Spenser’s Moral Economy as Political Ecology: Teaching the Bower of Bliss
In March 2012, the New York Times Magazine published an essay about a new form of ecological disorder in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, where plant overgrowth engulfs lots and structures abandoned since the breach of the levees following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The vegetation, including many invasive non-native species, provides habitat to wildlife, pests, stray dogs and cats, and unwanted trash, not to mention cover to illicit human activities that threaten a neighborhood still struggling back to life in the wake of the storm. Periodically, writes Nathaniel Rich, Sisyphean crews liberate these abandoned swatches of land from the overgrowth and deposited debris, only to have the plants and rubbish come back, each struggling to outdo the other in a self-renewing contest of blight: “For six and a half years, the neighborhood has undergone a reverse colonization-nature reclaiming civilization. Residents have fought with hatchets and weed trimmers to rebuff the colonizers: Southern cut grass, giant ragweed, Chinese tallow trees. But the effort has been largely futile. The lots require constant vigilance.” The struggle between vegetative chaos and georgic labor in the Lower Ninth Ward proves a handy allegory for post-Katrina New Orleans, where, a decade after the storm, the status of human habitation remains imperiled by a range of factors: the city’s amphibious location, the vagaries of weather, creeping climate change, sudden oil spills, violence, racism, and generations of social and environmental injustice. To mention the Ninth Ward’s vegetable colonists is implicitly to evoke these other contributing factors to the neighborhood’s, and the city’s, precarious state. It is also to name the attitude of “constant vigilance” that such factors have fostered in the city’s residents.