Decades before a U.S. national imaginary fixated on the “new frontier” of space colonization, L.A. civil engineer William Mulholland suggested that world-building here on Earth was California’s particular manifest destiny. In retrospect, his bravado about a growing city’s land-and-water grab from the Paiute Shoshone and agricultural communities of the Owens Valley offers a prescient touchstone for subsequent dreams about moon landings and Martian colonies that have emanated, in no small measure, from California’s ever-expanding tech industries. Meanwhile, contemporary writers and artists probe the ecological and ethical hazards — as well as the quasi-magical promises — of these various world-building fantasies and the real-world simulations and speculations they fuel. In developing this idea, the talk puts the futurism of engineers and sci-fi writers in conversation with other cultural fields and imaginative forms, from astrobiology to lyric poetry to performance art.
Allison Carruth is an associate professor in the Department of English and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, where she currently holds the Waldo W. Neikirk Chair for undergraduate education innovation (2018-21) and chairs the food studies minor. She is an affiliate of the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics.
She is the Fall 2019 Anschutz Distinguished Fellow in American Studies at Princeton University, where she is teaching “Creative Ecologies: American Environmental Narrative and Art, 1980-2020” and delivering a public lecture, “Life After Earth: Speculations in World-Building from California to the Red Planet.”
Her current research interests include environmental narrative and science communication; the role of artists and writers in contemporary American environmental and food justice movements; and the evolving relationships between ecology, sustainability and engineering in the US since the 1980s.
For over a decade, she has worked on collaborations that aim to bridge ideas from and re-imagine the boundaries between the arts, humanities, and sciences. Site-specific public projects have been central to these collaborations — ranging from the Food Justice conference, held at the University of Oregon in 2011, to Play the LA River, which ran from 2012-2015. Since 2015, she has been the founding director of UCLA’s Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS). The lab’s multi-disciplinary team of faculty and students have partnered with KCET/SoCal PBS, New American Media, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, and other groups to connect research in the humanities and social sciences with experiments in environmental narrative, science communication, and public media.
The author of Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food (Cambridge UP 2013) and co-author with Amy L. Tigner of Literature and Food Studies (Routledge 2018), she is currently completing a book titled Novel Ecologies. Her publications have appeared in American Literary History, ASAP/Journal, KCET, Modern Fiction Studies, Modernism/modernity, Parallax, Public Culture, Public Books, PMLA and Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, and in collections including Postcolonial Ecologies and The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities.