I have published an article “Endling, the power of the last in an extinction-prone world” in the journal Environmental Philosophy. In the article I put together the history of a word (and the history of the idea) to represent the last individual of a species.
This word, endling, has an exciting 20-year history. It began with a proposal in a short letter to the journal Nature in 1996 to coin a word to represent the last in a line. It was then picked up by the curators of the planned National Museum of Australia (NMA) that opened its doors in 2001 as part of a memorial to extinction, with a special focus on the thylacine. This sparked the word onto its journey into popular culture as well as popular science.
Importantly in this history, I show much museums and their presentations of ideas matter. I had the good fortune to visit NMA in 2016 (thanks to Professor Libby Robin for arranging my trip and interview with the former curator!). The Endling cabinet or monument was striking with its aluminum shine and central position in the exhibit. Its no wonder that the first people to pick up on endling as a concept had visited the exhibit. The history of endling proves that museum designers and curators have the power to make a difference in how people think and express those thoughts.
Through my historical narrative of this word, I argue that endling could play a key role in remembering species that have become extinct and encouraging action to avoid extinction in the future:
The concept of endling, with its ability to bridge the gap between species extinction as an abstraction and the death of an animal as a concrete event, offers a new way of thinking about extinction. It can make the narrative personal while retaining the universality of extinction—when this individual is gone, the whole species is no more.
This was a very different piece for me to research and write. I interviewed a symphonic composer and a artistic director and choreographer about their uses of endling. I read modern science fiction stories, which are often born digital, that frame the last of a species as an endling. I looked at the visual arts that used the term. And I even got to do research into the different genres of metal music (and played one song over and over again to try to make out the lyrics with its raspy metal voice — to no avail). It was an adventure to follow a word as it popped up here and there in, what at first, were unexpected places. And yet all of it made sense in light of the power of the word as a response to the sixth mass extinction event which we are living through. With new times, we need new words.