Novel Ecologies

Under contract with the University of Chicago Press, Novel Ecologies argues that a new environmental imagination has developed out of confrontations between engineering, ecology and sustainability in the United States. The book terms this imagination nature remade, a framework centered on the West Coast that influences a range of fields—from architecture and civil engineering to molecular biology, geoscience and what has been called new conservation. This framework evinces both nostalgic and futuristic orientations to the present and gives rise to the conviction that ecosystems must be technologically retrofitted to sustain certain modes of human life—rather than remediated through collective deliberation and structural transformation. This fervor for engineering nature has scientific and social ramifications, raising questions of how and whether to design ecosystems anew. Novel Ecologies takes its title from an instance of this question: the scientific literature of novel ecosystems. Coined by restoration ecologists, this term of art signifies places in which a preponderance of non-endemic flora and fauna reflects deliberate human impacts, such as deforestation, settlement, intensive agriculture and extractive industry.

The project's focus is on the period since the late eighties, when climate science and network computing began to articulate divergent views of an interconnected planet. At stake is a rethinking of the sublime, pastoral and apocalyptic traditions that have shaped dominant American environmental imaginaries since the eighteenth century. Putting pressure on these traditions, Novel Ecologies attends to the allure of nature remade by critically examining emerging technologies such as transgenic seeds, synthetic wildlife and terraformed planets. It puts these technologies into dialogue with the work of contemporary writers and artists who variously adapt, extrapolate into the future and actively oppose high-tech environmentalism. The book opens with GMO field trials in Hawai’i and the Midwest and a set of artworks that lambast seed patenting. It closes with the space colony aspirations of tech billionaires juxtaposed to a body of fiction, poetry and sound art that is enchanted by space exploration and yet sharply critical of world building ventures. Scaling up from the cellular to the interstellar, the project dwells on concrete sites where endeavors to make nature have been tested as they intersect with both twenty-first-century centers of venture capital and ongoing histories of colonialism.