Imagining Extinction

99% of the 4 billion species estimated to have populated our planet in the last 3.5 billion years have disappeared (Novacek & Cleland 2001). We can thus safely say that, like death, extinction is a part of life. There have been five major mass extinctions in the history of our planet—the most well-known one being the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) extinction, which occurred about 65 million years ago. During the K-Pg extinction, 75% of all species vanished (Raup & Sepkoski 1982), including all non-avian dinosaurs (Fastovsky & Sheehan 2005), and it allowed mammals and birds to emerge as the dominant species on our planet (Halliday & Goswami 2016).

Currently, 25% of all mammals and 13% of all bird species are threatened with extinction (Tilman et al. 2017). Since 1900, there has been a thousand-fold increase in extinctions compared with pre-human times (Pimm et al. 2014). While scientists still debate as to whether the current spike in extinctions constitutes the sixth mass extinction or 'just' another minor extinction (of which there have been between twenty and thirty, depending on one’s definition of 'extinction event'), one thing is for certain: Whereas earlier extinction events were caused by natural forces, the current one is due to human activity; it is a byproduct, if not one of the characterizing features, of the Anthropocene—this age, in which humans, collectively, have come to rival "some of the great forces of Nature in [their] impact on the functioning of the Earth system" (Steffen et al. 2011: 842).

Thus, when Elizabeth Kolbert won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for her book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014), the award committee acknowledged one of the most pressing issues of our times. Like any other history, Kolbert's 'unnatural history' is a narrative, as the author herself makes explicit in the book's introduction, noting that her work is "[t]he story of the Sixth Extinction, […] as [she has] chosen to tell it" (2014: 3). This meta-reference reveals that narratives surround us and allow us to superimpose "structure on the chaos of our lives" (Gottschall 2012: xvii). More importantly, however, these stories are always-already political.

In light of the ideological underpinnings of all stories, Ursula Heise has called for a critical investigation of the cultural production of endangered species. In a similar vein, my project seeks to examine the cultural production of nonhuman and human extinction. What stories do we tell about extinction? How do we imagine extinction? Why do we tell these stories? To this end, this project will explore cultural artifacts produced since the late eighteenth century, in which extinction plays a larger or lesser role, from Mary Shelley's The Last Man (1826) to contemporary blockbusters envisioning the overcoming of extinction. In so doing, this project will argue that imaginings of both human and nonhuman extinction bring us face-to-face with the inescapable biological reality of human extinction, for extinction is "the normal fate of species" (QUOTE). However, if 'we' (to use an inclusive pronoun that masks all sorts of exclusionary practices) continue 'our' ways, this disappearance will not only occur sooner rather than later, but Homo sapiens (a historically exclusive category, no doubt) will have engulfed thousands of other species in the abyss.

The proposed project will explore extinction narratives in different media (films, comics, video games, and literature) and from different (albeit primarily Western) cultural contexts (USA, UK, Austria, Germany) to study the symbolic use and—in fact—agency of popular narratives within the context of the current wave of species vanishing from our planet. These tales center on questions of power—either the power of one species to eradicate or revive (i.e., to de-extinct) another or the feelings of powerlessness which arise when a civilization or species confronts a(n often natural) phenomenon beyond its control. This interrelation (rather than opposition) between power and powerlessness has become a fact of life in the Anthropocene, as humanity has become "perpetrator and victim" (Beck) at the same time. As this project will demonstrate, extinction has become an omnipresent phenomenon as well as discourse in the early twenty-first century. For example, when the northern white rhinoceros Sudan died in March 2018, major news programs and papers around the world—such as The Guardian, CNN, Die Zeit, and Der Standard—ran features on how his death harbingered the extinction of his species, as only two females of the species remain alive. In order to understand (or, rather, in order to create the illusion of understanding) extinction, humans are bound to tell stories about the phenomon. Whereas genre fiction has addressed the vanishing of species ever since extinction became an accepted scientific concept in the early nineteenth century, the contemporary moment is an age of extinction—both in terms of plant and animal species vanishing from our planet and the prominent—yet understudied—presence of extinction in cultural products.