A History of Environmental Futurity: Special Issue Introduction
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A History of Environmental Futurity
Special Issue Introduction

Political struggles of all sorts are formed and fought over the power to shape “the future”—usually the future of a place or a people. Environmentalism has a somewhat different relationship to futurity than other social and political movements, because it is engaged with safeguarding the future of the future in presenting ecological viability as the foundation for all human and more-than-human worlds. Much attention thus turns to practical and speculative questions about what the planet will be like in the future: What climatic conditions will prevail and for how long? What forms of life will thrive in those conditions? How will human communities cope? Different visions of the preferred future and the pathways to achieve it also abound. Sustainability, resilience, the Anthropocene, and economic prosperity are some of the current frameworks vying to explain and shape what is to come, against a present shaped by capitalism, colonialism, and climate change and by myriad movements to shape alternative possibilities for living together well.

Yet the future is not only about what is to come or even about present imaginings. Futures also have histories. This special issue pays attention to futurity as a discursive formation, a historically specific mode of technology, knowledge, and power, because we think that frameworks of environmental futurity have profound implications not only for what is to come but also for the present and our understandings of the past. Imagined futures help to structure and organize social relations, often solidifying and legitimizing existing inequalities in the process. We pose these questions: Who gets to imagine and to occupy environmental futures? What publics and political possibilities are enabled and [End Page 1] which are foreclosed in particular imaginings of environmental futurity? What alternative futures have been or might be imagined from post-colonial and other marginalized perspectives? What are the historical conditions that shape their emergence, and what role do they posit for history and memory? And how—through what institutions, technologies, and genres—do different futures get produced and contested?

The essays in this issue pose diverse answers to these questions. They address the production of environmental futurity by focusing on the institutions and technologies, tropes, and genres through which it appears as a matter of concern. In their essays in this issue, Patricia Audette-Longo, Susie O’Brien, and Cheryl Lousley show how, in processes ranging from United Nations commissions to resource-industry environmental reviews, questions of environmental futurity come to crystallize debates about development, economic growth, indigenous sovereignty, and democracy, harnessing them to evolving data and theories focused on planetary boundaries.1 And as Joshua Schuster’s essay demonstrates, even seemingly unconnected projects such as scientific investigations into life on other planets reverberate into questions about the spatial and temporal boundaries of life on this one.2 Imaginative acts of future projection define the literary and philosophical genres of speculative fiction, science fiction, and utopian thought, as both Schuster and Rebecca Evans discuss in their essays.3 But speculation is part of other practices as well. Richard Crownshaw and Catriona Sandilands, in their essays, point to commodity trading, futures markets, and habitat restoration, not to mention climate modeling, as other forms of speculative practice that involve imagining possible futures.4

Residual hierarchies and existing social relations of race, gender, sexuality, and class are often embedded in these projected futures, such as the recurring trope of the child as symbol of the future and normative family relations that Evans discusses in her essay.5 Humanities scholarship, however, also emphasizes how the past is more than an instrument for future prediction. Remembering is a social and place-based as well as personal process in which affective attachments and commitments—what matters and has mattered—give meaning to our cultures and identities. Narratives of the future provide insight into cultural memory—what has, and will have, mattered enough to be remembered, and by whom—but also reshape it, recursively rewriting remembered pasts in order to make certain futures possible, as O’Brien, Crownshaw, and [End Page 2] Sandilands each discuss in this issue.6 Different institutions and constellations of political...


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