Strasser investigates the history of trash

It may be convenient to toss out the old and continually buy new products in the throw-away world of the modern consumer.

But Susan Strasser '69 thinks the price for this lifestyle, where so much ends up being burned in incinerators or buried in landfills, might be much higher than many people realize.

In fact, the University of Delaware history professor warns that some day only the wealthy will be able to afford clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. "It's incontrovertible that our consumption has deleterious effects on the environment," Strasser says. "We will survive, but what will the quality of life be for most people?"

Strasser raises that question in her book Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash (Metropolitan/ Holt, 1999). She spoke about the book at Reed this fall in a lecture that was sponsored by the Richard Metz Kenin Memorial Lectureship.

Strasser said that the mid 1800s was one of the last periods in which virtually every object was in some way reused, creating a closed production cycle. Since that time, Strasser said, industrialization and mass production have changed the relationship between individuals and goods. While people once made things and valued materials, people in industrial societies now relate to goods primarily as consumers.

During the twentieth century, American consumer culture developed values of cleanliness, newness, and disposability. "Throwing things out became not just okay, but a contribution to the quality of life," she said. Style became paramount as it was extended to more and more products. Technological obsolescence became a concern of consumers as well as of factory owners.

At the same time, Americans abandoned the handwork that fostered reuse of materials.

Strasser believes the consumer lifestyle raises cultural issues as well as environmental ones. She wonders about its effects on human creativity.

"Most people no longer make music, they buy it," she said. "It's often the same with food, clothing, and shelter. I question what happens to an entire culture when the making of our material world is the function of a small group and the rest of us are constrained to just be consumers."

Strasser said it was difficult for her to end her book on a hopeful note, she said. But she finally found the answer in the concept of a global environment, which developed during the 1970s as people came to comprehend that their actions had consequences for the health of the earth. "If we come to realize that, there is some basis for hope," she said.

Her book ends a trilogy she wrote on the history of American consumption that grew out of her Reed senior history thesis on advice to nineteenth-century American women.

She expanded her thesis into a Ph.D. dissertation about housework and household technology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and published Never Done: A History of American Housework in 1982. Her second book, Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of The American Mass Market, was published in 1989.

By Sonya Zalubowski

Next Page
Next Page