Today’s focus on environmental sustainability may seem to be a modern concept, but such key elements as recycling, reusing and repurposing are actually recycled themselves from 19th-century American life, according to historian Susan Strasser.
In fact, says the Richards Chair of American History at UD, U.S. households produced almost no trash before the 1890s. Instead, families took old clothing apart and made new garments from the fabric, repaired broken tools or utensils, and turned over scraps of useless leather or rags to peddlers, who in turn sold them to factories for reuse as raw materials.
Strasser explored the consumer, tech-nological and economic changes that replaced that culture with today’s throwaway society in a 1999 book, Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. It was her third book and the first to be generally seen as focused on environmental history.
Her first two books, written in the 1980s, explored the history of housework and then the rise of advertising and mass marketing of consumer goods in America. Waste and Want, she says, was a natural next step in her research.
“My books have gotten attention in different sub-fields of history — the history of women, or technology, or environmental issues — but to me, they’re all about the same thing,” she says. “Each one led into the other.”
Strasser recalls that as she was researching her first two books in the 1980s, the news was filled with accounts of environmental disasters: the 1984 leak of poison gas from an industrial plant in Bhopal, India, that killed thousands; the 1986 nuclear plant accident at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union that caused widespread contamination; and the so-called “garbage barge,” which left New York with over 3,000 tons of trash in 1987 and ended up traveling up and down the East Coast seeking a willing disposal site.
“All of us were getting more environmentally aware during that decade, and I
think my research made me especially aware,” she says. “Environmental history is a field that had been developing; people were really
thinking about it as a separate focus. For me, the creation of American
consumer culture was a subject that led to the idea of recycling and reuse.
They’re all very much tied together.”
Waste and Want examined two facets of American consumer culture before about 1890 — what Strasser calls the “tremendous focus on reuse within households” and what today would be called “post-consumer recycling” in which unusable bits of materials were returned to factories. The unwillingness to waste anything was so prevalent, in fact, that Strasser says even when municipalities first began offering trash disposal, they paid employees to sort through the material and remove anything useful before the true waste was burned or dumped.
Strasser found that, as America shifted to a consumer culture at the same time that large factories grew up and mass marketing began, today’s cycle of waste production and disposal got under way.
“I realized that the era of profligacy that I was born into wasn’t really all that old,” she says. “That was fascinating to grapple with. You tend to think that things have always
been the way they are now, but in fact, it turns out that they used to be very
Her latest research also relates to the environment, as she works on a book to be called A Historical Herbal, an account of the commerce and culture of medicinal herbs, many of which became endangered or less plentiful as they were overcollected or lost their habitat through development.
In addition to her research, Strasser teaches classes in American and global environmental history.
Strasser’s interest in environmental history is just one example of the emerging field of study known as environmental humanities, in which the traditional focus of environmental studies — physical sciences and public policy — is expanded to include history, English, languages and other humanities. At UD, other humanities faculty members dealing with environmental issues include Eve Buckley, assistant professor of history who specializes in Brazil, and McKay Jenkins, Tilghman Professor of English, whose newest project is a book about toxic chemicals in consumer goods.
Ann Ardis, senior associate dean for the humanities in the College of Arts and Sciences and director of UD’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Research Center, says the University has created a new faculty position in environmental humanities. An interdisciplinary search committee will work during the 2010–11 academic year to fill the position by September 2011.
“This will be a truly interdisciplinary position,” Ardis says. “Our hope is that this person will not only teach courses in different departments, or even different colleges, but will also help build programs and collaborations across campus in this important new area.”