Category Archives: Environment

Reimagining Ecosystems through Science Fiction

Science fiction readers may be familiar with the giant sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune, or the pequeninos, small pig-like aliens from Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. These species and their surrounding ecosystems puzzle the human explorers that encounter them. In the article “Islands in the Aether Ocean: Speculative Ecosystems in Science Fiction” from Contemporary Literature, Elizabeth Callaway examines these two novels and their strange species, arguing that the authors propose a different way of relating to biodiversity. In this interview, Callaway explains how science fiction can help us question the conceptual frameworks that define our understanding of biodiversity on Earth.


How did you end up looking at science fiction through the lens of biodiversity?

Actually, the interest in biodiversity came first! I’m writing a book about representations of biodiversity, and a version of the article we’re discussing now appears as a chapter. When I was initially thinking about assembling a group of texts that tackle the challenge of representing species in their multitudes, science fiction seemed like a particularly fertile place to start. Within the genre are novels that describe entire planets of living variety. While other types of books mention hundreds of species (memoirs of competitive birders or the nonfiction of E. O. Wilson, for example) SF is really excellent at portraying entire planets of surprising and lively creatures. In addition, these planets can sometime feature what I call “speculative ecosystems,” or sets of interactions among living creatures that do not function the way Earth’s ecosystems do. They’re built on different, imaginative systems, and because they’re so unusual they model alternative stances toward biodiversity.

When it comes to depicting biodiversity, what makes these two novels different from other works of science fiction?

Their “speculative ecosystems” are a key part of what sets them apart. Unlike many worlds that are simple Earth analogues where the environment doesn’t make much of a difference to the story, and unlike novels which feature a planet seeded with Earth organisms (like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy), these are not systems that are analogous to Earth ecosystems or based on Earth species. They’re totally alien (if imagined) worlds. There are other examples that I would include as speculative ecosystems. The most well-known might be James Cameron’s Avatar. That world features ecosystems that work in ways that are very different from those on Earth. Animals can connect to each other with exposed nerve-type organs, there is a central tree that connects the entire planet in a type of neural net, and there’s abundant terrestrial bioluminescence. That said, Dune and Speaker for the Dead, unlike Avatar, do not make the speculative ecosystem into an object of worship or offer any old-school environmental readings having to do with rootedness, sense of place, or living on the land. Rather they explore the speculative variety of organisms on their planet in new ways.

You say that, while we are used to thinking about science fiction as a genre that shows us possible futures for our own planet, science fiction also works “by imagining things that could never be.” How can the “counterfactual” nature of science fiction help us to think about our own environmental challenges?

On one hand it seems like the science fiction texts that imagine Earth futures might be more useful for thinking through current environmental challenges. You think of stories that include biodiversity decline like Phillip K. Dick’s Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and it’s clear how they’re interested in what animals mean to individual people and also to different human societies. They explore how these meanings might change as species decline. What is particularly interesting to me about science fiction that doesn’t imagine future Earths of declined species, however, is that they experiment with alternative ways to relate to biodiversity. In particular, I think it’s useful that Dune and Speaker for the Dead present a puzzled stance toward biodiversity where one is continually surprised by the way diverse nonhuman organisms interact with each other. I think the mechanics of science fiction itself—the way it explains how the fictional world works by casually throwing out hints rather than presenting sections of exposition—are fantastic for modeling a puzzled engagement that holds space open for recognizing the agency of nonhumans. In science fiction we’re always ready for that clue that changes what we had assumed to be true about the world, and this is especially true for the impossibly strange ecosystems of counterfactual worlds. If we’re curious about how the world works while aware that we can be surprised, then I think that can cultivate an attitude that more easily recognizes the liveliness of the material world including (but not limited to) nonhuman living creatures.

What are you reading right now? (For fun or for serious.)

Emily Dickinson has become my home quarantine inspiration. Whenever my socially-distanced world feels tiny and diminished, she makes me realize that my back yard is only as small as my mind. (Dickinson and I share the good fortune of having a yard.) After reading a few of her poems I see the details of the world as strange and new. In one of her more famous quotations she describes poetry as writing which makes her “feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” This is such a fabulously weird way of defining poetry, and it is how her poems make me feel except it is also as if my entire word has had a lid removed, and there’s more room to experience everything. I’m also reading How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu, which is beautiful, lonely, and a playful mashup of science fiction and narrative theory.

If you had to pick a favorite species from Arrakis or Lusitania, what would it be?

Given our current pandemic, I am more and more fascinated by the descolada virus that “unglues” DNA and wreaks havoc on the human community of Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead. While I wouldn’t want to characterize the descolada as my “favorite,” it has captured my attention anew. This is the virus that sculpted life on Lusitania, initially creating the plant/animal paired species while driving the vast majority of life extinct. Its world-remaking capabilities certainly feel especially real right now as my own world is being remade in different but comparable ways. Also, the way the descolada simplifies the planet (to put it mildly) is more and more striking to me. I now look at my article’s visualization of the stark ecosystem of Lusitania and imagine a similarly simple social network made of my interactions during social distancing. The story of a virus reshaping a world certainly feels increasingly relevant.


Elizabeth Callaway is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Utah and affiliated faculty with the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program. She researches and teaches at the intersections of contemporary literature, environmental humanities, and digital humanities. Some of her most recent publications focus on climate change in Zadie Smith’s NW, diversity and inclusion in definitions digital humanities, and the speculative ecosystems of science fiction. Her current book project, titled Eden’s Endemics: Narratives of Biodiversity on Earth and Beyond, is forthcoming at the University of Virginia Press.

On the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Earth Day was a resounding success because the organizers didn’t try to shape a uniform national action. They empowered ordinary people to express their passion for the Earth in whatever way they chose from wherever they were. . . . It was a moment of rare political alignment that elicited support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers. . . . Never could [my father] have imagined that a day dedicated to the environment would inspire millions to action and alter the course of history.

—Tia Nelson, from the preface of Gaylord Nelson’s Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise

In 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans celebrated the first Earth Day. Founded by former Wisconsin senator and governor Gaylord Nelson (1916–2005), the event increased public awareness of conservation work, helped spur the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and led to the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts. We asked our authors and editors what Earth Day means to them.

Brian DeVore, author of Wildly Successful Farming

Brian DeVore

To me, Earth Day means community. As Aldo Leopold’s land ethic reminds us, we are all part of a larger community, one that includes plants, animals, watersheds, and soil microbes. If we are to do right by that community in this age of the Anthropocene, it will require working with nature as a not-so-silent partner. I’ve been on many farms that have done this by blending the “wild” and the “tame”—such boundary-blurring doesn’t produce the clean precision we Homo sapiens believe we want, but it most certainly generates the messy resiliency that we need.

John Hildebrand, author of Long Way Round

John Hildebrand

Fifty years ago, I sat in Crisler Arena at the University of Michigan listening to Gaylord Nelson and others at the first Earth Day and promptly forgetting everything they said. But I still remember the music—Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” a song about the 1967 Detroit riot. I’d worked on a Ford assembly line that summer and a year later rode a bus to classes through Motown’s gutted streets. So Earth Day is forever linked in my mind to a burning city. Why? Because to love the earth means loving all of it, not just the pretty parts.

Dr. Steven Love, editor of Native Plants Journal

Dr. Steven Love

My celebration of Earth Day typically looks like any other workaday. The fact is, I generally pay very little attention to this one-day environmental event. Not that I reject principles of conservation. In fact, I think we should all adopt lifestyles in which we conserve water and other natural resources,  create habitat for creatures whose world we share, make decisions that reduce human impact, protect our pristine natural areas, and generally make the world a better and more sustainable place to live. My problem with Earth Day is that I believe we should live these principles every day, not celebrate them once a year.

Arthur Melville Pearson, author of Force of Nature

Arthur Melville Pearson

For George Fell, every day was Earth Day. For all he accomplished, he seldom if ever stopped to celebrate because there always remained so much more to do. This Earth Day, marking a milestone anniversary, I plan to stop and think of all The Nature Conservancy has accomplished over the last half century. And the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. The Natural Land Institute. And the many organizations and individuals of the Natural Areas Association. Thanks to George. The next day, I’ll get back to work for all the challenges and opportunities that yet lie ahead.

Restoring Wetlands

From “Experiences Establishing Native Wetland Plants in a Constructed Wetland,” by David Steinfeld, Native Plants Journal 2:1. Photo by David Steinfeld.

This week, the Press will be exhibiting at the annual Wetland Science Conference of the Wisconsin Wetlands Association in Elkhart Lake, WI. We’ve gathered a list of recommended readings on ecological restoration from our books and journals. The articles listed here are freely available to read until the end of February.


Field Guide to Wisconsin Sedges: An Introduction to the Genus Carex (Cyperaceae), by Andrew L. Hipp

Field Guide to Wisconsin Streams: Plants, Fishes, Invertebrates, Amphibians, and Reptiles, by Michael A. Miller, Katie Songer, and Ron Dolen

Field Guide to Wisconsin Grasses, by Emmet J. Judziewicz, Robert W. Freckmann, Lynn G. Clark, and Merel R. Black

Wildly Successful Farming: Sustainability and the New Agricultural Land Ethic, by Brian DeVore

Force of Nature: George Fell, Founder of the Natural Areas Movement, by Arthur Melville Pearson

A Lakeside Companion, by Ted J. Rulseh

“Restoration Outcomes and Reporting: An Assessment of Wetland Area Gains in Wisconsin, USA” by Rusty K. Griffin and Thomas E. Dahl, Ecological Restoration vol. 34.3 (2016)

“The Use of Sediment Removal to Reduce Phosphorus Levels in Wetland Soils” by Skye Fasching, Jack Norland, Tom DeSutter, Edward DeKeyser, Francis Casey, and Christina Hargiss, Ecological Restoration vol. 33.2 (2015)

“Experiences Establishing Native Wetland Plants in a Constructed Wetland” by David Steinfeld, Native Plants Journal vol. 2.1 (2001)

“Site-Scale Disturbance Best Predicts Moss, Vascular Plant, and Amphibian Indices in Ohio Wetlands” by Martin A. Stapanian, Mick Micacchion, Brian Gara, William Schumacher, and Jean V. Adams, Ecological Restoration vol. 36.2 (2018)

“Seed Dormancy Break and Germination for Restoration of Three Globally Important Wetland Bulrushes” by James E. Marty and Karin M. Kettenring, Ecological Restoration vol. 35.2 (2017)

“Observations on Seed Propagation of 5 Mississippi Wetland Species” by Janet M Grabowski, Native Plants Journal vol. 2.1 (2001)

“Effects of Selectively-targeted Imazapyr Applications on Typha angustifolia in a Species-rich Wetland (Wisconsin)” by Craig A. Annen, Jared A. Bland, Amanda J. Budyak, and Christopher D. Knief, Ecological Restoration vol. 37.1 (2019)

“Edaphic and Vegetative Responses to Forested Wetland Restoration with Created Microtopography in Arkansas” by Benjamin E. Sleeper and Robert L. Ficklin, Ecological Restoration vol. 34.2 (2016)

Most Read Articles of 2019

As 2019 wraps up, we take a look back at the most read journal articles published this year. The following list presents the most popular article from each of our journals. Many are freely available to read until the end of January.

African Economic History: “The Politics of African Freehold Land Ownership in Early Colonial Zimbabwe, 1890–1930” by Joseph Mujere and Admire Mseba

Arctic Anthropology: “Farming in the Extreme—Animal Management in Late Medieval and Early Modern Northern Finland” by Maria Lahtinen and Anna-Kaisa Salmi

Contemporary Literature: “Don DeLillo, Madison Avenue, and the Aesthetics of Postwar Fiction” by Aaron Derosa

Ecological Restoration: “Five Decades of Wetland Soil Development of a Constructed Tidal Salt Marsh, North Carolina, USA” by Aaron Noll, Courtney Mobilian, and Christopher Craft

Ghana Studies: “Descendant Epistemology” by Ebony Coletu

Journal of Human Resources: “Teacher Effects on Complex Cognitive Skills and Social-Emotional Competencies” by Matthew A. Kraft

Land Economics: “Adaptation, Sea Level Rise, and Property Prices in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed” by Patrick Walsh, Charles Griffiths, Dennis Guignet, and Heather Klemick

Landscape Journal: “Core Knowledge Domains of Landscape Architecture” by William N. Langley, Robert C. Corry, and Robert D. Brown

Luso-Brazilian Review: “Os lugares do morto: O que faz Eça na literatura portuguesa contemporânea?” by Pedro Marques

Monatshefte: “Recent German Ecocriticism in Interdisciplinary Context” by Helga G. Braunbeck

Native Plants Journal: “Successfully Storing Milkweed Taproots for Habitat Restoration” by Melissa L. Topping, R. Kasten Dumroese, and Jeremiah R. Pinto

Reindeer and Arctic Cultures: A Holiday Reading List from Arctic Anthropology

To celebrate the holiday season, we browsed past issues of Arctic Anthropology to find articles featuring our favorite furry friends of the North: the reindeer! Reindeer have played an important role in Arctic cultures for centuries, from European Russia to Alaska, providing people with transportation, food, and livelihood. Below are a few selected articles, freely available until the end of January.


The monument for the reindeer fighting brigades (Dudeck).

“Reindeer Returning from Combat: War Stories among the Nenets of European Russia” by Stephan Dudeck (2018)

Dudeck studies the oral histories of the Nenets, an indigenous group of the northwestern Russian Arctic. The Nenets traditionally herded reindeer as part of their nomadic lifestyle, and from 1942 to 1944, Nenets herders used reindeer and sleds to transport supplies and wounded soldiers to and from the front in the Soviet war with Finland. In this article, Dudeck interviews Nenets elders about their personal experiences during the war.

“Towards a Multiangled Study of Reindeer Agency, Overlapping Environments, and Human-Animal Relationships” by Jukka Nyyssönen and Anna-Kaisa Salmi (2013)

Nyyssönen and Salmi discuss relationships between reindeer and humans, specifically with the Sámi, an indigenous people of northern Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Russia. Through an examination of archaeological sites in Finnish Lapland, the authors describe Sámi religious rituals where reindeer were sacrificed, arguing that the reindeer were able to demonstrate their agency by feeling fear and resisting being killed.

“‘I’d Be Foolish to Tell You They Were Caribou’: Local Knowledge of Historical Interactions between Reindeer and Caribou in Barrow, Alaska” by Karen H. Mager (2012)

Mager studies the reindeer industry in Barrow, Alaska, which began to decline in the 1930s and 40s in part due to reindeer running away to join wild caribou herds. According to the oral histories collected in this study, to this day, locals can identify reindeer-like animals in caribou herds.

To learn more about Arctic Anthropologysubscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.

The Impact of Pollution Exposure on Educational Outcomes and Inequality

Upcoming Journal of Human Resources article uncovers the hidden effects of pollutants on cognitive development and academic performance in adolescents

Journal of Human Resources Fall 2019 current issue cover

Increasing environmental consciousness means that more people are reaching for metal straws, but we may not be aware of a much larger issue: the hidden toxins in the air. New research set to appear in the upcoming issue of the Journal of Human Resources suggests that pollutants from local Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites may impact the productivity and educational development of students in nearby schools.

Over the past four years, Claudia Persico, an assistant professor at American University, evaluated over one million elementary, middle, and high school students in Florida using their Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) scores, their level of academic success, and general wellness. With over 30% of schools in Florida existing within one mile of a TRI site, exposure to air pollution was found to be associated with lower test scores and a greater chance that students will be suspended from school, have greater numbers of absences from school and perform lower on their FCAT exams. Persico expanded on these results to determine if different proximities to TRI sites affected grade repetition, behavior, and health over time. When students’ records were examined, it was revealed that those who had been exposed to the pollution for a greater cumulative time had lower attendance records and more health concerns.

Persico joined us to discuss the genesis of her interest in this topic and the larger implications of the study. To learn more, read the full Journal of Human Resources preprint article, “The Effects of Local Industrial Pollution on Students and Schools.”


1. How did you decide to pursue this topic? What spurred this study?

I used to study the neurobiology of autism at the Boston University School of Medicine, but I became interested in why low-income children perform so much worse in school and are more likely to have disabilities. Because the developing brain is so vulnerable to the environment, this got me interested in studying pollution.

It turns out that in 2014 alone, Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) sites in America (which represent only one type of industrial plant) released 3.95 billion pounds of (untreated) toxic chemicals into the air, land, and water, out of 25.45 billion total pounds of toxic chemicals created in production-related wastes. Although we do not currently have comprehensive evidence on which pollutants are most harmful, the evidence we do have is worrisome and suggests a source of inequality that has not yet been explored in depth. Namely, since African American, Hispanic, and low-income families are more likely to live and attend school in close proximity to sources of pollution like toxic waste and TRI sites, where housing is less expensive, it is possible that exposure to pollution—which more affluent families can avoid because they can afford more costly housing—is one mechanism through which poverty produces negative cognitive and health outcomes over time.

2. You note that about 30 percent of children in Florida live within one mile of a TRI site. Is Florida an extreme case? How are the effects of pollutants on cognitive development applicable to other areas of the United States and the world?

There are currently about 21,800 TRI sites operating across the United States and the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 59 million people (about 19 percent of the population) live within one mile of a TRI site (EPA 2014). We find that nearly 22 percent of all public schools were within one mile of a TRI facility in 2016 serving more than 11 million public school students.

While other countries don’t call their factories TRI sites, it is likely that my findings could generalize to power plants, pharmaceutical industry, chemical, metal, and concrete manufacturers, as well as other factories that produce pollution containing carcinogens or known developmental toxicants worldwide. It is difficult to know how many people this would affect given that there isn’t a central database for international pollution, but my guess is that many people are affected. 

3. What is one takeaway from your article that you’d like to communicate to non-scholars (or policymakers)?

These findings have strong implications for where we locate schools, playgrounds, public housing and places children or pregnant women congregate. For a long time, we have known that neighborhoods matter to children’s long-term outcomes. We are starting to realize that pollution is one major reason why this is the case, that pollution might drive more inequality than we are comfortable with, and that the true costs of pollution are only beginning to be understood.

4. To what extent do you feel that your research could inspire change in policy?

I think policymakers are starting to be interested in these findings, and I am optimistic about the future. While the land near TRI sites is cheaper to build a school on in the short run, the truth is that these sites might jeopardize the very mission of the schools located there. This also says nothing of the long-run costs on the children exposed to this type of pollution. In the back of the envelope calculation, we find that being exposed to TRI pollution in school leads to a US$4,361 decrease in lifetime income per person (in present value terms). With 436,088 children in Florida ever attending school within one mile of an operating TRI site during this sample period, this result implies US$1,875,178,400 in lost lifetime earnings.

5. Will you continue to pursue similar questions or will you take your research in another direction?

Yes, I am pursuing several new projects about the true costs of pollution. For example, I have another new working paper (along with David Simon and Jenni Heissel) in which we compare students who have to switch from elementary to middle school or from middle school to high school as they progress through the school system. We compare children who switch from a school that is upwind from a highway to a school that is downwind of a highway, and again find that highway pollution affects students’ test scores, behavior, and absences. Children who attend school near a major highway are again more likely to be low income or minority than children attending school elsewhere.

Figure 1. Locations of Toxic Release Inventory and Superfund sites in the United States in 2015.

Note: Toxic Release Inventory facilities are shown in blue and sites on the Superfund National Priorities List are shown in red.

Source: National Institutes of Health, Department of Health and Human Services. https://toxmap.nlm.nih.gov/toxmap


Claudia Persico is an applied policy scholar whose research focuses on environmental policy, inequality, health and education policy using causal inference methods. Persico is also an IZA Research Affiliate, and a Research Affiliate with the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. Her research has recently been featured in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, the Journal of Labor Economics, and the Journal of Human Resources. Her current work examines the social and biological mechanisms underlying the relationships between poverty, the environment, and children’s cognitive development and health. In particular, much of her current research focuses on how early exposure to environmental pollution can cause inequality by affecting child health, development, behavior, and academic achievement. She has also studied how school funding affects long term outcomes, how school segregation impacts racial disproportionalities in special education, and how childhood exposure to pollution affects academic outcomes. Her research has been covered by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, the Atlantic, and many other major media outlets. She was formerly an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Call for Papers: Native Plants Journal

The editors of Native Plants Journal seek papers on topics related to North American (Canada, Mexico, and US) native plants used for conservation, pollinator habitat, urban landscaping, restoration, reforestation, landscaping, populating highway corridors, and so on. Published papers are potentially useful to practitioners of native plant sciences. Contributions from both scientists (summarizing rigorous research projects) and workers in the field (describing practical processes and germplasm releases) are welcome.

See the journal’s submission guidelines for more information. Questions may be directed to Stephen Love, Editor-in-Chief, at slove@uidaho.edu.

About the journal: Native Plants Journal began in January 2000 as a cooperative effort of the USDA Forest Service and the University of Idaho, with assistance from the USDA Agricultural Research Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The second issue of each year includes the Native Plant Materials Directory, which provides information about producers of native plant materials in the United States and Canada. 

To learn more, subscribe to the journal, browse the latest table of contents, or sign up for new issue email alerts.