Increasingly, I’ve been asked by mentors, colleagues, and family members if I plan to feature any of my old PhD dissertation work in How It Began. My dissertation covered the history of synthetic materials research, development, and commercialization. Will I do an episode in Season Two, they ask, on how plastics began? Perhaps, but the theme of How It Began, at least through Season One, is to focus on the best of human progress, and the history of plastic undoubtedly carries environmental and cultural baggage. Still, there is much to appreciate and admire about the history of plastics – there is much triumph of human ingenuity there – which was certainly highlighted in my dissertation. So, I may be able to find the right balance for a Season Two episode.
I’ll summarize my dissertation here, and I welcome your feedback on whether or not you see a place for this history in the lineup of Season Two:
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For many, modern material culture is defined in large part by its unsustainability. The popular assumption is that the potential exhaustion of natural resources represents a serious new challenge. Our profligate use of plastic, in particular, attracts sharp criticism since it appears to manifest the most unsustainable aspects of modern material culture, especially our deep reliance on petroleum. The statistical history of plastics production can seem ominous: From the 1910s to the end of the Second World War, American plastics production rose from a few million to nearly a billion pounds annually. During the economic boom of the 1950s the plastics industry grew three times faster than the average American manufacturing enterprise, with an annual product flow surpassing four and a half billion pounds. By the end of the 1970s the output of plastic by volume had eclipsed that of iron and steel. And, in yielding what is now close to a hundred billion pounds of plastic every year, the American plastics industry has led the world in producing as much plastic already in the twenty-first century as was produced during the entirety of the twentieth.
Having become such a prolific piece of modern life, plastic has also become a sensationalized historical subject. Yet, the bulk of the historiography is redundant, with the dominant premise being that plastics fundamentally changed America’s material culture. Dozens of histories of plastic rehearse the chronology of inventors and products, from the mid nineteenth century cellulose tinkerers to the early twentieth century ‘father’ of synthetic plastic, Leo Baekeland. In 1983, Robert Friedel broke some new analytical ground with his book Pioneer Plastic by highlighting the positive feedback loops of development between plastics and ancillary technologies like radio. Cultural histories of plastic subsequently emerged, the most successful being Jeffrey Meikle’s 1995 book, American Plastic: A Cultural History, which illuminated the aesthetic influences of plastics. More recently, Susan Freinkel’s 2011 monograph, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, treaded the terrain of both technology- and culture-centered historiographical traditions in order to highlight the contradictory legacies of plastic. The underlying assumption throughout is that the development of plastics has been a significant cause of the unsustainable trends that concern us today. By contrast, in my dissertation I show that the development and proliferation of plastics, including the dominance of petroleum-based plastics, is actually itself a historical effect of an approach to nature that was already unsustainable. Rather than fundamentally changing our material culture, plastics helped to preserve it as it grew beyond the capacity that more traditional resource development would have supported.
While the availability of plastics undoubtedly exacerbated unsustainable behaviors, their appeal originated largely in how they facilitated a shift away from exploiting other natural resources that we were devouring to feed our growth. More than anything, plastics represent an aggressive technological approach to treating some symptoms of our material culture’s deeper sustainability problem. Present concern about the unsustainability of plastics, and our petroleum-dependency more generally, is merely the latest iteration in a long history of resource anxiety.
Although my analysis extends much further into the past, a useful historical point of reference is Thomas Malthus’ popular articulation of resource anxiety from 1798: “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” Amid impressive industrial and commercial progress, Malthus pondered “whether man shall henceforth start forwards with accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery” as population rose and fell with successive waves of resource exhaustion. In the wake of Malthus’ essay, Western societies increasingly wrestled with the limits of natural resources. For example, historian Eric Rutkow documented the enormous volume of lumber it took just to build nineteenth century American railway cars: “Some reports estimated that 350,000 acres of commercial forests–an area greater than all of Cape Cod, Massachusetts–disappeared each year.” Most estimates indicate that almost half of the pre-industrial age forests of the continental United States had been chopped down by 1920. Like wood, whale anatomy had also been useful to people for centuries, and whaling was once one of America’s largest industries. Unsustainable harvests doomed the business. As of the 1880s whalemen commonly resorted to harpooning walruses, seals, and sea lions to make up for the vanishing whales. To quote a book-length survey of whaling from 1928, in the late nineteenth century “the whales were either more shy, or more scarce, or both…Even the old reliable whaling grounds were showing unmistakable signs of exhaustion.” Terrestrially, commercial appetites for animal furs drove to endangerment the bison of the plains, the beaver of the old Northwest, and the elk and deer of the Pacific Northwest. All of this alarmed contemporaries.
For late nineteenth century observers, it became easy to imagine that the world might be altogether too small to escape the tentacles of progress. In the 1870s Americans began reading about the virtual extermination of African elephants as a result of Westerners’ obsession with ivory. In the 1880s Americans heard reports from British and French colonial authorities that gutta-percha, the critically important tropical Asian tree sap used to insulate telegraphic wires, was nearly exhausted, “the huge demand [for it] had been unsustainable.” Even Hawksbill sea turtles and some species of tortoise were rumored to be disappearing as the market for tortoise shell toiletries, jewelry, and other accessories ballooned. The list went on and on.
A hundred years ago, Americans contemplated an ominous future of resource scarcity. An entire generation of conservationists grew up convinced that only if people learned to temper their consumption could some measure of prosperity be sustained. But nothing of the sort looked likely to happen. With population rising faster and faster and each person seeming to consume more and more, a consumption boom was unfolding at the very moment when leaders of popular opinion argued that the rate of consumer growth had already risen too high.
Yet, as popular anxiety about strained natural resources spiked, a burgeoning cohort of technologists rallied their innovative energy to expand the repertoire of materials available to society. Some operated within the legacy of formal knowledge that went back to the eighteenth century founders of modern chemistry Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) and John Dalton (1766-1844). Many tinkered their way to marketable material recipes. The primary fruit of this work in either case heralded a radically new technology: synthetic materials. By the end of the nineteenth century, synthetic materials became an important supplement to many traditional materials in the manufacture of countless goods. The majority of the earliest producers based their formulations on the most abundant raw material then available: cellulose from cotton. Others started with common proteins, such as casein found in milk. Distilled molasses, redwood tree sawdust, egg yoke, urine, blood, and beetle juice were among the dozens of other feedstocks they attempted to engineer into useful new materials. After World War I, however, synthetic materials producers gained access to a host of newly available co-products from the steel and petroleum industries, dramatically boosting the efficiency and profitability of synthetic materials production. Overall, conservationist fears of material scarcity began to ebb before the commercial flow of these new products. Although the noun designating this expanding category of materials would not penetrate the popular lexicon until the late 1930s, the age of “plastic” had arrived by the 1920s.
Historical perspective on both why and how plastics were engineered to preserve modern material culture has remained absent in the historical profession. I fill that scholarly gap by establishing the lengthy history of resource anxiety, which climaxed over a hundred years ago through turn-of-the-twentieth-century conservationist fervor. Consistent with my thesis, I have analyzed the motivations underlying the innovation of the first successful synthetic material, celluloid. In contrast to the prevailing narrative, I demonstrate that the development and commercialization of celluloid and other cellulose-based plastics between 1870 and 1920 reflected strong demand-pull market forces. During these decades, cellulose was the most cost competitive material feedstock from which to engineer synthetic material supplements to the increasingly strained and expensive supplies of traditional raw materials. After World War I, however, the same market forces rendered cellulose less competitive, as novel chemical byproducts flowing out of American steel and gasoline production could then be engineered into new synthetic materials at even smaller expense. Technologists and corporate leaders, engineers and industry analysts were all in dialogue with each another and with consumers about why and how coal and ultimately petroleum engineering was being developed to sustain the otherwise unsustainable trajectory of America’s material culture. The plastics industry that these actors established represented an engineering success of converting petroleum industry by-products with little value into co-products with high value, yielding the most efficiently produced materials in history.
One of the most excited parts of my narrative covers that transition from bio-based plastics feedstocks, such as cellulose from cotton, to petroleum-based plastics feedstocks, such as styrene, ethylene, and propylene. The scientific and engineering history of this transition, which occurred chiefly between the World Wars, has so far not been well contextualized. Many isolated episodes of productive engineering have been scrutinized, and several historians have dwelled on the commercial and aesthetic effects of certain plastics with unique properties, but all largely at the expense of macrohistorical assessments of what motivated plastics engineers to develop so many new materials and why those materials became so prolific. Without this part of the narrative, it is difficult to interpret the engineering trajectory of the plastics industry over time, including why the sensationalized prospect of a twenty-first century bio-based plastics renaissance seems to remain perpetually out of reach.
While the language of ‘sustainability’ may be relatively new, the resource anxiety it attempts to describe is not. This historical insight can help us to avoid many false assumptions about how to achieve sustainability going forward. We cannot simply say that in the absence of plastics the environment would be healthier. Historically, the availability of plastics actually relieved many points of mounting environmental pressure. Similarly, we cannot anticipate that simply shifting away from a petroleum-dependency in the twenty-first century will solve our sustainability problems. Yet, an important part of the history I illuminate is that in spite of living in a chronic state of resource anxiety, or perhaps precisely because of this, our society has so far succeeded in innovating ways to develop natural resources to meet our material needs. I have become optimistic that this innovative energy is sustainable.