Frank Fenner sees no hope for humans
by Cheryl Jones
FRANK Fenner doesn't engage in the skirmishes of the climate wars. To
him, the evidence of global warming is in. Our fate is sealed.
"We're going to become extinct," the eminent scientist says. "Whatever
we do now is too late."
Fenner is an authority on extinction. The emeritus professor in
microbiology at the Australian National University played a leading role
in sending one species into oblivion: the variola virus that causes
And his work on the myxoma virus suppressed wild rabbit populations on
farming land in southeastern Australia in the early 1950s.
He made the comments in an interview at his home in a leafy Canberra
suburb. Now 95, he rarely gives interviews. But until recently he went
into work each day at the ANU's John Curtin School of Medical Research,
of which he was director from 1967 to 1973.
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Decades after his official retirement from the Centre for Resource and
Environmental Studies, which he set up in 1973, he continued a routine
established when he was running world-class facilities while conducting
He'd get to work at 6.30am to spend a couple of hours writing textbooks
before the rest of the staff arrived.
Fenner, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and of the Royal
Society, has received many awards and honours. He has published hundreds
of scientific papers and written or co-written 22 books.
He retrieves some of the books from his library. One of them, on
smallpox, has physical as well as intellectual gravitas: it weighs
3.5kg. Another, on myxomatosis, was reprinted by Cambridge University
Press last year, 44 years after the first edition came out.
Fenner is chuffed, but disappointed that he could not update it with
research confirming wild rabbits have developed resistance to the
biological control agent.
The study showed that myxo now had a much lower kill rate in the wild
than in laboratory rabbits that had never been exposed to the virus.
"The [wild] rabbits themselves had mutated," Fenner says.
"It was an evolutionary change in the rabbits."
His deep understanding of evolution has never diminished his fascination
with observing it in the field. That understanding was shaped by studies
of every scale, from the molecular level to the ecosystem and planetary
Fenner originally wanted to become a geologist but, on the advice of his
father, studied medicine instead, graduating from the University of
Adelaide in 1938.
He spent his spare time studying skulls with prehistorian Norman Tindale.
Soon after graduating, he joined the Royal Australian Army Medical
Corps, serving in Egypt and Papua New Guinea. He is credited in part
with Australia's victory in New Guinea because of his work to control
malaria among the troops.
"That quite changed my interest from looking at skulls to microbiology
and virology," he says. But his later research in virology, focusing on
pox viruses, took him also into epidemiology and population dynamics,
and he would soon zoom out to view species, including our own, in their
His biological perspective is also geological.
He wrote his first papers on the environment in the early 1970s, when
human impact was emerging as a big problem.
He says the Earth has entered the Anthropocene. Although it is not an
official epoch on the geological timescale, the Anthropocene is entering
scientific terminology. It spans the time since industrialisation, when
our species started to rival ice ages and comet impacts in driving the
climate on a planetary scale.
Fenner says the real trouble is the population explosion and "unbridled
The number of Homo sapiens is projected to exceed 6.9 billion this year,
according to the UN. With delays in firm action on cutting greenhouse
gas emissions, Fenner is pessimistic.
"We'll undergo the same fate as the people on Easter Island," he says.
"Climate change is just at the very beginning. But we're seeing
remarkable changes in the weather already.
"The Aborigines showed that without science and the production of carbon
dioxide and global warming, they could survive for 40,000 or 50,000
years. But the world can't. The human species is likely to go the same
way as many of the species that we've seen disappear.
"Homo sapiens will become extinct, perhaps within 100 years," he says.
"A lot of other animals will, too. It's an irreversible situation. I
think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying
to do something, but they keep putting it off.
"Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people
It's an opinion shared by some scientists but drowned out by the row
between climate change sceptics and believers.
Fenner's colleague and long-time friend Stephen Boyden, a retired
professor at the ANU, says there is deep pessimism among some
ecologists, but others are more optimistic.
"Frank may be right, but some of us still harbour the hope that there
will come about an awareness of the situation and, as a result, the
revolutionary changes necessary to achieve ecological sustainability,"
says Boyden, an immunologist who turned to human ecology later in his
"That's where Frank and I differ. We're both aware of the seriousness of
the situation, but I don't accept that it's necessarily too late. While
there's a glimmer of hope, it's worth working to solve the problem. We
have the scientific knowledge to do it but we don't have the political
Fenner will open the Healthy Climate, Planet and People symposium at the
Australian Academy of Science next week, as part of the AAS Fenner
conference series, which is designed to bridge the gap between
environmental science and policy.
In 1980, Fenner had the honour of announcing the global eradication of
smallpox to the UN's World Health Assembly. The disease is the only one
to have been eradicated.
Thirty years after that occasion, his outlook is vastly different as he
contemplates the chaos of a species on the brink of mass extinction.
"As the population keeps growing to seven, eight or nine billion, there
will be a lot more wars over food," he says.
"The grandchildren of today's generations will face a much more