This intergenerational apology was intended to communicate regret for the human-caused erasure of species, which are epistemologically and existentially distinct from other causes of species disappearance. It is an attempt to express to the future that people of today feel responsible for the harm done to wild animals that struggled alongside us. They endured the changing climate, the rising tides, the endless threat of predation and disease, but did not survive us, therefore denying the future a chance to know their lives, habits, and behaviors.
The complete project includes a set of six giant sculptures, all animals whose extinctions or extirpations were human-caused. They will be cast in stone because of the material’s durability. The work for the Shanghai Project includes a model of one of these sculptures – the Chinese pangolin –as well as paintings, as reference for two additional sculptures, the Aurochs and the Dodo.
The animal poses chosen are an attempt to convey quiet and reverence, as the pangolin does when it is rolled up (and would not if it was in a walking pose). Each sculpture has a human-made slice taken out of them, symbolizing the destruction of a lineage. These slices are rare in nature; there are few straight lines or perfectly smooth surfaces in the natural world. We envisioned the slice as a symbol of human damage, and even as a reference to the use of weapons to kill the animals.
This is not a project to memorialize extinction by reminding people that it occurred, but to specifically apologize for causing such losses. Given that we apologize to the present to atone for the sins of the past, why not apologize to the future for the sins of the present?
Jennifer Jacquet is an assistant professor at New York University in the Department of Environmental Studies. She works on large-scale conservation problems, including climate change, overfishing, and the wildlife trade and at the interface of the social and natural sciences. She is particularly interested in the role of reputation in helping solve cooperation dilemmas, and is author of Is Shame Necessary? New Uses for an Old Tool published in 2015.