The Declension Story

As I prepare my lectures for US EnvHist, I'm reading Ted Steinberg's Down to Earth very closely. Maybe a little too closely, and certainly more critically than most students read the text. But I'm using it as a template to some degree, since it's the de facto undergrad textbook; trying to decide what I like about the way these ideas are presented to students, and what I'd do differently.

I just finished reading the conclusion to Part One, "Chaos to Simplicity." It more or less covers the chronological beginning of the story, although the book is organized thematically and not chronologically (I'm not sure I agree with this choice, but I distinctly recall having a conversation about thematic organization with an Oxford acquisition editor, so I imagine there's a story behind this choice. I'll probably return to that theme some other time). The thing that really struck me about this section, though, was that it was really a downer. Or, to put it academically, a story of declension.

"Wilderness Under Fire," the first of the three chapters in this section, begins by challenging 1492 as the beginning of US History and the pristine myth as an inaccurate image of precolonial America. Steinberg uses the debate over the Holocene Extinction of American megafauna to talk briefly about the conflict between romance and reality. And, as I've already
mentioned elsewhere, he draws a distinction between subsistence and commercial lifestyles. Indian use of fire to alter the landscape (and what happened when the Indians stopped) is an important element of this early part of the story. But I do think it would be helpful to mention that the Indians had more tricks up their sleeves than just shifting agriculture. Extensive farming was appropriate for the landscape, climate, and population density of the Atlantic coast. But Indians in Mesoamerica and the Andes were masters of much more intensive techniques. And those regions were the sources of many of the crops (including maize) raised in New England. So it's likely the Indians practicing shifting agriculture were doing it by choice, and not just because they couldn't think of an alternative.

The second chapter, "A Truly New World," describes the catastrophic results faced by English colonists when they tried to apply European styles of farming and land use in places like Jamestown. This section follows the thread of histories like
Changes in the Land, and like them offers an antidote to the idea that Indians were ignorant and Europeans sophisticated. I agree that "Focusing only on the successful efforts of the colonists has…obscured the very real struggle they faced in coming to terms with the environment." But at certain points, the story gets away from me. Steinberg describes "pools of stagnant water" around Jamestown, "contaminated with human waste" and breeding pathogens like typhoid fever and dysentery. Well, yeah -- but that's nothing new. The colonists could have learned that lesson in England. The problem was, the people who came were not the type of people who paid attention to that kind of thing. Or who could be bothered with actually farming, which is another reason so many died.

Similarly, in the third chapter, "Reflections from a Woodlot," there's a long discussion of sustainable farming and of the Little Ice Age. But the story seems to shift. In one passage, climate change seems to be causing colonists all kinds of trouble, and even driving them to embrace the market as a kind of insurance against starving. But a few pages later, we're told that agricultural yields were increasing during the same period: that in fact, "By the late eighteenth century, New England's food supply became less dependent on seasonal changes." Steinberg describes wasteful extensive farming, but then says there wasn't enough land to go around -- which you'd think would make farmers more careful not to exhaust their soil. And the experience of Concord, which the text draws from Brian Donahue's study,
The Great Meadow, seems to contradict the narrative arc. As does the advice of early agricultural reformers to use manure and practice crop rotation. I think the problem here is there's just too much jammed into a very few pages, which leaves the reader confused about the overall theme.

Finally, "Reflections" begins and ends with Thoreau's ambivalence toward first farmers, and later industrialists. And it takes Thoreau pretty much at face value, which I think is problematic (this is also a theme for another day, but I think Thoreau has to be read as a complex and somewhat ironic character. A guy who made some really important observations but was completely blind to his own privilege). In a passage on the "Malthusian Crunch," Steinberg says that even if nature could be dealt with, "there was still a threat posed by too many people pressing against a limited resource base." Overcrowding in New England, he says, "forced up the price of land…America, the land of opportunity, was in trouble." He goes on to say that inefficient farmers "remained wedded to an extensive mentality," and agriculture "foundered on the limits of meadow grass." But it didn't. Half a dozen pages later we learn that "Between 1801 and 1840, Concord farmers doubled their English hay output," and stopped relying on marsh-hay. And there's plenty of Early American History supporting the idea that New Englanders didn't agonize that much over the scarcity of land or the inflated prices. Many sold their old farms at huge profits and moved west to Upstate New York and the Ohio Valley. They didn't see this as a disaster, but as an opportunity.

And maybe that's my real issue here. It's one thing for environmentalists today to look back on the past and identify problems we now face such as sustainability, soil mining, and an excessively commercial agriculture. But I think we also have to convey to our students and readers that that's not how people saw things at the time. They were happy about some of the things we're calling out as errors, and they weren't necessarily wrong. The real story, I think, is more complex. It's not that self-sufficiency is good and commercialism bad, for example. It's about how the two things interacted with each other and changed over time -- when we got too much of a good thing.