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Today’s youth learn in their high school history classes that it is the actions of man, not nature, that has determined history, and consequently this is what textbooks have put a premium on. Everything else, such as geography, is delegated to a lower rank of importance, unless it directly affected man’s actions. Down to Earth, by Ted Steinberg, seeks to change this. He strives to do this by putting more emphasis on nature and geography then the actions of man.. But before the book can be judged whether or not it is adequate to be put on the required reading list for next year, we must first look at the major themes that Steinberg continually delves on. The most important are the European’s commoditization of nature and the specialization of the environment (monoculture).

If the cultures of the Native Americans and Europeans could be differentiated by a single thing, it would be by the European’s commoditization of nature. To the Indians, nature was something to be communed with and respected; not surprising considering that the land was the centerpiece of both their religion and their livelihood. On the other hand, the Europeans treated nature as if it was an unclaimed piece of real estate, specifically made for them to take. This commoditization of nature, and the exploitation that resulted in it, was so great that it lead the nature write Henry Thoreau to exclaim “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds” (Steinberg, ). This quote is very appropriate, considering the mass deforestations and ecological ruin that was left in the wake of European colonists and their American successors.

This argument, that Native Americans were pure and one with nature and that Europeans were bad and nasty, is nothing new. While presenting this viewpoint in whole would constitute a strength of Steinberg’s, the fact that it is just one side of this issue would make his effort here a relative weakness. Here, as in other times in the book, he lets his bias get in the way of presenting an objective analysis of the situation. While it is certainly true that the Europeans treated nature like trash compared to the Indians, they were not as awful as Steinberg would have you believe. He plays too much into the “Noble Savage” stereotype, in that Native Americans are pure and noble while the Europeans are cruel and corrupt.

Another major theme discussed by Steinberg is the specialization of nature by the Europeans. They did this through monoculture, which is the growing of just a single crop. For the South, their monoculture was their ubiquitous cotton fields which could be seen for miles. The cotton made up so much of the South’s crops that “by 1860, the United States accounted for two-thirds of the world’s supply” (Steinberg, 8). This same practice was done in else parts of the nation, with only the climate and the crop changing. In Florida and some parts of California, it was the orange that ruled. In other parts of the West-Mid West it was the apple that reigned.


Monoculture’s hold on vast regions was important in two major points. One, this was the first time that the environment had been used in such a way. When the Indians were using it, they grew a variety of crops off that land for practical, survival purposes. Here, the farmers were not directly growing for their families (as in a portion of what they grew went straight onto their tables), as much as they were growing it for its cash crop status. This segues into the second point, in that this specialization of yields, and the lack of crop diversity that resulted thereof, symbolized the start of globalization in that farmers across the nation were becoming less self sufficient and more dependent on each other.

Steinberg discusses and analyzes many, many themes through out the book. Because of the amount of subject matter, Steinberg fails to create on cohesive core that the book would support itself on. Often times while reading I had to stop myself and ask how did I get here, and more importantly, where is he going with this. The fact that this book covered such broad topics did not necessarily hold it back. Guns, Germs, and Steel The Fates of Human Societies, by Jared Diamond, covered so much more in just as many pages, and to a great extent it did it better. To me, the primary negative aspects of this book weren’t so much his bias and breadth, of which there was plenty, but his lack of evidence and that glaring inaccuracies that resulted thereof.

Steinberg did not quote supporting evidence as much as one would expect, and because of this some of his conclusions are drawn into question. Take the quote “…[N]orthern solders received more food per person then any other army in the history of warfare.” (Steinberg, 5). I would seriously like to know out of what military history book did he read that fact from. While the North did eat better then the South, they were hardly feasting like kings as the quote implies. And they were certainly not better off food wise then our army of today is. A second grandiose assumption made by Steinberg was when he was describing how the freed slaves migrated to the North in “ one of the largest migrations in the history of the world” (Steinberg, 10). He goes on state that 500,000 slaves moved up North in the period of 10 years. I feel it is safe to assume that he is talking about Human migration (because millions upon millions of bugs migrate through whole countries every season), but even if he is, he is still blatantly ignoring the massive influx of European immigrants in the late 1th Century and the hundreds of thousands of Jews that came a bit later, both of which dwarf his “largest migration”. He is also forgetting the early humans who crossed over the land bridge to come to America. This event was surely larger then just 500,000 slaves moving up 400 miles over a period of 10 years.

There are too many incidents of bias and lack of quotations that make this a positive educational experience to read. At best, parts of this book should be Xeroxed, similar to what was done in my high school, and used in class. That way, the teacher gets to pick and choose the best parts of the book (the informational monoculture part) and spare them from the other parts. Or Journalism teachers could use the biased and evidence-lacking sections of this book as an example of what not to do. Coupled with the feeling of lack of direction, cohesiveness, and existence of bias, I unreservedly feel this book should not be on the reading list for next year.

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