is guaranteed to strip Steinberg of any potential chair at Hamburger University.”—Kirkus

“My students came to each class after a long day of work…but their interest rarely flagged, thanks in large part to Steinberg’s excellent work…. It was a singularly unique experience to have my students suggesting that a book should be longer.”—Mara Drogan, H-Net

“A socially conscious sibling to Tim Flannery’s Eternal Frontier, Steinberg’s scintillating environmental panorama reveals the ripple effect of every choice we make, from creating nuclear weapons to eating fast food, driving SUVs, and maintaining perfect lawns.”—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Steinberg’s eye for telling details, apt quotes, and interesting connections ensures that the messages never overwhelm the many stories.”—Thomas R. Dunlap, Science

“[Steinberg] is stressing a neglected dimension of our history. So much of what has befallen us—floods, fires, drought and pestilence, events that have influenced war and depression, that have tested our resolve and shaped our mythology—were at least partially the result of the way we treated the land.”—Frank Clifford, Los Angeles Times

“[Down to Earth] is a marvellous weave, connecting societies and cities, agriculture and industry, slavery and revolt, work and leisure to the environment.”—Roy Herbert, New Scientist

“Steinberg is provocative, backing up his opinions with facts and well-honed arguments, and it will be hard to ignore his major theses.”—Publishers Weekly

“Richly researched and filled with fascinating details, this book takes an important new look at history and may cause readers to pause and consider the consequences of their lifestyle.”—Library Journal

“Written in a crisp, articulate style, Down to Earth aims at informing the debate on ecology rather than promoting simplistic solutions.”—Ed Voves, January Magazine

“Steinberg shows us all why history with the environment written out is a woefully truncated story, yet another symptom of our ecological amnesia.”—Journal of American History

“…an important and wonderfully refreshing book”—Agricultural History

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