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The Collapse of Civilization and Sixth Extinction, a comparison

purple's picture

Both Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conwayare both environmental texts about the impact of human life on the environment.

Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction is a non-fiction piece explaining the mass extinction happening right now as a result of human impact with other mass extinctions that have taken place in the past. Kolbert includes interactions she had with scientists and others studying and working on preventing different species from reaching extinction. She documents some of the efforts taken to save these creatures including creating a "Frozen Zoo" where cells of different species are cultured and preserved in liquid nitrogen, and a hotel for frogs. The author aknowledges the destruction that humans have posed on the environment but focuses on the positive impact humans are having in working towards fixing the damage and preventing further damage. Through this positive lens, the author focuses on individuals and groups of people who are working tirelessly to prevent the extinction of many species. 

The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future is a science-fiction text from the perspective of the future, past a point when current civilization has collapsed as a result of human destruction. Unlike Kolbert, these authors have a more negative tone towards today's environemntal predicament. This text takes a more macro focus, emphasizing the role of government, countries, and society as opposed to the large role that a few individuals are taking on. The futuristic narration criticizes the choices made by humans in present day and in the past that continue to spiral into more and more environmental damage. 

Both texts agree that humans are negatively impacting the environment in a way that is unpredictable, unsustainable and that there currently are not solutions for. Where these two texts differ is in scope and tone. The emphasis of the positive impact of a select few individuals in Kolbert's book creates an image that fixing the damages of human induced environmental change is attainable. On the other hand, Oreskes and Conway create a more globally encompassing and negative perspective that explicitly explains how we are out of control in our attempts to solve the environmental crisis we have created. The negative tone in The Collapse of Civilization causes the reader to look critically into historical events and scientific data and re-evaluate their meaning. It is certainly disturbing and disconcerting to have modern science and modern society questioned. While Sixth Extinction  is also somewhat disturbing, the positive focus is hopeful and makes us feel less like there is immediate action that needs to be taken by everyone in order to solve these problems. Though The Collapse of Civilization addresses the situation on a much larger scale, it sends a more urgent message for drastic change to be taken than Sixth Extinction does.

The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future

  • Science fiction
  • Pg 2 “archaic Western convention of studying the physical world in isolation from social systems”
  • “Culturally, celebrating the planet was encouraged on an annual Earth day (as if every day were not an Earth day!) pg 4
  • active and passive denial pg 6
  • Uses realistic visuals, specifically maps documenting rising sea level in various areas of the world. The captions underline the effects to the population
  • “human adaptive optimism” pg 13
  • “… funds flowed into climate research at the expense of other branches of science, not to mention other forms of intellectual and creative activity” pg 12
  •  "Western scientists built an intelectual culture based on the premise that it was wose to fool oneself into believing something that did not exist than not to believe in something that did" pg 17
  • "To the histrian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why" pg 35
  • carbon-combustion complext pg 36


Sixth Extinction

  • Non-fiction­
  • “No creature has ever altrered life on the planet in this way before, and yet other, comparable events have occurred” pg 3
    • I doubt the authors of the other tet would agreae that other comparable events have occurred
    • “They raced to save as many animals as possible, even though they had no/where to keep them” pg 6
    • “The history of life thus consist of “long periods of boredom interrupted occasionally by panic” pg16
    • Certainly humans can be destructive and shortsighted; they can also be forward-thinking and altruistic” pg 261
    • “Wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done and is being done to save species, rather than to speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials? The director of a conservation group in Alaska once put it to me this way: “People have to have hope, I have to have hope. It’s what keeps us going” pg. 262-263
    •  "Communtion holds societies together and allows humans to escape evolution" pg 266




Anne Dalke's picture

you've laid out a thorough list of comparatives, including a nice reading of the difference in "scope and tone" between our two texts, but i'm not yet seeing what claim might emerge therefrom. your bottom line @ this point seems to be that kolbert (by focusing on individual exertions) tells a story more hopeful than the structural/instituional analysis offered by oreskes/conway. so...

where can you go from here? is there another lens (say, the ethnic orientation that david vasquez brought to campus last thursday) which might allow you to work with one of these texts? or is there an orientation from your last paper, which looked both @ questions of control and of scope, which might help you here? you made a gesture, towards the end of that essay, asking us to think about our obligations to the earth and other species with whom we share it, in a relationship where there is no conscious or reciprocal commitment. @ that point, the discussion started to shift beyond the short-term, humancentric focus we've held to so far (and which your last paper centered on).

can you now open it up...? and/but does opening it up lead to more despair...?