Thom van Dooren
As Australia burned during the 2019-2020 bushfire season, many of us struggled to reckon with the scale of the loss. Alongside the immense impacts on human communities—including the loss of life, of property, of income, and of security—we tried to make sense of the devastation faced by the wider community of life: of billions of dead animals and of the vast areas of bushland, millions of acres, that they once inhabited.
This intense period also brought us face to face, in a dramatic and tangible way, with the increasingly significant role that bushfire—and anthropogenic climate change—are now playing in our country’s unfolding extinction crisis. Alongside the deaths of countless individual animals and plants, these fires also pushed a variety of already threatened plant and animal species that much closer towards the edge of oblivion, threatening to strip from the world the immense, intergenerational, evolutionary, projects that their species represent.
Anthropogenic extinction, of course, is nothing new in Australia. Right from the outset of colonisation, a steady stream of species began slipping away. Long before the fires of last year, we already had a reputation in this area. Australia holds the unenviable distinction of being the mammalian extinction capital of the world—that is, the place in which the largest number of recorded extinctions of mammals have taken place in recent history: from the hunting bounties that claimed the thylacine to the climate change-induced extinction of the Bramble Cay Melomys, declared just a couple of years ago. This particular distinction is, of course, not to say that our extinction problem is limited to mammals. Alongside their furry number, a host of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and plants—as well as countless invertebrates, many of which have not even been described by science—have also been lost. But now we must also reckon with the acceleration of the destruction in these damaged ecosystems being wrought by a rapidly changing climate.
In the aftermath of last year’s fires, scientists created a ‘priority list’ of over 700 species of plants and animals that had been significantly impacted upon and were in urgent need of conservation attention. Most of these species had seen more than half of their known area of distribution burn—many of them much more.
How are we to make sense of loss and endangerment on this scale? Of the incredible diversity of living beings whose future is being steadily eroded?
This collection of essays is a modest effort to respond to this immense challenge. Our intention is not to offer anything like a comprehensive overview of this situation. Rather, as philosophers and writers, we have sought instead to assemble a motley menagerie of creatures whose lives and deaths are increasingly being shaped at the intersection between bushfire and extinction. Each essay offers a short reflection that seeks to capture, to summon up, a particular plant or animal species and its threatened way of life. In so doing, our hope is that we might create an opportunity to, in some small way, confront and make sense of this space of ongoing and escalating loss.
Thom van Dooren is an environmental philosopher and writer at the University of Sydney and the University of Oslo. His most recent book is The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds.