Facing Death: What Does Extinction Mean For Humanity?

‘If you can’t face death, then you can’t face life.’ These words ring loud and true in a play about the frightening reality of the extinction crisis and its emotional impact on Australian society. To what lengths would you go to protect something that you love? Or, more interestingly, to protect someone who is not human?

Extinction, the most recent play released by award-winning playwright Hannie Rayson, explores these enquiries, portraying the plight of Victoria’s tiger quoll population amongst the complex and passionate relationships of four people caught up in the difficult choices of conservation triage. ‘What’s worth saving…How do you choose?’ – a question that is constantly asked not just in relation to wildlife, but also the explosive social tensions that erupt between Piper the zoologist, Andy the veterinarian, Heather the ecologist, and Harry the coalmining magnate. Are careers and relationships worth sacrificing in order to save just one animal?

I was recently able to question Rayson about Extinction, particularly regarding the role that theatre plays in educating people about environmental concerns. Rayson tells me that as much as ‘arguments and beliefs’ are a part of theatre, it ‘can never be about “instruction”’. She explains that the medium of theatre is ‘about great contests of ethics and morality’, and Extinction is indeed just that. She hopes that audience members will leave the play with the motivation ‘to go into a wild place, to experience awe... [and] to feel included in these great debates of our time.'

The play begins with Harry Jewell, the owner of Powerhouse Mining, hitting a tiger quoll with his SUV on the roads of the Otways. Having grown up in the area when the species was more abundant, he has an obvious affinity for tiger quolls and is devastated by the accident. It is the first tiger quoll to be seen in the area for some time, and so begins a whirlwind of events revealing the immense complexities of trying to rescue a species from extinction. As researcher Piper portrays through her emotional frustration at the growing environmental crisis, how have we as Australians allowed the situation to reach an almost irrevocable tipping point? And how do we turn it around?

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

The question of money is subsequently central to the play. The concept of environmental accounting and sacrificing one species to save another is not new, and has also been discussed previously by Wild Melbourne. In a world where everyone speaks dollars and cents, it is only logical that we extend this language to the environment. A 1997 study placed the economic value of Earth’s natural ecosystems at $127.3 trillion, suggesting that the natural environment possesses not only aesthetic value, but an incredibly measurable and financial value as well. When Harry offers up funding from his coalmining business to Heather and Piper’s university in order to save the quoll, the scientists find themselves making the difficult decision to either accept the ‘dirty’ money or focus what funding they already have on other species with ‘better’ chances of surviving in the long run. In this sense, Extinction depicts the inevitable tug-of-war between academics, universities, and their potential sponsors. Rayson doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to highlighting the almost unbelievable funding issues that currently exist for Australian researchers.

‘Conservation will never be a priority unless we feel deep personal connections to forests and coastlines…and native wildlife.’

So does one take the moral high ground, potentially forsaking a native species in the process, or is it easier to grab the money and run? It’s not a simple choice to make, and Extinction expertly depicts a struggle all too familiar to most: when is money more important than principles? This question draws the audience in to an emotive and, at times, brutal story, interwoven with both environmental and social ambiguities. The contrast between Andy’s illness and the plight of the quoll also provides a way for audience members to better understand how dire the extinction crisis truly is; is it reversible and when do we learn to let go? As much as Piper fervently hopes to save everything, her boss Heather tells her that it’s simply not possible. But although conservation triage may be the answer in financial terms, Piper’s optimism is admirable and cannot be underestimated. Regardless of monetary gain, Rayson says that ‘Conservation will never be a priority unless we feel deep personal connections to forests and coastlines…and native wildlife.’ Piper’s attitude is reminiscent of this idea and suggests that without appreciation, there is little hope for our natural environment.  

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Why the focus on the tiger quoll though? Rayson's response was that in addition to her own very personal connection with this animal due to her love for the Otways (specifically, the ‘wild beaches and rainforests, bracing air and birds that wheel in a big sky’), the species’ integral ecological role as an apex predator is also a factor. She tells me that ‘If these guys disappear, the impact on the whole ecosystem is profound.’ Rayson also explains how her son’s generation seemed to know ‘…more about moles and squirrels than Australian wildlife.’ Things have gradually changed since then, and the fact that Rayson's play has already proven popular suggests that Australia is interested in its own wildlife. Yet it is now more important than ever for our nation’s literary industries to take the plunge into environmental territories and explore the complexities of the natural world and what its destruction means for humanity. As Rayson states, ‘Literature has such potential for telling us about the world we live in.’

There is serious need to perceive ‘our cities as environments and ecosystems too’ – not just places of wilderness.

Overall, Rayson’s work suggests that there are no winners in the extinction crisis – only losers. Harry’s interest in saving the tiger quoll and his emotional response to finding one in an area where they were deemed gone forever shows that – contrary to popular opinion – even mining magnates have hearts. Those with a dollar to gain are also at risk of losing it all if we don’t prevent further environmental devastation. The extinction of a species therefore does not affect the ecosystem and the environmentalists alone – it is frightening to us all, mirroring the instability of life, whether that of the human or non-human. The human experience is intertwined with the plight of the natural world, Rayson herself believing that there is serious need to perceive ‘our cities as environments and ecosystems too’ – not just places of wilderness.

I questioned Rayson on her personal views regarding Australia’s environmental future – did she have an overwhelmingly positive or negative perspective? Her answer was simple: ‘Hope is a moral responsibility.’ Hence, not only do we need practical and progressive action when it comes to tackling extinction – we also need optimism.    


Extinction is a Red Stitch Actors Theatre production and is currently showing at Arts Centre Melbourne. Follow this link for booking information. 

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Lucia Griggi.