In this blog, Marcin Krasnodębski introduces his recently published article in Environment and History ‘The Social Construction of Pine Forest Wastes in Southwestern France During the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries’ (online first, November 2019), reminding us that the fluidity of concepts and definitions over time requires a certain agility from the environmental historian.
Forest is many things: for some it is a place of recreation, for others a safe haven for wildlife. However, from the standpoint of the history of the humanity, forests are above all economic units, providing people with a wide range of resources. Animals, fruits and mushrooms can be eaten, while trees can be cut down and transformed into wood for shelter and fire.
Some species of trees have, however, more uses than others. Pines are some of the most versatile ones. They grow very quickly, even in harsh conditions and on arid soil. They provide wood, suitable for both construction and paper industry, as well as resin, a sticky substance that was used for hundreds years in ship caulking or in making materials impermeable. The wood industry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was aware of the multiple uses of pines. The Americans willingly extracted resin and cut down the massive forests that covered the American South. The French, on the other hand, planted pine forests to transform them into living wood- and resin-producing factories in the region of Aquitaine in the south-west of the country.
The pine resin industry is relatively well-known among historians interested in the economic or environmental history of the two regions mentioned above. Its products: wood and resin, continue to play a significant role in a wide range of markets. However, going through the archives of scientific institutions in the service of the industry, one realises a major preoccupation of the industry’s leaders: optimisation of waste treatment.
What is a waste? Many words have multiple meanings, understood in a variety of ways in different contexts. Polysemy is great in poetry, but undesirable in many other fields of human activity: science, commerce or policymaking. As a historian, I always try to pay attention to the difference between the categories used by stakeholders in any given period and their subsequent interpretation. Cambridge’s dictionary explains that waste can be understood as an ‘unwanted matter or material of any type, especially what is left after useful substances or parts have been removed’. Sounds straightforward. The problem is that this definition is intrinsically dynamic: the notion of ‘usefulness’ is not fixed once and for all. Usefulness is not an intrinsic property; its meaning shifts depending on our needs and on our knowledge of how to use things. Economic conditions and scientific knowledge, as well as political decisions, can drive its understanding. Since usefulness is transient, so is the notion of waste.
In my paper, I try to understand how wastefulness changed over time in the pine forest industry. Let’s take one of the most striking examples. In the early nineteenth century, the industry started extracting ‘turpentine’ from pine resin. Turpentine is a volatile, flammable liquid. It can be used as a solvent for paints and varnishes, but also as a fuel. In the United States, turpentine spirit replaced whale oil as a fuel for lamps in the 1830s and the 1840s, leading to the establishment of the resin distillation industry in the American South. Alas, turpentine constitutes only around 20–25% of resin’s weight. The remainder is rosin: a solid dark substance made of resinic acids. It had almost no uses in the early 19thcentury America, and the few uses that existed (soapmaking for instance) were limited by prohibitive costs of transportation of rosin from the southern pine forests. To put it bluntly, rosin was as a waste product. The distillers had to get rid of it and often poured the substance into lakes and rivers nearby.
The rosin accumulated over the course of decades into impressive deposits in the middle of the southern forests. However, by the 1860s, rosin started finding uses in the production of paints and varnishes. Because the communication network improved, transporting it out of the forest became less and less expensive. Suddenly, rosin turned from waste into a valuable raw material for a growing number of industries. The abandoned deposits turned into rosin mines. A profitable business of rosin mining involving draining water reservoirs (sometimes entire lakes) went on until the 1920s.
Curiously, in the French pine forest, this transition never took place, since the French forest was ‘designed’ to be sustainable and produce resin and wood over decades. From very early on, its inhabitants patented methods involving the production of oils from rosin, and established soap factories for domestic use to exploit the rosin to the fullest extent. Different socio-economic context led to considering the same raw material as a waste or a useful product.
My article explores other similar stories: wood debris that became a major source of car fuels, wasteful black liquor from paper mills that turned into a source of valuable molecules, cones and needles finding new uses thanks to the expertise of modern chemists… All in the name of improving the productive potential of the forest. New wastes are being identified and transformed into fully fledged products.
The article does not aim to be a collection of eclectic case studies but above all an attempt to show that when we discuss the notion of ‘waste’, history of technology, history of the industry, and environmental history have to be taken together, with this interdisciplinary analysis throwing new light on seemingly well understood issues.