Thinking extinction with sci-fi

Steward Brand, President of the Long Now Foundation, has a new essay out titled “Rethinking Extinction”. Brand argues that the current discursive emphasis on extinction, especially crisis language of the “Sixth Mass Extinction” à la Elizabeth Kolbert, takes the emphasis away from the real problem of decreasing wild animal populations. He believes that the negative spin of extinction headlines leads to inaction:

As they accumulate, they frame our whole relationship with nature as one of unremitting tragedy. The core of tragedy is that it cannot be fixed, and that is a formula for hopelessness and inaction. Lazy romanticism about impending doom becomes the default view.

Is this true? Does a tragedy narrative necessarily lead to hopelessness and inaction?

The timing of this article and the questions it raises couldn’t have been more appropriate for me because just yesterday I gave a lecture on animal species extinction in science-fiction for the course “Science goes fiction” at KTH in Stockholm. In that lecture I grouped my material into three questions about animals that sci-fi extinction narratives raise:

  1. Are humans less human without non-humans?
  2. Are humans harmed without non-humans?
  3. Which is more important: us or them?

Androids_DreamI think the work I discussed in relation to the first question — Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) — addresses Brand’s claim most directly. Animal extinction pervades throughout the narrative in the novel (but not really in the movie Blade Runner from 1982 based on the book). In a post-World War Terminus, there are no wild animals. The first signs that radioactive fallout was destroying life on the planet was the death of owls, something the protagonist Rick Deckard reflects on:

A thousand thoughts came into his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day — foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.

This passage would appear to confirm Brand’s idea that a constant stream of bad news will lead people to tune out — they stop reading.

Yet, Dick portrays a world in which animal ethos is the thing which is characteristically human. The few remaining animals are highly prized and highly priced merchandise. To own an animal is everyone’s dream. Although many people have to settle for electric replicas, like Deckerd’s electric sheep which inspired the title, they always yearn for the real thing. The test that distinguishes humans from androids relies on questions about killing animals, something which Dick envisions would be never acceptable in the post-WWT world.  For Dick, humans are less human without non-humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? proposes that animal extinction and near extinction can lead to a great empathy for animals, prompting drastic efforts to keep and preserve them. This is no “lazy romanticism about impending doom”. It is certainly a tragedy story, but it is also a story about potentialities in the face of tragedy.

This is of course the same kind of thing I have seen in the history of beaver reintroduction in Sweden. The narrative of the last beaver in Sweden, recognition that it was gone, is important because it leads to desire to change the situation. The tragedy is reframed as possibility.

While the doom-and-gloom narratives of extinction may fill the headlines and we become wary of the “perpetual animal obits”, those same stories may inspire a new animal ethos, an understanding of the world from the animal point of view. To see tragedies might inspire people to value animals more and work to avoid more tragic endings.

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