Image source: Bettmann / Ernest C. Withers, 1968
This interview was conducted during Carl Zimring’s visit to Washington University in St. Louis on March 9. The interviewer, Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim, is a Mellon Sawyer graduate fellow.
“We can do Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln biographies in American history a lot, but thinking how everyday life is lived, how that has changed, and what the relation of the state, the economy, society and culture are to developing these common everyday practices, that’s history to me.”
Waseem-Ahmed Bin-Kasim: What inspires your work?
Carl Zimring: I grew up in large part on the south side of Chicago, an area that’s known for fantastic pizza, beautiful coastlines, a fair amount of environmental damage from industry both in the city and across the border in Indiana, and some of the worst racial residential segregation in North America. The way in which those all came together, looking back 45 years later, clearly had an effect on what I value and think are important stories to tell. When I became a historian, my first focus was on thinking about urban history at large, and one of my favorite books in that was Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, where he discusses some of the structural reasons for racial residential segregation in this country. He doesn’t talk much about environmental problems, though this is the kind of history that’s really important for me. We can do Stonewall Jackson and Abraham Lincoln biographies in American history a lot, but thinking how everyday life is lived, how that has changed, and what the relation of the state, the economy, society and culture are to developing these common everyday practices, that’s history to me. And so when I started thinking about the environment in that, it really was an emphasis.
My initial dissertation topic was on the modernization of housing due to New Deal programs. That would mean that, say, you can’t get a mortgage for a house unless there’s an indoor toilet in it, and that helped modernize sanitation, electricity, heating, etc., in the American household. And I was really interested in that topic, defended my prospectus, researched it for about a year and then I saw a book review of a book with a much different type of title and the last paragraph of the review made me go, “Uh oh, I need to look at this book.” It turned out that the middle four chapters of this book were exactly what I had proposed. I had lost my dissertation topic, it was utterly redundant. The professor in question had done exactly the kind of things, with exactly the sources that I was going to use from the National Archives in D.C. So I spent a couple of weeks really morose, going, “My life has no meaning, I’ve lost my purpose, what’s going on?” And my dissertation adviser, Joel Tarr, remarkably charitable and nurturing for younger scholars, said, “Well, Carl, let’s think about this. What are you interested in?” And one of the things I did about seven, eight years previously, was a series of oral interviews with my grandfather about his life growing up in rural Iowa. Rural Iowa is a very weird place for first generation Jews to migrate to at the turn of the 20th century. You think of Jewish migration in the United States — New York, maybe Los Angeles, other large cities. Tiny communities in farm country, you wouldn’t think of it. But his father emigrated to the United States and the first job he had was going door-to-door to the farms and collecting broken farm machinery to sell to a scrapyard. My advisor’s father did very similar work. Both of us are Jewish, and that led to a conversation: “Has anyone studied why all these immigrant Jews are coming, whether they’re in big cities, or small farm communities, and becoming junk dealers?” And that’s what my second, and ultimately final dissertation topic came to be, and losing my first dissertation topic was the best thing that ever happened to me as a scholar. I have no idea what my career would be like if I was just looking at housing. Instead, I’ve fallen deep into the muck of the waste and I will never get out of it. And it’s a really rewarding place to be as a scholar.
WB: I just finished writing about housing and the toilet as one of the ways of reading urban space and seeing inequalities in it in Nairobi and Accra.
CZ: Oh, absolutely. And in the twenties and thirties in the United States as well, I had a few professors who were born in the 1920s in Appalachia, and discussed the fact that they did not see an indoor toilet until they went to university at age 18. That was not unusual in the United States of America in the middle of the 20th century. Today, we take for granted indoor plumbing in this country, and other things are markers of class distinction. But very much where you could get clean — Do you have a shower? Do you have a toilet? Or do you have an outhouse or privy vault? — really mattered in terms of status.
“there’s this real tension between the people who want to reclaim waste for reuse, and the fears of the dangers that waste may have. And that leads to a lot of stigma of materials and especially the people that handle the materials. And for the last 20 years, that contradictory definition of waste has really organized a lot of my thinking.”
WB: What does the term waste evoke for you?
CZ: One of the reasons I am absolutely fascinated by working with waste is the dissertation that I wrote because of my great-grandfather’s work in junk became a 200-year history of how Americans recycle. Because, in the 21st century, we think of recycling as a moral, ethical thing. We’re saving the planet. I’ve got a plastic water bottle in my hand right now, and if I put it in one bin where it goes to a landfill, that’s helping to wreck the planet. If I put it in the other bin where it goes to a recycling facility, that’s seen as helping to keep the environment clean. It’s way more complicated than that, which is one of the things I argue in my work. But one thing I find that’s fascinating about waste is that we have different and often contradictory definitions of the word. My students at Pratt are largely designers of buildings, or clothing, or furniture, and they’re very much thinking about raw materials and design and expenses and efficiencies. So for them, waste tends to be material that does not have its potential used. Waste is inefficiency. And for a lot of engineers, that’s really the case. Henry Ford became a billionaire because he was trying to rationalize all of his inputs, including his materials. Henry Ford loved recycling metal, because unused metal would go to waste. Used metal became cars he could sell. And if we just thought about waste as inefficiency, we would repurpose, recycle and reclaim everything. There’d be no such thing as garbage, or sewage for that matter. But we have a second definition of waste that’s very important: hazardous waste, waste as threats to human and ecological health. I mentioned that recycling’s kind of complicated, because to turn this plastic bottle into something else requires melting it down, which releases dioxins and other toxins into the air and the ground water. By recycling, we are creating some hazard. That’s true for plastics, that’s true for metals, it’s true for other materials as well. Before the Industrial Revolution, you could argue we recycled human waste all the time — we could use it to fertilize plant growth. Once we got in really large cities and big industrial production, the scale of human sewage in a city like St. Louis was so great you couldn’t fertilize the fields around here. Everyday you’d have surplus. That’s true of human waste — New York City had more than 100,000 horses in Manhattan in the late nineteenth century, 1,300 to 3,300 tons of horse manure a day. There are not enough farms on the Eastern seaboard to handle all that. So we start defining this stuff, which can cause infectious disease, as hazard to be removed. Some of the stuff in that hazard that should be removed can have economic value, so there’s this real tension between the people who want to reclaim waste for reuse, and the fears of the dangers that waste may have. And that leads to a lot of stigma of materials and especially the people that handle the materials. And for the last 20 years, that contradictory definition of waste has really organized a lot of my thinking.
WB: What are some of the practical and intellectual challenges of the field site in which you work or the materials you work with?
CZ: As a historian, my disciplinary training really is oriented toward the archive. Seeing depositories of written materials and maybe tapes from the past is a way that our field really does look at how things may have been 20, 50, 200 years ago, and giving us a perspective about what has changed. When we talk about waste, waste is often that which we want to make disappear, not what we want to keep in the archive. Yesterday, Nancy Reynolds, in her introduction of me mentioned that I was a petitioner to make the Hanford Site a national historic registry site, because this notion of where we started to create radioactive waste for military production, that shouldn’t be rendered invisible, that’s a very important part of our history. Thinking through that is crucial, and we tend not to want to do that. It’s very difficult to make a waste site a landmark. We are ashamed of our waste.
So, one of my influences is a historian at the University of Delaware named Susan Strasser, who wrote a book called Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. She’s like an artist who does bricolage — her argument on method is that yes, we use the archive, but we also use popular culture. We use narrative interview, we do some contemporary ethnographic work, we may look at literature and other materials that involve critical assessment of fiction and non-fiction, visual material, and from our archaeologist and anthropological friends, material culture We assemble them to have an understanding of when does a toilet come into the house, how common was that, when do women get instructed on how to use tampons, and what are the difficulties of that. A wonderful part of Susan’s work is the way in which large companies try to change the sanitary habits of women and would often shame women if they’re not using their products. And so, advertising turns out to be, as I talked about in my discussion yesterday, a fairly important way of looking at attitudes about hygiene at the turn of the 20th century. And at the same time, I do some things in my work that orthodox historians who are looking at great men in history will do: I looked at Booker T Washington’s autobiography, I looked at Thomas Jefferson’s writings, writings of John C. Calhoun, all these great social and political figures — well I say great, John C. Calhoun was a truly vicious and evil man who helped invent succession, leading to the Civil War — but looking at these standard materials that historians have been using for decades, and mixing them with the bricolage. How does this all help us understand what life was like in the 1850s versus the 1880s versus the 1920s? And for that notion of assembling a much wider source base, I’m really indebted to Susan Strasser for showing me how you can do that yet still tell a coherent story.
“I was a petitioner to make the Hanford Site a national historic registry site, because this notion of where we started to create radioactive waste for military production, that shouldn’t be rendered invisible, that’s a very important part of our history. Thinking through that is crucial, and we tend not to want to do that. It’s very difficult to make a waste site a landmark. We are ashamed of our waste.”
WB: What role, if any, has collaboration played in your research and writing?
CZ: It has been a very dominant trope, which is kind of strange, because in history, we are often trying to be very solitary, locking ourselves away in the archives for months, years, decades at a time. But one of the things I really appreciated about being Joel Tarr’s student is after my first year under his tutelage, he took me aside, because our graduate program had this structure that after your first year in the program you would be paired off with a faculty member — and if you had an advisor already, that’s a really good thing — on some project that was important to the faculty member. I was very lucky because Joel said, “You’re co-authoring an article for me” — well not an article, a book chapter. And what we did was, I was his research assistant and found a lot of the source base, and then we talked through the ideas, where we looked at the establishment of the first effective smoke-control ordinances the city of St. Louis developed. Because the skies over St. Louis in 1930s, on a cold day, everyone’s using coal in their homes to heat and cook food, factories using it as well. So you’d have particulate matter in the air so that the skies would be dark at noon. We wrote 12,000 words on this, and it became part of Andrew Hurley’s Common Fields: An Environmental History of St. Louis. That was my first publication on environmental urban issues. It was published two years into my PhD career and helped me meet other people in the field.
So with that early collaboration, I’ve tried to, whenever possible, do more. I have no solo research work going on currently. The two things I’m working on which I hope to have out in the next two or three years are collaborations. One of them is actually influenced by a piece I put out a couple years ago. When I was at Roosevelt University, I collaborated with two other faculty members to create a sustainability B.A. program. One of the two is an environmental literature professor (named Mike Bryson). He looks at fiction and nature writing, both fiction and non-fiction, to describe how urban environments have been depicted over time. We did some collaborative teaching together, and one of the things we did is we forced our students to canoe Bubbly Creek, where all the slaughterhouses in Chicago deposited their wastes. From that we wrote a collaborative article about the past, present, and possible futures of this, what Upton Sinclair called, “great open sewer of Chicago,” where material still bubbles decades after the last slaughterhouse closed. To have two people from related but ultimately separate disciplines come together to look at waste and the urban environment made for very rewarding work.
“I have a bias in that all thinking about the environment requires the environmental humanities. And I would argue that policy makers, deep in their hearts, know that.”
WB: What role do you imagine for the interdisciplinary field of the environmental humanities today and in the future?
CZ: I have a bias in that all thinking about the environment requires the environmental humanities. And I would argue that policy makers, deep in their hearts, know that. Yesterday, I used Benjamin Chavis’s definition of environmental racism from 1992. A few months after Dr. Chavis gave that definition, Bill Clinton’s transition team started to define environmental justice as something that the Environmental Protection Agency really needs to look at as a way of protecting human environmental health. The social dimensions of exposure to environmental risk were not something that really concerned our federal government. It was, “oh, there’s pollution, we’ll establish Superfund and we’ll clean this up. And yeah, there might be some class-based dimensions to that, the people living around Love Canal are working class chemical workers and what not.” But as it turns out, and as Elizabeth Blum wrote in her book about Love Canal, there are some strong racial dimensions to that specific story about the establishment of Superfund that weren’t part of the discussion in 1979, 1980. Because of the discussions of environmental inequalities based on race over the 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government began to talk about this, and even, as I mentioned in my talk yesterday, Trump’s EPA admits this is a problem. So we have this bipartisan understanding of it. And related to this, one of the things I should mention is that the way we think of waste in industrial society is fundamentally different from in preindustrial societies, and so thinking about waste as a technological problem is one that often leads to, objectively, “we’ll have waste water treatment centers, we’ll have sewage, we’ll have plumbing indoors — everything’s great, we’re just engineering.”
“what the humanities have to say for all of engineering, all of medicine, is crucial. And the environmental humanities are a particularly rich place to think, this is how we understand nature, this is how we understand science.”
Understanding culture’s effect on the scientific and political structures is absolutely vital. Right now as we’re talking, there’s a lot of discussion about algorithms. If you do a Google search, what starts popping up first, as it turns out — and there are some wonderful recent books on this — are that serious issues of racism and sexism are embedded in the algorithms. Because when you have just young white men coding, there might be some blind spots or even some really malicious things that come out with that and this has major consequences. So what the humanities have to say for all of engineering, all of medicine, is crucial. And the environmental humanities are a particularly rich place to think, this is how we understand nature, this is how we understand science. One of the things I’m working on right now is a collaboration with Sara Pritchard at Cornell University. We are writing an overview of the ways in which historians think about technology and the environment with the provisional title, Nature and Technology in History, and seeing some of the ways in which there are real contradictions and value gaps in how different interest groups see waste, or food, or how the body should be treated, what’s a normal body and how medical professionals work with that. There’s a lot of overlap between that and the sanitation discussions that we’ve had, and none of these discussions can be adequately resolved without real attention to the humanities — so anthropology, literature and history, we should have a seat at the table where policy is made, where experts are talking about technical matters, because without us, they’re really flawed.
“anthropology, literature and history, we should have a seat at the table where policy is made, where experts are talking about technical matters, because without us, they’re really flawed.”