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BOOK REVIEW

Nature's Capital: An Excerpt from Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History

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 that 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.

Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History
Ted Steinberg
Oxford University Press, $30

 

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