Why bringing back the Woolly Mammoth is bad news for humans

Photo: Evgenia Arbugaeva

It was reported last week that scientists are close to bringing back the Woolly Mammoth. Undoing the extinction of a beast that vanished 4000 years ago and engineering its return (in some form) is an incredible scientific feat, but it also raises broader questions about permanence, and in turn the survival of our planet.

Many of us already live in a Command-Z culture. This is the idea that almost anything can be undone: from buying a replacement toy or bit of clothing to backing up in the cloud to avoid data loss. Even an incorrectly swiped Tinder match can be amended, for a fee. Mass production and digitisation of content have made big changes in how those with access can deal with their mistakes.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”

While this enables a level of simplicity (as well as the many benefits of a safety net) that we have come to expect from the world on the internet, it omits an important process. Mistakes are a form of friction that help us evaluate other potential outcomes and perspectives. They often ask important questions about ourselves and the decisions we make. Loss, never lurking far from a mistake in some form or another, helps us to understand something’s value. Command-Z culture changes the way we experience these things. As Henry Ford is famously quoted in saying, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” While often tough in the moment, friction can be a rich soil for learning.

Mistakes still exist, of course, and the internet has become the perfect stage for them. Bad selfies and embarrassing posts can be a daily occurrence but for a few this has meant learning the hard way: mention “ebay yellow dress” or “penis beaker” to a group of friends and it’s likely they’ll be able to tell you the story. Events like these live in the domain of the #fail: comedy fodder often lacking in any form of empathy.

In this Command-Z mindset, few things remain sacred and out of reach: one of them is life and one of them is the planet; a fact we are all learning quickly, but nowhere near quickly enough. This is a time when such serious matters cannot be taken lightly. Yet it is also a time when Scott Pruitt, a climate change sceptic, has recently been sworn in to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Paris climate Agreement looks shakier than ever.

Looking a little deeper at the everyday aspects of Command-Z culture, the realities are often very different from the cleanliness of a simple key-stoke: the toys we replace mean more plastics going into the ground or sea, and cloud computing has rapidly become one of the biggest carbon producers.

The mammoth sits as a totem of extinction. Perhaps only seconded by the Dodo, which casts the ignorance and greed of humans as leading roles in its demise. These are important symbols. We need them to remind us that the bad decisions we might be making now, should not be treated as reversible. If we think anything can be undone, then in can be crudely used to undermine a case to stop it in the first place. Mistakes and the scars that come from them are how we learn, and until we have done this, we really need them.

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