Publication Date

September 6, 2018

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily, Perspectives Summer Columns


Environmental, Urban

“What Stinks in Midtown?” asked an article in the Detroit Free Press in 2011. I’d never really set out to become a historian of trash—growing up near Detroit, I’d always considered myself an urban historian first and foremost. But reading this article about a trash incinerator across the expressway from the rapidly gentrifying Midtown neighborhood, which was emitting an awful rotting stench and angering both long-time business owners and residents who’d moved in recently, sparked a new interest in me. By the end of the article, I kept asking: how long has this been going on and why is it only now a problem? Suddenly, my long-simmering interest in equity, justice, and urban space had another layer, one that centered environmental and health concerns.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city officials in Detroit built what was then the world’s largest trash incinerator.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, city officials in Detroit built what was then the world’s largest trash incinerator.

Today, my dissertation has evolved to analyze the political, environmental, and economic contexts that led city officials in Detroit to construct the world’s largest trash incinerator in the late 1970s and early 1980s. My dissertation asks how that project—which was seen as an environmental and economic solution to multiple municipal issues—ultimately contributed to Detroit’s recent financial problems, and how activists lent their voices to protests in the streets, the newspapers, and the courts. It was this topic and my shift toward environmental history that brought me to my current role at Loyola University Chicago’s Office of Sustainability. While my first post in this series focused on how I apply my skills and knowledge as a historian to success as a sustainability graduate assistant, this post will explore the opposite: how my experiences working in sustainability over the past year have made me a better, more sensitive historian.

On the most basic level, working in sustainability has allowed me to better understand some of the technical aspects of my dissertation. My experience helping with zero waste events and talking to staff, students, and faculty about how our waste hauler’s limitations—such as its inability to process “compostable” plastics because of lack of infrastructure—affects what we can do on campus. (Even if our dining services provider spends extra money on “compostable” serving ware, every fork, knife, and spoon will end up in the trash anyway.) The ability to explain how our waste hauler’s limitations shape our practices on campus allows me to better understand and explain the obstacles to recycling that cities like Detroit faced early on in the 1970s. While Detroit could have instituted the curbside recycling programs that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources wanted in order to divert plastics and, thus, its dangerous emissions from the incinerator’s waste stream, it wasn’t just a matter of giving every resident in the city a blue bin and telling them not to throw away bottles. If the city and their waste hauler had no way to actually recycle plastics, they would still end up in the trash.

On the most basic level, working in sustainability has allowed me to better understand some of the technical aspects of my dissertation.

Working in sustainability has also allowed me to develop more understanding and empathy for my subjects. In Detroit in the early 1970s, city officials were trying to build a trash incinerator because—based on the information they were given by industry, other cities, and the EPA—it sounded like a relatively environmentally friendly and cost-effective way to dispose of waste and generate reliable and cheap electricity from heat. The decision was further influenced by the dual disruptions of the garbage crisis in the 1960s and the energy crisis in the 1970s, which put the city in a precarious position, one that was further compounded by its overall financial decline in those decades. While city officials could have chosen other alternatives, I understand the sense of uncertainty and anxiety they must have felt as they navigated unproven technologies and new policies.

Working in sustainability here at Loyola has been filled with the same sense of uncertainty as laws change and new technologies arise. In the first few weeks of starting my new job at the office, we worked with our Facilities Department to install solar arrays on one of our rooftops. But as a new state energy law providing incentives to switch to renewable energy and new federal tariffs on solar panels went into effect, we twice found ourselves uncertain on how to proceed. Just a couple of weeks ago, a dockless scooter company visited our office seeking to bring its product to our campus. We found ourselves uncertain of what we could do—in the face of this new technology, we had no policy, no infrastructure, nothing to guide us except our experience with similar technologies like docked bike sharing, the experiences of other universities with this technology, and our strategic thinking.

Working in sustainability has allowed me to develop more understanding and empathy for my subjects.

Articulating the broader impact of sustainability across environment, economy, and society (what we call triple bottom line) also reminds me in my work as a historian to be mindful of interconnectedness across various contexts. While our training as graduate students in history often teaches us to be sensitive to the varied and complex relationships between politics, economics, race, gender, and culture, my work in sustainability underscores this lesson and challenges me to find connections where I otherwise may not have. In writing about Detroit activists who opposed the city’s trash incinerator for environmental and public health reasons, I can see how their fears regarding pollution and the degradation of the environment can be contextualized within larger concerns about economic equity and the strength and vibrancy of their communities.

Overall, working in sustainability has provided me with a unique perspective as I move forward with my professional career. My experiences over the past year demonstrate that historical skills and knowledge are adaptable and well suited to many other professions that seek to address present day issues: we think critically and creatively, we evaluate arguments, we are good storytellers, we are attuned to our various audiences. Sustainability as a field seeks these skills as it reacts to changing contexts and works to educate the public about how to make our world more equitable. While working in Loyola’s sustainability office has made me a more sensitive historian, it also has reconfirmed my belief that many more “present-focused” professions could benefit from the unique perspective historians bring. Each field has something to offer to the other; all we need is to open ourselves up to the possibilities.

Chelsea Denault is a winner of the 2018 AHA Summer Blog Contest and a doctoral candidate in public history and US history at Loyola University Chicago. Chelsea earned her BA in history from Albion College and has worked as a public history professional for various museums, historic preservation organizations, and archives in Chicago. Her dissertation, “‘An Environmental Sleight of Hand:’ Trash, Technology, and Activism in Detroit, 1970–1989,” considers how anxieties about waste, energy, the environment, and urban decline led to the construction of a trash incinerator in Detroit and sparked a grassroots movement against the facility.

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