Environmental historians get wasted: ASEH conference report

Conference report: American Society for Environmental History
Seattle, March 31-April 3, 2016
By Arn Keeling

Waste and discard studies were prominent themes at this year’s American Society for Environmental History conference in Seattle. No fewer than 10 sessions featured papers or entire panels devoted to some aspect of pollution, waste and toxicity, with provocative titles ranging from “Ethereal Wastescapes” to “Air Pollution and Community Health” to “Beastly Bodies and Toxic Pathways.” Your humble correspondent followed the waste stream as best he could, but couldn’t possibly make it to all of them. Nevertheless, here are some summaries and insights from the waste/discard studies panels and papers I did see:

The Chemical Environment and Risk

While one participant in this panel was unable to attend, the two remaining papers, sharing a focus on asbestos in very different historical-geographical contexts, really worked well together to provoke a stimulating discussion. Jessica van Horssen (University of Chester) discussed how her work following up her recent book, A Town Called Asbestos, aims to trace the “transnational path of a toxic mineral” beyond its source in Quebec’s mines and into work and consumption environments. What happens, she asks, when a resource is itself a vector of toxicity? And how does it produce different toxic effects in its upstream and downstream engagements with human bodies? For this paper, van Horssen focused on the end point of this journey: asbestos workers and consumers in postwar Manchester, England. Rebuilding after the war, Britain valued asbestos for its inflammability, and expanded factory processing of asbestos to create fire-resistant building materials and consumer products—including entire pre-fab cottages made of asbestos board! These uses proliferated sites of toxic exposure, but also revealed what we might think of as the different hybrid etiologies of asbestos diseases (asbestosis, mesothelioma, cancer) rooted in the diverse bodily encounters of miners, factory workers, and consumers with this deadly commodity.


Figure 1: Asbestos Fibres (SEM photograph). Public domain image from US Geological Survey.

The asbestos story made further global connections through Yeonsil Kang (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology), who traced the history of public agitation around asbestos and environmental risk in Korea. Her paper focused on the emerging politics of evidence surrounding long-term asbestos exposure (mainly from building materials and in factory settings) in Korea, and traced citizen science efforts to document exposures and their effects. She deftly described the problems of uncertainty presented by these efforts, again raising questions of etiology and how uncertainty is used to undermine compensation claims. Yeonsil’s paper reflected on how toxicity produces forms of “biocitizenship” in a risk society: in other words, how our citizenship is framed, defined, or denied in relation to experiences of toxic exposure. In particular, she drew critical attention to the roles of law and the state and the sites or perhaps venues in which such biocitizenship claims are contested. Needless to say, these papers sparked a very lively discussion on asbestos, risk and the socio-technical production of diseased bodies

Ethereal Wastescapes: Rethinking the Meaning, Place, and Materiality of Pollution

This paper session featured three excellent and provocative papers that challenged, in different ways, the Douglasian truism of pollution as “matter out of place.” Sara Pritchard (Cornell) outlined a burgeoning research interest in light pollution and the emergent concerns of the U.S. National Parks Service for the conservation of “nightscapes” from this ethereal visual contaminant. Deploying the hybrid methods of environmental history and Science and Technology Studies (STS), Pritchard traced the evolving concern with preserving the experience of the night sky for park visitors and followed parks service scientists whose job it is to measure and monitor anthropogenic light in these spaces. It provided a fascinating insight into how light as “waste” is rendered measurable and calculable, and thus an object of management, as well as the emergence of the night sky/land interface as a charismatic “matter of concern.” Insert groan-inducing scholarship-as-light pun here.

“Moving further along the electromagnetic spectrum,” as the session abstract suggested we do, Nina Wormbs (KtH The Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden) examined the question of radiowave broadcast interference as a kind of pollution. Why pollution, she asks? Wormbs argued that, to have pollution, you have to have an environment—and the electromagnetic spectrum provided just such an environment, if one only perceptible (and manageable) by humans through technological mediation. But this environment is not a mere product of technology, she showed: it is materially embedded in non-human energy processes, and temporally and geographically quite variable. It is through the exploitation of this environment, through radio communication, and subsequent problems of interference and conflict over the use of the airwaves that pollution debates came into play. Wormbs demonstrated these claims with reference to the emerging governance of radio communication in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, a period riven with both conflict (war) but also new forms of international co-operation (including scientific). Again, this seemingly ethereal world of radiowaves (radiowaste?) proved as “good to think with” as any material discard.


Figure 2 NASA image of orbital debris around earth. Credit: NASA.

Finally, Lisa Ruth Rand (University of Pennsylvania) brought us back to the material while also expanding our horizons through the consideration of outer space as a place of waste and discard practices—as well as practices of repair and maintenance. Rand’s work examines orbital debris, the “space junk” circling the planet (and occasionally re-entering earth’s atmosphere). Like the oceans and the lower atmosphere, earth’s orbit has been treated as a sink for the wastes of the space age, a waste that is out of sight and mind of the societies that produce and rely on it. Rand traces the (surprisingly early) emergence of concern in the U.S. space program for orbital debris and the roots of a move towards reusable, recyclable or reparable space infrastructure. Efforts to “retrieve, renew and repair” satellites and other space stuff attempted to address the costs of space infrastructure and waste concerns of a crowded orbital environment. However, efforts to articulate and develop a waste-reduction paradigm in the U.S. space program were curtailed by the projected costs of space maintenance—both in dollars and, after the shuttle disasters, in human risk. Rand linked this longer interest in space repair to current efforts (mainly by billionaires) to create reusable rockets as everyday space infrastructure.

Bodies and Environments: Hybrid Entanglements in Environmental History

Saturday was definitely body day—there were a pile of panels and papers on the intersections of bodies and environments, including via toxicity. This particular session was a roundtable featuring four exciting scholars discussing these entanglements, three of which engaged with waste and toxicity. Ellen Stroud (Bryn Mawr) talked about her “dead body project” which explores the complex interconnections forged between dead bodies and different environments, from the subterranean to the atmospheric. She reflected on how research into cremation led her to the question, “are bodies toxic waste?”—a conceptually loaded and morally discomfiting one, for sure. Investigating the environmental regulation of crematoria (both the atmospheric pollution and “cremains” often contain toxic substances from mercury to dioxin) revealed the complex and sensitive nature of this process—not to mention the environmental justice dimensions of their siting. Recent movements towards “green burial” and even mushroom burial suits reflect attempts to mitigate our individual and collective post-mortem ecological impacts. Ultimately, she suggested, our anxieties around pollution from human body disposal have tended to reflect wider contemporary concerns about environment, toxicity and the fates of our mortal shells.

Janet Ore (Colorado State) brought the discussion indoors, talking about the toxic environment of the modern home. Her work traces the evolution of home-building in America from reliance on primarily natural materials such as wood and concrete, to the increasing use of plastics, petrochemicals and other engineered materials in construction and furnishing. These materials, with their off-gassing and other forms of pollution, have made homes toxic landscapes for builders and families alike, the effects of which are difficult to detect and disentangle. There’s an environmental justice dimension here, too: smaller, cheaper buildings (such as mobile homes) are more likely to contain such materials (and cheaper versions of them), and to expose their residents in more confined, less ventilated spaces. The issue of toxic homes perfectly illustrates the blurred boundaries of bodies, the built landscape, and the non-human environment.

We went back outdoors—and underwater—with Nancy Langston (Michigan Tech) who discussed fish bodies in the Great Lakes as sinks for toxins, which are in turn mobilized into human bodies through fish consumption. This situation highlights the mobility of toxic contaminants as they hitch a ride in fish bodies, as well as the differential pathways of exposure for Great Lakes people and communities—whether women, indigenous people, immigrants, etc. Langston drew attention to the different reactions of these communities to the emerging knowledge of toxicity and discussed the roles of citizen science in documenting toxic mobilities as early as the 1940s and 50s. Local activism has made toxic fish bodies a matter of concern that ramifies into complex questions around industrial development and environmental change, diet and disease, and regulation and responsibility. It occurred to me, during the follow up discussion, one compelling metaphor for tracing these connections and flows might well be that of the Great Lakes’ socio-ecological metabolism.

Envirotechnical Histories of Waste Management

This more traditional paper session brought together four disparate studies of solid waste management (SWM). Lily Baum Pollans (MIT) suggested in her paper that, “when you have a landfill, everything looks like garbage,” as she traced the history of municipal landfilling/recycling policy in the U.S. Her study shows how “problem framing”—how we conceive of waste for instance as health problem, materials management, or environmental issue—has materially produced crisis-prone garbage landscapes in the age of mass consumption and throwaway society. Building on the foundational work of Martin Melosi, her work draws important attention to the municipal scale of SWM and the challenge of urban sustainability.

Geographer Jordan Howell (Rowan) rocked a colourful Hawaiian shirt as he presented on the environmental history of Honolulu’s waste to energy facility. Proposed in the 1970s as a way to efficiently deal with Hawaii’s growing waste stream in the context of a limited land base, the HPOWER project was nevertheless beset by technical, economic and political problems surrounding its implementation. Howell’s account illustrates the social complications that beset technological solutions for waste management, and particularly highlights the role of consulting firms and technology vendors in the politics of decision-making around these questions. Certainly, the prospect, once seriously proposed, of importing garbage from the mainland U.S. to run the HPOWER facility was an eyebrow-raising example of the problematic logics surrounding waste to energy facilities.

A mouth-watering case study of industrial waste followed, presented by Stephanie Fulgaar Statz (Statz Historical Services), who traced the forty-year effort to regulate fruit cannery waste in the San Joaquin Valley of Northern California. The growing discharge of fruit pits, skins and other wastes from this booming industry into the San Joaquin and its tributaries created massive organic pollution, leading to fish kills and other environmental problems. The story of pollution control here echoed many other cases of domestic and industrial water pollution from this period: growing demands for clean water and riparian uses clashed with the free use of rivers as sinks for wastes; disputes over the causes and effects of pollution turned on scientific conceptions of assimilative capacity and the increasing regulatory role of the state.

Finally, Jay Turner (Wellesley College) presented some of his ongoing research into the envirotechnical history of the alkaline battery, whose production and usage have exploded in recent decades with the advent of so many battery powered devices. His work sought to contextualize the sudden about-face of the battery industry in the U.S. in 2011, when it announced it would launch a national battery recycling program (after decades of opposing just such programs). Of the papers in the session, Turner’s account probably best illustrated the merits of an “envirotech” approach to waste history, showing how the history of technology intersected with evolving environmental concerns to shape previous efforts to “detoxify” batteries and to reckon with the troublesome materials recovery problem implied in recycling proposals. The presentation was a good companion to his excellent recent piece on lead batteries in Environmental History (January 2015).

Critical Discard Studies and Environmental History

The waste stream of the conference ended with a fecund, fluid discussion panel on critical discard studies (CDS). Featuring Martin Melosi (Houston), Carl Zimring (Pratt Institute), Peter Thorheim (UNC), and Steven Corey (Columbia College), the panel engaged the audience in a wide-ranging reflection on the turn in waste research to critical discard studies and its implications for the work of environmental historians. In the absence of Robin Nagle, Melosi set the stage by reviewing the programmatic statements surrounding CDS (from this very blog) and the contributions of Nagle, Max Liboiron, and others in setting the agenda for this field and convening a community of scholars surrounding it. (As an aside, it’s quite inspiring to see a well-established scholar like Melosi—who received a lifetime achievement award that evening at ASEH—show such enthusiasm and engagement with novel directions in a field he helped establish!).

The panelists then each connected some of the themes and concerns of CDS to their own work on waste. Peter Thorshiem discussed his recent work, Waste Into Weapons, showing how materials collection for armaments in Second World War Britain disturbed the valence of waste as inherently valueless. His brief talk included examples of how this entailed a cultural revisioning of waste materials as weapons literally hurled at wartime enemies, thus enrolling women, children and the elderly in the war effort. Carl Zimring reflected on past and forthcoming work related to discard studies, including his newly released history of environmental racism in the U.S., Clean and White. Perhaps most provocative was his latest work on “upcycling” and the complex material and symbolic transformations entailed by this repurposing of waste materials. When Adidas uses ocean plastic to make shoes, or companies use discarded products to manufacture exclusive, branded consumer items, are waste problems solved or are there new externalities (social, material) as byproducts of the upcycling process?

Steven Corey considered waste and CDS as a lens for re-examining all kinds of histories—in his case, the history or urbanization, from early modern cities to today’s megacities. While acknowledging the almost inherent fascination of the public with discards and waste (and the associated infrastructure), he wondered about how to better plug these themes into other questions related to urban environments. His work on New York illustrated the strong public history and activism component that seems almost inherent to much of CDS, and the critical role for historical knowledge in particular in informing contemporary debates around waste, landscape, and cities. Melosi closed the panel with his reflections on how CDS informs his current work, a monumental history of Fresh Kills landfill in New York. He mused about placing the evolving and changing waste landscape at the centre of his narrative (as opposed to human actors or events). He also turned attention to the thorny question of remediation at Fresh Kills, and whether the restoration plans represent a triumph over waste and toxicity or a “hiding from human history” in the site’s transition from wastescape to ecoscape.


Cap construction at West Mound. Tire tracks trace the distribution of soil barrier material, and landfill gas wellheads protrude from the surface. | Photo © Michael McWeeney, courtesy of the City of New York: NYC Parks, Freshkills Park. Photo used with permission.

What’s my take on this torrent of waste at ASEH? I think it really signals a maturation of a second generation of waste scholarship in environmental history that began in the early 2000s. Much of this new work builds on foundational scholarship by Joel Tarr, Martin Melosi, Sarah Elkind, Andrew Hurley, Suellen Hoy and others, but connects to a wider set of thematic and theoretical concerns characteristic of discard studies, including: toxicity, bodies, animals and the non-human, materiality, environmental justice, and STS. Waste remains “good to think with” about human settlements and environmental change, but it seems now waste is conceived of as so much more than a mere register of human attitudes towards/depredations on the environment, and more like a deeply interconnected practice (wasting/discarding) linking social, ecological, and material worlds. Contemporary environmental historical scholarship, with its emphasis on hybridity and co-constitution of social and ecological worlds, continues to be well-positioned to contribute to discard studies. In addition, environmental historians’ commitment to publicly engaged history reflects the CDS orientation towards engaged scholarship and change-making in relation to waste, the environment and society.