Slide Mountain

Slide Mountain Or, The Folly of Owning Nature

University of California Press, 1995


The drive to own the natural world in twentieth-century America seems virtually limitless. Signs of this national penchant for possessing nature are everywhere—from suburban picket fences to elaborate schemes to own underground water, clouds, even the ocean floor.

Yet, as Steinberg demonstrates in this witty look at Americans’ attempts to master the environment, nature continually turns these efforts into folly. In a rich, narrative style recalling the work of John McPhee, Steinberg tours America to explore some of the more unusual dilemmas that have arisen in our struggle to possess nature.

The American obsession with owning nature was immortalized by Mark Twain in the tale of Slide Mountain, where a landslide-prone Nevada peak turned the American dream of real estate into dust. In relating these modern-day “Slide Mountain” stories, Steinberg illuminates what it means to live in a culture of property where everything must have an owner.


Critical Acclaim:

Slide Mountain is clever and amusing, and written with the sort of high spirits that American professors commonly have beaten out of them in graduate school.” —Alan Ryan, Times Literary Supplement

“…Slide Mountain is a rock that needs to be thrown at a time when property rights advocates are building a sprawl of glass houses.” —Timothy Egan, New York Times Book Review

Slide Mountain is lucid and well-written, an entertaining, intelligent and thought-provoking look at our obsession to own and control nature.”—Globe & Mail

“This is a jewel of a book: imaginative, well-written, engaging, and concise…. a wise and elegant book.”—Environmental History

“This often humorous and highly readable book is fascinating and provocative…. Such a thought-provoking study deserves widespread attention.”—American Historical Review

“Reminiscent of John McPhee’s Control of Nature, Slide Mountain uses superb storytelling to illustrate the gathering eclipse of reason….  I dare say Erasmus himself would have applauded Steinberg’s aplomb.”—Technology and Culture

“Though Steinberg’s book is philosophical and historical, the hard questions he asks about the limits of property are increasingly relevant as we witness daily more and more pieces of the natural world being transformed into products—from the razing of rainforests for cattle ranching to the mind-boggling attempts by biotechnology firms to patent human genes.”—John Byrne Barry, Sierra Magazine

“Steinberg is a legal historian who treads the fascinating borderlands of law and philosophy.… [T]he implausible but well-attested stories he has chosen are undeniably intriguing.”—George Monbiot, New Scientist

“Steinberg, an eloquent nature historian, explores some of the stranger-than-fiction dramas that have resulted from the American compulsion to own all aspects of nature…. While Slide Mountain leaves us chuckling at the absurd economic contortions our fellow capitalists assume in order to commodify the natural world, the Trumps of America continue to laugh all the way to the bank.”—Outside

“…entertaining and informative but also instructive…. Steinberg’s skill at showing how culture, modern technology, and law inform Americans’ attitudes toward and dealings with nature in this solidly researched book makes it a fresh contribution to the expanding field of environmental history.”—Annals of Iowa

“[a] compelling, witty look at America’s attempts to master the environment…. In a rich, narrative style that recalls the work of John McPhee, Steinberg tours America to explore five unusual dilemmas that have arisen in the struggle to apply property law to nature.”—San Diego County

“[A]n amusing, well-written, and thoughtful book”—Manoa

“The great value of this book is in its use of real cases to challenge an entrenched but outdated legal institution.”—Wild Earth

“[A] marvelous history of the American drive to own every imaginable aspect of nature, from underground water, to thin air, to the moon itself”—Whole Earth Review

“The essays in this quirky little book sparkle with sage philosophical insights and droll humor.”—Choice

“Here is an odd book that typifies the pleasure of writing reviews for this column…. Slide Mountain is written with charm and skill and scholarship…. The sparkling prose is supported by maps…[and] impressive documentation.”—Wilson Library Bulletin

“The ludicrous if inevitable attempt to convert all of nature into private property is the subject of this astute and clearly written book…. Steinberg’s observations…are in no way tendentious but have the greatest pertinence to the subject at hand.”—Boston Globe

“Steinberg gives bite to that old refrain—the rich get richer, the poor poorer, and the courts smooth he way.”—Kirkus

“Steinberg approaches the problem of universal commodification from an angle foreign to mainstream legal scholarship. Rather than couching his argument in moral or efficiency justifications, Steinberg attempts to prove his point on ‘silly’ grounds….Steinberg succeeds in his narrow mission of exposing the limits of property law….”—Yale Law Journal

Slide Mountain is a provocative, highly readable, and unique addition to the legal history of the environment.”—Agricultural History

“A beautifully written work…. A tremendously fresh assessment of not only the perils of owning nature, but an entire realm of public and private thoughts, writings, laws, and legislation having to do with nature, property, conservation, and culture.”—William Deverell, co-author of Land of Sunshine: An Environmental History of Metropolitan Los Angeles

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