For decades, genetic engineering and wilderness conservation have been at odds, a rift evident in the opposition of major environmental groups to transgenic seeds, cloned animals, and other lab-born organisms. In the 21st century, this dividing line is in flux as experiments in synthetic biology accelerate and as proposals to revive and reintroduce extinct species — known as de-extinction — garner outsize attention in discussions of biodiversity loss and climate adaptation. “Nature by Design” compares the scientific literature and popular science around de-extinction as it has been envisioned in the U.S. and considers its complicated relationship to the discourse of rewilding cities, farmlands, forests, and parks. Contra media narratives and ethical critiques of de-extinction that identify it with science fiction and futurism, the talk will argue that the field’s network of researchers and investors knits primitivist nostalgia for a prehistoric North America to techno-utopian ideas of resilience, adaptation, and rapid prototyping. Through this lens, de-extinction is the latest chapter in the longer history of wilderness in the United States, which William Cronon, Ramachandra Guha, and others have traced to settler colonialism and to the binary logic of pristine nature and natural resource. Responsive to these ongoing troubles with American wilderness, a group of speculative writers and visual artists — Ruth Ozeki, Jeff VanderMeer, Maya Lin, and Marina Zurkow, among them — offer models of rewilding that posit ecological futures organized around reparative justice and multispecies society.
Allison Carruth is an associate professor in the English department and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA, where she currently holds the Waldo W. Neikirk Chair for distinguished undergraduate teaching and chairs the food studies minor. Her research and teaching focus on environmental narrative, media, and art since the 1960s; American food cultures and food movements; and the evolving relationship of environmentalism to engineering in the United States. Since 2015, she has been the founding director of UCLA’s Lab for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS), which connects research in the environmental humanities and social sciences with experiments in science communication and participatory media. She is the author of Global Appetites: American Power and the Literature of Food (Cambridge University Press, 2013) and the co-author of Literature and Food Studies (Routledge, 2018). Her essays have appeared in journals such as Agriculture and Human Values, Public Culture, Modernism/modernity, American Literary History, Arts of the Present, and PMLA.