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Hybrid Nature

Hybrid Nature: Sewage Treatment and the Contradictions of the Industrial Ecosystem

Daniel Schneider
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: MIT Press
Pages: 376
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  • Book Info
    Hybrid Nature
    Book Description:

    Biological sewage treatment, like electricity, power generation, telephones, and mass transit, has been a key technology and a major part of the urban infrastructure since the late nineteenth century. But sewage treatment plants are not only a ubiquitous component of the modern city, they are also ecosystems--a hybrid variety that incorporates elements of both nature and industry and embodies multiple contradictions. In Hybrid Nature, Daniel Schneider offers an environmental history of the biological sewage treatment plant in the United States and England, viewing it as an early and influential example of an industrial ecosystem. The sewage treatment plant relies on microorganisms and other plants and animals but differs from a natural ecosystem in the extent of human intervention in its creation and management. Schneider explores the relationship between society and nature in the industrial ecosystem and the contradictions that define it[: the naturalization of industry versus the industrialization of nature; the public interest versus private (patented) technology; engineers versus bacterial and human labor; and purification versus profits in the marketing of sewage fertilizer.] Schneider also describes biotechnology's direct connections to the history of sewage treatment, and how genetic engineering is extending the reaches of the industrial ecosystem to such "natural" ecosystems as oceans, rivers, and forests. In a conclusion that shows how industrial ecosystems continue to evolve, Schneider discusses John Todd's Living Machine, a natural purification method of sewage treatment, as the embodiment of the contradictions of the industrial ecosystem.The hardcover edition does not include a dust jacket.

    eISBN: 978-0-262-31250-9
    Subjects: Political Science, Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xv-xxx)

    This book is an environmental history of the biological sewage treatment plant. Biological sewage treatment, like electricity, power generation, telephones, or mass transit, is one of the key technologies of the late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century city (figure 0.1). Present in almost every town and city in developed nations, sewage treatment plants are a major part of their urban infrastructure, responsible for protecting not only public health, but also the ecology of rivers, lakes, and oceans. In the United States alone, there were over 16,500 sewage treatment plants in 2004. The estimated capital stock of public sewerage facilities in 1997 was $274...

  6. 1 Natural vs. Artificial: “The Right Way to Dispose of Town Sewage”
    (pp. 1-44)

    At the close of the nineteenth century, prominent physician and sanitarian George Vivian Poore spoke to a London medical society on urban sanitation: “We see the pipes, the engines, the ventilators, the hospitals, and the smoke of the destructor; we hear the incessant thud of steam machinery.” “But,” he continued, contrasting this industrial scene to the healing powers of nature, “we never get a glimpse of the bright side of the matter, the return which Nature inevitably makes to nourish our bodies, gladden our senses, and freshen the air.”² Describing a scene that might have come out of Charles Dickens’s...

  7. 2 Public vs. Private: “Nature Must Be Circumvented”
    (pp. 45-82)

    In 1914, sanitary engineers in the United States formed an organization with the unlikely name “National Septic Process Protective League.” Eventually representing over two hundred municipalities, the league was established to battle the Cameron Septic Tank Company of Chicago, which had sued the cities for infringing its patented sewage treatment process. After a “long and stubborn contest in which many engineers and municipalities … cooperated to resist” the patents, Cameron and the league reached an agreement in 1919. Relieved that the controversy might finally be over, theEngineering News-Recordpraised “this remarkable league of states, cities, companies and individual engineers...

  8. 3 Craft vs. Science: “Be an Operator, Not a Valve Turner”
    (pp. 83-124)

    In a 1936 magazine for sewage treatment plant operators, calledThe Digester, the Illinois Department of Health provided the following advice to the men who ran the state’s activated sludge sewage treatment plants: “Think of the aeration solids as your ‘workmen,’” it suggested, referring to the bacteria in the activated sludge tanks. “Retain as many as is necessary to do the work as it comes,” it advised, “but not too many, as they all require air to stay in condition.” “Don’t keep any more working organisms on the ‘payroll’ than necessary,” the article warned. “The excess workmen are just ‘shovel-leaners.’”²...

  9. 4 Profit vs. Purification: “Sewage Is Something to Be Got Rid Of”
    (pp. 125-166)

    In 1927, the Milwaukee Sewerage Commission took to the airwaves to publicize an “epoch making achievement.” “For the first time in the history of sanitation,” the radio broadcast claimed, “the valuable plant food elements contained in sewage and trade wastes are being converted into a marketable fertilizer.”² The Milwaukee fertilizer project was “being watched in all parts of the world,” the Sewerage Commission declared. This was not hyperbole. Sanitary scientists internationally were paying rapt attention to Milwaukee’s experiments in turning sludge into fertilizer, for they revived hopes held since the early days of sewage treatment that sewage could “be converted...

  10. 5 The Contradictions Continue: Sewage Treatment since the Clean Water Act
    (pp. 167-204)

    By the late twentieth century, the biological sewage treatment processes that had been developed a century before had become widespread and had become the international convention for dealing with sewage.¹ Activated sludge was practiced with very little change from the basic process as it was laid out in 1914. A trickling filter built in 1990 would have been entirely recognizable to sanitary scientists of the 1890s. Certainly there were changes and refinements of the technology. Scientists had developed a much better understanding of the biological basis for sewage treatment, and, recently, modern genomics techniques have allowed a more thorough characterization...

  11. 6 From Sewage to Biotech: “What We Have before Us Is an Industrial Product”
    (pp. 205-220)

    In 1978, Genentech announced the first instance of a human drug created using the new methods of recombinant DNA. Scientists had succeeded in splicing the gene for human insulin into the bacteriaE. coli, turning the bacteria into “microscopic ‘factories’”² for the production of medicine. This announcement was heralded in the press as the first major accomplishment of the new biotechnology industry.³ But as historians like Robert Bud and Angela Creager have noted, the biotechnology industry had much deeper roots than simply the manipulation of DNA.⁴ The use ofE. colias a model organism, the intellectual property environment allowing...

  12. 7 Conclusion: The Living Machine®
    (pp. 221-230)

    In 1852, in a speech before a Belgian conference on hygiene, English sanitarian F. O. Ward invoked an explicitly organic metaphor to describe the circulatory system of water and waste that he and Edwin Chadwick were proposing for English cities. Ward described the water pipes and sewers as the arteries, veins, and capillaries of “an immense organism.” Comparing the linked urban and rural areas to a living being, Ward was justifying the water carriage scheme by likening it to the organization of a natural body. By invoking this organic metaphor, the recycling of town waste on agricultural fields and the...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 231-294)
  14. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 295-312)
  15. Index
    (pp. 313-338)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 339-340)