On extinction and the climate crisis

AN EVOLUTIONARY RIDE

a dinosaur skeleton standing beneath the stone ceiling of a cathedral

Prof Jean McNeil will host a debate beneath Dippy at Norwich Cathedral on 12 October. Photo: Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral

Prof Jean McNeil will host a debate beneath Dippy at Norwich Cathedral on 12 October. Photo: Bill Smith/Norwich Cathedral

"Do we feel the impress of lost creatures we never knew, but who we will one day join in the halls of never-dom?"

The word 'extinction' is synonymous with climate change. But what do we mean by extinction? How can we learn to understand it? And how can we comprehend our role in the Sixth era of mass extinction?

Ahead of chairing a talk on humanity, extinction and climate change at Norwich Cathedral, the author and UEA Professor of Creative Writing Jean McNeil sheds some light on the issue.


Most children have a favourite dinosaur, and a few of us adults, too. Full disclosure: mine is Triceratops. I admire their essential underdog-ness; alive in a time of flesh-eating giants including the Tyrannosaurus Rex, with only the prongs of their three horns to save them.

How wonderful, then, to meet some in the flesh...

The almost-Triceratops

I am at Lewa Downs in northern Kenya, training to be a safari guide. In conservation circles, Lewa is known as home to remaining populations of critically endangered Black rhino, as well as the more numerous White rhino. (Their names are to do with anatomy and feeding behaviour, not colour – the standard safari guide joke is: ‘aren’t all rhinoceros grey?’)

Throughout Africa, the Black rhino is critically endangered, at risk of becoming functionally extinct. Both species are being hunted to death for the perceived value of their horns, a hunk of keratin – the same substance our fingernails are made from – and which in actuality have no properties at all, medicinal or otherwise. Unless you are a rhinoceros.

"Two animals, the human and the almost-Triceratops, once united in the east African savannah, now separated by 1.5 million years of evolution, listening to each other breathing"

From only 40 metres away we trainee guides line up on a fallen Fever tree branch.  We watch as four White rhino stand shoulder to shoulder in the meadow, methodically swishing grass into their mouths, sweeping back and forth like a cadre of 19th century farmers scything the fields. Up close the rhinoceros really does look like a Triceratops, with its oblong block of concrete head studded with a 2.5kg horn and its torso a suit of pewter-coloured armour worthy of a medieval knight.

It is hard to overstate how rare it is to see these animals up close, these days. Lewa’s rhino are still on the planet only thanks to the military-grade rhino protection unit the reserve employs, complete with AR-15-toting guards and bloodhounds, who track poachers or suspected poachers. It’s also not entirely risk-free to sidle up to them on foot, as we have done. Rhino can run faster than a racehorse over short distances, and if threatened will flatten a human.

Even after my years spent in the African bush and many run-ins with elephant or lion, this afternoon of unusual proximity to rhino at Lewa would remain in my mind as the ultimate encounter: two animals, the human and the almost-Triceratops, once united in the east African savannah, now separated by 1.5 million years of evolution, listening to each other breathing.

two rhinoceros in grassland

White rhino. Photo: Jean McNeil

White rhino. Photo: Jean McNeil

three zebra on a dry savannah

Grevy's zebra in Lewa Downs. Photo: Jean McNeil

Grevy's zebra in Lewa Downs. Photo: Jean McNeil

"With each extinct species disappears a potential cure for cancer, the elixir that will extend human lifespans by decades... With extinction we enter a Donald Rumsfeldian realm. We don’t know what we don’t know we are losing"

Understanding extinction

We are living in an age of mass extinction – the sixth, in fact. The last one, the fifth, was caused by an asteroid. The one before that, the Late Permian, by sudden global warming. This one is caused by us. One million plants and animals face permanent erasure, imminently – more than ever before in the history of our planet. According to the Natural History Museum, more than 40% of amphibian species, about 33% of corals and more than a third of all marine mammals are threatened. Why? Because 75% of land environments and 66% of oceans have been altered by humans, probably permanently.

Typically for a writer, I often turn to the history of a word, its etymology, for inspiration. This word-nerdness usually pays off, revealing nuances and insights buried within words we have come to take for granted. Extinction has its origin in exstinguere – Latin for ‘to quench’, as in fires, lights, a thirst. An extinction was originally a quenching, a cool draught on a hot day, then it was a fire put out. Only since 1784 has it come to mean a never-ing, an endgame.

Extinction is hard to hold on to as a concept. It slips from one’s mind like a fish from a hook. For one, it is hard to know when you are in the middle of an extinction event. ‘They are like invisible nuclear explosions that last for thousands of years,’ writes literary critic and philosopher Timothy Morton. We notice how Morton’s reaches for event in his neat analogy. Human beings are very good at events (such as a partially collapsed condominium in Florida) but very bad at processes (such as the climate-change driven ‘heat dome’ which boils alive 90 million organisms), which happened at exactly the same time this past summer. Guess which one got more media coverage?

Extinction is the default experience for earth’s organisms. Over 99.9% of species that have ever lived are now extinct. No species is guaranteed to live forever, no matter how hardy and ruthless (the crocodile comes to mind). We are, all of us, all members of species, somewhere on an evolutionary ride. It’s hard to say when it will be over. But it will, one day. What we know: for the moment, even if humans are the extinguishers, the quenchers of things, what is the single biggest cause of extinctions in the earth’s long history? Global heating, particularly rises in carbon dioxide.

The extinction paradox

The oceanic parrot, the Reunion rail, the Bermuda night heron, the Christmas Island pipistrelle, Forster’s reed warbler, St Lucia skink, Cunning silversid, Chihuahuan dwarf crayfish.

These are some species declared extinct in the last decade (2010-2020). Extinction is cloaked in paradox. Many of these permanent disappearances happen unnoticed, or take a very long time to be recorded as such. A bird last officially sighted on Bermuda, say, in 1785, might only be declared extinct in 2010. And of the six to ten million (an estimate) extant species on the planet, we only know about one million of them. Species appear and disappear without us even realising their existence.

The flip side of extinction is not existence, or not exactly, but evolution. Extinctions have a silver lining, because they allow new species to emerge. As much as dinosaur-obsessed children might mourn the golden age of titanic bone-crushers, if the bulk of land-dwelling dinosaurs had not been dealt a fatal blow by whatever caused the Permian-Triassic extinction 252 million years ago, mammals might well not have evolved (would you fancy the chances of a hedgehog against a velociraptor?). This category includes, for that matter, us. Meanwhile fantastical new lifeforms continue to be discovered. Among are the debutants of 2021 are the Emperor Dumbo Octopus, which lives 1,200 metres deep in the ocean and which is almost entirely transparent, or the discovery of only two individuals, male and female, of the micro-chameleon, the smallest chameleon in the world, in the mountain forests of Madagascar.

"Extinctions have a silver lining, because they allow new species to emerge"

If extinction is a natural event, inevitable even, then why should we rue those that we are engineering? For the entire history of the planet, as far as we know, extinctions were those slow explosions Morton refers to. As catastrophic as asteroid strikes and other natural disasters were, it might have taken 60 million years for a Sail-backed edaphosaurus, a creature that looked like a fusion of a sailfish and an iguana, dominant in the Permian era, to die out – a period far, far longer than humans have existed.

But now, the bulk of extinctions taking place in this Sixth era are happening in a hundred years, or a decade, because of us, the quenchers. Then there is opportunity cost to consider. We are losing biodiversity. With each extinct species disappears a potential cure for cancer, the elixir that will extend human lifespans by decades, the antidote to a disease which does not yet exist. With extinction we enter a Donald Rumsfeldian realm. We don’t know what we don’t know we are losing.

giraffe photographed on a wide savannah with sun speaking through a cloudy sky

Walking with ghosts

By now we have been perched on the dead branch of the Fever tree for an hour, watching four White rhino come ever closer. We are close enough now to catch a whiff of their barnyard smell, see the delicate hairs on their ears sway in the wind, hear the schoolmasterish huff of their breathing, how every exhalation says: how preposterous. The very air around them condenses. It’s a very different force field from the human. Then I realise what it is: the morbid gleam of imminent extinction.

Eventually the rhino change course and swish away. We are safe to clamber down from the felled tree and walk back to our camp. We swish through rooigrass, passing papyrus swamps, crossing sage fields studded with koppies. I wonder if there are ghosts here, as we walk. If this very savannah where our own species emerged is patrolled by the ghosts of Simbakubwa, the giant lion-hyena, of Equatorius and Nacholapithecus and all the other vanished megafauna of Miocene Africa. Their descendants, the rhinoceros, are still here. And us. United for the moment in an epic land of remnants.

This is one reason why I put myself through two safari professional courses, including the required advanced marksmanship training, probably the most difficult thing I have done in my life. I wanted to see these animals, this life, while it is still here. I wanted to know them and their habitat intimately. I was conducting a kind of elaborate requiem. I have always struggled to compute the finitude of extinction, its never-ness. Do we feel the impress of lost creatures we never knew, but who we will one day join in the halls of never-dom? Extinct species might only be our memories of the future. That is why they haunt us.

As we orbit Lewa Downs I begin to imagine a sort of Hall of Memory for vanished animals. In it, a single memory from the extinct species I know once lived among the oceans of game on the plains of Africa, is collected and put on display, as in diorama.

The Nubian ibex remembers suckling from its mother, the coolness of her milk, even when heat stalked the land. The ibex remembers the day it outran the Acinonyx, the ancestor of the cheetah, switchbacking so violently it wondered if its spine would break. It remembers the angle of the sky as the thunderstorm advanced, how the great mass of mauve clouds flattened the land until it became convex, the iron smell of rain.

Prof Jean McNeil. Photo by Diego Ferrari

Prof Jean McNeil. Photo by Diego Ferrari

Prof Jean McNeil is Professor of Creative Writing, School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at UEA and the author of 14 books. She has written extensively about the environment and climate change and was a writer in residence Antarctica, which inspired this story on the isolation she experienced on the white continent.  

A debate at Norwich Cathedral, Are we heading for extinction? Humanity and the Climate Crisis, takes place on 12 October and features five speakers from UEA: Dr Rachel Carmenta, Prof Robert Nicholls, Prof Jeff Price, Dr Rupert Read and Jean McNeil. Tickets are still available