Chris Flynn talks Mammoth and the UN Sustainable Development Goals
A thought-provoking and highly original book, Mammoth addresses humankind’s impact on the natural world and the pressing issue of climate change via an unexpected narrative voice: the fossils of creatures we’ve destroyed and posthumously exhumed.
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Mammoth has a broad scope – from the Pleistocene epoch to 2007, and beyond – and touches on key moments of human history along the way. It’s also told from the perspective of a 13,000-year-old extinct mammoth. Can you give us an overview of the story and how you came to it?
The story formed at the intersection of 1800 and 2007. A few weeks after voting closed in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Merewether Lewis exhorting him to, if he wouldn’t mind, pick up some mammoth bones on his travels or, even better, bring back a live one.
Fast forward 207 years and the bones of a mammoth, a Tyrannosaur, a penguin, a pterodactyl and the severed hand of an Egyptian mummy were on sale at a natural history auction in New York. I found out about these two events at roughly the same time and was disquieted by the notion of fossils as commodities, as symbols of strength from the animal kingdom that, even today, we use for purposes of self-aggrandisement.
Once I worked out the fossils should tell their stories, a unique window on human history and our tendency to repeat mistakes opened.
The ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ SDG outlines targets for reducing our consumption of natural resources. One of the human foibles Mammoth addresses is the way we commodify natural elements. What inspired you to explore this aspect of our consumption of the natural environment?
Isn’t it fascinating and yet deeply troubling how we think of long-dead animals, buried deep beneath the surface, as a resource to be mined? That’s how we saw creatures like the mammoth from the moment we laid eyes on them.
There used to be tens of millions of these majestic beasts, but we soon put an end to that. We slaughtered every last one of them, ate their flesh, wore their skins and fashioned thrones from their tusks. It would have been much smarter to herd mammoth, to develop a relationship of sustainability with the behemoths who shared the plains.
Unfortunately, our tendency leans towards exhaustion and eradication of resources while frantically casting around for alternatives. In Mammoth, I wanted to quietly point out that we haven’t changed much in the last ten thousand years.
The SDG for ‘Climate Action’ encourages countries to act now to stop global warming. A key thread in Mammoth is the revelation of how humankind’s destruction of species has contributed to climate change. Can you tell us more about this issue and what scientists are trying to do to rectify it?
This is where it all gets a bit bonkers. The great herds of mammoth served a vital purpose in balancing the planet’s ecosystem. They roamed the Steppe, stomping down the snow and keeping the ground cold and dry. Essentially, they ran the Earth’s refrigerator. Once they were gone and we began setting fire to everything, temperatures rose. They’ve been continuing to rise ever since, accelerated of course by the industrial revolution.
The destruction of megafauna was humankind’s first great climate folly. The permafrost is now melting to reveal the well-preserved carcasses of mammoth, rhinoceroses and various other extinct creatures. Scientists have managed to gather viable DNA from these remains and there are currently several projects underway around the world – notably in Harvard, Korea and China – to resurrect the mammoth using synthetic biology.
The left-field idea is to raise a new herd and release them in rewilded areas of Siberia, so they can get back to doing their job. It’s not going to reverse climate change, but could it buy us some time to get our act together and wean ourselves off fossil fuels? Maybe. Or are we playing God and making yet another error in trying to rectify mistakes from the past? Probably. Will it actually happen? It already is.
The ‘Life on Land’ SDG reminds us that nature is critical to our survival but that we are squeezing it into an ever-smaller corner of the planet. How does Mammoth use its characters to connect readers with the natural world and consider life from a different perspective?
Anthropomorphism gets a bad rap. It’s considered childish but serves a very useful purpose. It’s too easy for us to dismiss the animal kingdom and elevate ourselves above the other species with whom we share this planet.
We think of ourselves as top of the pyramid. In giving these fossils voices, I wanted to reverse that to some degree, to make readers feel empathy for these fallen creatures and see themselves as an integral part of a natural order, rather than the dominant force.
I worked in a shelter for five years while writing this book and the animals there spoke to me every day, in their own way. I’d like to do what I can to forge stronger connections between people and animals. Hopefully Mammoth helps readers see the world through eyes other than their own.