- Wily Ecologies:Comic Futures for American Environmentalism
California novelist T. C. Boyle has a reputation for environmental comedy, and specifically for satires of characters who advocate, often in absurdly extreme ways, for native species and wilderness conservation while turning a blind eye to the border-crossing migrations of people and other species that have shaped the US (Tortilla Curtain ; When the Killing's Done ). In his 2016 novel The Terranauts, Boyle directs this wry view of one sort of American environmentalism at another—what we could call technosurvivalism. The novel retells the checkered history of Biosphere 2 (Cohn 808): the "scaled-down replica of Earth . . . replete with a desert, a savanna, a rain forest and a wave-machine-rippled ocean, as well as its own sealed and calibrated atmosphere" that two separate crews inhabited from 1991 to 1993 (Miles). The novel explores the contradictory narratives that inform such a venture, which channels not only a dystopian belief in the planet's eventual demise but also a utopian fantasy that at least a few Homo sapiens might replicate themselves and Earth's biomes elsewhere. If the project's name signals that Biosphere 2 (renamed E2 in the novel) is a miniature Earth, its geographical setting in the Arizona desert and financial backing by a zealous billionaire (whom Boyle calls G. C., for "God the Creator" ) draws on colonial ideas of America as a new world, a terra rasa to be terraformed by Europeans.1 The Terranauts ridicules the bad-faith environmentalism of the biosphere by juxtaposing these colonial undercurrents [End Page 108] with the costly technologies required to build and operate a geodesic dome and with the fatalistic premise that Earth is a lost cause. Put differently, the novel parodies Biosphere 2 to show it up as solipsistic rather than self-sustaining—a tiny "Spaceship Earth," to invoke Buckminster Fuller, that does not foster healthy ecologies, nourishing food, or a sense of place but instead fuels hunger pangs and backbiting among its eight human colonists.
The satire opens onto this essay's subject: recent works by US and Canadian writers that unsettle received tropes of American environmentalism and explore new possibilities for its imaginative terrains. These texts make use of comedy's rhetorical hybridity—its capacity for satire; parody; genre play; conceptual unorthodoxy; and, hence, thought experiment. Leveraging such comic resources, the texts I address draw attention to a paradox in recent environmental discourses according to which the planet is already doomed and yet will be sustained through a particular program of change—whether habitat restoration or next-generation engineering. As Stacy Alaimo poignantly writes about the twin frameworks of conservation and sustainability, such discourses advocate for "the ability to somehow keep things going despite the economic and environmental crisis that, we fear, may render this impossible" ("Sustainable This" 559).
The paradoxical vision of a ruined planet and its ecological recovery has been prominent in Anglo-American environmental non-fiction since the 1960s. Consider exposés of chemical and nuclear pollution like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and Terry Tempest Williams's Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991). Even as these two texts accrue stories and evidence of endangered species, human illness, and "an ever-widening wave of death," their authors hold up redemptive models of sustainability—embodied, in Silent Spring, by ecologists pioneering a "science of biotic control" and, in Refuge, by the conservation ethic of Williams's own multigenerational Utah family (Carson 127; Williams 279). Similarly, Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), Bill McKibben's The End of Nature (1989), and Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006) all pivot from the likelihood of irreversible catastrophe to the hope that moral actors will bring Earth back from the brink. For his part, Nash counters the planet's "wasteland scenario" by imagining an "Island Civilization" in which, a thousand years hence, humans will populate a patchwork of "concentrated habitats" located at the poles, in the mountains, or floating in the air (381–82). The goal of this societal transformation is to enshrine most of Earth's surface as permanent wilderness. Dystopian to readers who anticipate that the...