Waste between the 19th and the 21st century: the price of modernity or the sign of a misdirected development?

Iris Borowy's picture
Call for Papers
June 8, 2018
Subject Fields: 
Economic History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, Public Health, Political History / Studies, Social History / Studies

Workshop: Waste between the 19th and the 21st century: the price of modernity or the sign of a misdirected development?

Workshop hosted by the Center for the History of Global Development, Shanghai University

Time: 26/27 October, 2018

Place: Shanghai University, Shanghai

Waste generation has increased exponentially during the twentieth century, spreading leftovers of a wasteful life-style to even remote corners of the world. In the process, it has created environmental, economic and financial challenges at municipal, national and global levels. According to OECD and World Bank projections, the amount of global waste will have doubled or possibly tripled by the end of this century. This development is generally considered one of the consequences of industrialization, consumerism and population growth since the nineteenth century, and , at present, there is no end in sight.

At the same time, there is no easy definition of „waste.“  Depending on circumstances, the same material can function as useless garbage or industrial raw material, as dangerous organic waste or valuable fertilizer, as sub-quality material to be disposed of or perfectly edible food. On the other hand, some types of waste are highly toxic for humans as well as other beings and no useful purpose for it is in sight. Some, like radioactive waste, will remain dangerous to human health for millennia to come. Some forms change definition between countries or have repeatedly shifted categories over time.

This ambivalence makes waste a fascinating object of study, and in recent times, it has increasingly attracted the attention of historians, who have chosen very different concepts and contextualizations.  Mary Douglas has famously defined dirt as “matter out of place,” treating waste as a constructed entity. Marco Armiero, by contrast, has highlighted its physical reality as he coined the concept of “wasteocene,” depicting a socio-economic system increasingly defined by its production of useless material.  These approaches seem at the same time complementary and contradictory, as they highlight the different facets of waste, both its imagined and objective reality.

This workshop aims at bringing together scholars of waste to explore some of these issues. Contributions are invited on the following topics, but are not limited to them:

  • Conceptualization: how has waste been defined at different times and places? How have these concepts changed over time? What have been the determinants of these constructions? What roles do concepts such as modernity, luxury, status, inefficiency play?
  • Case studies: analyses of specific cases of waste management and the decisions, values, circumstances and consequences they involved.
  • Inequality: how has socioeconomic inequality played out in the generation and/or the disposal to waste, in short or long term perspectives?
  • What experience is there with wastereduction schemes such as recycling or zero-waste plans?
  • Waste trade: what position does waste have within national and international trade? Who are the main actors? What have been the social, environmental and economic repercussions?

Please send an abstract and a short cv (one page) until 8 June, 2018 to borowyiris@i.shu.edu.cn.

The Center for the History of Global Development will cover costs for accommodation and meals. Funding is also available for travel assistance.






Contact Info: 

Iris Borowy

Center for the History of Development

Shanghai University


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