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Read a Book, Save a Planet

Marina's picture

The Earth is undergoing crisis, yet people are failing to acknowledge it. Then what is the best way to share this knowledge? Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, the authors of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future suggest that the easiest way to communicate the imminence of our situation is through the written word.

The goals of both books are similar in nature. They are intended to spread awareness of humanity’s impending doom, assuming we refuse to take action now. In The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert accumulates scientific observations supporting her conclusion that although humans have the power to create a “Sixth Extinction,” action should be taken to prevent it, because they may not have the power to survive it. Oreskes mentions in an interview about The Collapse of Western Civilization, “our story is a call to protect the American way of life before it’s too late” (Oreskes and Conway 79).

With the goals of both texts being to inform the public about climate change issues and requesting work to prevent further destruction of the earth, an underlying debate is brought to light. Is knowledge power? Can readers take the information they learn from these books to create major change within the efforts of global warming prevention? And if they can, will they?

Kolbert suggests that the “Sixth Extinction” will have one of two outcomes. The Extinction will either destroy the human race, or “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion” (Kolbert 268), what Oreskes and Conway call “Human Adaptive Optimism” (Oreskes and Conway 58). While Kolbert avoids giving a direct answer in response to whether or not humans are as resilient and as powerful as we believe we are, she does point out that “the Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust” (Kolbert 268).

On the other hand, Oreskes and Conway reference multiple examples of when knowledge does not correspond with power. Two major cases are those of scientists and government officials. Oreskes and Conway explain “the constraints of scientific culture,” such as reductionism, which expands individual scientists’ knowledge in specific areas in order to maximize the efficiency of discovery as a whole, and the “pressures of governmental sponsors” (Oreskes and Conway 15). Likewise, government officials, although warned of the situation, either refused or were unable to take action, demonstrating the inability of knowledge to make a significant difference.

Ironically, support of the idea that knowledge does not, in fact, equal power, is in complete contradiction with the purpose of writing books on the topic of encouraging preventative action against climate change. Therefore, to analyze the effectiveness of these books as environmental literature, it is significant to look at the methods used by the authors to achieve their goals.

Despite having a similar goal, the two books differ greatly in their methods of execution. Kolbert stays within the nonfiction genre. Her inferences are based on current studies and observations. Oreskes and Conway create a unique blend of science-based fiction containing both scientific and historical evidence as well as complete fiction. Kolbert focuses on the present, and Oreskes and Conway focus on the future. Kolbert encourages empathy and connects with the reader using colloquial speech patterns and easily understood explanations of complex concepts. Oreskes and Conway distance themselves from the reader, establishing themselves as a future historian living in a world that is paying for the reader’s mistakes. Their voice is aloof and accusatory.

The result of Kolbert’s method is to draw in a large audience including people within and without the scientific community, young and old, with varying levels of education in environmental topics. Whether intentionally or not, The Collapse of Western Civilization caters to a much more specific audience. Because of its informative, textbook-like format, The Collapse of Western Civilization is less likely to attract pleasure readers and more likely to attract serious scholars and environmentalists who have some extent of prior knowledge in politics. In this respect, I find Kolbert’s writing style to be more effective in educating because it reaches the masses.

With the presumption that knowledge is not power, the reason that both Kolbert’s , and Oreskes and Conway’s pieces work as environmental texts is attributed to the driving force of emotion. Kolbert’s approach works by invoking a sense of guilt for our poor treatment of the environment and uncertainty for the future, to spur people into action. Oreskes and and Conway take on more provocative tactics of using fear to motivate a response. The Collapse of Western Civilization does exceedingly well at calling forth a strong emotional response. Reader’s are much more likely to respond to fear as a motivator than guilt, because “the fate of our own species concerns us disproportionately” (Kolbert 268).

The idea of using books, which are widely available to a range of people, to spread awareness of environmental deterioration is practical and should be efficient. The reason these books are persuasive is not due to the spread of knowledge, however, but the emotional response they evoke. Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, and Oreskes and Conway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, speak to the reader’s emotional side in different ways as a provocative call to action.


Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt, 2014. 1-22, 92-110, 259-269.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik Conway. “Interview with the Authors.” The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. 61-79.

Oreskes, Naomi, and Erik Conway. The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.