What is extinction?

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) are a body of conservation practitioners, local groups, big environmental organisations and governmental organisations who all work on the conservation of the world’s biodiversity. The IUCN is probably best known for their RED LIST where species are categorised based of their risk of extinction. From the IUCN, a species is considered extinct if a) the last surviving organism dies or b) monitoring at a sufficient special and temporal scale has yielded no results.

At a scientific level, extinction can already be quite fluid. There is what’s known as underlying extinction, were a species dies out because it has either evolved into something else, or because it’s undergone a species bottleneck as a result of natural selection. Differentiating between a species that evolved from a previous species (and their evolutionary cousins) is always a site of heated debate, so determining a species “extinct” because its offspring is sufficiently different from it that it is a different species.

But what is more interesting (to me, man I wouldn’t want to reduce the absolute BURNS in those debates) are

These are the extinctions that make their way into popular culture. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event is the most well known, which saw the end of the dinosaurs(ish… birds and some dinosaurs share an AWFUL lot in common). But there are five others that we know of, including snowball earth where earth’s mean temperature was -12oC, and – arguably – the one we are experiencing now.

Extinction has a special cultural fascination. The idea that not only is a single organism dead, but ~everyone like it~ is also dead, along with (potentially) the role it plays in its ecosystem has a morbidity beyond a single death. With the idea of extinction is de-extinction, or bringing species back from extinction like Jurassic Park. The ideas of deep time (Ice Age) as well as the myriad of disaster works depicting human extinction in the Apocalypse are fertile ground for storytellers. But when extinction is a real and growing risk to all sorts of life on earth, how do these stories speak to the (very much non-hypothetical) reality of the biodiversity crisis?

An important element of that reality is that the extinction rate at this moment is a political decision. During the age of austerity in Britain and the USA globalisation, political and economic forces combined to drive habitat destruction worldwide, but especially in the Global South. In Australia, the IUCN redlist categorisation is supposed to be a basis to consider the potential impacts of new business and infrastructure projects. However, the specific laws that are supposed to prevent extinctions are wholly inadequate to perform this function.

Comics and the arts more generally can be effective in telling complex political stories, where the impacts of certain actions can be displaced temporally and spatially. When it comes to extinction stories, including stories of a collapse in the human population, created during a time of rapid loss of species in the world, it is important to analyse what (if anything) was the root of the extinction. It is also important to recognise the way in which creators engage with the finality of extinction.

Recent works I have read/ seen and key points I have noticed about them that explore the loss of biodiversity and collapse of the human population:

  • The Swan Book by Alexis Wright is the story of Traditional Owners who have survived as their Country has been changed beyond recognition by waves of colonialism and climate change. Although there is clear indications that the human population around the world is in dire straits, Country – and the protagonist’s Oblivia’s connection to it – remains. “Always was, always will be”.
  • Station Eleven written in 2014 by Emily St. John Mandel is a story of a pandemic borne from ‘the Georgia Flu’ that spread rapidly around the world from air travel, leading to the collapse of the human population and a lot of the infrastructure that came with it. Mandel also incorporates climate change into her worldbuilding, with hotter days ever recorded in her setting of northern America. My personal gripe with this book is the detail in which Mandel kills off the array of disabled characters (ranging from a paraplegic, two (married?) diabetics and someone on antidepression medication – believe me NONE of you have ANY skills to survive according to Mandel).
  •  The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jeminsin. This series is set in a future so distant that it resembles fantasy, but where there is a mythology rooted in our current ecological crisis.  Intersectional injustices in Jeminsin’s work (specifically racism, sexual exploitation and queer erasure) are clearly reflective of the current world. One of the interesting aspects of Jeminsin’s work is that they feature super-human beings that are distinct from, but rooted in human characteristics. This work hints at the extinction of humans, but the potential survival of other species that are evolved from humans.

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