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Knowledge and Power: A Paradoxical Relationship

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“Knowledge is power” is a phrase often emblazoned on classroom posters, embedded into motivational journals, and largely unchallenged as true. Knowledge is power, but it simultaneously isn’t. This paradox is explored in both Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Naomi Oreskes’ and Erik M. Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future. Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History is a nonfiction book illustrating how the Earth is in the midst of a modern, human-driven, sixth mass extinction. In The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future, authors Oreskes and Conway imagine themselves as scholars in the year 2393, and write a “historical” account of how climate change devastated and brought an end to Western civilization. The two books share an agreed acknowledgement that knowledge does not necessarily lead to the power to make change, but the texts diverge in their paths towards how to galvanize change.

Kolbert weaves her own narrative into the scientific explanations in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Her book appears to be written with the intention of making the common man understand the issues she talks about -- the language is easier to read, there are step-by-step explanations provided, and she uses her personal stories to depict a situation for us. Kolbert’s book leaves a clear message that most readers will understand. On the other hand, Oreskes and Conway intentionally use more complex diction in The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future, because their book is written as a scholarly account from the future. The maps, footnotes, glossary, and lack of narrative also give Oreskes’ and Conway’s book a “textbook” vibe, in comparison to Kolbert’s book. Highly specific economic, scientific, and historical terminology are used frequently in the book, which make the book harder for the common man to understand. Although the concept itself is riveting, the difficulty in understanding the text may take away from the impact it surely could have been fostering.

However, once a reader is able to overcome the difficulty and starts to understand the book, they are presented with a relatively frightening, bleak fate. The image of a collapsing civilization is much darker than anything Kolbert directly shows in her book. In relation to preventive methods, Oreskes and Conway focus on dichotomies between action and inaction, power of knowledge versus futility of knowledge, and the inefficient tendency to break problems into specialized, small issues rather than collectively work together to solve a broad problem. Meanwhile, Kolbert mainly discusses the specific extinctions of organisms in many areas of the book. In a way, she falls right into the category of Oreskes’ and Conway’s critique. They look down on the specialized scientists who are so focused on their own study of the world that they are unable to see the entire picture. Economic and social factors were essential in driving the collapse of civilization described by Oreskes and Conway -- not just scientific factors. These economic and social factors are not acknowledged at all by Kolbert, even though they are inevitably intertwined with climate change. Oreskes and Conway also cite Lewis Mumford, “Choice manifests itself in society in small increments and moment-to-moment decisions as well as in loud dramatic struggles” in order to emphasize the larger idea that needed to be prioritized, but wasn’t.

At the same time, Kolbert does explain that her book’s real subject has been the larger pattern in which these extinctions participate in. “What I’ve been trying to do is trace an extinction event -- and to place this event in the broader context of life’s history.” (Kolbert, 265). She seems aware of the broad problem-solving method when she cites Paul Ehrlich, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” Kolbert also makes her desire for action clear by stating, “To argue that the current extinction event could be averted if people just cared more and were willing to make sacrifices is not wrong, exactly; still, it misses the point. It doesn’t much matter whether people care or don’t care. What matters is that people change the world” (Kolbert, 266).

The scholar writing from the future in Oreskes’ and Conway’s book demonstrate that the authors perhaps do not believe our knowledge of predictive science will actually change anything. Humans will learn the exact logistics of their death from climate change, and then they will die from climate change. The scholar speaks of the futility of knowledge, discrediting humans for having so much knowledge but not making use of it. Kolbert also explores this paradox in her book, asking, “Does it have to end this way?...Having been alerted to the way in which we’re imperiling other species, can’t we take action to protect them? Isn’t the whole point of trying to peer into the future so that, seeing dangers ahead, we can change course to avoid them” (Kolbert, 261)?

Rather than sustaining a blind hope for the future, Kolbert turns to grounded, information-based optimism by asking, “Wouldn’t it be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done and is being done to save species, rather to speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials” (Kolbert, 262)? She supports this line of questioning by further describing, “Such is the pain the loss of a single species causes that we’re willing to perform ultrasounds on rhinos and handjobs on crows. Certainly the commitment of…[researchers] and...institutions could be invoked as reason for optimism” (Kolbert 265).  

Oreskes and Conway write this disturbing prophecy-like text in what seems to be an attempt to prevent future disaster. It’s difficult to separate the authors’ beliefs from the narrator’s beliefs, and to discern whether or not the authors truly believe we are catapulting ourselves toward an inevitable death. Meanwhile, we know Kolbert certainly believes our Earth is in the midst of the Sixth Extinction, caused by humanity’s transformation of the ecological landscape -- our cutting down tropical rainforests, altering composition of the atmosphere, acidifying ocean water, and more. Oreskes’ and Conway’s outlook of the world differ from Kolbert’s. Kolbert galvanizes change using history and contemporary events, while Oreskes and Conway galvanize change by showing the depressing future course of events assuming inaction. Even with these varying attempts to bring change, the texts agree that knowledge does not necessarily lead to power without concrete actions.