An End to Extinction: Back From The Brink

Posted on Thursday March 14, 02013

Blog post written by staff member Blythe Baldwin.

Remember that scene in Sci-Fi cult film "The Fifth Element" where they take the severed hand of an anonymous being and recreate it using a biological replicator?


Or how about this scene from the iconic blockbuster "Jurassic Park" where they explain how they were able to bring dinosaurs, animals extinct for millenia, back to life on our planet here and now?

Even with all the advancements made with DNA replication and genetic engineering this kind of Science Fiction fantasty still seems far fetched by today's technological standards, right?  Think again.  

Sustainability Media shot a discussion entitled Revive & Restore at The David Bower Center on Thursday, March 7 02013.  During this event fine artist Isabella Kirkland and enivornmental iconoclast Stewart Brand, co-chair and President of The Long Now Foundation's board of directors, sat down to dicuss efforts in enivornmental conservationalism both from an artistic and scientific standpoint.  View the talk between these two informed and coscioucious environmental stewards here:

-insert video embed here of David Bower talk-

The art exhibit will be ongoing until May 8th, 02013 and more information can be found here

But what does The Long Now Foundation and Isabella Kirkland have to do with each other?  And for that matter, what does an art exhibit and discussion about conservationalism have to do with putting a physical end to extinction?  Recently, The Long Now Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated Sustainable Long Term Thinking decided to start a new campaign called Revive and Restore.  Revive and Restore has focused in on animal conservation in a whole new way and has begun to delve into the realities of bringing extinct species back from the annuals of history and restoring their populations here on the planet. 

Revive and Restore

According to Revive & Restore, we have the technology to make de-extinction a reality and they are already working on doing just that with the Passenger Pigeon.  The Passenger Pigeon is a Keystone speices of the Eastern North American Region which went extinct nearly a century ago in 1914.  Through the efforts of Revive & Restore, and other projects leading the way in extinct animal species restoration, we will soon see the return of the Passenger Pigeon here in the United States.  Of course, this is both incredibly exciting and controversial news. Exciting because of the breakthroughs in bio-technological science which have occurred and will continue to occurr in our lifetime as this technology truly comes of age.  But it is also exciting news for those involved in both environmental and animal conservation.  There is no doubt that mankind has played a key and pivotal role in driving species after species over the edge into extinction.  As we have come to realize our impact on the planet and its animal inhabitants we have slowly come to see ourselves as stewards for the globe. In that light, we are presented with a moral and ethical delima.  

Since we have discovered the practices necessary to revive species from extinction, species that we helped to drive into extinction in the first place, should we not do everything we can to restore that balance we have distrupted?  The question of ethics perches itself on the fulcrum of decideding to utilize technology in a truly selfless way. By bringing back species that once inhabited this planet and helped to foster its many ecosystems in statis through their existance we would be helping to right the wrongs we have done to the enviroment of this planet we call home.  But then the question becomes, which species are to be brought, and why?  From there the ethical questions are myraid, and the pathway to de-extinction becomes a rabbit hole of worrisome ethical quandries.  To sort and sift through this, Revive and Restore has implemented an "Ethics" page on its website.  Through the "Ethics" page and a subsiquent sieres of pages readers and researchers are encouraged to ask these hard questions and search for illuminating answers together on the best ways to proceed in the efforts of de-extinction.

Revive & Restore Ethics

 After a stop off at the Ethics page, viewers can scroll through a variety of other helpful pages.  Candidates was a page that was particularly compelling as I also had the question loom in my head when I first heard about Revive & Restore's efforts in de-extinction, "But which species will be brought back, and why?"  


The candidate critera it turns out is decided by a variety of factors.  Some of the questions framed are seemingly trivial but also important to consider, such as "is this animal iconic, beloved, and missed?" Other questions in determining criteria for de-extinction candidates are more well rounded to highlight the environmental impact of reintroducing an extinct species into a habitat that may have changed drastically in its absence and change even further still upon its return, "Is rewilding the species workable for the habitat?" Consequently, Revive & Restore links readers out to the already existant critera used to deteremine how speicies are deemed endangered, and how to ensure they have conservation efforts applied to their remaining populations. Overlaying the frame work of existing animal conservation efforts here is not a slick boon to lure people into agreeing with the mission of de-extinction.  When I first heard about the advancements in this field, I admit I was enthused, but I was both skeptical and suspicious as well.  The first question I found myself asking was "Why would we do this?"   A question I hear posed to me when I detail many of The Long Now Foundation's campaigns to listeners and curious minds. Because surely, just because we can as humans do something it doesn't always mean we should have.  Ample evidence of that exists in the hunting and industrial practices we have adopted over the years in the pursuit of "progress" which has lead us down a path of expediting and streamling the practice of extinction.

Was it not the hieght of human hubris to bring about technolgoy which would in essensce allow us a failsafe for our remarkably destructive habits?  To me, this might have been like engineering a massive "undo" button we could just click when we drove yet another animal population to extinction in an effort to soothe our consciouses without actually doing anything sustainable to repair and rectify the damage in the future.  But then I began to see what Stewart Brand describes as the paradox of "an ounce of preventative care vs. a ton of reactive care."  As he spoke about Revive and Restore's efforts in furthering de-extinction I came to realize that de-extinction was not at odds with existant animal conservation practices.  In fact, it was a continuation of that.  Of course, animal and environmental conservationalists always preach that good sustainable practices to ensure endangered populations are not driven into extinction should always be adopted first.  They maintain that existant populations should be gaurded, protected, and fostered above all costs.  But de-extinction could in tandem with conservation efforts, help to bring more balance back into sway as we work to right the wrongs we have spread across the planet for all of its inhabitants.  The two fields it turns out, are inexorbialy linked, the spirit of both residing in each other in order to succeed. The FAQ and Recommended Reading section of the website helped to mold and guide the discussion about de-extinction advancements even futher, leaving readers and viewers to empower themselves through additional resources and see where ulitmately they wound up in the spectrum of the debate. 


This to me was the epitome of both Long Now Foundation's overall mission as well as the mission of Revive & Restore as a project.  For many of The Long Now's endevours there is as much an element  about actually doing something to manifest their undertakings as there is an element in framing the conversation and debate around that undertaking as well.  When I tell people about The Long Now Foundation and their projects, people often ask, "Why? Why take on this project?  What is the value in that?  How would that even be achieved?"  I have often heard that The Long Now Foundation's staff and board members such as Co-Founder, Stewart Brand and Executive Director, Alexander Rose view that very chain of questions as a victory of sorts.  Because it is through tapping the curiousity and the inquisitive nature of the human mind that they have been able to inspire and initiate discussions which center around long term thinking about our collective future.  

So in some ways when we even dare to dream or speak about de-extinction becoming more than just the stuff of Sci-Fi films and novels, we have begun to navigate the pathway to a more cohesive history for our future.  The act of bringing back some of these animals from extinction is both practical because some of the keystone species are scientifically crutical in balancing the ecosystems and in fostering habitat restoration, but it also fulfills our moral obligation to restore populations we have driven out of existance.  Even so, these endevours drive the entirty of environmental conservationalism by highlighting the importance of keeping our goal towards preservation of surviving species and ecosystems in place and furthering their efforts overall.  The entiry of Long Now Foundation's projects: the 10,000 year clock, langauge preservation through the creation of the Rosetta Disc, and sutainable conservation efforts through de-extinction by way of Revive & Restore, seeks to usher in a new way of thinking through this philosphy from a vantage which offers us a long term view.

Watch Stewart Brand, chairman of Long Now Foundation's board deliver a speech at the Tedx conference on Revive & Restore as well as de-extinction efforts.  Through this facinating and informative speech we can see that truly, as Jurrassic park put it, "life finds a way."

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