Rector, who began at Northland College this fall, wrote his dissertation “Accumulating Risk: Environmental Justice and the History of Capitalism in Detroit, 1880-2015,” at Wayne State University.
“It was Joe’s dissertation topic, as well as its execution, that made me instantly think he would be an excellent Hulings visiting prof for Northland,” said Erica Hannickel.
The formal presentation of the award was made Oct. 13-18 at the UHA biennial conference in Columbia, South Carolina.
Accumulating Risk by Josiah Rector brings together environmental history, the history of capitalism, and the history of race, class, and gender inequalities to show how Detroit’s economic transformation has concentrated environmental risk in poor urban neighborhoods. Rector expertly investigates large structures like capitalism, deindustrialization, and neoliberalism while also focusing the lens on human actors like regulators, business leaders, public officials, workers, union leaders, and city residents. His extensive research blends materials from the national archives with local collections in Michigan, oral history interviews and government reports, to create a rich and compelling narrative.
While many urban histories of Detroit focus on the post-war period, this dissertation extends the traditional periodization by locating the origins of Detroit’s environmental crisis in the late nineteenth century. Nonetheless, the work is of current relevance, with immediate implications for our contemporary crises in the wake of the subprime mortgage meltdown, the lingering economic emergency in Detroit, and the poisoned water in Detroit and Flint. Rector doesn’t shy away from weighing in, using historical perspective, on current proposals for how to solve these crises in Detroit. This dissertation shows the importance of historical research and historical imagination when trying to understand our current economic and environmental problems.