The first journey of 2012 was a half-hour trip on the CTA Green Line from my home in Oak Park to downtown Chicago for the annual conference of the American Historical Association. There, I presented a portion of my current research project on the ways notions of whiteness and environmental health have intertwined in American history from the age of Jefferson to the emergence of the Environmental Justice movement. This presentation, titled “Race, Soap, and Environmental Inequalities in Gilded-Age America” focused on racist advertisements distributed by several soap and cleanser companies between 1880 and 1914 that used the trope that white skin was clean skin (and nonwhite skin was dirty skin). I find it difficult to think of Ivory Soap’s boasts of purity without thinking of these advertisements.
In February, the Chicago Architecture Foundation unveiled its “Loop Value: The How Much Does It Cost? Shop” exhibit. Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies Professor Mike Bryson and I served on the exhibit’s advisory board and taped supplemental video segments on, respectively, the Chicago River and obsolete cellphones.
A few days after the AHA conference ended, I made final revisions to The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, about eighteen months after I began work on my first entries for the project. SAGE Publications released the encyclopedia in two hardback volumes around St. Patrick’s Day (and, soon afterwards, an electronic version). The hardback version was released just in time for the American Society for Environmental History conference in Madison, where several of the contributors attended the Envirotech breakfast.
In April, I saw my Roosevelt University senior seminar and Sustainability Studies students walk across the Auditorium Theatre stage to receive their diplomas, ending an academic year that saw the first Sustainability Studies majors in the state of Illinois receive their diplomas two years after we had introduced the major. By the time the students had graduated, I had agreed to develop a similar curriculum at the Pratt Institute, taking the opportunity to discuss the consequences of production and waste to the design and architecture students who will influence the industrialized world’s waste streams for years to come.
Summertime brought the publication of my review essay “The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities” in Reviews in American History. This piece was a consideration of two very different (and excellent) approaches to American urban history in the long nineteenth century, Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston and Nick Yablon’s Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919. Summer also brought another Wright Plus tour of Oak Park architecture; this year my wife Jen was one of two leaders handling house operations for the entire event, and I volunteered at the E.E. Roberts-designed Howard L. Simmons house.
Ever since publishing Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America, I field periodic requests for interviews about crime and scrap recycling. These requests are usually for feature stories in general-interest periodicals, but Kevin Whiteacre, Director of the Community Research Center and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Sociology at the University of Indianapolis, interviewed me in July for his MetalTheft.Net website, which has amassed an impressive array of interviews and interdisciplinary resources about crime and scrap metal.
The interview was published as we packed up (including files ranging from my current research to the ones that inspired Cash for Your Trash) and moved from Chicago to New York City, stopping briefly at roughly the halfway point in Pittsburgh (a city that has changed since I arrived for graduate school in 1994).
Upon arriving at Pratt, I began teaching the initial version of The Sustainable Core and developing upper-division seminars on energy and waste. The Urban History Association meeting came to my new hometown, and I chaired a panel considering the legacy of Robert Moses for it. The conference ended just before Hurricane Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area, although a few attendees (including my dissertation advisor Joel Tarr) were stranded in town for the week because of cancelled flights and trains.
I also experienced travel disruptions even though I am now a local. I had intended to fly to Vancouver on Halloween to present my paper “Wasted Potential: Chicago’s Struggle for Effective Consumer Recycling” at the Social Science History Association meeting, but neither I nor my Urban Network co-chair Megan Stubblefield were able to get out of New York ahead of the storm. Megan lost power for several days; the cancelled trip was the extent of my inconvenience (making me considerably luckier than many of my colleagues and millions in the region). We sent several messages to conference personnel alerting them to our impending absence (as well as the absences of other participants who emailed in to say they were marooned in New York). Locally, the effects of global climate change on the weather and oceans produced a lot of conversation about how coastal cities should plan for similar events over the coming years, underlining the importance of both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and designing safe, equitable spaces with these changes in mind.
2012 was a year of great change, and 2013 promises to be eventful as well. Pratt Institute students will have the opportunity to tackle the issues raised in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in three SUST courses, The Sustainable Core; Power, Pollution, & Profit; and Production, Consumption, & Waste. I’m also planning presentations and publications on the history of waste and its consequences and will announce details of these closer to the relevant dates. Thanks for reading these occasional missives in 2012, and I wish you a happy, healthy new year ahead.