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  • From the Editors: Terraforming
  • Karen Pinkus and Derek Woods

The word terraforming, coined by Jack Williamson in a science fiction short story in 1942, now has an ambiguous range of meanings: a pure fantasy of making other worlds or earth itself earthlike; an actual plan B for life on an uninhabitable planet or a synonym for climate geoengineering; the reflection or antithesis of a reductive view of the nature/culture divide no longer tenable for most thinkers in the Anthropocene. Terraforming can happen at various scales, from gardening and early agriculture to dam building; from the greening of Mars to biomorphic design, architecture, climate engineering. The term might even refer to the local and global effects of climate change as “unintended consequences” of fossil fuel combustion. Terraforming can be technocratic or “eco-modernist,” industrial or pastoral, bleak or aesthetic. It may be a deliberate strategy of corporations, states, indigenous societies, or post-capitalist collectives. In its proliferating current usage, terraforming can refer to the colonial inscription of the earth in globalizing grids of capital accumulation and environmental destruction, or to utopian visions of earth greened by socialist revolution. The term can name a dream of the future, an ongoing project of the present or a historical process that has already taken place.

The essays in this special issue open to the permutations and variations of this term. The authors contemplate terraforming in conceptual, historical, and aesthetic depth. They critique it for its stubborn repetition of binarisms, for its blindness to race and political economy, for its humanist theory of technology, for its political model that owes too much to sovereignty, for its presentism, and for a conceptual framework that promises more “scalability” than it can realistically deliver. Yet they also celebrate, at times, the possibilities it opens for thinking otherwise.

In the face of ongoing ecological chaos, denial, inaction, and nationalism, what terraforming offers that concepts such as climate change and geoengineering do not is a constitutive role for the fantastic and the fictional in a time when any cultural or political event can be read in terms of its possible effect on the earth system. On the one hand, terraforming retains the trace of its early meaning—making other planets earthlike— even when writers use it to evoke terrestrial projects of transforming the land. As Holly Jean Buck suggests in After Geoengineering (2019), terraforming at minimum means that imaginary worlds, past or future, will be unpredictably involved in driving even the most practical, small-scale technopolitics of carbon capture or ecosystem restoration. Every ecopolitical action that changes things material comes wrapped in a phantasmatic supplement. The fantasy supplies what is missing in the ambiguous terra of terraforming: an aesthetic effect of earthlikeness, an idea of the landscape or ecosystem our actions are supposed to prevent or bring about. In the case of terraforming, supplementarity is not found in the relation between speech and writing but in the relation between communication and the climate system. [End Page 4]

On the other hand, this condition of generalized terraforming suggests a new kind of performativity. Generalized terraforming is the situation in which any textual event, any narration or semiotic effect, might inscribe its landscape. However unlikely this seems for many texts or contexts, the possibility of ecological action on the part of meaning becomes unavoidable in the Anthropocene. Sometimes this possibility is central, as when a speech act functions to protect wilderness areas such as national parks. Other times the land underpins political speech, as when indigenous land claims depend on the relation between an oral record of land use and a specific territory. Such land claims have also become crucial for Blockadia’s pipeline interventions from Sioux territory at Standing Rock to Wet́suwet́en territory in northern British Columbia, and thus to political interventions with very different meanings at local (sovereignty over land) and planetary (keeping carbon in the ground to stabilize the climate) scales. While acts of landscape modification and climate engineering have phantasmatic supplements, arguments, tropes, and narrative worlds have the potential to terraform the Earth in ways that always exceed their intended use.


The images throughout this issue are by experimental Italian architect Alessandro Poli. His...