Audio: Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Trash in Industrial America

Every human culture leaves some broken pottery and more, which fill the trash dumps that archaeologists study. But the trash of today is a product of industrialization.

Rags, Bones, and Plastic Bags: Trash in Industrial America

Trash Talk Lecture by Susan Strasser

Richards Professor of American History, at the University of Delaware

Pre-industrial Americans reused and recycled, valuing the labor and materials that went into handmade production. Nineteenth-century industries adapted these practices, reusing rags, bottles, and bones collected by peddlers and general stores.

During the twentieth century, mass production and mass distribution generated more stuff, and more trash. Handwork and reuse declined, while economic growth was fueled by waste: the trash created by packaging, disposables, and the constant technological and stylistic changes that made objects obsolete while creating markets for replacements.

Recorded on September 22, 2011


Pamela Gerardi  0:00  
Good evening. Welcome to the Peabody Museum's fall lecture series. I'm Pamela Gerardi. I'm Director of External Relations for the museum. Last week, we opened our series on Trash Talk: The Anthropology of Waste, with a terrific overview by Robin Nagel from NYU. And if any of you missed that talk, it's now posted on our website. Tonight I am pleased to introduce Susan Strasser, and historian of American consumer culture, and the Richards Professor of American History at the University of Delaware. Professor Strasser earned her bachelor's degree in history at Reed and her master's and doctoral degrees in US history from SUNY at Stony Brook, which happens to be one of my alma mater.

She's taught at the Evergreen State College, Princeton, George Washington University and the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the decorative arts design and culture.

Susan's books include "Never Done: A History of American Housework," which won the Sierra Prize of the Western Association of Women Historians, "Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market," and my personal favorite, "Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, which won the Abel Wolman Award from the Public Works Historical Society. She's also edited "Commodifying Everything: Relationships of the Market," and co-edited "Getting and Spending: American and European Consumer Society in the 20th Century." She's currently working on a historical herbal about the culture and commerce of medicinal herbs in the 19th and 20th century America. This work will be reflecting on industrial era relationships with plants. Tonight, Professor Strasser is going to speak to us about the history of trash in America, and the effects of industrialism and consumerism on the generation and proliferation of trash. Please join me in welcoming Professor Susan Strasser.

You have done something to your

Susan Strasser  2:13  
No, it's supposed to be Oh, it is I always like to start with a blank screen. I don't like those ones. But the little titles were very much. Thank you for that introduction. And I'm delighted to be in Cambridge. And at the Peabody. I was just saying that I spent two years here during the 80s, working on my book Satisfaction Guaranteed one year as a fellow at the Bunting Institute at Radcliffe and one year as the Newcomen Fellow in business history at the Harvard Business School. And it's a treat always to come back to Cambridge and a particular treat to come to the Peabody, where I liked to come during those two years. I regard myself primarily as a historian of everyday life in a developing consumer culture. And if any picture sums up the way I see my work, it's this one, the [INAUDIBLE] Mrs. Paul [INAUDIBLE]. I'm always sorry that I don't know her actual first name, where you can see these industrial products filling her cabinet and in her home, and I think that they give a sense of the kind of interface of the economy and personal life, that's really the thing that I'm most interested in talking about and in studying. As Pamela mentioned, I have three major books that some people have regarded as being in different fields, "Never Done," a history in women's history and the history of technology, "Satisfaction Guaranteed" as well known among business historians, and "Wastes and Wants" among environmental historians. But to me, these three books, they're all different takes on the same set of issues, tremendous transition, that happened in American culture, between about 1870 and 1920. About that interface between the public and the private, the economic and the domestic. I worked on Satisfaction Guaranteed during the 80s. And it was a decade when we were all becoming more and more aware of the environment and there was a particular series of environmental events, we might call them. The chemical accident of Bhopal, the nuclear accident of Chernobyl, the garbage barge roaming American water, always looking for a place to dump. And I was meanwhile writing about the introduction of consumer products. And so it became obvious to me that my next work would be about the environmental consequences of that introduction. And as a result, I decided to take on the question of trash. This book was published in 1999. And as Pamela suggested, I have gone on to other topics in terms of my major research. But I do keep going to conferences. And this past summer, I was at an international conference in Munich, and I'll be reporting to us some from there. So there'll be some stuff even if people have read "Waste and Want" that's a little bit new. I want to introduce my topic by discussing a few common sayings. The first is the notion that "dirt is matter out of place." And those of you who've read Mary Douglass's important book "Purity and Danger, "which is a book that anybody who's at all interested in dirt and dirty topics really needs to read, knows that this notion of dirt or being matter out of place is one that Douglas takes on and explores at length. And she introduces the notion in "Purity and Danger" that the sorting process, the sorting process, that determines what's dirt, and what's not dirt is best thought of as a positive ritual, as something that helps people to make purity to purify to separate the dirty from the clean.

Susan Strasser  6:57  
A second common phrase relating to trash is "out of sight out of mind." And one of the things that Douglas does is she points to boundaries and margins and and she's particularly interested in the boundaries of margins of the body. But when I started to try to figure out how to apply her theoretical stuff to my historical work, I realized that this was a very useful set of concepts, the boundaries and margins of the household are where the sorting process takes place. Everything that comes into the household, either gets used up, or at some point, it gets removed beyond the borders of the household. Non-trash belongs in the house, trash belongs outside the house. So I'm literally talking about the spatial interface between the public and the private. People used to throw their dirty dishwater out the window. This is when they didn't have drains in their houses. Marginal categories get put in marginal places, literally the margins of the household: the attic, the basement, the outbuildings, and they get stored there until they might get given away or sold or brought back into use again. Similarly, the boundaries and margins of the city are places where that sorting process goes on. Once trash once household refuse is in the alley or in the dump, which are public marginal places, household refuse becomes both public matter in the sense that it's available for other for people to claim or reclaim, and a public matter. A topic of public debate, a problem that is to be solved by public means. 

Susan Strasser  9:22  
A third common saying is that "one person's trash is another person's treasure." And indeed, different people sort differently. What is trash to one person may be something that somebody else wants, as we know from auctions. Some of this is a matter of personality. I like to use the example of the cabinet that gets kind of worn looking and somebody takes it to the basement and for 25 years, it sits there and people put paint cans on it or whatever. And then somebody says, "That's a cool cabinet," and strips it and brings it back upstairs. So it's a matter of personality that that person has the vision to see it as something that might be usable again. But it's important to note that there are crucial economic and social dimensions to the ways that different people sort differently. The first and undoubtedly, most important is class. The poor constitutes secondhand consumer markets,. They go to junk stores, they go to thrift stores, which depend on the rich to cast things off, and often to subsidize their operations with cash. The skills of poverty include the skills of wasting less, and the skills of using materials, the skills of scavenging of knowing what might be saleable, and the skills involved in selling used materials. scavengers, supply and have historically supplied second hand producers markets, the biggest and most important, probably being rags for the production of paper.

Susan Strasser  11:32  
I want to suggest that some of the skills to reuse that determine whether someone sees something as trash or treasure are handwork skills. I like to tell the story of a friend of mine who invited me over some years ago to look at the stuff that she was planning to give to Goodwill. And I'm always willing to take a look. And there was her favorite sweater in the pile. And I mean, it was the sweater I'd seen her wear a lot of times and I was surprised that she was giving it away. And so I asked why she was–the sweater was in the pile. And she said, Well look, there's a hole in it. And because I knit, I know how to fix the hole. And so I said I'll fix it for you. And I fixed it for her and she wore it for a number of more years. My point is that if you know how to make something, then you know how to fix something. And these are handwork skills, which as I'll suggest, as we go on, have disappeared as as consumer culture has developed, although now there are certainly niche markets for them. I want to call do a little call out to another crucial famous anthropologist besides Mary Douglas, and that's Claude Levi-Strauss and his concept of bricolage. I'm sort of relieved when I first did this, these talks, the word bricolage was very fashionable, in in kind of abstract kind of ways. And I'm talking about bricolage and the way that Levi-Strauss himself talked about bricolage, which is literally talking about the the bricoleur, the hand worker who makes the collection of stuff that might prove useful some time. And so when the bricoleur involved here needed to patch the fence and make a new hinge, did it with the sole of a tire sample and some bottle caps. This is a the bricolage collection of stuff that might turn out to be useful sometime. I want to stress also that these handwork skills are gendered.

Susan Strasser  14:08  
The man who could fix the broken chair, the woman who knew how to turn her husband's trousers that had holes in it into pants for her son, these are the people who would not throw those things away and these skills are for the most part gendered. They are also dependent on age especially during the 20th century. As consumer culture developed and as skills to reuse things disappeared. Young people bought things instead of making do and as the consumer culture developed, they tended to be the first to buy.

Susan Strasser  14:58  
Another common phrase: "Waste not, want not." Assuming that we're in the first world, the world that we have lost the world of the 19th century, and before, was a world in which people practiced what I've described as a stewardship of objects and materials. They reuse things and the habits and skills of reuse were fundamental to the habits and skills of daily life. I could give you examples, till the cows come home if there are any cows left in Cambridge. 19th century domestic advice books are full of advice on how to mend glass, on how to I mean, which is, you know, mend glass! They and the things that they tried using to mend glass are pretty amazing to garlic, for example, which you know, from cooking, it's very sticky. Apparently, people did use it to mend glass. The leftovers on the plate that people regularly reused. When the elbows of a shirt or a jacket got thin, the procedure was to remove the sleeves and switch them so that the inside would be outside and you know, then you would have some firm material at the elbow. Similarly, sheets were regularly split down the middle and the two sides would be sewn together. And I've seen these these pieces of advice given so often that it's clear to me that that some of these habits were in fact quite commonplace. Even rich people did this stuff. Edith Wharton novels are full of women who send their fancy Paris gowns back to the couturier in Paris to get the, get a new collar or new buttons or a new sleeves, whatever the latest fashion is, rather than just throwing the thing away or giving it to the made. Things we're used to the last possible point. You might make a quilt from old from old clothes, you might use the old quilt as it was in this case for stuffing for a chair. But I want to use this picture as a bit of a warning. I got this picture from a wonderful book called "Culture and Comfort" by Catherine Greer, who is now my colleague. And unfortunately, when the book got published in paperback, the chapter that was on the read on homemade furniture–the book is about parlors and parlor culture, and the chapter that was on how people used to make furniture, in this case out of a barrel got cut out, which is very sad, because it was of course, my favorite chapter of the book. But one of the points that Greer makes that is very profound and was really convincing to me is that he the, you can look at this as thrift but it makes more sense to look at it as a kind of consumerism that this chair, I mean, now not in very good shape. But in its heyday, it was something that someone who wanted the parlor but couldn't afford to buy furniture made in order to make the appearance of the latest consumer goods. My last  common phrase is I almost offered you a song which some of you may have learned in summer camp, the round "Chairs to Mend," but I decided neither to sing it nor to use the recording of it that I got off the internet. But the  idea that I want you to think about is the rags part, any old rags, any old rags, that comes from that from that summer camp song.

Susan Strasser  19:46  
This picture gives you a sense of one collection method for old rags. This is rags here and rags here. And it was a common thing in the early industrial system for peddlers and general stores to collect recyclable materials, things that we would call post-consumer recycling. Things like rags, paper, glass, rubber, bones, and metal. And they would collect these things and take them back. And so what this meant was that there was a kind of two-way relationship between households and manufacturers. Our way of thinking of that relationship is goods go one way, money goes the other way. But in this system, and I should say I learned about it from the wonderful papers of a master peddler named [INAUDIBLE] Noyes in the Baker Library at the business school. This guy kept these little notebooks which you can just imagine him putting keeping in his breast pocket. And so you can read the little notebooks and see all the stuff he's interested in. And he was someone who manufactured tinware. And he sent peddlers out to peddle the tinware. But he also was extremely interested in the stuff that they brought back. And if you think about it, he's hiring these peddlers and he doesn't want them to come back with empty wagons. He wants to be making money on both directions of trade. So he shipped stuff to peddlers and he took stuff from the peddlers he shipped stuff to manufacturers, and he took stuff from manufacturers. So trains were one of the things that did this system. And although at the time when Noyes was working, his peddlers sometimes delivered the rags to train stations. What I'm suggesting is that, in early industrial society used materials were integral to both the household economy and the larger economy. They were an essential element of economic processes, not simply a byproduct. And if you think about at least certain industries, like paper, production, and disposal, were part of the same process. All of this has changed over time. And the description of of how these things has changed over time, is what I'm going to try to give you. I mean, it's kind of hard for me to sum the whole thing up, but, but I will do my best. I want to suggest, first of all, that the loss of handwork was central to this historical process. And that is literally the process of industrialization, that things go from being made by hand to being at home to being made and by craftspeople to being made by industrial processes.

Susan Strasser  23:28  
Into the period of early industrialization, there were no landfills. There were no incinerators and there just simply wasn't much trash. To use an ecological analogy, cities were closed systems. Waste to one part were resources to another part, and certainly farms were that as well.

Susan Strasser  24:07  
The systems in cities involved ragpickers, they involved scavengers, they involved animals that process the detritus. And as here you can see early municipal solid waste collection and disposal systems involved the sorting of trash. And in fact, I recently had a current practitioner of recycling email me and asked me for a copy of this picture because he felt like it would inspire his guys because fundamentally, they're doing the same thing. Municipal collection systems incorporated reuse. And this is a picture, it's from 1917. And by then there had been municipal collection systems for 20-30 years, but so it's a little bit late, but I was thrilled to find this picture. Because I haven't seen another; I knew about these kinds of separation. And but this is the first time that I've seen such a really nice clear picture of source separation at the beginning of the 20th century. The thing that's missing here that was frequently separated out is ashes, which is something that we don't really think of, but they were used primarily for landfill and they were an important piece of the source separation system. So, there was household source separation, municipal collection, incorporated this kind of reuse. There was picking. Organic material was used in many cities for swine feed, taken to the borders of the of the city and and sold to farmers. There were what was known as swill children who went from house to house collecting organic material, and then selling it. And I want to emphasize that, while the ecological analogy can be romanticized, this was not clean. From our perspective, streets smelled really bad. people's bodies smelled really bad. scavenger pigs and swill children and dumping all over the place would not appeal to 21st century Americans whatsoever. Industrial production and mass distribution moved us from that closed system to open systems. The modern city takes stuff in by truck and by claim, and it flushes waste out into landfills into sewage treatment plants into toxic dumps. The growth of new markets depends on the disposal of old things. An old way of life was replaced by mass consumption by disposable goods by waste on a previously unimaginable scale. And consumers became hooked on cleanliness, on convenience, on fashion, and on constant technological change. What I'm talking about took decades to happen. It was a complicated and gradual set of cultural changes.

Susan Strasser  28:29  
Yet it added up to what I think can be understood as a seismic shift in individuals' relationship to the material world. Literally, I'm talking about the development of a consumer culture, that people who once made things, now bought things. And some of those were things that nobody had ever made. at home or in small craft shops. Nobody ever made flashlights or cameras or toothpaste or cornflakes. So there was this huge introduction of a whole lot of stuff that replace the make shifts of daily life. The handmade so the question is, how did this happen? And I want to suggest I want to offer you five things that are at least one way of suggesting how it happened. Actually, I would call it six, My, my. Well, we'll do five and then we'll, we'll talk about the sixth. The first is the development of new kinds of products, things that were made to be thrown out after brief use. And by the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, many, many of those things had been developed. Some of them were disposables, things that were made to be used one time. And this was one of those pictures that I was just delighted to find. We have paper plates, we have boxes that these people are, have gotten their stuff from in 1921. So some of it is disposables. And those disposables include paper plates and paper boxes. They include, they include toilet paper, razor blades, things that eliminated certain tasks that made it so that you didn't have to wash stuff, you didn't have to refill stuff, you didn't have to sharpen the razor. It meant less care of objects. Some of these materials were packaging materials, designed to get goods from factories to consumers. One time, in the 19th century, many packaging materials were brought back to the store and reuse bottles, especially for technical reasons that I don't 100% understand, the mechanization of bottle making was really quite late. And so for really basically the whole 19th century and into the 20th, the business of returning bottles and getting them refilled was quite common. And then in the early 20th century, bottle making became mechanized. So some of these are packages that we think of easily, but some of them are little objects like bottlecaps, to marketing materials. A world that was not full of catalogs of newspapers, of magazines with advertising, by the last two decades of the 19th century was inundated with marketing materials. So these are all new kinds of products, things made to be thrown out after brief use. A second set of reasons why this happened was the marketing of new product virtues, the making of new habits, new attitudes about stuff, new attitudes about reuse and new attitudes about frugality. In this Heinz advertisement, you have the old way, which is making ketchup and the new way, which is buying ketchup.

Susan Strasser  33:13  
These new product virtues–convenience, cleanliness and the celebration of newness itself–made it so that throwing things out was not just okay. But it became a positive contribution to the quality of life. It became an affordable luxury. Convenience. Handwork was not convenient. Refilling things was not convenient. And so the handwork skills became hobbies, they became pastimes. They became the activities of a market segment. Cleanliness, one of the ways all the new products were marketed was to teach people that they were cleaner than the old products. And the Heinz factory is a good example, Heinz sponsored at the very beginning of packaged foods. People needed to be convinced that it was okay to buy stuff that had been made in a faraway factory. And one of the ways that manufacturers convinced people was by opening up their factories to factory tours, and that's what these signs are about here. The Heinz factory was famous for factory tours. I grew up in Pittsburgh, home of the Heinz factory and must have gone on three or four, six of them as a Brownie and as a third grader. It was it was they wouldn't take us to the steel mills but they took us to the Heinz plant. In addition to convenience and cleanliness, there was an important celebration of newness itself. Your house is not modern without a bathroom equipped with standard wear, this was a typical way that things got sold to people. Fashion was extended both to more people and to more products. Bathroom fixtures originally, not so much. Well, towels, let me turn limited. Let's step back to from the, from the bathroom fixtures, which are expensive to install, to towels, which were available only in white into the 1920s. And then they became a fashion statement as did new colored fixtures become fashion statements. So fashion was extended, both to more products and also to more people and to poor and poor people. Well, not so much poor people. But from the rich to the middle class in this period. We can talk about H&M after and IKEA after in the in the question section. Cars and radios combined these issues of style with issues of technological obsolescence so that it became not only that you were buying the latest style of radio, though with the most beautiful, most modern cabinet, but also one that could get more stations that could get stations further away. And if you look at the at the development of consumer goods, radios as consumer goods during the 1920s, you see this constant ratcheting up of, of the technology as well as constant changing of the styles. Similarly, in cars. The third big change that I mentioned before is the association of mending and reuse with poverty. The poor had always wasted less stuff, and they had always used material. But now in the beginning of the 20th century Goodwill and the Salvation Army offered middle class people the moral way to dispose of usable things and the the using of them became connected with poverty. The fourth change was the development of what I want to call a habit of disposal. And the first thing that made that habit was literally municipal collection, municipal collection made it possible to dispose of things in a whole new way. They were literally out of sight out of mind, you put them in the can, you put the can at the curb, and then something happens to them.

Susan Strasser  38:20  
And you don't know and you don't need to know it becomes easy and distant. There was also during this period of time the development of a separate waste trade in salvaged metal and rags particularly. And the fifth–So these things contributed to that development of a habit of disposal. And the fifth thing that I want to point to is the end of 19th-century recycling. And this system ended for a number of reasons. Trains did in the two-way aspect, as did urbanization. Production changes happened in all of the industries that use use material. Rag paper, except for expensive paper, was replaced by wood pulp paper. bottles became mechanized. Meat packers Swift and Armour, which had used all–people used to–farmers used to sell bones but now they would sell the whole cow and Swift and Armour put out a lot of different products using all of the parts of the of the animal. So there were changes in production, but there were also changes in distribution. The train I suggested, mail order, the express company. Rural people no longer got things from the peddler. All of this contributed not only to a change in how people talked, I mean, how people did, dealt with, with materials with use materials, but ultimately contributed to a change in how people talked about reuse . The 19th century world that I'm sketching for you regarded the reusing of materials as a matter of common sense, as a matter of utility. As a matter of the stewardship of objects. People understood the value of labor in manufactured goods, because they had seen goods manufactured. By the 20th century, whatever reuse happened became a matter of virtue. And in World War II, there was a huge propaganda effort. And I would submit that much of it was a propaganda effort, although there was a collection of the collection of materials did, some of them did indeed get used in the war effort. But this kind of sense of utility of the stewardship of objects was no longer the reason to save and reuse things. Now, it became a virtue, the virtue of patriotism. And later in the 20th century, the virtue of environmental awareness, the virtue of stewardship of the earth, stewardship of natural resources. So I promised you a little bit of international perspective from this European conference that I had gone to that I went to about the history of recycling. And the interesting thing that I perceived was an agreement in the papers that I heard on the general narrative. And the only exception to this general narrative was the woman who talked about Hungary. Everybody talked, everybody else talked about the way that before World War II, recycling was a normal expression of scarcity and frugality. And then, in World War II, it became organized by the state. Someone gave a really wonderful paper about scrap in Britain during World War II. And he talked about two really interesting issues. One was the reuse of metal and other materials from bombed structures, which was known as Blitz scrap.

Susan Strasser  43:21  
And he talked about the enormous propaganda value of this Blitz scrap. The other really fascinating thing for a historian and for a conference of historians, was that he talked about the fact that the zeal for recycling in Britain became so great that archivists and librarians across Britain were alarmed by how much paper was being thrown out, that are being sent to scrap, that there were people you know, were raiding their attics and contributing their great grandparents papers to the to the war effort, and archivists were saying, you know, some of this stuff really needs to be in archives of libraries instead. Someone else gave a really fascinating paper on the Nazis. And particularly, I mean, the the Nazi scrap effort was huge, and probably more much, certainly much more than the United States. It was crucial to the Nazi war effort. But the Nazis were in a quandary because in Germany as in other countries, Jews had dominated the scrap trade and Jews were the people who knew how to collect and how to get the stuff recycled and how to move the stuff and so, on the one hand, they needed the materials and they needed the information. And on the other hand they didn't like the people who had the information. Didn't like is a understatement. In both cases, the British and the Nazi case, I was struck and listening to it by how similar the propaganda value was to the way this stuff was used for propaganda in the United States. In the United States, as well as in Germany, and Britain. This was a children's crusade, this was a way to get kids whose fathers were off fighting the war into the war effort, it was a way to get them excited about the war, was a way, and I looked at, like, curriculum materials that the government put out as to how to organize kids to collect scrap. So all of the all of these countries that people were talking about had this general narrative before World War II, recycling was a normal expression of scarcity and frugality. During World War II was organized by the state. Then after that there was in the post-war period, there was a kind of a throwaway period, a period of profligacy, and then more recently, environmentally motivated recycling. Now, what's different in the different countries has was differences in timing. There wasn't necessarily agreement among all these historians about how to characterize the periods or how people got from one to another in that different in different countries. Some of them, some of the papers emphasize cultural differences. And in at least several of the papers, people talked about the ways that the state sometimes takes a role even in peacetime. Someone gave a paper on Japan in the Edo period, describing it as an environmentally conscious society enforced by strict laws and constant police surveillance. And I was suggesting that the narrative was different in the paper about Hungary where in both the Communist and the capitalist areas, the state organized the recycling effort. But in general, I'm struck by the fundamental agreement and similarity in describing the general terms of the narrative over the 20th century. So what do we make of all of this? Is it a story of the world going to hell in a handbasket?

Susan Strasser  48:10  
I want to suggest that the world we lost, that 19th century world was not ideal. It was, as I mentioned, it was a pretty dirty kind of situation, something that we would not find attractive. But I also want to say that as someone who began my historical work by studying housework, I'm very conscious of the hard work and particularly the hard work that women did. And the ways that modern women, contemporary women want to be putting some of our effort into giving talks at the Peabody Museum, or whatever, rather than spending 100% of our time running households. So I don't want to say that the world we have lost is ideal, but neither is the new world ideal. Since the 1960s, there have been lots of critiques of consumer culture. And I want to suggest that all of them still have some kind of value. This many years later, women are still used to sell things. women's bodies are still used to sell things and feminist critiques of marketing and consumer culture still are vital. The regionalist aesthetic cases against homogenized culture, which as someone who comes to Harvard Square now every year so, I have to say is really, I sadly noticed the mallification of of Harvard Square. But those regionalist and aesthetic critiques have now become global critiques and not just national ones. Social injustice is a critique of consumer culture that still has enormous meaning. Consumption reproduces inequality in our culture, rather than birth, reproducing, inequality or caste reproducing inequality. Many people have talked about the decline of social values and of social space in consumer culture. The ways that personal desires take precedence over the values of tribe are the values of religion, are the values of nature. But it seems to me that the environmental critique is probably the least debatable critique of consumer culture. Besides the effects of global climate change, we feel the effects of what seems to be incessant and forever warfare over the materials that are required to keep our consumption going. Even if you glorify first world consumption, you have to think that it's reasonable for people who are not in the first world to want an equivalent level of convenience and comfort and cleanliness to that that we enjoy. And it is reasonable to ask whether the planet can provide sufficient resources. And I would suggest the planet cannot provide sufficient resources for consumption on our level for everybody, unless we have some big changes. So the situation is serious. We're literally consumers. Fuel of us know how to sew clothes anymore. Few of us know how to build houses anymore. Few of us even make music instead of buying it. We don't know a lot of stuff. We don't know how to get clean water. We don't know how to make gasoline. The systems of daily life are too complex for us to comprehend. We don't understand really, how our lives impact the earth. Possibly the most fascinating discussion in this conference in Munich that I went to was a discussion of the carbon footprint of Google searches, which was something that I had never thought about. But there is so much that we don't think about, we don't we don't know where to draw lines. I took an airplane to come here. Is this a wise use of resources? I hope you'll feel it was but I want to question it. I like toilet paper, I devoted part of my book waste and want to ascribe to a discussion of sanitary napkins because it is a disposable product that I really feel has added to the quality of women's lives. I question disposable computers. But frankly, I buy a new computer before my old computer wears out.

Susan Strasser  53:12  
We don't know how much impact our personal prep practices have in the context of industrial practices. And we don't know how much impact our personal practices have in the context of the personal practices of other people in the developed world. And we don't know how to do other than what we do do. We are constrained by limited choices in how to live our daily lives. In fact, the people and the institutions of economic power construct the overall systems of production, distribution, and disposal. And it's those systems within which we act as consumers. We need new kinds of understandings and we need to be open to discussing taboos to seeing what's usually not talked about. I want my work to make people think about trash, to make people think about the supermarket, to add a layer of perception of understanding of analysis and of critique to everyday life. More than most other historians, environmental historians connect history and policy, but I want to end by saying that history offers no straightforward solutions. Embracing the concept of change over time, complicates matters, it doesn't simplify them. We see so many situations in which there is no clear cause and effect, and we certainly cannot return to the past. But like foreign travel and like anthropology, I believe that a historical perspective provides us a viewpoint from which we can observe other ways to be human, from which we can ask heretical, but important questions that may help us develop new ideas, new concepts, new practices, and new technologies that our planet needs so badly. Thank you.

Susan Strasser  55:26  
I'm happy to take questions. I don't know what the plan I know there's a reception. I don't know what Pamela's plan is. We do have time for questions. Okay.

Unknown Speaker  55:36  

Susan Strasser  56:48  
Well, I guess I don't see the reuse of materials in Detroit as anything new or different. The fact that it comes in a city that is ravaged by desertion, by the desertion of the industries doesn't change the fact that there are markets for these things. And they, there are people who figure out how to sell things in those markets, how to get things and sell them in the market. So I don't I, as I said, I come from Pittsburgh, and it's shocking to me when I go to Pittsburgh, now that the Jones and Laughlin steel plant that we passed on the way down town, every time we went downtown is not there anymore. And, you know, I no more thought that a steel plant could disappear, then that, you know, a mountain could disappear. I would it?

Susan Strasser  58:16  
Right. And I think that those, you know, I mean, that those are, as I said, not new reasons. And the other thing that I would point to in Detroit, is the huge number of artists who have moved to Detroit, and one of the, one of the points that I make in my book is that what was everybody's way of thinking has become considered an artistic way of thinking that you would see possibilities in us things. And that's true. I mean, if you think about it, it's true of the whole 20th century, starting with Picasso and Brock, making collages, that that the that the history of 20th century art is the history is in part, the history of that kind of use of found objects and it can be described all the way up. And actually in the, in the most recent time as the art market has heated up more and more, and there's more and more desire for affordable for, you know, kind of middle and upper middle class people to have art objects there. There's all that stuff that's made in Africa, from telephone wire or old tin or not old tin but you know, 10 packaging material and so, you know, that's another way of thinking about it. That's that Not about environmental awareness also. So yeah, I mean, I think I think that there are various ways, but the, the sort of the central way that recycling is presented to us. And and is is encouraged is, I think with that environmental frame. Yeah. 

Unknown Speaker  1:00:33  

Susan Strasser  1:01:51  
is it uncanny? Hmm. Well, but they're not talking about terrible, totally different things. They're talking about similar things. Yeah, but I mean, what I'm what I'm trying to suggest about the the old, old old world is that in all human cultures, people reuse stuff, that that that that's the that, that that's the, the thing that the industrial culture interrupted. And so I guess it doesn't seem uncanny to me. But maybe you can convince me that it is because I'm supposed to, actually, I'm supposed to write the wrap up article for the book that's going to come out of this conference, and I haven't done it yet. And I, you know, you're you're making me think, well, maybe I need to interrogate it in a different kind of way. So I'm, I'm open to your uncanniness. But it doesn't, it doesn't feel uncanny to me. here and then there.

Unknown Speaker  1:04:08  

Susan Strasser  1:04:15  
Or the price is very high. And in the 19th century, the price of rags was extremely high. There was international trade in rags. They went from they went from country to country in order to supply paper factories, because it was the only way to make paper. And in the United States, there was a big push after the revolution, not to buy paper from English factories and to develop a domestic paper industry and in order to develop a domestic paper industry, they had to develop a domestic rag distribution system or pick up system and but wood pulp, you couldn't make wood pulp paper until the 1870s. Yeah, yeah. And so and so in order to have so paper was expensive. Paper was–rags were expensive and paper was expensive. If you look at a letter from 1850 someone writes the letter and then they don't take you start a second sheet of paper, they start writing in the margins.