New Nature: Environmental Design in the 21st Century


This course investigates emerging technologies, philosophies, and practices of environmental design and management in the early 21st century from the level of regional landscapes to the level of cells. What are the values, visions, and assumptions that animate contemporary developments in environmental design? What forms of technological know-how and knowledge production practices enable these developments? What ethical, aesthetic, or political implications might these shifts in the making of environments, organs, and organisms entail? How might we begin to make informed judgments about emerging form(s) of nature, environmental design, and humanity? The course begins with an introduction to debates on the nature of nature and machines in America in the 18th century, grounding discussion through examining changing ideas of environment, ecosystems, and equilibriums. Post-World War II ideologies of design, command, and control of the environment, including nuclear power and developments in chemistry, are examined. We then turn to debates on nature, communities, and conservation from the 1970s through the late 1990s, from the era of “the green planet” and “rain-forest conservation.” Preoccupations with biowarfare, genetic engineering, and human enhancement in the post-September 11 era are key topics. We examine contemporary developments in environmental design in several domains, including landscape architecture; cyborg technology; simulation, mediation, and virtual environments; and biotechnology/biowarfare. The work of bioartists and engineers, genetic engineers working for private industry and the government, as well as the work of environmental networks—including the Critical Art Ensemble, Rhizome, and the New Media Caucus—form part of this itinerary. Attitudes toward pollution are undergoing sea changes as landscape designers remediate toxic sites using natural processes and timescales. Industrial designers and environmental chemists are reconceptualizing the basis for resource extraction, processing, and manufacturing. On a micro level, molecular biologists and nanoengineers are creating emergent forms of tissues and organisms for purposes of medicine, as well as for waging war. On the battlefield, the nature of war is rapidly changing. Robotic armies under “human control” may be the armed forces of the future. Organisms and biochemical processes are being enlisted and drafted into military, as well as medical, service. At the same time, landscape architecture is being reconceptualized as the discipline charged with responsibility for “imagining and saving the Earth.” A marvelous diversity of efforts at innovative sustainable uses of energy, water, and industrial design will be examined through texts, Web sites, films, and speakers from the ES/STS Colloquium Series. Where possible, field trips within the New York City/New York State area will be arranged. In New York City, for example, community gardens, rooftop agriculture and botanical gardens, waste treatment, and innovative urban installations may be visited. What will constitute our planetary home in a world of emerging, new nature(s)? What forms of energy, water, and toxic management are being imagined, designed, and implemented? How are engineers, artists, architects, and agronomists, as well as writers of science fiction and film, contributing to the formation of new nature and human relationships to the environment in the 21st century? Background in social science, in science, technology, and society, or in design is required.