Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

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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.

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.

All Labor Has Dignity

MLKMarch_on_WashingtonMonday is Labor Day, and many workers in Houston are risking their lives and health to clean up flooded and contaminated areas. Please think of them this holiday weekend.

I want to observe this day with a reminder of Dr. Martin Luther King’s quest to ensure that all workers’ dignity be respected.  This post includes material from Chapter 8 of my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (newly available in paperback).

The Memphis sanitation workers strike is remembered most frequently as part of the series of events that led to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in that city in April 1968. The site of that national tragedy, the Lorraine Motel, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Yet while Dr. King’s death is an understandably dominant aspect to the historical memory of the Memphis strike, historians, labor, and at least one national politician also focus, as Michael Honey’s magnificent book Going Down Jericho Road shows, on why the strike happened, and on its effects on labor, race, and the environment in the United States.

The event that triggered the strike took place on February 1, 1968. Two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were on a garbage truck. By “on,” I mean they were riding on the back of the truck as was procedure in Memphis’s Department of Public Works. In a pouring rain, the two men tried to take cover as best they could by climbing onto a perch between a hydraulic ram used to compact the garbage and the inner wall of the truck. Somewhere along the drive, the ram activated, crushing the two men to death. One had tried to escape, but the mechanism caught his raincoat and pulled him back to his death.

The deaths angered union organizer T.O. Jones, who called them “a disgrace and a sin.” In the days ahead, workers, local clergy such as James Lawson, and union activists mobilized to demand safer work conditions, better pay, and the right of union representation. When Echol Cole and Robert Walker died, a movement was born.

In reality, though, those men’s deaths merely were the culmination of decades of subjugation, made worse by recent worsening of treatment by the mayor’s office. The subjugation was not simply of working people, but of African Americans. In Memphis, African Americans were the sanitation department — more than 1,300 black workers, some who grew up in the city, others who had left the crushing poverty of the cotton fields in Mississippi, picked up the garbage and yard wastes of all Memphians.

Effective sanitation services are vital to all cities, but the sanitation department in Memphis has a special place in that city’s history. Memphis, a hot humid city, suffered from epidemic diseases as it grew in the mid-nineteenth century. Yellow fever almost wiped the city off the map in the 1870s; after thousands died, more fled, and almost every person who stayed became infected in 1878, the state of Tennessee repealed the city’s charter. The creation of the Sanitation Department under Col. George Waring in order to build modern sewers, pick up garbage, keep the streets clean and reduce the presence of infectious materials in the community as much as possible literally saved Memphis in the 1880s. (Waring later revolutionized New York City’s streets and sanitation department. His work protected hundreds of thousands of lives and established the model of modern municipal sanitation in the United States that we enjoy today, but that is a story for another time.)

Though the work was vital to the city’s well-being, it was dangerous, brutal, and ill-paying. The workers were not respected by their employers, or by many of the residents and businesses who benefited from waste removal. Aside from the hazards the trucks posed, sanitation workers had to handle all sorts of materials from tree limbs to broken glass to biological wastes that could infect, poison, or injure them. In the Memphis summers, this work was conducted under temperatures regularly exceeding 90 degrees often without shade or breaks to get water. Winter conditions were such that the risk Cole and Walker took in that truck seems understandable in context. Sanitation workers could be maimed at any time, and crippling injuries were common. Once disabled on the job, the worker had little recourse for compensation and was vulnerable to a life of poverty.

This was work white people in Memphis considered beneath them. The city found this out the hard way when it tried to recruit whites to fill the jobs during the strike. In Memphis, the necessary, vital work of keeping the neighborhoods clean was not respected by the government, nor by most of the citizens. It was dirty work, done by inferiors as far out of sight and out of mind as possible. Even as garbage piled up, the city (and in particular the staunch anti-union Mayor Henry Loeb) demeaned the workers as infantile and disrespectful, treatment that inspired the proud, defiant strike slogan: I AM A MAN!

I AM A MAN!

memphisstrikeIt needed to be shouted, it needed to be repeated on hundreds of tongues and hundreds of signs. It needed to be said over and over, because it was believed by too few. Too many in February of 1968 took for granted and demeaned the people who made their lives better. As all residents of Memphis quickly learned, the work was necessary to their quality of life, and tensions rapidly escalated just days into the standoff.

The strike quickly became a national focal point for labor activism and civil rights. Memphis’s churches and local NAACP chapter saw it as the launching point to address the systemic ills of segregation plaguing the city. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), caught by surprise by the sudden walkout, saw it as an opportunity to unionize municipal workers in a city that had resisted unionization. Dr. King saw the strike as an ideal forum for his Poor People’s Campaign, as he had in recent months pushed the notion of economic opportunity as crucial to the realization of civil rights now that voting rights had received federal protection.

The timeline of events in the strike that lasted from February to April is too rich to recount in a diary: AFSCME has a brief chronology online, but a true appreciation of the diverse interests and activists brought together in Memphis requires a longer read. I recommend (again) reading Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road to gain an appreciation of why thousands of people in Memphis and nationwide mobilized as a result of the strike. It is as engrossing and moving as any American history book I have read in the past decade, and Honey articulates why so many people were spurred to take action despite the risks.

The labor action that resulted faced many problems. The local media, sympathetic to to the mayor, branded the strikers as shiftless and Communist. The city’s refusal to negotiate sparked a consumer boycott of Memphis businesses, and as tensions escalated, so did the city’s willingness to suppress the movement with violence. A march on March 28 was broken up with violence and tear gas, leading to the death of a 16-year-old boy named Larry Payne at the hands of the police. Dr. King’s reputation suffered because of this march with critics mocking his calls for nonviolent activism as hollow. Picketing continued after the march was broken up, but under conditions that belied America’s reputation as a free society. The city’s stance against the strike was literally militant, forcing picketers to march in single file in the wake of overwhelming security.

Dr. King regrouped to speak at one more rally in early April, delivering the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that serves as the culmination of his life’s work. The speech should be read (or better yet, heard) unabridged to appreciate Dr. King’s call to economic and nonviolent action, but a brief quote makes clear he understood the stakes in the charged atmosphere of Memphis:

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that….

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together….

And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We know what happened the next day. When Americans hear the words “MLK” and “Memphis” together, minds inevitably turn to the details of Dr. King’s death. Too often, though, we forget what Dr. King was doing in Memphis (and that his death effectively ended the strike as the city recognized the union’s right to exist in the wake of the overwhelming grief and rage that gripped the nation). We forget how the events of early 1968 reflected his concerns not just at the end of his life, but how they represent what he had fought to accomplish in the previous decade and what challenges remained for Americans that April.

Today, the Memphis strike is part of the lexicon of American politics. AFSCME proudly places the strike in a central place in the union’s history. The union’s depiction of this part of its history puts workers in the forefront of the history of the civil rights movement, and civil rights activists in the forefront of the labor movement. As David Roediger has discussed, such a relationship was not always possible in American history, but it is part of the dream Dr. King explicitly hoped for in the weeks before his death.

The union is not alone in depicting the Memphis strike as a crucial uniting of the labor movement and the civil rights movement. When speaking to the AFSCME National Convention in August 2006, Senator Barack Obama invoked memories of the strike in his vision of 21st-century activism:

In the middle of the last century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served their city without complaint, picking up other people’s trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them “walking buzzards,” and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

But as the civil rights movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis decided that they’d had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on strike.

Their demands were simple. Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more an hour.

But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.

And still, the city would not give in.

Now, the workers could have gone home, or they could’ve gone back to work, or they could’ve waited for someone else to help them, but they didn’t. They kept marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.

At this point, the story of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. On April 4th, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of Memphis – a march that would culminate in the union contract that the workers had sought for so long.

This is the legacy you inherit today. It’s a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It’s a story as American as any – that at the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together.

What those workers made real in Memphis – and what we have to make real today – is the idea that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That we’re willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees – wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.

Today, forty-eight years after the strike, its imagery has been embraced by our president. Though demonized by the municipal government in Memphis, and investigated by the police and FBI, the power of the movement in the streets has influenced those seeking power in the halls of Washington.

Despite AFSCME’s efforts and this rhetoric, much work remains to ensure “wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.” Today, people of color continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the labor force handling Americans’ waste. Though most communities do not have equipment as dangerous as the truck that killed, the work remains fettered with hazards. Too often we keep the people who do this important work out of sight and out of mind. It is altogether too common that the waste facilities we use taxpayer money to build and manage, whether they are garbage incinerators, sanitary landfills, hazardous waste dumps, or recycling sorting facilities, are placed in communities of color where not only the workers who handle the hazards of disposal are affected, but the sounds, smells, and toxins that may be released affect neighboring residents. Though the strike in Memphis addressed several concerns, many of the injustices that led to the strike are common aspects of the American landscape, years after all of the strikers have retired, and many — including T.O. Jones, who died too young in 1981 — have passed away.

Moreover, contempt for the people who perform the dirty work necessary to keep our streets, homes, and workplaces endures. This is the first Labor Day held since Donald Trump took the oath of office as President of the United States. During one of the 2016 presidential debates, Hillary Clinton raised Trump’s insult of Latina beauty pageant winner Alicia Machado as “Miss Housekeeping” as an example of his intersectional bigotry towards women and Hispanics. That Trump demeaned Machado by associating her identity with domestic cleaning work reveals the power of how work, whiteness, and waste have intertwined in American society. The events in the presidential elections that brought the United States’ most explicit symbol of white identity politics to the White House show the enduring influence of white supremacy on how we see and shape our waste management practices. Sixty-three million Americans voted to elect Trump president despite his overt racism. Trump’s words are crude, but reflect how expressions of white identity in the twenty-first century result from how we have normalized waste work as nonwhite work over the past two centuries. Confronting this history is an important step in dismantling the enduring structures of environmental racism.

The injustices are still in place today, but one change over the past forty-nine years is a recognition of how widespread those injustices are. Fourteen years after Memphis, an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina decided it would not stand for a PCB dump to be placed next to their homes and they laid down on the road in front of bulldozers to prevent the digging. These Americans made history as the first people in the United States to be arrested preventing the construction of a dump.

The residents of Afton, North Carolina failed to prevent the dump’s siting, but in the months and years that followed, the environmental justice movement emerged to fight back against the decades of discrimination that made shunting the dirty work of garbage collection to blacks “normal” in Memphis. The rhetoric and tactics used in the Memphis strike influenced the activism of the environmental justice movement. Though that movement has evolved and grown over the past four decades, it owes debts to the sanitation workers who decided that enough was enough in February of 1968.

Today, let us remember that forty-nine years ago, several hundred such people rose up for respect, for dignity, and for a more just society. Let us remember the sacrifices of Dr. King, yes, but also of Echol Cole, of Robert Walker, of Larry Payne. Let us remember the courage and resolve of T.O. Jones and every preacher, every union member, every activist, and every person who worked to bring a measure of justice to Memphis. Let us remember, and let us try to use their example to make our own communities more just today and in the days ahead.

On the Upcycle in Zagreb: ESEH 2017 June 29

zagreb-squareThe European Society for Environmental History holds its biannual conference in Zagreb, Croatia this summer, and I am participating in two panels related to the history of waste.

At 11am Thursday June 29, I will chair the panel “Cultures of Waste – How Waste has Played out in Different Settings.”

Room: ARCH-11
Chair: Carl Zimring, Pratt Institute, USA
Waste and Authority: Articulating State Responses to the Problem of Littering in Norway and Singapore, 1950-2000. Finn Arne Jørgensen, Umeå University, Sweden
Waste Management in North-East India: Mizoram in Colonial Times. Jagdish Lal Dawar, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, India
Waste Studies at the OECD – in Search of a Comprehensive Waste Management Policy. Iris Borowy, Shanghai University, China
“Garbage Imperialism” or “Voluntary Exchange”? How to Make Sense of the World’s Hazardous Waste Trade. Simone M. Müller, Rachel Carson Center LMU, Germany

Immediately afterwards (at 2pm), I am presenting a paper based on my book Alumimum Upcycled in the session “Waste Or Valuable Material?”
Room: GEO-4
Chair: Marco Armiero, KTH – Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden
On the Upcycle? Sustainable Design Strategies in Historical Perspective. Carl Zimring, Pratt Institute, USA
Urban Landscapes and Garbage: Public Policies for Urban Solid Waste in Brazil. Esther Mayara Rossi, Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil
Waste Management after production and Consumption in Anamorava’s Region.
Sadbere Biçku, Independent scholar
Shpejtim Bulliqi, University of Prishtina, Kosovo Florim Isufi, University of Prishtina, Kosovo

For more information, please visit the ESEH website. I am delighted we have so many presentations on aspects of waste history and look forward to the conversations in Zagreb.

 

H-Environment Roundtable on Race and the Environment

This week, H-Environment published a roundtable double review of Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces and my Clean and White, featuring comments from Mary E. Mendoza, Kathryn Morse, Richard M. Mizelle, Jr., and Traci Brynne Voyles, and responses by both authors. The link opens the 38-page PDF.

Thanks to all of the participants for such an engaging discussion, and to editor Christopher F. Jones for organizing this ambitious double roundtable.