Category Archives: Uncategorized

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.

Ashley Dawson “Energy Democracy and the Green New Deal” at Pratt, noon, March 21

 

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Ashley Dawson is an author, activist and professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center, and at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

I will have more to say about Pratt’s Green Week (scheduled to begin March 23 on the Brooklyn campus) in this space shortly. I want to first mention an event that serves as a preview of Green Week. We are proud to present CUNY Professor Ashley Dawson speaking on “Energy Democracy and the Green New Deal” on Thursday March 21 from noon to 1:30pm in ARC E-02 (200 Willoughby Avenue).

The future is electric. At least, it had better be if we are to survive as a species. We know that we must decarbonize societies the world over with all due haste in order to avoid climate catastrophe. The scale of this task is mammoth: contemporary energy systems must be switched to 100 percent renewable energy within the next decade or so. In addition, other key infrastructures such as transportation and the heating and cooling of buildings must be converted to running on electricity derived from renewable power. This means that we have to triple the current amount of energy being generated while also ditching fossil fuels. Although renewable power has experienced remarkable growth in recent years, this expansion has taken place in tandem with a massive expansion of fossil fuels. We are not, in other words, experiencing a transition of the scale and scope necessary to avert planetary ecocide. Feel-good bromides about a market-led transition to a green capitalist future will no longer do. We need an emergency plan for a rapid and massive transition, one grounded in ambitious ideas about how to heal the deep economic and social wounds inflicted by decades of neoliberal governance. This presentation will define energy democracy, explore the models for Green New Deal and just transition being advanced by the contemporary climate justice movement, and examine historical precedents for a democratic and equitable transformation of the energy system.

Professor Dawson currently works in the fields of environmental humanities and postcolonial ecocriticism. He is the author of two recent books relating to these fields: Extreme Cities (Verso, 2017) and Extinction (O/R, 2016). Extreme Cities argues that cities are ground zero for climate change, contributing the lion’s share of carbon to the atmosphere, while also lying on the frontlines of rising sea levels. Today, the majority of the world’s megacities are located in coastal zones, yet few of them are adequately prepared for the floods that will increasingly menace their shores. Instead, most continue to develop luxury waterfront condos for the elite and industrial facilities for corporations. These not only intensify carbon emissions, but also place coastal residents at greater risk when water levels rise. Extreme Cities offers an alarming portrait of the future of our cities, describing the efforts of Staten Island, New York, and Shishmareff, Alaska residents to relocate; Holland’s models for defending against the seas; and the development of New York City before and after Hurricane Sandy. Our best hope lies not with fortified sea walls, the book argues, but rather with urban movements already fighting to remake our cities in a more just and equitable way.

Extinction: A Radical History argues that the current devastation of the natural world, which affects not just large rhinos and pandas but humbler realms of creatures including beetles, bats and butterflies, is the product of a global attack on the commons, the great trove of air, water, plants and creatures, as well as collectively created cultural forms such as language, that have been regarded traditionally as the inheritance of humanity as a whole. This attack has its genesis in the need for capital to expand relentlessly into all spheres of life. Extinction, the book argues, cannot be understood in isolation from a critique of our economic system. To achieve this we need to transgress the boundaries between science, environmentalism and radical politics.

This event is free and open to the public.

The Best Music of 2018

 

My favorite records of 2018 reflect several musical approaches to living in troubled times. Click on each album title to hear selections from each record and instructions to support the musicians by purchasing their work. This list is limited to ten, but I encourage readers to seek out additional worthy recordings from the past year by The Ex, Thalia Zedek, John Prine, and Barbara Manning.

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Some of the most cogent popular culture critiques of this year come from Australia. Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette takes the form of standup comedy to produce a searing critique of the misogyny at root in Western art, politics, and society (including comedy and the comedian). Tropical Fuck Storm (featuring Gareth and Fiona of the Drones) examine the corrosive effects of online discourse in late capitalism on A Laughing Death in Meatspace. My description gets at the lyrical content, but does not capture the tone or the music – this is bleak but also playful, brimming with energy, wordplay, tangled guitar lines, and male-female call-and-response vocals that owe a debt to Fela Kuti. At its best (like the album closer “Rubber Bullies”), this is bracing, witty, immediate, pulsating music, stuff that makes the listener hunger for what TFS will do next.

What this review is missing is adequate description of just how funny TFS are. I could quote the lyrics of “Soft Power” about “either going to Mars or war” or that song’s goofy coda referencing The Wizard of Oz and Happy Days, but instead I direct readers to watch the videos for “The Future of History,” “You Let My Tyres Down,” and “Chameleon Paint.” It’s an imperfect comparison, as the Drones released a lot of impressive music, but A Laughing Death in Meatspace feels like the advance for Gareth Liddiard’s music that the albums Post and Gossip represented in Paul Kelly’s career.

Though they are not on this album, I cannot discuss my favorite records of the year without mention of TFS’s stellar covers of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Back to the Wall,” and especially their brilliant take on Lost Animal’s “Lose the Baby,” which sounded equally terrific on their fall 2018 tour of the states. I hope to hear more from this band in 2019.

Mint Mile, Heartroller (Comedy Minus One)

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Mint Mile began as Tim Midyett’s post-Bottomless Pit solo project and have evolved into an honest-to-goodness band with some echoes of the Byrds and early-Sausolito Van Morrison. (Think especially of the feel and structure of Saint Dominic’s Preview, only without horns.) The interplay between baritone 12-string guitar and pedal steel guitar hits a sweet spot for me, and every one of the four songs here rank with Midyett’s best work. The closer “Disappearing Music” is as close to ABBA as Midyett’s ever gone, a cheerful roller disco anthem of life’s impermanence that I’d be happy to have my survivors play at my funeral. (Or not; I mean, I won’t be there to know one way or the other.) Heartroller is the third and best EP Mint Mile has released, and this is a terrific introduction for newcomers.

Charnel Ground, Charnel Ground (12XU)

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My favorite instrumental record of the year features Chris Brokaw leading the rhythm section of Kid Millions and James McNew through five guitar workouts. That description could raise warning signals of noodling to those unfamiliar with Brokaw’s strong sense of structure, but from the shortest (“Play La Ticla,” a playful number under two minutes) to the longest (the hypnotic 18-minute title track), each piece is grounded in a strong sense of rhythm and rewards repeated listening.

Alejandro Escovedo, The Crossing (Yep Roc)

Escovedo_The_CrossingEscovedo’s written on the immigrant experience of America before, not least on his wonderful By the Hand of the Father, but this album presents a new dimension of Americana with the tale of two friends — one from Italy, one from Mexico — and their experiences in Texas. Escovedo’s use of strings is one of the distinctive aspects of his sound, whiich will be familiar to fans of his work since the early 90s. Wayne Kramer’s presence on “Sonica USA” gives an idea of what the louder rock songs sound like, and their ferocity supports lyrics that are disgusted with how the white supremacist blood lust that dominates American political culture in 2018 has horrific consequences for vulnerable peoples as well as for the good people who actually are trying to help vulnerable peoples. The Crossing is an elegant expression of how diasporic movement of peoples is at the heart of American culture, no matter how much the modern Republican Party has reconstituted itself as a fundamentally racist movement attempted to restore an imaginary golden era of white supremacy like the Ku Klux Klan’s postbellum revolt against Emancipation. Escovedo’s music has always served as a cultural response against such revanchism and a better America would have 62 million people listening to him and no more than a few thousand thugs supporting Donald Trump, Cindy Hyde-Smith, and the rest of the Confederacy.

Light Coma, CONCORD (self-released)

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CONCORD does not sound like a band that had not put out a record in seven years. Actually, that span of time is not quite accurate, as Brian Orchard’s trio played Crazy Horse to Andy Cohen’s Neil Young on last year’s Unreality. The Crazy Horse comparison is apt, as like that band, Light Coma has a terrific feel for raw rock songs. This band has a tighter rhythm section than the Horse, and fans of Orchard’s previous bands .22 and Bottomless Pit will find CONCORD to be another stellar, no-nonsense collection of the kind of music that makes me miss living in Chicago.

FACS, Negative Houses (Trouble in Mind)

FACS_Negative_Houses.jpgTwenty years after Hurl decided to end the reign of the greatest math-rock band to call Pittsburgh home (yes, I said it), drummer Noah Leger has become the backbone of some of the best rock bands in Chicago. In recent years, he has played in Disappears with Brian Case, and now those two form 2/3rds of FACS, producing spare, heavy atmospheric rock that fits well in a set with the moodiest tracks from Tar and Bailter Space. Readers may take that description as confirmation that Negative Houses is mostly thick guitar, rumbling bass, and drums, but the epic “Houses Breathing” adds saxophone to the textures to great effect.

Sarah Davachi, Gave in Rest (Ba Da Bing)

Davachi_Gave_in_RestIf you want to use one word to describe Canadian composter Davachi’s music, “minimalist” gets you in the ballpark. This album, recorded in part with members of Godspeed! You Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion, and in part solo, draws on European Christian influences (both religious music and the acoustics of churches), and a mix of acoustic instruments, synthesizers, and room ambience. Gave in Rest sounds like something that wouldn’t sound out of place as a 4AD release c. 1986, and is perfect accompaniment to grey rainy mornings as the winter solstice approaches.

 

YLT_RiotJames McNew’s second appearance on this list in records produced by a trio comes with this album marking Yo La Tengo’s 34th year as a band. The title does not reflect the gentle textures within; Ira Kaplan’s guitar work leans more to his mining of the Velvet Underground’s post-John Cale melodies rather than the sheets of feedback that mark his more aggressive work. The music marks a return of sorts to some of the quieter, gently electronic sounds the band explored at the turn of the century. The lyrics reflect attempts to be good to one another amid troubled times, and that’s what I understand is the context for the title of this album.

Threadgill_Dirt
Henry Threadgill’s approach to bandleading has always appealed to me, as he strikes the balance between being a distinctive leader and organizer with a coherent compositional identity with being a collaborator allowing space for his bandmates to shape their work together. This is true of his work in small groups such as Air, larger ensembles such as Very Very Circus, or now this 15-piece band 14 or 15 Kestra: Agg. Not many composers use tuba and cello together, but both instruments are staples of Threadgill’s work. The sweep of this large band’s sound makes it a rich new chapter in Threadgill’s long career, and brings to mind the dedication and engagement Duke Ellington gave very late in life to his And His Mother Called Him Bill project.

SAVAK, Beg Your Pardon (Ernest Jenning Recording Company)

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Two years ago, I called SAVAK  a virtuosic and adaptable rock band from Brooklyn whose debut record Best of Luck in Future Endeavors ought to appeal to anyone who knows what the names Graham Maby or Greg Sage represent. That description holds true for their most recent release Beg Your Pardon. SAVAK continues to produce muscular, melodic rock with a good dose of horns. I wouldn’t call Beg Your Pardon power pop, exactly, but if you are looking to surprise a Cheap Trick or Lookout! fan with a record that mixes hooks and noise, you could take a reasonable change of introducing them to SAVAK with this record.

Check the links to hear what all this music sounds like, as well as for information on purchasing these fine records and compensating their creators. I thank all the musicians for the part they have played in making 2018 a little better.

Pittsburgh / Deep of the Morning

More, later, to be said on the atrocity in Squirrel Hill. For now, thoughts go to our friends affected, as bits of a song by our much-missed friend Karl Hendricks ring in my ears.

Pittsburgh
Deep of the morning
Gunshots in the alley
My heart in my mouth
Everyone’s still in their bed, still sleeping
Their breaths like moonbeams
Breathe in, breathe out
Breathe in, breathe out
Breathe in, breathe out

‘Cause everyday’s another stupid miracle
An intolerable surprise
Feels like I’m always finding out
I’m alive

– Karl Hendricks

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

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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.

Reg E. Cathey

About 4 1/2 years ago, our late and much-missed dog Hudson landed a role in an independent film called Nasty Baby, which Sebastian Silva was filming down the street from our apartment. This led to a few weeks where Jen and Hudson spent long hours on the set, and I would sometimes visit briefly while staying at home with our frail older dog Chloe.

The antagonist in the film was played by Reg E. Cathey. If you see it, he plays a frightening and belligerent character. Proof he was a splendid actor, because he was the most warm and charming presence on the block with the cameras off. Kind to our dog, and friendly to me when I would drop a dog bed off during a long shoot. Meeting him was a highlight of our experience with the film, not because of his impressive acting resume, but because he was such a nice man.

All this made news of his death last week particularly sad in our household. He leaves behind some terrific performances and, no doubt, many, many friends.

On an error in my New York Times essay: Where the “death every day” mistake originated.

The online version of my New York Times op-ed on the perils of waste work has been corrected and eliminates the error discussed below. I owe the readers, the Times, and all involved in waste handling occupations context for the original error that was corrected.

In my essay on waste work in the Saturday Times, I made an error obvious to sharp-eyed readers: 31 deaths of refuse and recyclable material collectors in 2016 (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) does not equal one death every day. The error is inexcusable but has an explanation: my research covers waste-related work in several occupational categories ranging from janitorial services and laundry work to salvage yards, and in my notes I used in developing the essay I consulted BLS data for the larger category: “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services.” The number of deaths in that category (including the refuse and recycling workers, and also related categories including janitorial and cleaning work — excluding maids and housekeeping cleaners — and hazardous waste remediation, among other occupations such as landscape maintenance and pest extermination) in each of the years between 2013 and 2016 range between 360 and 458, a number that sadly meets the death-per-day rate as expressed in the published essay. Among the 2016 deaths within this category included the following subcategories: 16 in janitorial work and 67 in waste management and remediation services.

(Outside of that broader category, but pertinent to discussions of the hazards of waste work, BLS reported 64 deaths of building cleaning workers, 19 deaths of recyclable material merchant wholesalers, 8 deaths in laundry and drycleaning services, 8 deaths of first-line supervisors of housekeeping and janitorial workers, and 6 deaths in sewage treatment facilities in 2016.)

In my mind, I was thinking of all of these workers when approving the final wording of the essay. However, that thought remained only in my notes and my mind: I made no reference to the above data in the essay or sources I gave the Times (nor did I provide distinctions in the “administrative and support and waste management and remediation services” category between waste-related occupations, and, for example, landscaping services). Responsibility for this error is mine and mine alone.

I regret the error because it detracts from my point that we must recognize and protect the often-overlooked workers who handle wastes. In doing so, I myself obscured the deaths of the workers who perform the various waste-related tasks described in this letter, while presenting an assertion that did not match the data for refuse and recyclable material collectors. I write this letter to recognize those workers in the conversation that no doubt will be generated by my error.