Five questions with Allison Carruth, Professor of American Studies and HMEI

Jamie Saxon ・ Princeton Office of Communications

Allison Carruth joined the Princeton faculty in January as a professor of American studies and the High Meadows Environmental Institute in a new joint appointment that will expand interdisciplinary teaching and research in the environmental humanities.

Carruth’s research centers on environmental narrative; media and art; science communication; contemporary food movements; and evolving relationships between technology, ecology and environmentalism in American culture. For over a decade, she has worked on collaborations that aim to bridge ideas from and re-imagine the boundaries between the arts, humanities and sciences. At Princeton, Carruth plans to launch an environmental media lab that will experiment in emerging and established media of storytelling, from speculative fiction and documentary to animation, interactive design and augmented reality.

In this Q&A for Princeton’s Year of Forward Thinking campaign, Carruth considers the power of story to catalyze action, her plans to establish the environmental media lab and what “forward thinking” means to her.

What keeps you up at night?

What keeps me up at night increasingly is the power of disinformation to discredit academic research and stymie action around urgent social and environmental problems. I worry especially about how stories about the climate crisis are being reported (insufficiently tied to issues of social justice) and about how social media supercharges disinformation about movements for a just transition from a fossil fuel economy to a more sustainable and livable future.

Who or what inspired you to work in this field?

When I left my home state of Colorado to attend college in Iowa, I thought I would study ecology and train to become an environmental lawyer. My grandfather was one influence; he worked for decades as a machinist and union organizer in an oil refinery in Wyoming. He instilled his ardor for the streams, forests and snowfields of the Rocky Mountains in his children and grandchildren. (One of my favorite memories of summers spent in my grandparents’ home in Sinclair, Wyoming is of my grandfather tying flies for fly fishing in his basement workshop.) His quiet commitments to a fair economy and to environmental stewardship have been in the background of my academic and professional life ever since.

Carruth doing field work in Oahu in 2014. (Photo by Barron Bixler)

What excites you most about your research/scholarship?

A series of projects with students, artists, journalists and colleagues in California in the years before I joined the Princeton faculty have galvanized my current research and public work — a book provisionally titled “Novel Ecologies” and a lab I will be launching at Princeton to cultivate stories that illuminate pressing environmental problems and catalyze action. The lab will apply new and established media to science communication and storytelling experiments, with an eye to the complex histories of contemporary environmental challenges. In this work, we will collaborate with artists, journalists, writers, activists and community leaders.

The environmental media lab, as I’m thinking of it, is inspired by public arts and humanities projects I have worked on over the past decade. Much of this collaborative work has been site-specific and has been informed by practices of participatory art and citizen science. These commitments first coalesced through “Play the LA River,” which I co-led with a team of designers, historians and urban planners between 2014 and 2016. The project’s centerpiece was a guide to the 51-mile Los Angeles River, which is the focus of a major civil re-engineering and ecological revitalization plan. Our guide took the form of a game that was paired with a year of public programs co-organized with artist collectives, environmental groups and neighborhood councils.

How do you hope that your work will help create a better future?

My hope is that the environmental media lab will support students, artists, journalists, community leaders and others in communicating diverse knowledge about pressing environmental problems and in imagining more just and livable futures.

What does “forward thinking” mean to you?

Wow. A lot comes to mind. Speculative novelists who tell stories of the future that illuminate the most intractable, urgent problems of the present; the youth activists who insist that climate action and racial justice are inextricable; the researchers and care providers around the world who shared in unprecedented ways what they were learning in real time about SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. What these soothsayers and trailblazers share in common, I think, is an extraordinary capacity to make bold connections and re-imagine the boundaries of knowledge.