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How are animals adapting to climate change?

Books by Thor Hanson and Emma Marris offer fascinating insights into how species are surviving and what we must do to help.

By India Bourke

Given the devastation that the climate emergency is already wreaking on humanity – killing people, destroying homes and livelihoods, displacing communities – it is no surprise that it is chiefly discussed as an existential threat to humankind. Many are, of course, also exercised by the decline of other species and the destruction of habitats, but the danger to the “non-human world” (even the term expresses our anthropocentrism) is often subsumed into the more pressing menace to human life: biodiverse ecosystems need our protection, we are told, because they are carbon sinks and crucial to our food supply.

But how are animals experiencing the world’s new climate extremes, and how are they adapting – or failing to adapt? Science shows that animals think and feel in ways akin, if different, from humans: polar bears laugh, bees dance and rats comfort their companions. So what do we owe them – as ends in themselves rather than means to our own survival – and how much should we intervene to right the wrongs we cause? These questions are central to two books about the reach and ethics of conservation. In Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid, the biologist Thor Hanson explores the ways some species are responding to the climate threat. Alaskan bears are taking advantage of early-ripening elderberries to supplement their salmon diet. Humboldt squid are maintaining their numbers by shrinking in size and shortening their life spans. Butterflyfish – territorial aggressors – are turning into “pacifists” to conserve energy on the nutrient-depleted reefs. These species, Hanson suggests, have the necessary “plasticity” to survive, and acknowledging this is essential, he argues, because conservation resources are finite: we simply cannot save everything.

[See also: Why rewilding isn’t just for toffs]

But does emphasising the unaided resilience of the non-human world risk easing our sense of responsibility and urgency? For every successful “plastic” species Hanson highlights, a shadowland of loss is left under-examined. Berry-eating bears may prosper, for example, but how far will a consequent reduction in the number of salmon carcasses affect scavenger species? For the environment writer Emma Marris, a laissez-faire approach is no longer an option, especially as vanishingly few places on the planet can still be thought of as truly “wild”. The central challenge for conservationists, she argues in Wild Souls, is to ensure that our relationship with non-human life is ethical.

Straddling philosophy and conservation, Marris delves into humanity’s fraught, if well-intended, efforts to preserve other species – from incarcerating animals in zoos, to poisoning invasive species in the wild – as well as the problematic fixation with maintaining a species’ “purity”. She discusses more compassionate ways of intervening on behalf of wild animals, such as the Wild Animal Initiative’s proposal of feeding invasive species birth-control pills rather than poison; or the Compassionate Conservation project’s use of dingoes in Australia to repress the numbers of non-native cats and foxes, rather than culling them.

[See also: Ben Okri: climate change and oppression are born of the same “devouring instincts”]

Marris does not provide comprehensive answers to the difficult question of how interventionist we should be: “If we do too little, the world remains unjust and non humans suffer; if we do too much, we arrogantly dominate and oppress.” But by posing these ethical conundrums, Wild Souls reminds us of the pulsing, magical world behind the dry, and frequently instrumental, discourse on biodiversity. Drawing on the work of the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum, the book’s empathic vision opens up radical new ways of governing conservation decisions, for the good of animals and humans alike.

“The real transformative innovation would be taking power from the rich and powerful, who typically manage the non-human world for maximum profit, and learning to manage it for mutual benefit,” Marris writes. And it is here that officials, including those who are due to attend the UN meeting on biodiversity in China in April, should pay close attention. Indigenous and oppressed communities are often nature’s best defenders, as well as most at risk from its demise. Protecting their interests will be inseparable from protecting the natural world. Modern conservation may appear to be a question of science and technology, but in Marris’s hands it reveals itself as one of justice and power. To answer what we owe animals, we should ask what we still owe each other.

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid
Thor Hanson
Icon Books, 304pp, £20

Wild Souls
Emma Marris
Bloomsbury, 352pp, £28

[See also: David Attenborough’s Green Planet is a necessary watch this January]

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed