The Best Books of 2013

Of the books published in 2013, these are the ones I found most valuable.

story-n-social-history-nitrogen-cycle-challenge-sustainability-hugh-gorman-hardcover-cover-artHugh S. Gorman, The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability (Rutgers University Press)
Hugh Gorman (author of Redefining Efficiency) has provided an invaluable historical perspective to debates over sustainability.  As ambitious and accessible as John McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun (albeit more centered on American examples than that global history) Gorman’s subject is the whole of human manipulation of nitrogen from its application in early agriculture to the industrial processes that allowed us to increase nitrogen production beyond the perceived ecological limit, the scaling of these processes under market capitalism, and the subsequent environmental consequences of that production.

Gorman examines the social responses to these consequences, and how they inform policies and practices to mitigate environmental damage.  The impressive achievement of this book is that although it is a history of a chemical process, it is framed in the ways humans have manipulated that process, and how the consequences of that manipulation have had tangible effects on humans and the environment.  It is an engaging read, a successful interdisciplinary history, and a book that ought to provoke discussion amongst policymakers and scholars of sustainability.


Carl Smith, City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago (University of Chicago Press)
I will have more to say about the latest book from urban cultural historian Carl Smith in an upcoming issue of the Indiana Magazine of History, but here I can say that the author of Chicago and the American Literary Imagination brings his attention to infrastructure concerns in a way that resembles Nick Yablon’s remarkable bricolage of sources in his wonderful Untimely Ruins.  A contribution to urban history that obliterates divides between studies of the city as built environment and as site for social processes.  It also brings into focus our tendencies to channel anxieties about our bodies with anxieties about urban health.

PickingUpRobinNagleRobin Nagle, Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks With the Sanitation Workers of New York City  (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux).
A reminder that all labor has dignity, and the work of picking up a city’s garbage is vital to that city functioning.  Robin Nagle is, as far as I am aware, the only anthropologist in residence at a large American city’s department of streets and sanitation.  Her work (accurately depicted in the subtitle of this book) allows the reader to get an understanding of what daily life, interactions, and hazards is like for the people who provide New York City this essential service.

CosmopolitanCommonsDiscoKranakisNil Disco and Eda Kranakis, eds., Cosmopolitan Commons: Sharing Resources and Risks Across Borders (MIT Press)
This collection of essays builds upon Elinor Ostrom’s concept of polycentric management of commons to investigate ways in which European neighbors have — even at times when they were uneasy neighbors, to understate twentieth-century history — cooperated on sharing resources ranging from fisheries to clean air to radio waves.  The obvious value of this volume is how it provides historical precedent to collaborative environmental policy in the future, but it also gives a new perspective on how modern industrial societies evolved together.  Together with The Story of N, this volume invites discussion of the demonstrated limits of free market capitalism and how these limits have been addressed in the past (and perhaps might be addressed in the future).

NewNaturesJorgensenJorgensenPritchardDolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard, eds., New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies (University of Pittsburgh Press)
For more than a decade, the Envirotech Special Interest Group of the Society for the History of Technology (and, unique among SHOT SIGS, also meets at the American Society for Environmental History conference) has been the source of wonderfully productive discussions about the complex relationships (and often blurring definitions) amongst humans, the environment, and the technologies humans develop.  Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen, and Sara B. Pritchard have played major roles in leading these discussions, and here the three turn their attention to how environmental history and STS may inform each other.  The collection of essays they cultivated discuss agriculture, energy, pollution, and outer space, all considering epistemological questions about how we have constructed and valued expertise over time.  Like The Story of N (written by fellow Envirotech participant Gorman), this volume encourages discussions that transcend disciplinary boundaries and divides between policymakers and academics.

BusinessofWasteStokesKosterSambrookRaymond G. Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen C. Sambrook, The Business of Waste: Great Britain and Germany, 1945 to the Present (Cambridge University Press)
In the early nineteenth century, British sanitary knowledge moved across the Atlantic as sanitary engineers in New York, Massachusetts, and other American states adapted the theories and techniques of pioneering sanitarian Edwin Chadwick to fight infectious disease and the mounting problems of urban waste management.

The Business of Waste, in a sense, returns the favor.  American historians, including Martin Melosi, Susan Strasser, and Joel Tarr have made substantial advances in our understanding of American waste disposal patterns and management techniques in the past twenty years.  This book by University of Glasgow historians Raymond G. Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen C. Sambrook advances our understanding of how public and private municipal refuse and salvage operations evolved in European cities.  This book is an important comparative history on waste management and enriches our understanding of British and German waste practices during a time of great change.

Planning-Chicago-Hunt-DeVriesD. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago (American Planning Association, Planners Press)
Brad Hunt is Dean of the College of Professional Studies at Roosevelt University and author of Blueprint for Disaster, as careful a history of American public housing as I have read.  Together with Marshall Bennett Institute for Real Estate Director Jon DeVries, he has turned his attention to how planners have shaped the lived experience in Chicago, what planning strategies took place in the twentieth century, and how current land-use policy differs from that period (for better and, as the authors argue, for worse).  People familiar with Chicago politics may be aware of the city’s controversial use of Tax Increment Financing districts (TIFs) under the past two mayors, and this policy development is one of the problems Hunt and DeVries identify as a departure from more systematic planning efforts.  (And one that Jane Jacobs would hardly endorse, given the tendency to use TIF money for big downtown projects at the expense of aiding neighborhoods seeking more modern schools and infrastructure.)  As cities strive to develop optimal transportation, green space, housing, job bases, energy, and waste management amid budget pressures (sometimes with the aid of initiatives such as C40 Cities), understanding the history of how planning has contributed to the ways we experience cities is important.  This is a useful guide not only for students of Chicago, but for all interested in how government and society in cities interact.

SustainabilityinHighedEdBartlettChasePeggy F. Barlett and Geoffrey W. Chase, eds., Sustainability in Higher Education: Stories and Strategies for Transformation (MIT Press)
The practice and teaching of sustainability at colleges and universities is diverse.  Some institutions develop programs strongly reflecting the values of the Brundtland Report; others critique the report, critiquing ideas of development with a focus on equity, justice, and understanding the particular challenges and values of peoples in specific contexts.  (I try to produce courses that explore convergences and conflicts in those models, and try to get students to question their own values and assumptions as they assess visions of sustainability.)  The methods and themes taught may reflect strongly interdisciplinary approaches to the natural sciences, social sciences, and, humanities, or may focus on management.

This volume edited by Peggy Bartlett and Geoffrey Chase (who coordinate a series of sustainability leadership workshops for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) ; I participated in a workshop Peggy Bartlett ran at Emory University earlier this year) does not advocate any one model so much as it reflects the experiences of several creators of sustainability programs.  The focus here is on how we as faculty (usually trained in a particular discipline) work with, respect, and value our fellow faculty, administrators, and students as we develop best practices and curriculae.

Part of the value of this volume is its attention to how we create and value academic programs in general, and how to work together with potentially conflicting people in spite of differences.  If you read Saul Bellow, Jane Smiley, or David Lodge, you will recognize that quite a few highly accomplished academics lack that ability.  As such, Sustainability on Campus is worthwhile not only for those academics seeking to develop or expand sustainability programs, but also for academics seeking to develop healthy, mutually caring relationships in any department.

JunkyardPlanetAdamMinterAdam Minter, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade (Bloomsbury)
Adam Minter grew up in a scrap-dealing family (unlike my scrapping ancestors, his were adept at identifying valuable materials in the discards of others and made a living at it), and works today as a journalist covering the global scrap trade.  His past and present inform Junkyard Planet, a highly accessible glimpse into the worlds of the people who scrap and salvage all over the world, particularly in China.  Any serious attempts to develop sustainable production and waste management policies must take into account the ways in which we (in formal and informal ways) currently classify and process materials.  Minter’s conclusion underscores the importance of design for disassembly in reducing the most noxious consequences of scrapping.  That is a theme I try to convey to students in my own teaching as well as in publications like my article on automobile shredders, and I appreciate it concluding this book.

theupcycleLargeWilliam McDonough and Michael Braungart, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability — Designing for Abundance (North Point Press)
This decade-later sequel to Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Making Things is speculative, self-promoting, idealistic, and evangelical in trumpeting what the authors call “the next industrial revolution.” In it, McDonough and Braungart argue, waste and toxins are part of an obsolete mode of production supplanted by production of goods that break down into nutrients that fuel further abundance.

In being all these things, it is also a thought-provoking challenge to modern industry and design to assess current goals and practices.  Readers might compare Minter’s conclusion in Junkyard Planet to the recommendations McDonough and Braungart make here; they may also consider Gorman’s model of historical change and assess how the forecast McDonough and Braungart reflects (or does not reflect) how humans, corporations, and governments actually behave.    On that last point, McDonough and Braungart might take hope that some of the chapters in Cosmopolitan Commons indicate their speculative future has precedents.

At the Pratt Institute, I teach many design and architecture students about the consequences of their creations.  The Upcycle, for whatever its flaws, is valuable in advancing the conversation with these students about their goals and aspirations.  It also draws greater attention to the practice of upcycling (created goods of enhanced economic or cultural value from discarded materials), and one of my current research projects involves the history of up cycling and how it might inform future design practices.  For those reasons, The Upcycle is one of the books of the year.

Some very promising titles are scheduled to arrive in 2014, but I will refrain from speculating too much before I read them (and because I should get back to writing one that ought to be published in 2015).

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