Environmental Justice: Nature and Nation, Wealth and Waste in Carl A. Zimring’s scholarship (Clean and White)

By Daniel Garrett

The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a great promise, a significant entitlement, for a country and culture to recognize for its citizens; and such a birthright, a bounty, has not been without conflict or misunderstanding.  From George Washington to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Harry Truman to Dwight Eisenhower to Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter to George Herbert Walker Bush to Barack Obama and beyond, governing chief executives and their administrations have worked to reconcile and fulfill expectations of that birthright.  Which citizen has not been frustrated?  Who has not disagreed with one government policy or another?  The nation’s democratic dissenters have offered criticism and correction, and suggested how citizens could register disagreement: Henry David Thoreau advocated civil disobedience.  Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862), a lover of nature and solitude, educated at Harvard, had been a teacher, a gardener, a carpenter, and a writer; and Thoreau lived for a time in Concord with his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson before taking a hut on the edge of Walden Pond, about which Thoreau wrote an 1854 book.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 – 1882), a Boston boy and Harvard graduate, a Unitarian minister, a friend of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Emerson editedThe Dial and wrote on life, history, culture, and current events; and Emerson spoke against the enslavement of Africans, which was—with the disenfranchisement of the Algonquin, Cherokee, Choctaw, Sioux and other Native Americans—one of the country’s original moral transgressions.  Ralph Emerson’s book Nature (1836) was a transcendental defense of individuality, followed by his Representative Men (1850), featuring Plato, Montaigne, and Shakespeare, works that would influence generations of thinkers, including Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson.  Henry David Thoreau, a lover of nature and advocate of civil disobedience, was a student of classic languages and literature, and the writer of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and Walden (1854); and Thoreau could not see supporting policies that went against his moral conscience: he conceived of passive resistance as an individual political strategy, refusing to pay a poll tax that would support a war against Mexico, for which Thoreau was jailed, a strategy of civil disobedience that would inspire Gandhi in India and King in America.

How will people get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land—and respecting all its people?  Knowledge can make us embodiments of culture, while seeming to distinguish us from other members of our culture.  The same is true of a grasp of the fundamental principles of freedom and justice.  However, one person’s knowledge can be another person’s ignorance, idiosyncrasy, or even superstition: the wise men of Europe once believed, based on the simplest observation, that the world was flat—and European wise men once debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.  What was once wisdom is revealed by time and study as foolishness—and what once was thought foolishness, such as folk medicine and home remedies, can be revealed as tested wisdom. Who thinks of Africa as a world of ability and knowledge, culture, and progress, neither hell nor heaven but a place of genuine human dwelling?  (Chimimanda Adichie and Teju Cole, and Rowland Abiodun, Peter Abrahams, Ama Ata Aidoo, Newton Aduaka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Souleymane Cisse, Manthia Diawara, Buchi Emecheta, Olaudah Equiano, Emmanuel Eze, Mahmud Kati, Sidney Littlefield Kasfir, Seydou Keita, Esther Mahlangu, Thomas Mofolo, Wangari Maathai, Es’kia Mphahlele, Samuel Mqhayi, V.Y. Mudimbe, Sayyid Abdallah bin Nasir, Masande Ntshanga, Abd al-Rahman al Sadi, Ousmane Sembene, Leopold Senghor, and Wole Soyinka)  Who thinks of African-Americans as people, not as demons or angels but people, people of victories as well as defeats, people whose capabilities and resources have been for hundreds of years, and still are, exploited for the benefit of people who are not African-American, a people of transcendence?  (David Bradley, Charles Burnett, George Washington Carver, Julie Dash, Samuel Delany, W.E.B. Du Bois, Duke Ellington, Ralph Ellison, Percival Everett, Laurence Fishburne, Ernest Gaines, Mario Gooden, Berry Gordy, Phillip Brian Harper, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Armand Lanusse, Alain Locke, Toni Morrison, Jessye Norman, Frank Ocean, Adrian Piper, Colin Powell, Patrice Rankine, David Dante Troutt, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Denzel Washington, August Wilson, and Andrew Young)  How will people, those with obvious power and those without it, get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land—and respecting all its people?

Carl Abraham Zimring is a scholar, teacher, and writer: the author of several books, including Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York University Press, 2016), a resource for understanding ideals of nature, health, and moral purity in conflict with industrial manufacture, pollution, and waste, and how that conflict incorporated the facts of cultural difference and economic exploitation.  The book is a description and deconstruction of American racism.  Carl Abraham Zimring is an associate professor of sustainability studies in Pratt Institute’s Social Science and Cultural Studies department; and his scholarship and projects have produced best practices for civic participation in protection of both the environment and community health.  He is, as well, a contributor to an emerging field examining waste and wasting, drawing on different knowledge disciplines: critical discard studies.  The Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste (Sage. 2012), a two-volume set which Carl A. Zimring co-edited with Bill Rathje, offers research and remedies, and is available to diverse populations and professions.  Carl A. Zimring, the son of a criminologist and grandson of a reporter and screenwriter, with a family history in waste management (specifically, scrap metal peddling), recognizes that communities depend on knowledge, relationships, and empathy, and that civilization was built with norms and systems on a foundation of agricultural wealth, but that civilization has been challenged by rapacious industries.  His work looks to both the past and the future.  Carl Zimring’s book Clean and White, copyrighted in 2015 and published in January 2016, has a principal text divided into four main parts focused on history, including the founding of the United States, its relation to nature, agriculture, and urban development; and the American civil war between northern and southern states, and late nineteenth-century life with increased foreign immigration, and the growth of public health concerns, and sanitary systems; and the development of waste management.  People of color, the working class, and the poor were given the tasks of managing dirt and garbage.  The relation of community, and ethnic assumptions and rights, to the environment, from the past to the present, is the theme pursued in a book with a six-page introduction, and a five-and-a-half page conclusion, and notes, a bibliography of books, articles, archives, and other research, and an index as well as an author’s note and acknowledgments, for a total of 273 pages.

One must keep in mind, always, the past, the present, and the future—and much of the human past has been found in Africa; and, certainly, much of American popular culture has its roots there too; and yet Africa, a great land mass, a continent of more than fifty countries, is not known as well as it should be.  Africa had a history before its encounter with Europe.  It was neither paradise, nor hell.  Some of its people were farmers, some nomads.  Some grasped the workings of the human body, and some were ignorant.  Some were princes, and some were enslaved.  In his impressive book of essays Known andStrange Things (Random House, 2016), Teju Cole, an American writer of Nigerian descent and the author of Open City, contests an impoverished assessment of African history with Teju Cole’s richer knowledge: “The fourteenth-century court artists of Ife made bronze sculptures using a complicated casting process lost to Europe since antiquity, and which was not rediscovered there until the Renaissance.  Ife sculptures are equal to the works of Ghiberti or Donatello.  From their precision and formal sumptuousness we can extrapolate the contours of a great monarchy, a network of sophisticated ateliers, and a cosmopolitan world of trade and knowledge.  And it was not only Ife.  All of West Africa was a cultural ferment,” Cole states, going on to cite Igbo egalitarianism, Ashanti goldwork, Benin brass, and Mandinka military might (page 10).  Africa’s genuine character was maligned, sometimes out of ignorance and misunderstanding, and sometimes to justify exploitation and enslavement.  There is no denying that great nations and their formidable power have had a great effect on the rest of the world, for better and for worse.  Europe brought destruction to Africa.  Disregard for human needs and traditional culture embedded in official bureaucratic controls, and even more rarely well-intentioned policies, alienated and angered indigenous peoples who wanted to determine their own fates.  How will people get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land—and respecting all its people?  There is a necessity, always, to listen to people, to hear stories of what they have known and what they want.

William Beinart has written about Africa and issues of history, knowledge, culture and the environment: the article “Beyond the Colonial Paradigm: African History and Environmental History in Large-Scale Perspective” by William Beinart is on pages 211 to 228 in the book The Environment and World History, edited by Edmund Burke III and Kenneth Pomeranz, published by the University of California Press, 2009.  The Environment and World History is an anthology that collects scholarship and commentary on the history of people and nations within their natural environments; a history spanning hundreds of years, with a consideration of power and property and principles, with due attention paid to Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East; a history acknowledging cultural difference, modernity, and science.  William Beinart goes back before going forward, something many of us are called to do: one understands the past in order to better participate in the present for the sake of the future.

Sometimes geography has been interpreted as the major factor in human history; sometimes, as recently, the impact of human beings on geography has been seen as more important.  European expansion was a significant fact in world history, affecting the health, economy, and cultures of people around the world—as well as their physical terrain.  The traditional cultures of indigenous peoples have been obscured by their brutal, tragic meeting with Europe; but subsequent rebellion, liberation, and slow progress have made it easier to begin to look at the cultures that were damaged or repressed and to identify their knowledge, values, and use.  The African environment, and its history, peoples, cultivation, and uses, make for a complex and interesting subject.  “Both African people and the settlers and colonists who came to the continent debated environmental issues intensely; nature and landscape have also been evoked in many different modes of cultural expression.  An environmental approach facilitates the mining of rich but still-neglected seams of intellectual and cultural history, from African fables and ecoreligions to fascination with botany and wildlife,” states William Beinart in The Environment and World History (page 212).

Colonial conquest, with the destructions of war and land appropriation and exploitation, is fact and topic; and, yet, there was, too, attempts made at environmental protection (for water and forests and wildlife), sometimes authoritarian, intrusive attempts, disrespecting local needs and customary methods of land cultivation.  Assumptions inspired in Europe were carried into the continent of Africa.  Some policies and regulations may have served Europe but did not serve African countries (construction of a water bank led to rising storm-water in Lesotho, for instance).  In Guinea patches of forest were read as signs of deforestation when they were actually evidence of tree-planting.  Often ignored were the knowledge that had been passed down from one generation of Africans to the next—knowledge of land and water, plants, and animals—and a recognition of interrelationships.  In Sierra Leone there was seed cultivation that came not from books and bureaucratic planning but from the necessities of life.  “Most Africans have rejected simple renditions of the ‘tragedy of the commons,’ in which individuals maximize exploitation of a free common resource at the cost of the resource itself” (The Environment and World History, page 215).

What are the prospects for community, compassion, equality, freedom, health, justice, opportunity, prosperity, and safety?  How will people get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land?  Food is an elemental fact, an elemental symbol.  “Some crops, including species of palm, sorghum, millet, yams, rice, teff, and coffee were domesticated in Africa, or, like bananas, came very early from farther east.  But Africans absorbed many new species through the European maritime empires because plants domesticated elsewhere offered enhanced food security, productivity, variety, labor savings, or cash-crop opportunities—notably, but by no means only, American crops and fruits such as maize, cassava, tomatoes, beans, chilies, potatoes, tobacco, cocoa, prickly pear, and avocadoes,” notes Beinart (page 218).  The Africans who were brought from Africa to America in boats, in chains, to work, were treated as property, even as their labor brought astonishing financial value to businesses and communities that did not recognize their human worth.  The cultures of survival—consisting of art and architecture, of food and music, of science and story, of attitude and manners—that people of color have created are part of the larger American legacy.  History is complicated—as lived, and as interpreted, especially when divergent perspectives are brought together, informed by the contentious nature of culture, of power, of scientific exploration.  What is amazing—and obvious—is that we are always forgetting history’s truths.  David Dante Troutt, following W.E.B. Du Bois, Carter Woodson, John Hope Franklin, John Wesley Blassingame, and Gerald Horne, is one man who has written of some of the legacy of discrimination and exploitation: and in David Dante Troutt’s book The Price of Paradise: The Costs of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America (New York University Press, 2013), after recounting the lingering segregation of both housing and opportunity in American life, such as the exclusion of Negroes from the home loans made available by Franklin Roosevelt’s policies, Troutt endorses a living wage, mixed income communities, fewer housing restrictions, management of urban city growth, school integration, better public transport, and more honest public discourse.  Some questions remain.  How will different perspectives be reconciled?  How will a nation’s citizens conserve what is good, while achieving progress beyond what is bad?  How will people get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land—and respecting all its people?  True prophecy is rare—and arrogance can lead to destruction.

I have been a reader and a writer of essays, fiction, and poetry, and my own participation in political matters has been more intellectual and literary than practical; although I have attended large rallies calling for safe energy, marched against apartheid and on behalf of women’s autonomy, and handed out flyers for an election candidate, signed petitions, and volunteered with a civil rights organization.  During a brief time working for an environmental organization, a promising, precarious, painful time trying to reconcile personal needs, passion, and purpose with organizational goals (how does one remain high-minded while worrying about survival?), I wrote diverse articles on environmental issues, work that might have offered some useful suggestions (some of the topics were green furniture, converting military bases into wildlife refuges, and a homeless recycling project).  I was inspired in part, like very many other people, to consider environmental justice for people of color, the working class, and the poor, by the work of thoughtful researchers and writers such as Bunyan Bryant and Robert Bullard and Ben Chavis: Bryant was the co-investigator with Paul Mohai of the 1990 University of Michigan report “Detroit Area Study on Race and Toxic Waste” and his books include Social and Environmental Change: A Manual for Advocacy and Organizing (Caddo Gap Press, 1991) andEnvironmental Crisis or Crisis of Epistemology: Working for Sustainable Knowledge and Environmental Justice (Morgan James Publishing, 2011).  Robert Bullard’s 1990 report “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality” became a year 2000 Westview Press book; and Bullard has written on sustainable development and climate change; and his work includes the anthology The Black Metropolis in the Twenty-first Century (Rowman, 2007), focused on structural power and encompassing varied contributors.  The work of Bryant and Bullard was preceded by that of Benjamin F. Chavis Jr., a reverend with the United Church of Christ, which published the national study, conducted by the church’s Commission for Racial Justice, called “Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States” in 1987: the study found that hazardous waste facilities were more likely to be placed within minority communities.  Ben Chavis, the executive director of the United Church of Christ, criticized the paucity of people of color creating environmental policy, and participating in the environmental movement, despite the inordinate suffering of minorities due to the toxic facilities in their communities.  My own inspirations and motivations have been complex, multi-faceted; and I was inspired as well by the legacies of Rachel Carson and Buckminster Fuller and the nature poetry of Rainer Rilke and Wendell Berry and songs such as Diana Ross’s “Heavy Weather,” (The Force Behind the Power, 1991) on climate change, a song written by Michael Sembello: “Oh, how come Decembers are hotter that June? / And how come the flowers don’t know when to bloom? / Something’s wrong, people. / Something’s happening, happening where we live.”

My modern country boy experience means that I grew up with both nature and technology, near wild trees and cultivated crops of beans, okra, pepper, rice, and sugar cane, with turkeys and chickens and television and radio and books; and when I moved to the big city for college and a better, more complicated life, and worked in book stores and libraries and offices and then visited art museums, I was drawn to painted landscapes and thought it was merely the perspective of the artist and the technique that impressed me, but, of course, it was memory of the land that engaged me too: nature called.  It was the land, not the people, that I remembered, that I missed, having lost the sentimentality of youth; and many years later, when in doubt and trouble, I returned to that rural country, it was the land, not the people, in which I found refreshment, as the people there, like me, had known ruin.  Nature nourishes the spirit—nature brings calm and defiance.  (The isolation of rural places both distorts and empowers the individual perspective.)  I worked on a book project, and asked distant friends, as all friends were distant now, for an honest, intelligent, and sympathetic response to that work—which I did not get: the indifference left me alone, with nature. Does solitude clarify or obliterate the need for civilization?  How does a solitary man seek or find reconciliation?  How do country people remain a part of the forward movement of the world?  What are their prospects for community, compassion, equality, freedom, health, justice, opportunity, prosperity, and safety—for participation in the public good?  How will people get what they need from the earth, while still protecting the land—and respecting all its people?  I wanted to ask questions of someone who might be able to answer them with knowledge and insight; and I asked the scholar, teacher, and writer Carl Abraham Zimring if he would be willing and he said, Yes.  I sent him the questions on June 23, 2017, suggesting an August 18 return date; and he returned his answers on August 4, 2017; and I am very impressed by his answers and even more grateful for the generous effort, which honors me and the publication presenting his complete reply.

An Internet Interview: Questions for Carl Abraham Zimring

Daniel Garrett:  What are the rudiments of friendship, of love, of family, and of community?

Carl Abraham Zimring:  Awareness, interdependence, and empathy.


Daniel Garrett:  What is civilization and how is it sustained in both national and daily life?

Carl A. Zimring:  Civilization is a set of norms.  These norms, for good or for ill, stabilize and structure the lives of those who live within civilization.  Civilization is built on the economic systems that emerged from agricultural surplus; it requires written language and educational systems, and it produces hierarchies of wealth and power that benefit some at the expense of many.  Civilization is sustained by the norms we internalize and the institutions we build out of those internalized norms.


Garrett:  What drew you to a life of the mind; and why did you become interested in history and environmental issues?

Zimring:  I grew up in a family that valued writing and research.  My grandfather was a newspaper reporter in Iowa during the Depression, then a screenwriter in Hollywood.  He sparked my interest in narrative and social justice.  My father is a prolific criminologist.  I have been exposed to a wide variety of people and places, including living in communities ranging from towns with fewer stoplights than fingers on my right hand to the largest city in the United States.  My neighbors have included farmers, artists, Louis Farrakhan, and Antonin Scalia.

I studied several disciplines as an undergraduate and completed an interdisciplinary social science master’s degree, but I kept returning to history.  The discipline’s focus on narrative structure both satisfies me as a reader and relates to my grandfather’s storytelling.

Environmental history has personal connections.  As a child swimming in the 1970s, I was struck that the “fresh water” off the beaches in Chicago was murky and washed thousands of dead fish onto the beach.  (I wondered how this water could be called “fresh” as the Pacific Ocean’s salt water I swam in when visiting my grandparents was far clearer and full of thriving fish.)  This is my earliest memory of concern for urban environments, and how the people living in cities interacted with the air, land, water, and other species.  That interest eventually drew me to work with urban environmental historian Joel Tarr at Carnegie Mellon University for my dissertation.

Joel Tarr encouraged me to delve into stories my grandfather told me about my family’s roots in scrap metal peddling.  I refer to this family history briefly in my books Cash for Your Trash (2005) and Clean and White (2006); Cash for Your Trash started life as the doctoral dissertation Joel supervised.  It also inspired me to think about the ways in which humans define, classify, and manage wastes, a focus that has structured my subsequent work.


Garrett:  Your book Aluminum Upcycled: Sustainable Design in Historical Perspective (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017) is on the recycling of aluminum in cars, furniture, and musical tools.  What was your motivation for the book, and what do you hope it will accomplish?

Zimring:  The motivation to write Aluminum Upcycled is the motivation to do my job.  I coordinate the Sustainability Studies minor at Pratt Institute, an independent school of art and design whose graduates create buildings, packaging, furniture, clothing, and other goods, often on a mass scale.  These students will create the waste stream of tomorrow, and teaching them about the consequences of their creations provides me an especially relevant set of tasks for my training and interests.

At Pratt, we teach about sustainable design strategies.  Upcycling, the process of making goods of greater value and durable worth from discards, is a strategy that has gained popularity both amongst designers and manufacturers ranging from Herman Miller’s furniture to Adidas shoes.  Though much of the language surrounding upcycling is new, the practice of reclaiming discards to make goods of durable value has a history.

The book is also rooted in my first book Cash for Your Trash, which discusses how the work of salvaging material has changed over the course of American history.  One major change is the materials found in the waste stream evolve; after World War II, we see a greater presence of aluminum and plastics.  Aluminum Upcycled uses the former as a case study for upcycling; the metal is credited by material scientists not only with having one of the highest recycling rates in the world, but being a sustainable material for mass production.  Evaluating the history of its reuse gives us an opportunity to see the strengths and weaknesses of upcycling as a design strategy.  It also provides a case study on which a similar study of plastics (aluminum’s cousins in widely-applied modern material science) might be conducted.

Aluminum Upcycled is grounded in my teaching, and I use examples from the book in my seminar on production, consumption, and waste.  I hope it has uses in the classrooms of other design schools, as well as engineering and businesses schools.


Garrett:  Intellectuals and activists such as Robert Bullard and Bunyan Bryant have done pioneering work on the impact of the environment and the prevalence of pollution and ill-health in African-American and minority communities.  Your book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York University Press, 2016) focuses on ideas of purity, morality, and social prejudice in understanding identity, valuing work, accessibility of desirable environments, and the siting of polluting facilities in minority communities—on environmental racism.  With all the research and publications that have been done, what are some significant strategies for change?

Zimring:  One of the achievements of the environmental justice movement is to raise awareness that environmental inequalities are civil rights issues.  Mobilizing for environmental justice requires the kinds of widespread grassroots mobilization involved in the fight for voting rights and access to public accommodations.  Such mobilization includes local community groups, labor, and national institutions.

Education has a role to play in both researching the past and present contexts of inequalities, and providing case studies of work to compare and contrast experiences of communities across the country and around the world.  The journal Environmental Justice is a form of institutionalized academic activity that informs activism (edited by Sylvia Hood Washington, and published bimonthly by Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.).

Building research and knowledge is important for change; disseminating that knowledge is crucial.  We can do it in classrooms and journals, but public scholarship to converse with the broader public is crucial.  The systems of disinformation Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, Steve Bannon, and their collaborators have developed make this project challenging but not impossible.

Good journalism is rooted in academic research; one of the impressive dimensions of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work in The Atlantic is his command of historiography.  If more journalists writing on race and inequality demonstrated an understanding of how mortgage insurance has worked to intensify racial segregation in the United States, our public discourse on structural inequality would be more honest and informed.  When Coates built his provocative “The Case for Reparations” in 2014, he made that case using a discussion of that topic from historian Kenneth T. Jackson’s book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (1985).  (The narrative power of that book, along with William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, 1991, influenced my decision to pursue graduate education in history.)  Ta-Nehisi Coates has the research instincts of a scholar and crafts narratives that engage a popular audience; that is a powerful combination and an example to emulate.


Garrett:  Many people were shocked by the cavalier handling of damaged pipes, and the resulting poisonous water pollution, and health problems in Flint, Michigan, which has a population of about 57% black people—one more demonstration of how little certain places and peoples are valued.  You wrote about this in “Flint’s Sorry Legacy of Environmental Racism” for From the Square (January 25, 2016).  Even knowing the history of racism, and after so many efforts to defeat it, why does it remain hard to vanquish?  Is it too embedded not only in law or culture but in mind and spirit?

Zimring:  White identity has many benefits.  The people who enjoy those benefits are loathe to relinquish them.  Middle-class white homeowners in Oakland County, Michigan vote for people and policies that extract capital from majority-African-American communities in Flint and Detroit because these are the norms that shape their lives.  And this is true not only of Oakland County, but throughout the United States.  We will see more Flints.  We will see more outrage about these inequalities.  They will recur as long as white grievance shapes political and economic decisions.


Garrett:  You contributed as co-editor with Bill Rathje to the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste (Sage, 2012), which seems an extraordinary work.  What kinds of responses have you received?

Zimring:  One of the enticements to edit the volume was the fact that several academic disciplines share a concern with identifying what we discard and how we choose to manage our discards.  The Encyclopedia was an opportunity to bring these disciplines together within one reference book, where students, public library patrons, policymakers, and scholars could see discussions of recycling, garbage, sewage, air pollution and other forms of waste that integrate history, anthropology, sociology, economics, politics, material sciences, and chemistry.  We also organized it so that readers could compare practices across the world, both in entries on individual nations and on the twenty or so largest metropolitan areas.

Responses so far include ones from high school and college students who have found it valuable to their studies, as well as municipal waste management personnel who have used the comparative framework to understand what practices work in particular contexts. Scholars from a variety of disciplines come up to me at conferences to discuss the encyclopedia, and it’s been a useful bridge to talking about waste with other social scientists and humanities scholars.  The interdisciplinary field of critical discard studies (as articulated by Robin Nagle and Max Liboiron on the website discardstudies.com) involves a fast-growing community, and many of the scholars whose work appears on that site contributed to making the volume as strong as it is.  I am grateful that it has value in academic and practical contexts.


Garrett:  Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America (Rutgers University Press, 2005) tracks the recycling of refuse from the colonial times of Paul Revere to the rag trade of the nineteenth century and on to metal recycling.  Of course, visual artists—such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson, but many others—have used recycling in another way, encouraging us to take another look at discarded and sometimes transformed materials; and I have wondered whether that was the broadening of intellectual consideration or the diminishment of aesthetic quality or both.  I have been inclined to think that recycling is a result of the modern industrial age, but this does not seem to be the case.

Zimring:  “Recycling” is a result of the industrial age, if we look strictly at the word.  It derives from a practice in the petroleum industry of filtering out impurities for reuse. Salvaging material for reuse has a much older history; biblical verses refer to old iron’s use, converting plowshares into swords (Joel 3:10) and swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) (Micah 4:3).  The history of repurposed discards accounts for both, and the scale of such repurposing is intertwined with the rise of industrial society.

I am interested in how the repurposing of what we define as wastes has changed over time. The rise of industry brought with it a new scale of demand for affordable inputs, and the rise of rag markets, then rubber, metals, glass, and paper-stock markets is a reflection of that demand.  It is also a reflection of industrial society’s development of mass disposal.  In her book Waste and Want (1999), historian Susan Strasser describes the transition to a modern consumer society as a shift from a stewardship of objects (in which, for example, one mended clothing over and over again, later repurposing it in furniture when it could no longer be worn) to an ethic of buying new and disposing.

In that latter system, recycling is still a form of disposal, as the user does not mend or refashion the good but places it in a system that takes it out of sight, out of mind, and hopefully to a place that will divert it from landfills.  That is a modern, industrial development, and too often we think of recycling as a cure-all for the environmental damage industrial life brings.  Recycling has benefits, but it is not a magic solution for that damage.

The artistic practice of using everyday discards relates to one definition of upcycling, artisanal repurposing of discards in crafts and arts.  Galleries that display chairs made of old license plates or beer cans share an approach with waste artists like Duchamp, Rauschenberg, or (to use a contemporary example) Vik Muniz.  The incorporation of discarded materials in artistic practice reflects our mass disposal, so the mentality that produced a Rauschenberg “combine” is as industrial as Andy Warhol’s reproductions of Campbell soup cans, and also as industrial as the discarded soup cans found in recycling bins.


Garrett:  In your book Clean and White (New York University Press, 2016), you provide a history of thinking on nature, purity, property, and law that clarifies the mythologies of nation and race: you write, “Jefferson’s pastoral democracy is an ideal, a strong and alluring vision that provides Americans with romantic views of men living happily and empowered in nature” (page 14), with the third American president seeing farming life as more clean than manufacture; and, “Far from believing that all men were created equal, Jefferson engaged in racial classification” (page 20), including suppositions regarding Negro inferiority; and yet, “The illogical assumptions of racial hierarchy were tested when Southern whites settling across the Mississippi Valley experienced floods, droughts, miasma, and harsh conditions.  The frontier transformed its inhabitants, altering hygienic practices, skin textures and tones, and the physical health of people considered ‘white,’ ‘black,’ and ‘red.’” (page 42).

Zimring:  Jefferson’s thoughts reveal many contradictions that resonate two centuries later. The United States is built on Enlightenment ideals of equality; it is also built on the removal of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, and race-based systems of property ownership, credit, education, and employment.  The seeds of these contradictions are embedded in the Republic’s founding, and the first chapter ofClean and White is an effort to understand Jefferson’s internal struggles.


Garrett:  Many writers have explored associations of skin color with notions of pollution, with whiteness projected as a state of purity—which is ironic considering the moral crimes and the real crimes against humanity committed around the world by white people.  Christian conscience and the need to justify the exploitation and enslavement of others produced a volatile mix.  Of course, the dejections and deprivations of poverty worked to fulfill the worst expectations of oppressed people.  “Abolition and sanitary reforms promised to resolve some of the problems on race and waste that had vexed the nation since its founding” (page 52); but, “The abolition of slavery did not eradicate legal structures of racism” (page 53).

Zimring:  The second chapter of Clean and White discusses the hardening of racism as the moral foundations of slavery were threatened in the years after Jefferson’s presidency; unlike Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, the nation’s seventh vice president, had no struggles reconciling slavery with Enlightenment principles.  Calhoun began with an assumption that plantation owners were innately superior to the slaves who performed work for them.  From that assumption came his political beliefs, including a formulation of “states’ rights” that framed secession from the United States as a moral imperative if slavery was threatened.

Calhoun also encouraged scientific racism, inviting physicians to Washington who concluded innate physical differences between whites and blacks justified enslaving the latter.  (Should readers wish to delve further into the pseudoscience described in this chapter, I recommend Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, 1981.)  These constructions emerged as slavery was threatened; after its abolition, they continued to justify denying African Americans the vote, economic opportunity, and access to public accommodations.  They also justified the widespread lynching and imprisonment of African Americans.

These facts are not open to debate.  The only question is whether the readers and writers of American history support white supremacy or oppose it.  Millions of Americans populate each camp today.


Garrett:  The mix of fact and fantasy, of law and discrimination, of progress and its price, create a formidable paradigm of self and other, of civilization and barbarism.  “Industrial activities made city air unpleasant to the eyes and the nose,” you write in Clean and White (page 56), with fears of both contagion and new immigrants as well as of free blacks; and “Race, then, was a highly divisive issue in the North as well as South, West as well as East in the early years of Reconstruction” (page 72); and “The racialization of hygiene produced tensions within racial categories.  Although the process was meant to secure white supremacy, within whiteness lay deep insecurities” (page 80). 

Zimring:  Racial constructions provide rationale for gaining resources at the expense of others.  Every time white supremacy has been challenged in the United States, a bellicose reaction to strengthen it emerged.  Whether it was racializing the work of doing laundry, housekeeping, garbage collection, and scrap dealing at the turn of the twentieth century, millions of white Americans joining the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s to affirm supremacy through terror, restricting new suburban homes across the United States to whites at midcentury through racist mortgage policies, or efforts to “make America great again” in 2016 by attacking immigrants, Muslims, and the Black Lives Matter movement, constructions of whiteness to secure position damages the health, wealth, and freedom of nonwhite people.  This was as true in 2016 as it was when Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois struggled against the color line more than a century ago.  These constructions have varying material consequences: denial of the ballot in Alabama differed from restrictive covenants producing spatial segregation in Kansas City’s suburbs.  All stem from the same impulse; all have corrosive effects.


Garrett:  Poor white women and men were custodians.  Jews worked in the rag trade, and Italians collecting scrap metal.  The Chinese had laundries.  “Yet the skills for dirty work—skills necessary for consumers and producing industries and vital to the health of communities—were not valued as skills by most Americans,” you state (page 136).  You write about dirty work, work that made workers dirty—and I wonder if you have considered looking at the caste system in India.  Reading about the segregation not only of citizens but of certain kinds of work and workers, I thought of a caste system.  “Mobility came as the new white ethnics were able to largely shake free of the stigma of waste,” you explain (page 183).

Zimring:  The anthropologist Mary Douglas defined dirt as “matter that is out of place” and from that definition practices to retain order and sanitation emerge.  Those practices have social consequences, including the Dalit caste in Hindu society being assigned waste-handling tasks (as I discuss in the conclusion of Clean and White).  Whether caste or class, the workers who handle the chaotic, dangerous materials we identify as dirty face stigma and marginalization.

Within that stigma lie opportunities.  One of the points of discussing the wide participation of Jews in the scrap metal industry, Italians in rag-picking and garbage, and Chinese in laundry is to show not only the marginalization, but the agency of first-generation immigrants to establish and own businesses.  Native-born white Americans’ repulsion at handling wastes in the late nineteenth century produced opportunity structures for those willing and able to identify value in waste work.  These are hard, dangerous jobs, but they are not simply jobs performed for subsistence by the indigent; our sanitary practices offer some measure of economic mobility.

Some mobility was at the individual level.  A successful scrap peddler could earn enough money to purchase a scrapyard.  A successful yard owner could purchase other yards and become a broker.  Movement into the middle class (or, less frequently, the upper class) was not common, but it was possible.

Some mobility was intergenerational.  The peddler who rose to become a scrap broker might generate enough money to send his children to college.  Veteran scrapmen in the late twentieth century lamented that the next generation became lawyers, MBAs, or doctors and opted not to continue in the family business.  The movement of what became known as “white ethnics” after World War II out of waste work contrasts with caste boundaries.  The focus of the book is the United States, but the conclusion (and a subsequent essay that should be out next year) invite more extensive international comparisons.


Garrett:  What are the strengths and weaknesses of conservatism—and of liberalism—in culture and in politics?

Zimring:  Preserving social inequality provides a measure of comfort for those who enjoy privilege.  It is not a template for a just society, nor a society that reaps the benefits of all of its members’ talents.

Economic, racial, and sexual inequality shape American politics; this is evident in the nation’s founding documents, in the various restrictions to voting throughout its history, and access to capital and land (as Jackson discussed in Crabgrass Frontier; and relevant books by Thomas J. Sugrue, Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, David M. P. Freund, Michael B. Katz, N. D. B. Connolly, and many other historians and social scientists reinforce the point).

In some contexts, these inequalities provide opportunities for collaboration across the political spectrum; current efforts to reduce mass incarceration include conservative Republicans such as Rand Paul and liberal Democrats such as Eric Holder.  In others, however, they widen divisions.  One of the most troubling developments of the twenty-first century is the defining of the Republican Party by the terms of white grievance.  This defines the debate over all issues, including health care, the widening gap between rich and poor, education, access to voting, and even the use of science and evidence to inform policy.  The Enlightenment values Thomas Jefferson championed are under threat, and the white supremacy Thomas Jefferson also championed is the heart of that threat.

Political discourse in the United States can stand to have a more rigorous examination about how structural inequality operates, and how structural inequalities emerge over time.  We have seen progress on this issue regarding policing, sentencing, incapacitation, and the death penalty in recent years; bringing the discussion of structural inequalities as they relate to environmental risks ranging from toxins in the soil to climate change is an important project that has much work to accomplish if we are to develop effective policies and practices to challenge these inequalities.


Garrett:  What can be done to broaden and deepen public education, access to knowledge, and to bridge gaps between different forms and levels of personal knowledge?

Zimring:  Fighting the forces of disinformation that devalue evidence-based knowledge is crucial.  Journalists who build their reporting upon empirical research play a vital role in this work.

Their work rests on the work done to develop evidence-based knowledge, so providing access to the means of developing critical thinking skills and information literacy is important.  Schools and libraries have been effective institutions for this work; “disruptors” such as Peter Thiel who dismantle these institutions do not make for a free and prosperous society.  Schools and libraries are both incubators of critical thought and engines for economic development.  Those are intertwined goals, and I have seen the power of good schools transform a region.

I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh in the 1990s, when deindustrialization meant population streamed away from the city to find work elsewhere.  Western Pennsylvania was reeling from a decade of deindustrialization that closed factories, homes, and churches.  One church on Liberty Avenue became a microbrewery.  Discussions to turn another into an American Gladiators arena fell apart.  Many buildings lay vacant.  Soot covered buildings everywhere, remnants of over a century of coal use so prevalent that Anthony Trollope declared the city in 1860 “without exception the blackest place which I ever saw.”

I paid $200 per month in rent because of the surplus of available housing.  There are benefits to living in a moribund economy.

Graduate students in the region today do not have access to the cheap housing I enjoyed twenty years ago because the schools triggered economic growth.  Pittsburgh now attracts highly educated workers in fields such as medicine and computer science; the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Google benefit from the work Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh do to produce knowledge, and the local population is growing in response to the jobs produced by these institutions’ research.

Partnerships between universities and their cities can have such effects; and, if I were governor of the state of Michigan, I would direct resources to the University of Michigan’s Flint campus and Wayne State University to increase enrollments and develop curriculum and research centers that will provide long-term benefits, including developing relationships between businesses, the community, and the state that will ensure the decision-making that led to the Flint Water Crisis can never happen again.

Funding higher education is a vital use of taxpayer dollars, as is ensuring the buildings where K-12 students learn are safe.  A society that does not commit to educating its people will fall behind as it leaves members of its community behind.  It is no accident that standards of living in the United States grew after World War II as states such as California, Wisconsin, and, yes, Michigan developed large public university systems to make higher education attainable to most of their citizens.  Retreating from that goal damages our society and our economy.

The tech boom reflects this history.  Peter Thiel’s billions were made off the labor of workers trained by universities; sabotaging them is an act of hubris that resembles Icarus’s use of wax to fix his wings for his flight close to the sun.

I use Thiel as an example because his actions reveal the perils of developing science and engineering skills without contextualizing them in a good liberal arts education.  At Pratt Institute, our mission is “to educate artists and creative professionals to be responsible contributors to society.  Pratt seeks to instill in all graduates aesthetic judgment, professional knowledge, collaborative skills, and technical expertise.”  That cannot be achieved without the perspectives of the humanities and social sciences; and Stanford clearly failed Thiel regarding those aspects of his education.


Garrett:  What are your hopes for the future?

Zimring: When my students ask me why I teach, I tell them that they are powerful people who will accomplish much in the future.  My hope is that the problems and approaches we discuss in class will lead them to work to ensure that the relationships humans have with each other, the air, the land, the water, and with other species will produce (as the MacArthur Foundation’s underwriting copy on the public radio shows I listen to puts it) a more just and verdant world.

I write books for the same reason.  I hope my work helps readers develop more just and healthy practices that improve society and the environment.  Thank you for exposing my work to your readers.

August 2017


About the author Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon.  Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader.  His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novelA Stranger on Earth.