Book review: Garbage Wars: The Struggle For Environmental Justice By David Naguib Pellow

Sociologist David Naguib Pellow has come out with an engrossing account of Chicago from the perspective of what surrounds us all: garbage. It is the kind of book that gives environmentalism a good name...

 
By Sopan Joshi
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

-- Garbage Wars: The Struggle For Environmental Justice By David Naguib Pellow First edition Published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press USA 2002

Sociologist David Naguib Pellow has come out with an engrossing account of Chicago from the perspective of what surrounds us all: garbage. It is the kind of book that gives environmentalism a good name. The book traces 100-odd years of garbage management to show the underlying socio-political currents that determine who gets to bear the brunt of human-made environmental hazards. Combining historical and ethnographic research, Pellow is concerned to show that it isn't an 'accident' or a matter of chance that garbage invariably finds its way to areas inhabited by African-Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and other vulnerable communities. The book, therefore, deals with what it calls 'environmental racism', but also goes beyond: it is also a record of people's struggles in a search for 'environmental justice'.

In this context, the choice of Chicago city is a perfect one. One of the us' first large cities, highly industrialised and polluted, Chicago also used to be the capital of the meat packaging industry. Formerly called the slaughterhouse of the world, it has more landfills per square mile than any other city in the us. At the same time, it is a city with a history of ethnic, racial and economic clashes, especially labour-capital conflicts. Its suburbs are where the world's largest waste hauler, Waste Management, Inc (wmx, with annual revenues of about us $11 billion and operations across four continents) is to be found.

Garbage Wars dwells on all this and more to show us the politics of environment at the grassroots level. It is abundantly peppered with in-depth (yet pithy) details of the pressures and pulls of industry, trade unions, neighbourhoods, politicians and officials. In seven chapters, Pellow has neatly arranged 100 years of social, racial and economic conflicts, threading it together with the underlying environmental theme.

The ethnographic tone of the book is set in the first chapter: the reader is taken through a photographic tour of the garbage history of Chicago. Chapter 2 delves into history. It begins with the 'Garbage Lady', Mary McDowell. One of many anti-racist anti-garbage crusaders profiled in the book, she set out in 1913 the model of resistance to trashy imposition. The book then follows flesh and blood tales of labour/community resistance to garbage dumps in their neighbourhoods, authorities acting in collusion with polluting industries and the role of the media -- at one time, the Chicago Tribune had actually appointed a task force of health commissioners to investigate businesses and tenements.

The author then takes the reader through the grisly 'waste wars' of the post-war years, showing how the struggles for labour rights, women's rights and civil rights became enmeshed with the effort to organise vulnerable groups against dumping of the city's wastes in their backyard; how the city moved from the blight of open dumps to the noxious fumes of waste incinerators, then to landfills that leached, then back to incinerators, and through sanitary landfills to recycling (see box: How Chicago handles waste).

How Chicago handles waste

1880s-1910s: city dumps, reduction plants, reuse
1920s-early 1940s: incinerators
World War II-1950s: sanitary landfills
1960s-early1970s: incinerators
1976-1989: sanitary landfills, incineration, recycling
1990-present: incinerators, sanitary landfills, recycling

Pellow has a full chapter on the politics of recycling. It makes a case for how the us government's efforts to recycle were shaped by racial ideology. The us federal waste recovery programme during World War ii was adopted from Hitler's Nazi regime. Recycling methods were racially discriminating. As an African-American worker at a waste recycling plant tells Pellow, her boss has a philosophy about recycling, but none about humans. Even large ngos (the influential 'Big Ten' organisations, mainly white and middle class) were not exempt from racism: Pellow shows how they provide support and respectability to polluters and racial discriminators.

The struggles to reclaim community lifestyles from the depredations of garbage have been unsentimentally portrayed. Some of them are historical figures, but in Pellow's book they are reachable. That is an important aspect of the book; the narrative is not a dark and gloomy omen of our poisoned past and future. In profiling the real struggles of the underdogs, it brings hope; no lofty speeches, just well researched tales of how they made it, or didn't. The book is valuable reading for researchers and activists alike.

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