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  • Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice ed. by Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini
  • Carl A. Zimring (bio)
Histories of the Dustheap: Waste, Material Cultures, Social Justice. Edited by Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Pp. 296. $25.

Robert Gottlieb's Urban and Industrial Environments series at MIT Press has produced some of the most compelling studies of how urban and industrial pollution have affected society since the Industrial Revolution.Histories of the Dustheap, a volume of essays edited by Stephanie Foote and Elizabeth Mazzolini, continues this tradition, providing a cross-section of approaches in the humanities and social sciences on the impacts of wastes in industrial society.

Neatly inverting Trotsky's famous insult to the Mensheviks, the book begins with an introduction by Foote and Mazzolini laying out some of the important theoretical discussions of waste studies. A partial list of authors cited—Mary Douglas, Michael Thompson, William Rathje, and Susan Strasser—indicates the interdisciplinary approach of waste studies. Having established a broad theoretical introduction, the volume's authors examine a wide swath of materials (ranging from sewage to electronic wastes) and approaches (ranging from cultural criticism to policy history).

The disciplinary methods, periodization, places, and materials studied are eclectic, but two common themes make Histories of the Dustheap compelling reading for historians of technology. First, the authors consider how humans in industrial societies create and classify wastes and focus on the specific materials deemed hazardous or unhygienic. And second, the authors consider the consequences of the generation and management of those wastes, always recalling Joel Tarr's argument that all sinks for wastes come with consequences to human and environmental health. This approach allows the volume a nuanced set of perspectives on specific ways in which technological innovation has affected humans, the land, and the water, with an emphasis that the costs of these wastes are not borne equally along lines of class, race, and gender.

Some of the most engaging work in this area is in the realm of toxic autobiography. Richard Newman's analysis of the evolution of personal narratives of struggles with industrial pollution by authors ranging chronologically from Rachel Carson to Lois Gibbs to Sandra Steingraber [End Page 703] illustrates the wide variety of environmental settings and consequences to human health of industrial development. Newman's essay personalizes the themes of the volume, giving emotional weight to subsequent essays on environmental justice movements in specific regions. Scott Frickel's essay on pollution in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina builds on Craig Colten's earlier work on the region and raises the question of how little we know about the specific ecological and health effects of the chemicals that intermix in hazardous wastes. Phaedra Pelluzzo provides a personal view of the toll that PCBs have taken on her hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, providing a toxic autobiography sited on a rural landscape.

As both urban and rural lands are used as sinks for wastes, small and large bodies of water are as well. William Gleason's consideration of sanitarian George Waring Jr.'s work questions the extent to which Waring confronted sexual inequalities in late-nineteenth-century debates of women's roles in health and hygiene. Longstanding debates over definitions of nature and the manmade world are explored in Daniel Schneider's discussion of the complexities of marketing products from Milwaukee's sewage. Jennifer Clapp documents the current spread of plastic waste in the Pacific Ocean; she focuses on interest-group behaviors and ineffective regulations, yet her attention to materiality shares similarities with Pelluzzo's attention to PCBs and Schneider's attention to sewage.

If an important dimension of the history of technology is analyzing the changing composition of the materials that humans create, then these analyses of materials classified as wastes should interest historians of technology. A more specific subgroup of historians of communications and the internet may consider coeditor Foote's essay on enviroblogging and compare the tropes used on the internet to the toxic autobiographies that Newman describes. These are some of the many interconnections within the volume, making Histories of the Dustheap provocative reading for scholars working at the intersections of...


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pp. 703-704
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