The Art and Science of Resurrection in 'Ghost Species'
By Amy Brady
Australian author and critic James Bradley stunned with his previous novel, Clade, a multi-generational story about a swiftly changing planet. His latest novel, Ghost Species, encompasses similar themes of ecological loss and climate catastrophe.
It introduces us to Kate Larkin, a scientist who takes part in a secret project to resurrect extinct species that will, in theory, help to re-engineer the planet. Questions of ethics and biological authenticity circulate the project, only to grow more complex when the scientists extend their work to bringing back one of humanity's closest ancient relatives – a Neanderthal. After the baby's birth, Kate begins to question the very things that make us human.
Timely and beautifully written, Ghost Species is an elegiac exploration of science and compassion against a backdrop of planetary trauma. In this interview, I asked James what inspired the novel, what he learned about the real-life science of recreating ecosystems, and his feelings about the future.
Amy Brady: Before we discuss Ghost Species specifically I'd like to talk about your writing interests more generally. Your previous novel, Clade, dealt acutely with the climate crisis, and you've written essays about the issue as well. What continues to draw you to the subject of climate change in your writing?
James Bradley: I have a friend who talks about "the knowledge," by which she means that moment when you fully appreciate the scale and urgency of the climate crisis and its implications. I'm not sure I really think it's quite as simple or as singular as that – it seems to me most of us continue to resist that understanding in various ways, and to struggle with the complex and often frightening feelings that come with it – but I think she's right that once you've got there, nothing is the same. Politics, art, love, relationships: they're all transformed. A lot of my writing over the past decade or so has been trying to think my way into that awareness, and then to try to make sense of what you do with it once you're there.
Amy Brady: Ghost Species explores the questions surrounding the science and ethics of de-extinction. Unlike other novels I've read on the subject, yours feels remarkably plausible. Tell us about your research process and what surprised you the most about what you learned.
James Bradley: I decided quite early on that I didn't want to spend pages and pages discussing the technicalities of the science, partly because I didn't think most readers would be terribly interested in them, partly because I felt they'd detract from the emotional questions that seemed to me to be at the heart of the book. But interestingly, my route into the idea was actually a bit like the one Davis, the billionaire who finances the project, follows. So I began by reading about rewilding and recreating ecosystems rather than reading about the nuts and bolts of recreating extinct species in the lab. That led me to the story of the ways in which reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone altered the physical structure of the rivers, and that led me to the idea that you might try to slow down the melting of the permafrost by using de-extinct ice age animals to re-engineer the climate in the north, in the way Sergey and Nikita Zemov are in Siberia.
Perhaps because I began thinking about ecosystems and interconnectedness and cycles of energy, when I came to start looking at the actual science of de-extinction I was less focussed on the technicalities than I was on the question of what extinction – and by implication de-extinction – might mean, not just as a metaphor for all the ways in which environmental crisis is upsetting and unhinging time and temporality, but for the kind of loneliness we all feel in a world where so much is being lost all around us.
Amy Brady: A question at the heart of your new novel is whether an extinct animal – or even an extinct human relative, the Neanderthal – can be considered "real" once resurrected. Is this a question that scientists are taking seriously? Is it one that you yourself have landed on an answer to?
James Bradley: When an animal or a species disappears from the world it's not just their biological identity that's lost, it's also a way of being in the world, and a whole host of complex entanglements with other species and their environment. That absence is profound and immense, but it also means that even if we do find the means to bring back vanished species, they will lack those connections and meanings. For Eve that disconnection is manifested through a larger sense of separation and loneliness, the feeling she's always an outsider. But what also happens in the book is that both Eve and some of the other recreated species begin to change and adapt – to go wild, I suppose – and as they do their lives begin to take on new shapes and new meanings, although not necessarily the ones their creators might have expected.
Amy Brady: Your novels emphasize compassion, how humans can find deep wells of love and sympathy and beauty even in times of great distress. So often in public debate climate change is discussed in terms of fear and anger, or on the other side of the spectrum, hope and courage. What roles might love and compassion play in not only climate debate, but perhaps in climate action?
James Bradley: I think it's really difficult to describe the scale or the trauma of last summer's bushfires here in Australia. Dozens of people were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed, and a whole range of animals and plants were pushed to the brink of extinction. But as I wrote at the time, what was really striking wasn't the anger and fear and grief, all of which was real and palpable (and given our government's appalling record on climate, justified), it was the outpouring of generosity and kindness. Truckies and tradies organized food deliveries, other people set up websites to find people who'd lost their homes a place to stay, members of the Muslim and Sikh communities took food to the firefighters, all of whom were volunteers, and many of whom had been fighting the fires for weeks or even months on end, and people gave millions of dollars to charities.
That didn't come out of nowhere. People did it because they saw people were suffering, and they wanted to help. That recognition other people's suffering is real is incredibly important, because once we do that it's much harder to look away, or to treat other people's lives as expendable.
Amy Brady: Speaking of love, I loved your protagonist Kate Larkin. Where did she come from? Is she inspired by anyone in real life?
James Bradley: I think all my writing is pretty personal, but with this book I really wanted to find a way of writing that erased all the barriers between me and the work, so I was writing out of somewhere very intimate, and undefended. I did that because I wanted to find a way of articulating a range of feelings of grief and fear that I usually need to keep under control so I can keep functioning. But it also meant I ended up using a lot of material from my own life in a pretty direct way: certainly the material about parenting and children is drawn from my own experience, and addiction and alcoholism have had a big impact on people very close to me. I suppose that desire to write without distance is also about the context in which I wrote the book. I began it just after my father died, and my mother died just as I was finishing it, and it's very much bookended by those losses, and a recognition of what they both meant to me.
Amy Brady: Climate change is often depicted as a slow-moving phenomenon, but so much has happened since the last time we did an interview together for this column in late 2017 – a mere two and a half years ago. North America experienced one of its worst hurricane seasons in history, and Australia suffered one of its worst bushfires in history. And that's just in our respective home countries. I asked you back in 2017 if you were hopeful for the future, and you gave a thoughtful and elegant answer that I will paraphrase as "I'm wary of despair." Have your feelings about what's in store for us changed? Are you still at least cautiously hopeful about what the future might bring?
James Bradley: When I wrote Clade one of the things I wanted the book to do was to push back against the idea the future is set, and make a space for possibility and change. I think over the past few years it's become much harder to hold onto the idea we might avoid the worst of what's coming. Having said that, I still think despair is a cop-out and an indulgence, and that even if the odds of staying under two degrees of warming are now slim, there's a big difference between two degrees and three, or three degrees and four, and which of those we end up with depends on what we do now.
Amy Brady: What's next for you?
James Bradley: It's a really good question! In fact, I've just finished a draft of a new novel, and I'm working on a book of non-fiction about the ocean, but both of them are still a way off. In the meantime, I've got a couple of long essays that should be out in the next few months, and I'm working on a couple of articles and a new novella. So I've got a lot of things on the boil, which is always nice.
Ghost Species, by James Bradley, Hamish Hamilton, published April 20, 2020.
Reprinted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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After decades on the political periphery, the climate movement is entering the mainstream in 2020, with young leaders at the fore. The Sunrise Movement now includes more than 400 local groups educating and advocating for political action on climate change. Countless students around the world have clearly communicated what's at stake for their futures, notably Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who just finished her yearlong school strike for climate. Youth activists have been praised for their flexible, big-picture thinking and ability to harness social media to deliver political wins, as Sunrise recently did for U.S. Sen. Ed Markey's primary campaign. They necessarily challenge the status quo.
A Convergence of Issues<p>The unequal impacts of a changing climate have become extremely clear in 2020, so equity has come to the fore of climate conversations in every corner of the country. A global deadly pandemic continues to rage out of control in the U.S., heat waves are setting new temperature records, wildfires are scorching American Western states, and the hurricane season has already made it to the end of the alphabet for naming storms. In all cases, low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are bearing a disproportionate amount of the impacts.</p><p>"Today, the scab is off, the ugly reality of injustice is hitting us up close and personal, made more realistic by this COVID pandemic," Bullard says.</p><p>This year the decidedly youthful focus on intersectionality is a big part of what defines the transformation of the climate movement. Climate is not just an environmental issue, according to youth activists. It's also a racial justice issue, an economic issue, and an access-to-health care issue.</p><p>"Environmental justice is really seeing the intersection of these issues," says Alex Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Connecticut League of Conservation Voters, which aims to make environmental issues a priority for the state's elected leaders. The group is now focusing their efforts on the coming election and recently succeeded in persuading the state to allow absentee voting in November. "We want people to be safe when casting their vote," says Rodriguez, 26, whose fellow grassroots committee members range from age 16 to 60.</p><p>Rodriguez, who also serves on the equity and environmental justice working group for the Governor's Council on Climate Change, says, "We see our programmatic work as a way to help lawmakers see what they can do to improve the dignity of those suffering from environmental racism, systematic racism, and economic oppression."</p><p>Seeing the overlap and bringing these issues together is a strength that Bullard says was missing from the civil rights organizing he was involved with in the 1960s. He says 2020 is unique in many ways.</p><p>"The number of marchers is unprecedented, from different economic, ethnic, and racial groups—an awakening unlike any that I've seen on this Earth in over 70 years," Bullard says. "Today, the different movements are converging, and I think that convergence makes for greater potential for success."</p>
Young and Old<p>But young people are one essential demographic among many when it comes to climate action. With all that's on the line for climate in the coming elections, up and down the ballot, collaboration becomes key. Bullard says previous generations of climate activists can now play the critical role of mentoring, assisting, and supporting. Standing with, not in front of, youth.</p><p>"Youth are leading us and taking on frontline activity," says Jayce Chiblow, the community engagement lead for Indigenous Climate Action, a Canadian organization that works for Indigenous-led climate justice solutions. But in doing so, she says many young Indigenous activists are experiencing the trauma of violence, getting arrested, and being taken away from their land. "All of our older people are supporting those youth: Elders, mentors, people trained in nonviolent action," Chiblow says. "The youth aren't alone."</p><p>That support can go a long way. "There's a lot of anger and a lot of fear, and that's understandable," says Wazer of Sunrise Connecticut. "I definitely feel those things, too, just considering the ways that our future has been threatened and kind of trashed by older generations."</p><p>Under the Trump administration, the number of environmental rollbacks alone can be disheartening, not to mention new <a href="https://www.yesmagazine.org/video/arctic-national-wildlife-refuge/" target="_blank">drilling permits in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge going up for auction</a>.</p><p>Wazer is frank about the risks of burnout, depression, and anxiety from the stress of it all, but draws inspiration from the example of the late U.S. representative and lifelong civil rights activist John Lewis. "That forgiveness and that ability to keep fighting and stay motivated … I think that that is something really powerful to learn from older generations."</p><p>An intergenerational approach can leverage the individual strengths of youth and older people in all their diversity.</p><p>"The elders hold our stories," says Chiblow, who is Anishinaabe from Garden River First Nation, Ontario. Those stories include lived experiences, culture, history, and generations of adapting to changes in climate. Such collective experience continues to inform Indigenous knowledge and connections to the land, as well as how people manage and govern themselves in relation to it. This knowledge is passed on through relationship-building and storytelling.</p><p>"Every time you hear that story, you're at a different point in your life, and you'll pick up something else … something new," Chiblow says.</p><p>Changes in perspectives that come with time and experience are among the reasons why intergenerational learning and coalitions are critical to the climate movement. To combine that living and learning is to expand the reach and meaning of the message exponentially. As part of her research for her master's degree, Chiblow brought together youth, community leaders, and knowledge keepers in her community to workshop climate action. "Those relationships are vital to keep that movement going," Chiblow says.</p>
The Unique Value Proposition of Elders<p>Older activists bring unique strengths to the table, according to gerontologist Mick Smyer, who designs strategies to move people from anxiety to action on climate. He calls himself "the aging whisperer to climate groups" and "the climate whisperer to aging groups." He is quick to point out that the learning can go in both directions.</p><p>"I think older adults are untapped resources," Smyer says. "Older adults bring several resources, one of which is their circles of influence. Just by virtue of having lived longer, older adults are going to have denser and richer networks," Smyer says. "The second is, when it comes to voting and civic engagement, older adults, as an age group, outperform all other age groups."</p><p>He uses the 2016 presidential election to illustrate his point: "The older age groups, 70% of them voted. Nobody [else] came close." He is cautious about making sweeping statements about older people broadly, but he says that ageism is alive and well. And that can deter the kind of collaboration that would beget necessary progress on climate action.</p><p>As the twin global patterns of an aging population and a changing climate continue arm in arm, Smyer says a good place for starting this work is within one's family.</p><p>"We each have that power to use in our circles of influence, particularly in our families, and we don't realize it," Smyer says. Whether it's via Zoom or FaceTime or a phone call or a chat in the living room, Smyer says, family members have a superpower: They will listen to each other, and they'll at least start the conversation.</p><p> "Intergenerational collaboration around climate issues, particularly in this election season, starts at home, and then goes to the polling booth," he says.</p>
Speaking the Same Language<p>As an individual's network of family, friends, and connections becomes wider and more diverse, the more work will need to be done to have them all working toward the same goals. That is equally true for the climate movement at large.</p><p>In bridging the gaps among baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials, Bullard says, "Each generation will have some idiosyncrasy and uniqueness about it that another generation will not understand or comprehend."</p><p>If everybody in a group or institution is similar, then there's no need to explain a lot, Bullard says. There's usually a fair amount of shared knowledge and values. But the more diverse that group gets, in age, race, gender, or culture, he says, the greater the potential for making mistakes, stepping on people's culture, and causing pain. But the potential for learning also increases exponentially.</p><p>Chiblow says successful collaboration comes down to being able to speak in shared concepts. The term "justice," for example, is an English word that's hard to translate into the Anishinaabe language. Chiblow says that because her community sees itself as belonging to the land, and being part of the land, the Anishinaabe worldview, and therefore their understanding of justice, is necessarily more holistic than the mainstream.</p><p>"Indigenous people have been feeling [the effects of climate change] for so long," Chiblow says. Today, as wildfires rage across the West, the mantra of "I can't breathe" is being driven home on a grand scale. For better and worse, climate justice is finally a front-page story.</p><p>"It's affecting the broader society," Chiblow says. "We're finally at the turning point where we could start to make real change because … people are really starting to feel that urgency."</p><p>The urgency will be tantamount in the coming election. A lot is at stake, says Chiblow: "Incentives, funding, all-around agreement, and also the way we're able to manage our lands and ourselves as people."</p><p>Bullard, too, is insistent on urgency. "This election is one of the most important elections of a generation, because there's so many things at stake," he says. "We can't wait another 40 years on climate. We don't have that much time. We don't have 40 years to get justice."</p><p>Issues of climate justice will be on the ballot in state and local elections this fall, such as Nevada's proposed renewable energy standards and Louisiana's proposed disaster funding. And the topic has finally made it onto the national stage. Joe Biden called Trump a "climate arsonist" for not acting on or even admitting that the wildfires in California are clearly climate-related. The frequency and intensity of such disasters is indisputable.</p><p>"Hurricanes don't swerve to avoid red states or blue states. Wildfires don't skip towns that voted a certain way," Biden <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/biden-address-west-coast-fires-confront-growing-threat/story?id=73000218" target="_blank">said in a speech on Sept. 14</a>. "The impacts of climate change don't pick and choose. That's because it's not a partisan phenomenon."</p><p>In many ways, the results of the upcoming elections will reflect the ways youth activists and older activists are able come to a common understanding of what climate justice means and what they want the future world to look like. </p><p>"There's a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there's a lot of energy that's stored in young people," Bullard says. "When you put those two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success."</p>
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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