Trained as a lawyer before becoming a writer, Bradley lives in Sydney with his partner, the novelist Mardi McConnochie.
Bradley’s novels, which have been published internationally, explore both past and future. His books include seven novels and a book of poetry. He has also edited two anthologies, Blur, a collection of writing by young Australian writers, and The Penguin Book of the Ocean. Bradley also writes as a critic, with reviews and articles appearing regularly in Australian newspapers and magazines, and blogs at City of Tongues.
Ghost Species, a clime fiction work, following on from his novel Clade, is a novel for our times.
In Ghost Species, James Bradley explores our relationship with nature against the backdrop of the looming crisis of global warming and its impact on society, with the central protagonist caught up in the other great challenge for humanity. This is the use of science through genetic engineering to artificially create life forms, such as the re-animation of extinct species, taken into the human domain to include Neanderthals. Ghost Species confronts us with the social and ethical fault lines of the marriage of the human search for its own survival through the use of its technological ‘genius’—the tech fix—with all the potential pitfalls of such a dream.
Bradley reminds us of the insights of Gregory Bateson that the most important task today is perhaps to think in a new way.
“When you narrow down your epistemology and act on the premise, what interests me is me, or my organisation, or my species, you chop off consideration of other loops of the loop structure of the interconnected social system and planetary ecology. You forget that if the eco-mental system is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.” (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1973)
Bradley explores how knowledge on the railroad tracks of the analytical mind that dominates Western domains of knowledge (academia) has become our major menace in understanding anything. Instead we need to understand the patterns and meta patterns of communication that link this Earth and all her creatures, and not the logical convenience of linear time.
Biodiversity—The Extinction Threat
UN Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services
The sixth mass extinction of wildlife on Earth is accelerating, according to an analysis by scientists who warn it may be a tipping point for the collapse of civilisation.
By 2050, land-use change will affect 90% of the Earth’s land systems if we continue with business as usual Normal means cutting down huge swathes of forest to plant crops. More than 500 species of land animals were found to be on the brink of extinction and likely to be lost within 20 years. In comparison, the same numbers were lost over the whole of the last century.
The researchers also warned of a domino effect, with the loss of one species tipping others that depend on it over the edge. “Extinction breeds extinctions,” they said, noting that unlike other environmental problems extinction is irreversible.
Humanity relies on biodiversity for its health and wellbeing, scientists said, with the coronavirus pandemic an extreme example of the dangers of ravaging the natural world. Rising human population, destruction of habitats, the wildlife trade, pollution and the climate crisis must all be urgently tackled, they said.
“When humanity exterminates other creatures, it is sawing off the limb on which it is sitting, destroying working parts of our own life-support system.” Paul Erlich, Stanford University
The study paints a picture of a suffocating human-caused sameness spreading across the planet, as a small range of cash crops and high-value livestock are replacing forests and other nature-rich ecosystems. As well as eroding the soil, which causes a loss of fertility, these monocultures are more vulnerable to disease, drought and other impacts of climate breakdown.
Our species now extracts 60 billion tons of resources each year, almost double the amount in 1980, though the world population has grown by only 66% in that time. The report notes how the discharges are overwhelming the Earth’s capacity to absorb them. More than 80% of wastewater is pumped into streams, lakes and oceans without treatment, along with 300m-400m tons of heavy metals, toxic slurry and other industrial discharges. Plastic waste has risen tenfold since 1980, affecting 86% of marine turtles, 44% of seabirds and 43% of marine mammals. Fertiliser run-off has created 400 “dead zones”, affecting an area the size of the UK.
Australia’s Environment Report 2019, ANU
Extremely hot and dry weather in 2019 created the worst drought and fire conditions in many decades. Overall environmental condition was the poorest since at least 2000 and below-average in all states and territories.
Biodiversity in Australia continues to decline with fire, drought and heat all impacting ecosystems.
Another 40 species were added to Threatened Species List, representing a 2% increase from the previous year and a 36% increase from 2000. The total number of species declared extinct rose to 91. Half of the six species extinctions recognised since 2000 occurred in the last two years.
A total of 1890 species is now listed. Conservation advice has been issued for 97% and recovery plans for 41% of species.
The bushfires killed an estimated 1 billion vertebrates and increased threat level for several species.
The fires burnt through more than 30% of the habitat of 191 species, among which many freshwater species.
The amount of pristine tropical rainforest lost across the globe increased last year, as the equivalent of a football pitch disappeared every six seconds, a satellite-based analysis has found.
Nearly 12m hectares of tree cover was lost across the tropics, including nearly 4m hectares of dense, old rainforest that held significant stores of carbon and had been home to a vast array of wildlife, according to data from the University of Maryland.
The loss of trees in the tropics was the third worst recorded since data was first collected in 2002, trailing behind only 2016 and 2017. The heaviest reduction continues to be in Brazil, which accounted for more than a third of all humid tropical forest loss. Government data shows that deforestation for agriculture and other new land uses increased rapidly in the Brazilian Amazon over the past year.
There is a lot of talk about getting back to normal after the Covid-19 crisis is over. And yet normal – business as usual – is what has made our planet and our societies vulnerable to crises in the first place.
Normal means overgrazing livestock, destroying natural ecosystems at the expense of habitats for wild animals. Normal is driving climate change, which increases stress in wild species and their habitats and makes people more susceptible to zoonotic (spreading from animals to humans) diseases. Three out of every four new or emerging infectious diseases affecting humans come from animals.
Bradley makes the response to these trends in our society personal. Two young genetic scientists, Kate, the genetic programmer and Jay, the expert in recombinant techniques, are torn between their seduction into the project through their love of science as adventure and mastery, and the gnawing fears in one that what they are doing is dangerous and unethical. The finance comes from tech billionaire, Davis Hucken, founder of global technology firm, Gather, ‘the social network whose user base now surpasses those of Instagram and Twitter combined’.
David recruits Kate and Jay to work at his research facility, a modernistic set of glass and cement cubes set in a remote part of Tasmania—“cubic buildings scattered on the hillside are rendered almost invisible by the way their smoke-grey glass exteriors reflect the surrounding landscape, dissolving the perfection of their geometry into a mirrored infinity of grass, stone and sky”.
The figure of Davis captures the messianic impetus of real world figures like Elon Musk and the ruthless business aggression of the Mark Zuckerbergs of our world, with their casual nod to ideas of community.
The combination of technological belief and entrepreneurship is harnessed to meet the challenges posed by the impact of human civilisation of species extinction through the activities of Hucken’s Foundation, which has been gathering and storing seeds and biological material. As Hucken says, ‘Our civilisation is already dead. The question now isn’t how to save what we had, it’s how we make something new’. With this declaration, Hucken opens up the Pandora Box of the re-engineering of the world’s life forms, of ‘going beyond the old binaries, nature and technology, the human and the environmental’.
Hucken’s dream goes beyond the re-animation of extinct plant and animal species and their re-introduction into the natural environment. He enjoins Kate and Jay to work on the recreation, from genetic material, a Neanderthal, our first cousins in the evolution of homo sapiens, with whom we co-existed and possibly interbred in Europe up to the last ice age.
Davis lays out his vision to Kate and Jay. ‘It’s become clearer that resurrecting lost species and re-creating ecosystms is just the beginning. We’re talking about entirely re-engineering our relationship with nature. But to do that we need to reimagine ourselves the way we think, the sort so attitudes that have got us where we are.’
Interestingly enough, while Davis recognises that the human tendency to see ourselves as separate from nature, his solution is not learning from the wisdom of Indigenous cultures about how to develop a sense of ‘familial’ relationship with nature, but to extend human mastery by creating other human species, beginning with the idea of re-creating extinct versions, such as the Neanderthals.
Whereas Aboriginal Australian culture understands ecological thinking as the Law of the Jukurpa and respect for the Ancestral Beings of Deep Time, Davis thinks of the power of science to recreate the Deep past through genetic engineering, but with a peculiarly techno-rational mindset.
Kate becomes the central protagonist. She accepts the scientific challenge and proceeds to successfully create a Neanderthal baby, but is unable to see it is another ‘lab rat’ for scientific evaluation. All her own childhood trauma and alienation with an alcoholic mother come to the fore in her emotional relationship with the Neanderthal child, equally confronted with alienation and trauma of being radically different.
As the child grows up, it discovers its identity mirrored in the eyes of homo sapiens, in much the same way that racism works between different ethnic groups and their different sensibilities of beauty and style.
Ghost Species is a powerful exploration of some of the major challenges confronting human society—our relationship to nature in the face of climate change and species extinction, racism and ethnic divisions among human societies now given a strong voice in the global ‘Black lives matter’ movement, and our development and application of science and technology.
While the world is preoccupied with the COVID pandemic, particularly what it means for the way our economies function, we are also looking into a future shaped by the application of artificial intelligence and data science, linked to genetic engineering. What is often called the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
It is not hard for us to find real life examples for the main protagonists in Bradley’s story—the tech dreamers, the survivalists, the wishful thinkers, the ruthless forces of commercial and global competition.