I am an environmental historian interested in how attitudes concerning waste shape society, culture, institutions, and inequalities.
Currently, I am collaborating on a pair of books. Sara Pritchard and I are writing Technology and the Environment in History, which is part of Johns Hopkins University Press’s Fall 2020 catalog.
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).
Steve Corey and I are editing Coastal Metropolis: Environmental Histories of Modern New York City for the University of Pittsburgh Press’s History of the Urban Environment series. Due out at the end of 2020, and featuring contributions from an exciting array of urban environmental historians, we focus on the city’s relationships with water and waste.
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.
My book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in March 2017. Upcycling, the practice of recycling discarded material into good of elevated value, is a popular sustainable design strategy, and Aluminum Upcycled explores the history of this practice using secondary aluminum’s use as a case study. The book includes successful design examples in furniture, vehicles, and musical instruments since World War II, including furniture by Herman Miller, Emeco, and the Eames Office, vehicles by Aston Martin, Cannondale, Honda, and Ford, and instruments from Wandre, Veleno, Travis Bean, Kramer, and the Electrical Guitar Company.
A selection from the book ran in Resource Recycling Magazine in September 2017.
“A refreshingly clear, open, and engaging contribution to the discourse on aluminum, this deeply researched book is a logical and extremely balanced contribution to the history of technology and environmental history.” -Samantha MacBride, New York City Department of Sanitation, Bureau of Recycling and Sustainability, author of Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States.
“Aluminum Upcycled provides an excellent overview to the enormous growth of aluminum and to the history and design of the diverse applications of the metal. Indeed, it is a worthy addition to the literature of the aluminum industry.” –Light Metal Age
“The work presents a robust survey of the developmental history of aluminum as an engineering material, the need for huge sources of electrical power to refine it, its applications in the aircraft industry, and its use in household items… Recommended.” –Choice
“Aluminum Upcycled is an engaging book and an important addition to histories of consumption, design, and waste. It also contributes to the global history of the aluminum industry by considering the largely overlooked area of downstream waste, as well as adding to the more well-established historiography on aluminum design and consumption.” –Business History Review
“A wonderful, eye-opening read.” –TreeHugger
At the beginning of 2016, New York University Press published my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. This book situates the history of environmental racism in the work and attitudes surrounding waste from the colonial era to the 1968 Memphis Strike, with attention to scrap recycling, garbage, street-cleaning, laundry, housekeeping, and janitorial work. Clean and White is now available in paperback, e-book, and audio formats.
A selection from the book ran in Utne Reader in June 2016.
“[A] valuable history of environmental racism in the United States…Essential reading for those interested in social justice and environmental issues.” –Library Journal
“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.” –Journal of American History
“Offers a significant and startling new perspective on United States history, revealing the many ways in which ideals of cleanliness, notions of environmental propriety, and definitions of whiteness have been interwoven for centuries, to devastating effect. With deft prose and thoroughly researched arguments, Zimring unravels some of the previously overlooked origins of deeply rooted American racism, and in the process shows how these have come to justify economic, social, and political discrimination against people of color. It is an important original analysis, and it brings much needed insight to our ongoing national debate about race and justice.” -Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York
“[E]nlightening.” –Publishers Weekly
“Zimring offers a clearly written overview of environmental racism in the US.” –Choice Connect
“What an innovative study! In Clean and White, Carl Zimring addresses an age-old critique of racism that posits white as clean and good and black as dirty and bad. In so doing, he elevates the discussion by demonstrating the cultural roots of this nefarious comparison within the context of environmental racism. Those interested in both questions of race and modern environmentalism will benefit from reading this book.” -Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City
“Traces the always shifting, always intertwined definitions of whiteness and cleanliness from the Civil War to the present day.” -Pacific Standard
“Zimring’s provocative book will compel future historians to take the role of garbage and waste seriously when seeking to explain some of the most pernicious social injustices of our time.” -Indiana Magazine of History
“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.” -Journal of American History
My first book on the history of waste work focused on the scrap recycling industries in the United States. Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers University Press, 2005) discussed the businesses involved in salvaging discarded materials from Paul Revere’s work in the colonial period to the growth of rag businesses in the nineteenth century and metal recyclers after the Civil War. Because it was particularly common for immigrants to own or operate a scrap business in the nineteenth century, the history of the industry reveals much about ethnic relationships and inequalities in American cities. Readers are introduced to the scrapworkers, brokers, and entrepreneurs who, like the materials they handled, were often marginalized. These businesses provided the context for recycling as we understand it today, and the history is valuable in assessing how successful contemporary recycling programs are in returning collected materials to industrial production.
“Zimring goes beyond the limited historical literature on municipal solid wastes. Cash for Your Trash gives us a sweeping account of industrial recycling long before residential recycling became popular. It is a fine contribution to urban and environmental history.” -Martin V. Melosi, author of Garbage in the Cities.
“By tracing the origins of waste to shifts in culture and technology, Zimring shows that disparate books such as Charles H. Lipsett’s Industrial Wastes and Salvage (1963) and Suellen Hoy’s Chasing Dirt (1995) help to explain each other.” –Enterprise and Society.
“It provides a fresh perspective on twentieth-century consumer culture’s deeply flawed understanding of the environmental impacts of mass production and consumption, while clarifying that Americans are not only capable of recycling their waste, but have a long history of recycling a portion of it for profit.” –Technology and Culture.
IA-The Journal for the Society of Industrial Archaeology editor Fredric Quivik invited me to co-edit a theme issue of the journal focused on industrial waste. This double issue (1 & 2 of volume 39, dated 2013) includes articles on mining wastes, coal ash, arsenic, automobile graveyards, and several reviews of relevant books, including Kate Brown’s Plutopia and the edited volume The Business of Waste by Raymond G. Stokes, Roman Köster, and Stephen C. Sambrook. It also includes “Infamous Past, Invisible Present: Searching for Bubbly Creek in the Twenty-First Century,” an article about the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River I wrote with Michael A. Bryson.
I edited the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage with William L. Rathje; Sage published the encyclopedia in hardback and searchable electronic formats in 2012. The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste explores how and why societies across the world have developed practices to discard materials and manage their wastes throughout human history. The entries span multiple disciplinary perspectives within the social sciences, providing reference for relevant theoretical approaches, history, geography, and economics.
RECENT REFEREED ARTICLES AND BOOK CHAPTERS:
“Upcycling in History: Is Past Prologue to a Zero Waste Future? The Case of Aluminum,” Rachel Carson Center (RCC) Perspectives, 2016, No. 3, pp. 45-52.
“Infamous Past, Invisible Present: Searching for Bubbly Creek in the Twenty-First Century,” IA – The Journal of the Society for Industrial Archaeology 39, Nos. 1 & 2, 2013, pp. 79-92. Co-written with Michael A. Bryson.
“The Happiest of Finds: William L. Rathje’s Influence on the Field of Discard Studies,” Ethnoarchaeology 7, No. 2 (October 2015), pp. 173-178.
“The Complex Environmental Legacy of the Automobile Shredder,” Technology and Culture 52, No. 3 (July 2011), pp. 523-547.
“Creating the Sustainable City: Building a Seminar (and Curriculum) through Interdisciplinary Learning,” Metropolitan Universities 20, No. 4 (July 2010), pp. 105-116. Co-written with Michael A. Bryson.
“‘Neon, Junk, and Ruined Landscape’: Competing Visions of America’s Roadsides and the Highway Beautification Act of 1965,” in Christof Mauch and Thomas Zeller (eds.), The World Beyond the Windshield: Roads and Landscapes in the United States and Europe. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2008, pp. 94-107.
“Recycling Is Not Garbage: Market Agents and Municipal Recycling in New York City,” Progress in Industrial Ecology 3, No. 4 (December 2006), pp. 329-343.
“Dirty Work: How Hygiene and Xenophobia Marginalized the American Waste Trades 1870-1930,” Environmental History 9, No. 1 (January 2004), pp. 90-112.
RECENT REVIEW ESSAYS:
“Roundtable Discussion of Carolyn Finney’s Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors and Carl A. Zimring’s Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States,” H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 7, No. 1 (March 2017).
“Review of Susanna Rankin Bohme’s Toxic Injustice: A Transnational History of Exposure and Struggle,” Journal of American History 103, No. 3 (December 2016), pp. 732-733.
“Roundtable Discussion of Catherine McNeur’s Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City,” H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 6, No. 3 (February 2016).
“Review of Carl Smith’s City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago,” Indiana Magazine of History 110, No. 2 (June 2014), pp. 188-189.
“Review of Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini’s Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice,” Technology and Culture 54, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 50-51.
“Roundtable Discussion of Finn Arne Jørgensen’s Making a Green Machine: The Infrastructure of Beverage Container Recycling,” H-Environment Roundtable Reviews 3, No. 2 (February 2013).
“The Births, Deaths, and Rebirths of Great American Cities” (review essay of Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles: The Making of Boston and Nick Yablon’s Untimely Ruins: An Archaeology of American Urban Modernity, 1819-1919), Reviews in American History 40, No. 2 (June 2012), pp. 264-269.
“Martin V. Melosi’s The Sanitary City: Environmental Services in Urban America from Colonial Times to the Present,” Environmental History 14, No. 2 (April 2009), pp. 377-378.
“Daniel Eli Burnstein’s Next to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 38, No. 1 (Summer 2007), pp. 149-150.
NEWS ARTICLES AND OP-ED ESSAYS:
“The Brutal Life of a Sanitation Worker,” New York Times, February 10, 2018.
“The Dirty (and Racist) Origins of Donald Trump’s Anti-Immigrant Slur,” Made by History, Washington Post, January 20, 2018.
“Dove, How Do You Get So Clean and White? A Racist Trope Reemerges,” From the Square, October 11, 2017.
“Paul Revere Recycled: How More Than Two Centuries of Material Reuse Informs the Future Success and Failure of Environmental Services in Industrial Society,” Process, May 2, 2017.
“Ten Principles of Good Sustainable Design History,” JHU Press Blog, March 21, 2017.
“Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism,” From the Square, January 25, 2016.
“The Dirty History of White Supremacy,” History News Network, December 15, 2015.
“No Scrubbing Award America’s Racist Past,” From the Square, January 20, 2015.
“We Ignore Our Infrastructure at Our Peril,” History News Network, September 20, 2010.
“Labor History and Culture in Chicago: LAWCHA 2009,” History News Network, June 4, 2009.
“The Economic Crisis is an Environmental Crisis: Trash Has Crashed,” History News Network, February 9, 2009.