Monthly Archives: August 2012

In Chicago, a Coal-Fired Era Ends

One of the recurring themes across dozens of entries in The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the damage done in industrial society by burning coal for energy.  On a global scale, the greenhouse-gas emissions produced by incinerating coal contribute to the observation that since (as the American Meteorological Society put it this month) “long-term measurements began in the 1950s, the atmospheric CO2 concentration has been increasing at a rate much faster than at any time in the last 800,000 years,” and that this is a cause of the “unequivocal” warming of the Earth’s climate system.  Beyond the global effects, the process of releasing the tremendous energy inherent in coal has had consequences for local and regional environments.  Sulfuric and nitric acids released in coal incineration create acid rain, which threatens fish and aquatic life. Coal ash, a noncombustible waste product of incineration, has caused problems for urban residents who have breathed in particulate matter and hazardous materials ranging from arsenic to mercury.  In the years when coal was the primary fuel for domestic heat, cities (including, as Joel Tarr and I wrote in 1997, St. Louis) saw clouds of coal smoke blacken midday skies in the winter months.  Even today, in an era when natural gas has supplanted coal for many energy uses, coal-burning utilities dump more than 130 million tons of treated coal ash in landfills each year.  Mining the raw material has its own set of consequences, including short- and long-term hazards for the miners and pollution of the land, air, and water in areas of heavy mining.  Coal has powered industrial progress, but that power comes with a price.

And while everyone pays for burning coal, not everyone has paid for it equally.  In the Chicago area, coal-burning power plants opened in the early twentieth century south of downtown.  A large one, the State Line Generating Plant, opened in 1929 just across the state border in Indiana.  Air pollution from the plant blanketed the South Side for decades, filling the lungs of millions of Chicagoans (including, in the 1970s, a very young South Shore resident named Carl Zimring).  In 1903, the Fisk Generating Station opened in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.  In 1924, the Crawford Generation station opened west of Pilsen in the Little Village neighborhood.

All three of these plants produced electricity for the region.  All three of these plants produced pollution locally.  And all three of these plants were situated in areas where the people most affected by the local emissions were minorities.  The South Side of Chicago bordering Indiana has been majority African-American since the Great Migration.  Pilsen and Little Village are two of Chicago’s most established Hispanic neighborhoods.

Community members blamed the continued operation of the three plants (often in violation of the Clean Air Act) for a variety of respiratory illnesses, especially in children.  Residents founded the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) and the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization (PERRO) in order to fight the continued operation of these plants and draw attention to the consequences of that operation.

I became familiar with LVEJO’s work when I arrived at Roosevelt University in 2008.  A student named Carrie van Eck approached me to supervise an honors thesis in which she worked in LVEJO’s office and contextualized the organization’s work in the history of environmental justice and local environmental degradation.  Carrie’s stellar work gave me an appreciation of the commitment community members had battling for their health, and as I learned more about their work, so did many Chicagoans.  The organization’s profile was soon raised by protests that attracted activists from beyond the neighborhood (including, in 2011, Greenpeace activists climbing the smokestacks).

By this time, the costs of operating coal-fired power plants was getting higher.  After Barack Obama became president in early 2009, his administration began focusing on the consequences of mercury emissions from power plants.  President Obama had represented much of the South Side in the Illinois Senate.  He was familiar with the medical research linking mercury exposure to neurological problems in developing children, and as a community organizer in the Roseland neighborhood during the 1980s, had a more vivid understanding of the environmental inequalities facing urban communities than any of his predecessors as president.  In 2011, the Environmental Protection Agency issued the first national standards limiting mercury emissions from power plants.

Enforcing the mercury emission limits led antiquated coal-fired power plants across the United States to shut down this year.  Back in March, the State Line plant closed.  This week, the Fisk and Crawford plants followed suit.  When the closures were announced earlier this year, LVEJO’s Lillian Marian Molina said “parents will not have to miss work, due to their children having asthma attacks. They won’t have to rush their children to the hospital as frequently. They won’t have to look at these polluting facilities much longer.”  Children growing up in Chicago in the coming years will not breathe in the pollution I breathed as a child.

Which is not to say that the other methods we use to generate energy in modern society come without consequences.  Far from it.  But the closures in and around Chicago this year both remove some of the most acute forms of pollution affecting thousands of residents and reduce the city’s emissions of greenhouse gases.

What is “The Sustainable Core,” Anyway?

Pratt Institute undergraduates have a new opportunity this autumn to increase their understanding of the environment. For the first time, a Sustainability course (prefix SUST-) is open for enrollment. This is SUST 201P The Sustainable Core, a 3-credit course meeting Mondays from 9:30am-12:20pm beginning next week. I am the lead instructor, and we have several expert scholars and practitioners participating this semester to give students an understanding of how sustainability is practiced.

What is this course, exactly? The Sustainable Core is an introduction to the broad and ever-evolving discipline of sustainability. Sustainability, as the US Environmental Protection Agency defines it, “is based on a simple principle: Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Sustainability is practiced and encouraged by a wide variety of professionals. Architects such as MacArthur Fellow Jeanne Gang apply sustainable principles to how they envision the built environment. Urban planners such as the members of the Congress for the New Urbanism incorporate sustainability into their designs for communities that will foster healthier and more equitable living conditions. Fashion designers such as Stella McCarthy attempt to produce clothes that reduce damage to the land, air, water, and wildlife. Industrial designers working for companies as varied as Toyota (for automobiles), Urban Woods (for furniture), and Interface (for carpets) look for ways to reduce the toxins they put into their products and reduce the waste generated by the use and eventual disposal of their products. Policy makers ranging from New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon incorporate sustainable principles into their plans, budgets, and policies. Sustainability affects the visions of filmmakers like James Cameron and writers like Alice Walker. Sustainability touches upon a wide set of practices in the professional worlds, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences, and in the humanities.

Where, then, to begin? The Sustainable Core offers an interdisciplinary (yet accessible) introduction to both the rationale for sustainability and some of the best practices in contemporary sustainability. As lead instructor, I have experience designing and teaching interdisciplinary sustainability courses, having co-developed the Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University. My interests in the historical dimensions of waste and how we might minimize the consequences of waste (as I discuss in many of my publications) certainly shape my approach to the discipline, but the course is also shaped by several guest lecturers from a wide variety of backgrounds. Students taking the course will finish the semester with both a solid understanding of how sustainability is being applied today and, no doubt, a set of questions on how to better achieve sustainability in the future.

In due time, Pratt will help address those questions with additional SUST- courses and a minor. The first step, though, is the introduction. Regardless of major, any Pratt undergraduate who is interested in the environment, sustainability, and/or the future is welcome to enroll. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about the course, please feel free to contact me at

David Rakoff, Consumption, and the Contradictory World of Disney

David Rakoff, who died this week, was a prolific writer.  Among his many contributions to the New York Times was a 2008 essay about his visit to Disneyland’s Dream Home (housed in the amusement park’s Innoventions building) titled “The Future Knocks Again.”

As with most David Rakoff essays, it is observant, critical, a little sad, and often very funny as he compares the 21st century model home to Disneyland’s original utopian domicile, the 1957 Monsanto House of the Future.  The reason I mention this four-year-old essay — as opposed to Rakoff’s essay on his treatments and state of mind or his moving final public dance for a This American Life stage show just three months ago — is his conclusion on how Disneyland’s celebratory design of a model home is so closely tied to patterns of consumption and waste that another arm of the parent company critiqued in one of 2008’s most popular films.

In a strange coincidence, the very week that the Dream Home opened, at the other end of the Disney corporation’s spectrum, Pixar had just released the dystopian “Wall-E” — a film premised on a world choked by garbage and waste, and made uninhabitable, at least in part, by things like gargantuan homes that make little or no concession to the limited resources out there and our heedless lack of stewardship.

“Wall-E” could have been made as a retort to the Dream Home, or even to a single appliance in it: the den’s seductive H.P. 3-D printer (after the retracting faucet, the product I coveted most). Currently sold for commercial use, it can create a fully-realized object by spraying microscopic layer after layer of quick-drying plastic. It has practical applications for a home consumer, like the ability to download the specs for the perpetually missing battery door of a remote, say, and to manufacture the replacement oneself. But there are any number of other things the printer can make, too — in the Elias family story, for example, Mom is sent a welcoming gift from their soon-to-be hosts in China by e-mail, a cunning sculpture of a dragon.

The printer is available for about $5,000, but in the normal way of these things it will most likely become smaller and less expensive, until thousands of consumers, if not millions, will be beaming plastic objects around the globe and plucking them fresh from their own printers to deposit into landfills. (And I will be one of them.)

The feeling of the Dream Home is of a dwelling from 2004, before the subprime mortgage crisis and $140-a-barrel oil. It is an exurban mausoleum, representing the kind of house that can be reached only by a decreasingly affordable car.

Rakoff’s concerns about the potential effects of 3-D printers on the waste stream mirror my own.  I, too, would not be surprised to find myself using these potentially very useful machines. His comment on recent history in the final quoted paragraph is reflected in student comments in my seminars on consumer society, especially those scheduled after the October 2008 economic meltdown — a meltdown that occurred three months after Rakoff submitted this essay. (Another exhibit for his assertion that assuming the worst means you will never be disappointed when it comes.) We may anticipate both the opportunities and problems innovation brings, recalling historian of technology Melvin Kranzberg’s first law of technology — that it is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. How that technology is applied — and the social and environmental contexts in which it is applied — shapes the consequences of its use. Rakoff recognized the lure and danger of the 3-D printer in 2008, and I am sad he will not be around to see if his pessimism was well-founded.

Introducing the Sustainable Core (Now Open for Fall 2012 Registration at Pratt)

As I mentioned last spring, I have moved to the Pratt Institute to develop and teach sustainability courses, specifically the introductory Sustainable Core class. The goal is to provide students a broad overview of sustainability problems, concerns, values, and approaches that a) might lead them to consider related coursework and b) give them valuable perspective to bring to their futures regardless of career path.

I am pleased to announce that the initial offering, 12/FA-SUST-201P-01 The Sustainable Core, is now available for registration. There are no prerequisites, and the course is intended for any Pratt undergraduate (no matter your career path or major) wishing to understand more about sustainability.

I will, with the help of several other faculty members, teach SUST 201P Mondays from 9:30am-12:20pm starting August 27. Any students with questions about the course should feel free to contact me at my Pratt email (czimring at Pratt dot edu).