Category Archives: publications

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.

40% off sale of Aluminum Upcycled ends July 15

zimringpostedThe Johns Hopkins University summer sale ends Monday. Between now and July 15, you can get my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective for 40% off plus free shipping. Buy the book at this link; at checkout, enter code HHOL.

The first sentence of the book reads: “Waste is a product of design.” If that argument interests you, consider purchasing Aluminum Upcycled.

Aluminum Upcycled on sale (40% off) through July 15

zimringpostedJohns Hopkins University Press is having a summer sale. You can get my book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective for 40% off plus free shipping between now and July 15, 2019. Buy the book at this link; at checkout, enter code HHOL. About the book:

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.

 

The Discard Studies Blog Is Back! (And Could Use Our Support.)

SimsMRF_conveyor

New York City’s curbside recycling collections being sorted at the Sims facility in Sunset Park.

September brings with it the resumption of posts on the remarkably generative Discard Studies blog edited by Professors Max Liboiron and Josh Lepawsky and graduate student Alex Zahara of Memorial University of Newfoundland. Over the last several years, the authors of the blog have generated some of the best critical thinking across disciplines assessing the power relations, systems, culture, and economics of how and why modern societies discard. What Is Discard Studies?

We tend to think that we are familiar with waste because we deal with it every day. Yet,  most aspects of waste are entirely hidden from common view and understanding, including the wider social, economic, political, cultural, and material systems that shape waste and wasting. Unlike studies that take waste and trash as their primary objects of study, discard studies looks at wider systems that make waste and wasting they ways they are. For instance, rather than asking how much people recycle and why they don’t recycle more, discard studies asks why recycling is considered good in the first place (MacBride 2011, Liboiron 2009, Ackerman 1997).

The field of discard studies is  united by a critical framework that questions premises of what seems normal or given, and analyzes the wider role of society and culture, including social norms, economic systems, forms of labor, ideology, infrastructure, and power in definitions of, attitudes toward, behaviors around, and materialities of waste, broadly defined. As its starting point, discard studies holds that waste is not produced by individuals and is not automatically disgusting, harmful, or morally offensive, but that both the materials of discards and their meanings are part of wider sociocultural-economic systems. Our task is to interrogate these systems for how waste comes to be, and our work is often to offer critical alternatives to popular and normative notions of waste.

Discard Studies is designed as an online hub for scholars, activists, environmentalists, students, artists, planners, and others who are asking questions about waste, not just as an ecological problem, but as a process, category, mentality, judgment, an infrastructural and economic challenge, and as a site for producing power as well as struggles against power structures. We produce and host: monthly research-based articles on discard studies; compile a monthly report on recent articles, jobs, and calls for participation relevant to discard studies called “The Dirt”; and maintain a repository of definitionsbibliographies, and syllabi as resources.

The kind of reader who would wander onto my blog would certainly get a lot out of reading Discard Studies, and I recommend it for anyone interested in STS, environmental studies, urban studies, material culture, critical waste studies, political economy, ethnography, or environmental history. (A few of us environmental historians, including Martin Melosi, Steve Corey, Ruth Rand, Peter Thorsheim, and I, have structured sessions at ASEH to advance the approach Max, Josh, Alex, blog founder Robin Nagle, and their colleagues have championed on this site.)

The blog is back, and it has costs to meet, including paying for the server, compensating the collaborating editor who is a graduate student, and (if enough of us donate) allowing the writers of each piece to be compensated for their labors. If this strikes you as a valuable endeavor, consider supporting Discard Studies on Patreon.

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.

On Dove and the History of Racist Soap Ads

Dove_2017_soap_adThis week, Dove Soap unveiled a new internet ad. It didn’t go well.

Dove has apologised over an advert which has been labelled racist.

The cosmetic brand faced backlash over a Facebook advert that appeared to show a black woman turning white after washing herself with its product.

Bosses at Dove said they ‘deeply regretted’ the use of the images after they sparked an online race row.

The advert shows a smiling black woman pulling her t-shirt off to reveal a white woman underneath. A third image then shows an Asian woman.

The imagery used in the ad has a long and ugly history. I discuss it at length in chapter four of Clean and White (now available in paperback and audio formats), and I also wrote a brief post about the history of racist soap ads for NYU Press’s From the Square blog in 2015.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.