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Kolbert versus Oreskes/Conway- Style and Impact

bothsidesnow's picture

How effective is this type of story telling-what are Kolbert and Oreskes/Conway setting out to achieve- what kind of response are they looking for?- who is the audience? 

Both texts serve as warnings and calls for action, they are meant to inform us, the general public, business leaders, politicians, and scientists focused on environmentalism alike. 

 Oreskes/Conway: the title contains the word “collapse,” which is a noun, can discuss past, present, or future, however this case represents a potential future (second Black Death, Second People’s Republic of China)


Review from the New York Times Book Review:  “two historians of science” “The authors characterize their little book as fiction, but it is not in any conventional sense. It is an intellectual history of human awareness…”

“And the simple act of writing about the present in the past tense makes their account of our current situation even more chilling than their imagined future.”- Reviewed by Nathaniel Rich

Kolbert: extinction- setting is the past and present- talking about what has happened (the Frozen Zoo, the alala bird, the extinction of individual species of frogs) 


Quote from New York Times Book Review: “And in her timely, meticulously researched and well-written book, Kolbert combines scientific analysis and personal narratives to explain it to us…an engaging description of the extraordinarily complex nature of life. Most important, Kolbert delivers a compelling call to action”- reviewed by Al Gore


Is Kolbert more direct at the end of her book? 

“we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will be forever closed” (said by Richard Leakey) (268) 

“if you want to think about why humans are so dangerous to other people, you can picture yourself carrying an AK-47 or a logger in the Amazon gripping an ax, or, better still, you can picture yourself, holding a book on your lap” (266) 

O/C: Spoke with disdain/criticism toward the more developed/leading countries’ decisions- uses more distant (never referring to the audience as you or using quotes from specific people/characters)

  • “physical scientists who spoke out about the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change were accused of being “alarmist” and of acting out of self-interest—to increase financial support for their enterprise, gain attention, or improve their social standing. At first, these accusations took the form of public denunciations; later they included threats, thefts, and the subpoena of private correspondence” (11)
  • “the conviction and imprisonment of more than three hundred scientists for “endangering the safety and well-being of the general public with unduly alarming threats.” By exaggerating the threat, it was argued, scientists were preventing the economic development essential for coping with climate change. When the scientists appealed, their convictions were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court under the Clear and Present Danger doctrine, which permitted the government to limit speech deemed to represent an imminent threat” (12)

Kolbert- She uses some graphs and photos throughout the text. 

The first chapter starts out talking about El Valle de Anton, Panama- description of the town, frogs are symbolic- the story of the golden frogs- they are small creatures, not human but still animal- mentions frog communities in certain locations (hills, creeks, banks)- not focused on humans at first

She uses vocabulary such “background extinction” and “anthropocene." For anthropocene, there are a couple pages dedicated to forming a definition. The term invented by Paul Crutzen and further defined by Jan Zalasiewicz and members of stratigraphy committee of Geological Society of London. 

  • Speaks to personal experience when joining scientists in the field- uses “I” pronouns (first person account intertwined with facts/research)
  • Compared to “Collapse of Western Civilization”- brings the experiences/facts down to an individual level, not as broad, more relatable? - Starts out with how she became interested in the frogs (read an article in a children’s magazine)
  • Through commentary on what she’s learned from research and scientists, Kolbert brings the reader to think about the future of the Earth and humans- “homo sapiens might not only be the agent of the sixth extinction, but also risks being one of its victims.”
  • How it reads: like an article found in a magazine like National Geographic

Oreskes/Conway- They begin each chapter with a map of a region that experienced rising sea levels. 

The first chapter begins with terms like “civilization,” “empires,” and “society." The authors are clearly talking about humans and large scale humanity first, unlike Kolbert, who starts specifically and ends in more broad terms. 

The narrator(s) spoke as if they were removed from the events happening though sometimes used “our story," meaning they were part of it but possibly superior in some way. 

  • lexicon of archaic terms- defined and used often in the text
  • How it reads: not typical science-fiction tale”- reads like a textbook/report
  • When is the cutoff between events in the past and recent past versus the speculated/imaginary future that they speak about?

*Plan to cite New York Time Book Review articles if used in final draft 


Anne Dalke's picture

bothsidesnow --
i've been noticing the implications of your username in your writing lately, thinking about your stated intent, like Judy Collins, to see things from both sides -- especially appropriate, given the comparative nature of this particular assignment!

yours is the third draft i've read (so far) which proposes to address the question of which text is "more effective." see from my responses to Grace and haabibi that i'm counseling against framing your next draft around this question, which you really can't answer without doing some sort of reader survey (surely not in the cards over the next few days...)

what other interesting questions might this comparative list lead you toward? are you interested in kolbert's 'up close and personal' approach, vs. what you call oreskes/conway's 'more distant' one? where might that distinction take you...?

why are you relying on nytimes reviews of the text? what traction do they give you?

i was nudging you, in my response to your last paper, to reflect on the implications of our moving from the human-centric to a longer, broader environmental view (on beyond the 'wise woman' in the background of Ozeki's novel, for example, to letting other species speak). how to showcase such perspectives in writing that will grab the interest (and action) of human beings? can we think like other species? imagine the world from their perspective? (see thomas nagel on this....) and if not...?