Last week I saw Hannie Rayson’s new play ‘Extinction’ at The Playhouse in Canberra. While I thought it was an excellent play, this is not so much a review as a personal reflection on some of the issues it addressed.

Extinction is set in the Otway National Park, where a tiger quoll has just been sighted for the first time in over a decade. The play cleverly explores some of the ethical dilemmas facing ecologists and policy makers through four characters:

Piper, a young zoologist who wants to save everything;
Heather, an academic who has to face the realities of limited funding;
Andy, a vet and environmental activist; and
Harry, the head of a coal mining company with a soft spot for the tiger quoll.

What do you save – and how do you choose?

The concept of ‘conservation triage’ is an important idea in the play, which is explored through the conflict between Piper and her supervisor Heather. Heather advocates for prioritising which species to save based on the likelihood of success. She thinks charismatic animals like the giant panda get far too much attention and funding, when other less cute and cuddly species have a much better chance of survival in the long term. On the other hand, Piper thinks that all species are worth saving, and accuses Heather of ‘playing God’.

I’m always torn on this issue, and I can see both sides of the argument. The reality is that we can’t possibly save everything, and we have to come up with a logical way to decide where to invest what little funding we have. But I also see the value in every species, and in doing everything we can to save species on the brink of extinction. At Mulligans Flat Sanctuary, we have successfully reintroduced several species that have been extinct in the area for decades. I think the value of investing in projects like this is in education – many people have never heard of a bettong, let alone seen one, and how can people value something they don’t know about?

Idealism vs Realism

I was really impressed by the presentation of the scientists in the play. It was so refreshing to see a portrayal of scientists as real people, with not a lab coat in sight (not to mention the fact that they are both women!). I really identified with the character of Piper, who, like me, is in the early stages of her research career. She is passionate about her research, loves getting out into the field, and is optimistic about the future. However, she is often criticised for being too ‘idealist’ and sentimental.

I think many scientists, and particularly environmentalists, are accused of being idealists (I certainly have been). Yes, we need to be realistic about what can be achieved, but I think we also have a responsibility to strive for something better. Without a bit of idealism, nothing would ever change! If we don’t keep advocating for endangered species and convincing people that they are worth saving, who will?

‘Dirty money’

When Harry proposes to fund a massive project to save the tiger quoll, both Heather and Piper have to decide whether to accept the offer of money from a company that has interests in mining the very forest they are trying to protect. In Heather’s opinion, the tiger quoll isn’t worth the money and effort, but she can’t turn down such a large investment. Initially, Piper rejects the offer to run the project, despite the fact that it would allow her to pursue her research. But eventually she is won over by Harry’s charm.

The character of Harry is interesting – he grew up in the area and seems to genuinely care about the forest and the tiger quolls. He claims he is the only person standing between the national park and the company’s board, who want to open a mine in the forest. But as the play goes on, it becomes clear that he cares more about maintaining his lifestyle, and doesn’t really accept that he is part of the problem. He is an uncomfortable character, because he represents the enemy but he’s not the total bad guy we want him to be, and I think many people would recognise his behaviour in themselves.

So I had to ask myself: if I was put in that position, would I take the money?

On the one hand, money for research and conservation is always short, and being picky about where it comes from seems perverse. Some fantastic outcomes have been achieved through projects funded by energy or mining companies, either as carbon offsets or ‘corporate responsibility’. I have seen this in action through my work with Greening Australia, a non-government organisation that relies on funding from a range of sources including government, philanthropy and corporate partnerships.

However, by accepting money from companies that contribute to environmental damage, to some extent you are providing them with a social license to continue that damage. In an ideal world there would be enough funding for conservation and restoration without having to rely on ‘dirty money’ (actually in an ideal world restoration wouldn’t be necessary), but I think we have to accept that something is better than nothing (there, maybe I am a realist!).

Extinction was certainly thought provoking, and well worth seeing if you get the chance.

So, would you take the money?