Category Archives: history

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.

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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.

 

Discussing Environmental History in Philadelphia and St. Louis

The end of winter has dynamic meetings and discussions of environmental history, and 2018 is no exception – though the format departs from my usual routine of ASEH meetings. I had the pleasure to visit a couple of exciting programs the past couple of weeks. At the end of February, I was a guest in Scott Knowles and Chuck Haas’s City of Systems course as part of Drexel University’s new Urban Strategy M.S. program.

Drexel_talkThe program is a cross-disciplinary approach to urban problems and solutions, and the course is team-taught by a historian (Scott) and environmental engineer (Chuck). As part of their module on waste, they assigned Clean and White, so I agreed to join them for a public talk and conversation with the seminar about the social and cultural dimensions to municipal waste management. The program is the kind of exciting mix of social sciences, engineering, and public policy that Carnegie Mellon in general (and Joel Tarr in particular) exposed me to during my graduate training, and I suspect the Philadelphia region will benefit greatly from its students in the years to come.

WUSTL_posterOne week later, Washington University in St. Louis hosted me as part of its Mellon Sawyer “Wastelands” Seminar. Like Drexel’s program, this seminar focuses on a set of issues investigated by scholars working in and across several disciplines. After an exciting set of rescheduled flights due to Northeastern weather, I made it to St. Louis in time for my public lecture on establishing the long history of environmental racism based on the chronology of Clean and White. That was my second event of the day; immediately after stepping off the plane, I was able to make it to campus in time for an engaging conversation with Heather O’Leary’s Environmental Anthropology class.

The following morning, I got to workshop my current research project on Newtown Creek, getting terrific feedback from the participants. Particular thanks to Nancy Reynolds and Heather O’Leary for inviting me and contextualizing my work in the seminar’s activities, Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim for our conversations about urban sanitation, and Vasiliki Touhouliotis for both cogent comments on the Newtown Creek piece and handling logistics for my visit.

I particularly value these discussions because this year is a departure from my annual routine: I am missing the ASEH meeting in Riverside this year. While I am heading to California, I will be in the Bay Area for the Berkeley Journal of Criminal Law’s symposium and related events honoring Franklin Zimring’s career in criminology. Paraphrasing the Haggadah, “next year, in Columbus!” I look forward to resuming the routine in 2019.

New York Times essay on the hazards of waste work 50 years after the Memphis Strike.

We have entered the fiftieth anniversary of the Memphis Strike, and I wrote a piece for the New York Times about the hazards of waste work then and now.

The hazards facing people in this line of work have a long history — they inspired the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. That walkout was set off in part by the deaths of two Memphis sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death by the hydraulic press of the truck they were riding on one rainy winter evening.

The strike, whose organizers demanded higher pay, the recognition of the workers’ union and safer working conditions, is often associated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis the day after delivering his “Mountaintop” speech in support of striking sanitation workers. But when we think about the strike, we should also remember that half a century after his death, the work Dr. King was focused on in the last days of his life remains unfinished.

Thanks to Jenee Desmond-Harris and Clay Risen for giving me space in the paper, and Chris Kindred for the accompanying illustration.

The Dirty (and Racist) Origins of Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Slur

Heck of a way to celebrate an anniversary. For the one-year mark of the Trump Administration, I look at President Trump’s rhetorical choices when discussing immigration policy with senators in my essay for the Washington Post’s Made by History blog.

President Trump didn’t choose his xenophobic slurs in a vacuum — his use of shithole or shithouse reflects the vicious racism that swept him into office and, as in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, portends tragic, inhumane, racist, exclusionary policies related to people he equates with excrement.

Thanks to Brian Rosenwald for editing and Alexandra Filindra for suggesting the piece.

Resources for Observing and Understanding America Recycles Day

recycle-logoWednesday is America Recycles Day. It’s a day that reveals the complex history of industry, consumer society, and our attitudes towards the environment.

Time magazine’s 2016 feature on the history of recycling, featuring interviews with Susan Strasser, Bartow Elmore, and me. I encourage readers whose curiosity is whetted by our quotes to seek out Susan’s book Waste and Want, Bart’s book Citizen Coke, and my Cash for Your Trash for elaboration.

My 2017 post for the Organization of American Historians on the history of recycling. I allude to it in the footnotes, but Samantha MacBride’s Recycling Reconsidered is an indispensable book for understanding how the system of recycling functions (and does not function).

This 2016 episode of BackStory Radio featuring segments with Brett Mizelle and Catherine McNeur, Robin Nagle, David Sklansky, Elmore, and me provides more historical context for what and how we discard, and how private and public recycling programs are shaped by that history. The episode concludes with an interview of Gary Anderson, who designed the recycling logo that appears at the top of this post.

Aluminum Upcycled at the Society for the History of Technology meeting in Philadelphia, October 26-29.

zimringpostedThe Society for the History of Technology is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this year, and I will discuss my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (available now) as part of the “Envirotechnical Responses to Pollution Concerns” panel with Hugh Gorman, Ellen Spears, and Scott Knowles on October 28. The panel begins at 2pm.

Johns Hopkins University Press will have copies of the book for sale at the conference. The Press describes my history of sustainable design strategies this way:

Beginning in 1886 with the discovery of how to mass produce aluminum, the book examines the essential part the metal played in early aviation and the world wars, as well as the troubling expansion of aluminum as a material of mass disposal. Recognizing that scrap aluminum was as good as virgin material and much more affordable than newly engineered metal, designers in the postwar era used aluminum to manufacture highly prized artifacts. Zimring takes us on a tour of post-1940s design, examining the use of aluminum in cars, trucks, airplanes, furniture, and musical instruments from 1945 to 2015. 

By viewing upcycling through the lens of one material, Zimring deepens our understanding of the history of recycling in industrial society. He also provides a historical perspective on contemporary sustainable design practices. Along the way, he challenges common assumptions about upcycling’s merits and adds a new dimension to recycling as a form of environmental absolution for the waste-related sins of the modern world. Raising fascinating questions of consumption, environment, and desire,  Upcycling Aluminum is for anyone interested in industrial and environmental history, discard studies, engineering, product design, music history, or antiques.