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Read a Book, Save a Planet- Draft

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 has accumulated 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).  

Despite having a similar message, the two books differ 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. While their story contains scientific and historical evidence, many aspects of it are completely fictitious. 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. 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 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.

What The Collapse of Western Civilization does exceedingly well is to call 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. 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 to provoke some form of reaction.

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

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


jccohen's picture


Your draft makes me think about the knowledge-power link that Oreskes and Conway tell us explicitly has not worked in the way people expected it to.  Might your essay get framed as a direct response to this, since you seem to be arguing that both of these texts rely on communication of “knowledge” (in your first paragraph) as a way to address the issue of environmental disaster?  Or alternatively, would you say that these texts rely less on knowledge and instead look to “the reader’s emotional side” (your last paragraph) in order to have an impact?  Or (yet another possibility), might you be moving toward saying that Kolbert uses knowledge, O & C use emotion as their primary method and motivator? 

I’m pressing this question as a way of considering how you might now revise your essay; the draft is a thoughtful, even-handed accounting of the two texts, and the next step will be to hone in on a claim about one or both of them.  What’s the most important thing you have to say about these texts?  I’m wondering whether your claim is something like this:  “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,’” in which case you might really use Kolbert as a lens on what O & C are doing here…