Category Archives: history

Envirotech Bibliography Adds Titles on Race, Colonialism, and Injustice

Many people have purchased copies of Clean and White in recent days. If you are one of them, thank you. I hope the book provides you useful historical context. Also, if you are interested in some of the research that inspired this book, as well as relevant works that have been published since I wrote it, a few bibliographical resources are in the works.

One is now available. The Envirotech Special Interest Group of the Society for the History of Technology has a bibliography of works on the intersections of the histories of technology and the environment. We’ve just added a section titled “Perspectives on Race, Colonialism, and Injustice” featuring a few dozen books and articles.

This bibliography is a work in progress. Envirotech members are encouraged to add relevant titles.

Earth Day at 50: Pratt’s Virtual GreenWeek

GREEN-WEEK-2020Earth Day 50 is Wednesday. Adam Rome discusses the significance of Earth Day’s founding in his history The Genius of Earth Day:

In September 1969, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin vowed to organize a nationwide environmental teach-in in spring 1970, and his call to action inspired thousands of events across the country. Roughly 1,500 colleges and 10,000 schools held teach-ins. Earth Day activities also took place in hundreds of churches and temples, in city parks, and in front of corporate and government buildings. The teach-ins collectively involved more people than the biggest civil-rights and antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s.

But the numbers do not begin to tell the story. The first Earth Day had a freshness and intensity that are difficult to imagine today. Because Earth Day 1970 was unprecedented, the organizers had to plan everything from scratch, and the effort often was life-changing. Tens of thousands of people spoke on Earth Day – and many had never spoken publicly about environmental issues before. The discussions at Earth Day teach-ins sometimes were soul-searching: Many participants truly were struggling to get to the roots of “the environmental crisis.”

That freshness and intensity gave Earth Day 1970 tremendous power. Thousands of organizers and participants decided to devote their lives to the environmental cause. Earth Day built a lasting eco-infrastructure: national and state lobbying organizations, environmental-studies programs, environmental beats at newspapers, eco sections in bookstores, community ecology centers.

Fifty years later, we observe Earth Day as climate change accelerates and a global pandemic lays bare the vast inequalities that have emerged in the abandonment of the social contract in liberal democracies since the rise of Reagan and Thatcher.

This is inescapable in Brooklyn. I live a couple blocks from a firehouse, so the abstract numbers of hospitalizations and death rates reported in each day’s news represent the series of ambulances racing down the street in front of my window each day. Neighbors have died. More will die in the days ahead. We have already lost so much, and have much unease about what is to come.

I live in Brooklyn in no small part due to the history Adam Rome writes. I moved here eight years ago to develop Pratt Institute’s Sustainability Studies minor. My work is concerned with the consequences of consumption and waste on the environment and society, including unintended consequences of the disposal of mass-produced goods, stigma associated with handing wastes, and particular attention to the ways in which attitudes concerning waste and society shape each other over time. Pratt is one of the centers of training the world’s artists and designers who will shape art, fashion, industrial design, and the built environment in ways that will affect consumption, waste streams, ecosystems, and societies long after I am gone.

Our commitment to this project includes an annual public celebration called Green Week. Normally, Green Week is a series of events, installations, and forums highlighting the ways our different disciplines engage with sustainability.

This year is different. The pandemic precludes us from gathering on campus, but thanks to the heavy lifting of Sustainability Coalition leader Tetsu Ohara, CSDS director Carolyn Shafer, and Communications Design Professor Eric O’Toole, we present Pratt Virtual GreenWeek. Beginning today, see the work our community has done, including:

Examples of faculty-directed course projects (including an online version of the presentations we usually do at the Student Union).

Examples of student work.

A timeline of the history of sustainability initiatives at Pratt, and link to Pratt’s most recent sustainability report.

• The Pratt Library’s sustainability resources, including faculty-authored books on sustainability issues held by the library.

I am thankful to be part of a community of teachers, students, and staff at Pratt who are committed to making the world a safer, healthier, more equitable world. The linked work is testament to this commitment, and includes some projects related to the pandemic developed before we had to move from in-person to virtual work in March.

Today’s Virtual GreenWeek launch aligns with larger observations of Earth Day that includes the Virtual Earth Day celebrations. May this year’s crisis renew the spirit and action of 1970’s Earth Day and lead to a safer, healthier future for Brooklyn, the US, and the world.

Two Fall 2020 Environmental History Books Available for Preorder

With colleagues, I am working on a pair of books that are now available for preorder.

Sara B. Pritchard and I are preparing Technology and the Environment in History for Fall 2020 release through Johns Hopkins University Press.

Today’s scientists, policymakers, and citizens are all confronted by numerous dilemmas at the nexus of technology and the environment. Every day seems to bring new worries about the dangers posed by carcinogens, “superbugs,” energy crises, invasive species, genetically modified organisms, groundwater contamination, failing infrastructure, and other troubling issues.

In this compelling book, Sara B. Pritchard and Carl A. Zimring adopt an analytical approach to explore current research at the intersection of environmental history and the history of technology—an emerging field known as envirotech. Technology and the Environment in History discusses some of the important topics, historical processes, and scholarly concerns that have emerged from recent work in thinking about envirotech. Each chapter focuses on a different urgent topic:

• Food and Food Systems: How humans have manipulated organisms and ecosystems to produce nutrients for societies throughout history.
• Industrialization: How environmental processes have constrained industrialization and required shifts in the relationships between human and nonhuman nature.
• Discards: What we can learn from the multifaceted forms, complex histories, and unexpected possibilities of waste.
• Disasters: How disaster, which the authors argue is common in the industrialized world, exposes the fallacy of tidy divisions among nature, technology, and society.
• Body: How bodies reveal the porous boundaries among technology, the environment, and the human.
• Sensescapes: How environmental and technological change have reshaped humans’ (and potentially nonhumans’) sensory experiences over time.

Using five concepts to understand the historical relationships between technology and the environment—porosity, systems, hybridity, biopolitics, and environmental justice—Pritchard and Zimring propose a chronology of key processes, moments, and periodization in the history of technology and the environment. Ultimately, they assert, envirotechnical perspectives help us engage with the surrounding world in ways that are, we hope, more sustainable and just for both humanity and the planet. Aimed at students and scholars new to environmental history, the history of technology, and their nexus, this impressive synthesis looks outward and forward—identifying promising areas in more formative stages of intellectual development and current synergies with related areas that have emerged in the past few years (including environmental anthropology, discard studies, and posthumanism).

Steven H. Corey and I are editing Coastal Metropolis: Environmental Histories of Modern New York City as part of Martin Melosi and Joel Tarr’s Histories of the Urban Environment series at the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Built on an estuary, New York City is rich in population and economic activity but poor in available land to manage the needs of a modern city. Since consolidation of the five boroughs in 1898, New York has faced innumerable challenges, from complex water and waste management issues, to housing and feeding millions of residents in a concentrated area, to dealing with climate change in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, and everything in between. Any consideration of sustainable urbanism requires understanding how cities have developed the systems that support modern life and the challenges posed by such a concentrated population. As the largest city in the United States, New York City is an excellent site to investigate these concerns. Featuring an array of the most distinguished and innovative urban environmental historians in the field, Coastal Metropolis offers new insight into how the modern city transformed its air, land, and water as it grew.

Click on the links for ordering information. Both should be available from the respective publishers in late 2020.

COVID-19 Pandemic Resources

Some quick links on the pandemic, organized from local to global:

Pratt Institute (includes resources for students, discussion of current schedule, online teaching, and updates for the campus community).

New York City (includes factsheets, public health posters, and citywide resources, as well as current case count in the city).

New York State (includes hotline number and statewide case count organized by county).

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (nationwide public health tips and case count organized by state).

World Health Organization (FAQ, updated news on global responses).

If one of your responses to the pandemic is to curl up with a good book, here are a few titles that can provide historical perspective. (This is not even an attempt at a comprehensive bibliography, just a small selection of relevant titles.)

Alfred W. Crosby, America’s Forgotten Pandemic: The Influenza of 1918 (2003 edition).

Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830-1910 (1987).

Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (1995).

Melanie Kiechle, Smell Detectives: An Olfactory History of Nineteenth Century Urban America (2017).

Martin V. Melosi, The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present (2005 abridged edition, 2000 original Johns Hopkins University Press edition).

Geoffrey W. Rice, Black Flu 1918: The Story of New Zealand’s Worst Public Health Disaster (2018).

George Rosen, A History of Public Health (1993 revised expanded edition).

Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (1987 edition).

Kara Murphy Schlichting, New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore (2019).

Daniel Schneider, Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem (2011).

Joel A. Tarr, The Search for the Ultimate Sink: Urban Pollution in Historical Perspective (1996).

Jewish Museum of Maryland Scrap History Talk February 23

jewishragcartThe Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore currently features an exhibition on the history of the scrap recycling industry now through April 26. I was a consultant on the project and, as part of the programming around it, I am pleased to present a talk based on my 2005 book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America at 1pm on Sunday February 23.

For tickets, location, and other information, visit the event’s website. Tickets to the talk ($10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $6 for students, and $4 for children ages 4-12) include admission to the Museum, so you will have the opportunity to see this extraordinary exhibit.

 

America Recycles Day Roundup

recycle-logoToday is America Recycles Day, so I am popping in late with a few related links to interviews on the subject.

Time magazine’s feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me.

BBC’s The Compass 3-part show from earlier this year on “The History of Wastefulness” featuring interviews with Kathryn Kellogg, Veena Sahajwalla, Agnes Sandras, Eiko Maruko, Gay Hawkins, and me.

A piece I wrote for Process: A Blog for American History a couple of years ago based on my book Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers UP, 2005).

A piece I wrote for Resource Recycling Magazine a couple of years ago based on my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (Johns Hopkins UP, 2017).

The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s current exhibition “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling,” on display now through April 2020. I was one of the advisors on this exhibition and will speak at the Museum in February.

The Loma Prieta Earthquake Thirty Years Later

 

SFChronicle1989quake

The San Francisco Chronicle initially reported hundreds dead in the massive 1989 earthquake.

Thirty years ago today at 5pm PT, I was in a condominium in downtown Santa Cruz. Game 3 of the Giants-A’s “Bay Bridge” World Series game at Candlestick Park was about to start when the TV began acting like a basketball, slamming screen-first into the carpet and bouncing up and down. A few minutes later, when the earth stopped shaking, we walked out to see some houses sitting at 45-degree angles from their foundations, some buildings completely collapsed, every chimney in the area in rubble, and a cloud of dust enveloping downtown. (Our building was untouched, aside from every dish in the kitchen shattering on the floor. When the electricity eventually came on, we found that the TV even worked.)

Somehow the phones never got knocked out, so we were able to get tabs on many of our friends and help where we could. Pretty much every able-bodied person in the area had the same instinct, so as darkness fell, we arranged for as many people as possible to get the perishables out of their refrigerators and come down to use our grill. We had a delicious feast that night as the aftershocks — some of which were larger than most of the quakes the area had seen in recent memory — rocked the building.

STC-L-eiquake-1017-01

That was the last good food we would have for quite a while as we quickly relied on peanut butter, ramen, and other durables in the days before power was restored while fielding phone calls from friends and family from around the world (when they could get through the jammed lines). The downtown area — including the historic Cooper Building that had undergone a retrofit to withstand seismic activity just a few months earlier — was so devastated that most of the businesses that didn’t go under would move into giant “temporary” tents for the next three years or so. STC-L-eiquake-1017-04building

Miraculously, the number of people killed in Santa Cruz could be counted on two hands; judging by the number of collapsed buildings one would have thought that hundreds had perished (as the Chronicle headline in this post feared). The entire Bay Area suffered sixty-three deaths (most in the collapsed I-880 Cypress Structure), but those of us near the epicenter were very, very fortunate.  I don’t know if subsequent plate shifts have since altered it, but there was a huge chasm in the woods not far from the UC campus for years afterwards.

The condominium complex we were in was of postwar construction, and it survived relatively intact. When I returned to UCSC several days later, little damage to the campus buildings (built largely after 1965) was evident (though the collections at McHenry Library and KZSC required many hours to reshelve).  Older and cheaper housing fared less well. In Santa Cruz and Watsonville, the large structures that survived became shelters for thousands of displaced residents whose houses had been destroyed. Many more buildings suffered moderate amounts of damage; it seemed that every brick chimney in town had crumbled.

SantaCruz_1989_Highway17Eventually the chimneys were restored, demolition of unsavable buildings took place, and a major rebuilding effort was evident by the time I moved away in 1992. When I visited Santa Cruz five years later, there were no gaping holes where houses and businesses stood, but the town looked much different than it had on the morning of October 17, 1989.

One lesson from the 1989 earthquake (and the 1994 Northridge earthquake) was a focus on planning to make cities “earthquake-safe” rather than “earthquake-proof” through modeling. This approach seeks to reduce risk while recognizing it is never eliminated; the 2011 Fukushima disaster is in part a lesson that natural events may be more powerful than what reasonable models project, and that the human-built world can vastly exacerbate the scale of disaster that results. The major earthquake that devastated Christchurch, New Zealand that same year was not on one of the faults that worried area seismologists. Safety is not guaranteed; that lesson certainly resonates when “storms of the century” become more frequent on the eastern seaboard.

Thirty years after the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed downtown Santa Cruz, I live in another metropolitan region at risk from disasters. When searching for our last home, I consulted information about which neighborhoods were more dangerous than others. I did not consult violent crime statistics, but rather NYC’s hurricane evacuation map revised in the wake of Sandy. Our home is not in an area presently rated as a potential evacuation zone, though I understand that the map may be revised in light of new information, and a powerful storm could overwhelm the existing model of risk.

Earlier this month, Pratt hosted historian Ted Steinberg, whose work on how what we call natural disasters involve damage produced by human designs has led him to criticize the aggressive development of the waterfront as an act of “environmental machismo” in the face of rising sea levels. Yet I remain here, perhaps in part out of the irrational belief that storms come with warnings. The earthquake that shook Santa Cruz thirty years ago caught us by surprise.

Megacities and Water Panel at 3rd World Congress of Environmental History, Florianópolis

FlorianapolisThe 3rd World Congress of Environmental History begins in Florianópolis, Brazil this week, organizing around the theme “Convergences: The Global South and the Global North in the Era of Great Acceleration.” For more information on the venue, keynote speakers, program and schedule of sessions, please click the links on the conference website.

As part of the conference, I will participate in a panel on Water and Megacities in the 20th Century on Thursday afternoon, with participants presenting cases from the Americas. I will discuss Newtown Creek as New York City’s aquatic discardscape, a site with several narratives of waste informing both its history and its future as a site for sustainable (or unsustainable) urban development. How do we think about waste? How do the answers to that question inform the ways discarded materials have shaped the land, water, and economic processes that interact at Newtown Creek? Join me for consideration of those questions and how they relate to water issues in the world’s megacities.

The Art of Sustainability Symposium in Philadelphia October 6

MuralArtsImageThe Mural Arts Institute and the Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation at Drexel University are hosting an Oct. 6 symposium on public art and sustainability featuring artists, architects, and me. Details, including tickets here:

Our speakers bring a variety of perspectives and experiences to the intersection of artistic practice and the environment. The line-up includes artist Stacy Levy, curator & scholar Patti Phillips; architect Mateo Fernández; Mural Arts Restored Spaces initiative founder Shari Hersh; the collective Basurama; community organizer Sulay Sosa; Wholistic.art; writer & scholar Carl Zimring; Bartram’s Garden Executive Director Maitreyi Roy; The Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education Executive Director Mike Weilbacher; and policy expert Stephanie Gidigbi. Sessions will range from conversation to lecture format to interactive engagement and will cover a wide range of topics.

My contribution will be a lecture about the visual culture of environmental racism. I am looking forward to the entire program.

The Mountaintop 50 Years Later

MLK50_NYOn this day in 1968, Martin Luther King delivered his final speech in Memphis in support of the sanitation workers who had been on strike since that February. Tonight in Washington Square Park, the audio of the speech will be played in its entirety beginning at 7:30pm. On the other side of the country, Stanford holds a screening of the documentary “I am MLK Jr.,” performances, and comments by Professor Clayborne Carson beginning at 6pm PT. (April 4 update: In Chicago, 99-year-old civil rights activist and historian Timuel Black discusses Dr. King’s life and legacy at Rockefeller Chapel at 12:30pm CT.)

Memphis has been holding events since the start of the week relating to the speech and Dr. King’s assassination; Rev. Dr. Bernice King is participating in several events, and( the Commercial Appeal provides information on events on Wednesday’s sad anniversary.

A few resources on the speech and its significance:

Complete audio and transcript of the speech.

A 2008 NPR interview with the Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles, who was present at the speech.

Memphis journalist Wendi C. Thomas’s account of how Mayor Loeb’s policies and his family’s business practices exacerbated racial inequality a half century ago…and since.

Michael K. Honey’s history of the strike Going Down Jericho Road, which contextualizes King’s involvement in the long struggle for recognition by the workers.