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The Extinction of Selfish Ignorance (paper 11)

Sydney's picture

Sydney Huff

Esem Paper #11

November 21, 2014

The Extinction of Selfish Ignorance 

For the Utopian city of Omelas to thrive, one ugly condition has been set: a child must live within a basement in complete desolation. The people of Omelas are aware of the child’s poor existence, and although they do not save the child, many do feel extreme distress. Citizens are told that if the child is freed that, then  their society will crumble; no one has proof that this will actually happen. Instead, the majority of the  citizens of Omelas would prefer to lead a life of selfish ignorance, refusing to sacrifice their way of living to save an innocent child.

However, some people never forget the feelings they experiences when they first saw the child. The people of Omelas  “who come to see the child are young people...feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations” (Le Guin 5). These people who cannot erase there feeling decide to act, by walking away from their Utopia.

Although some people may view these actions as noble, I cannot accept this explanation. These escapists are cowards who are too consumed by guilt. They yet to me, their actions are based on guilt. These citizens of Melas decide to walk away from their Utopia. Those who walk away are leading lives that do not function on the child’s despair, yet they are aware that the child still exists in the upsetting state. Instead of making change for the child that would impact the majority, these people separate themselves from their society, reacting to save their own peace of mind.


Today, Earth’s environment could be compared to the poor child who sits alone in the basement of Omelas. In our society, many of us learn at a young age that the environment is suffering due to human destructive behaviors. Although some people may feel outraged and respond by changing their lifestyles to recycle or eat organically, these actions  cannot make a major difference if the majority of society refuses to sacrifice their lifestyles. These people who attempt to bring change in small groups are similar to the loners who walk away from Omelas. As exemplified by Kolbert’s “Greening the Ghettos,” small groups who misrepresent society’s entire population have not produced positive changes that have impacted the environment.

The Sierra Club who started the modern environmental movement decades ago, is described in Kolbert’s article as “fighting narrow, private interests on behalf of the public in the broadest possible sense--all people, including those who had not been born” (Kolbert 2). The Sierra club, who are described as being  a small group of predominantly affluent, middle-aged, white individuals clearly do not represent all of society’s members. With this in mind, I think that it becomes evident that minority populations are not affected by the club’s actions because they work on “private interests.” Because of this, I cannot ascribe nobility to their actions. Similar to those who fled from Omelas, they are trying to escape from their society by refusing to confront the ugly situation at hand. It is not righteous to create a life, pretending that you are saving something innocent, when in reality, your actions are geared to benefit yourself, allowing you to feel selfless as opposed to guilt-ridden.

Through reading The Sixth Extinction, Kolbert reveals that humans are causing the ruin of the environment and numerous species. Although many people learn of our destructive habits, the society’s majority refuses to sacrifice their selfish lifestyles. Fortunately, scientists, such as the members of  the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC)  are attempting to save frog species who are dying out due to a fungus that has been transferred across the globe due to the careless travel of humans. Although their efforts are performed out of a genuine desire to save the frogs for generations to come, positive results do not seem probable due to the rapid spread of the fungus (Kolbert 8-12). Similar to the members of EVACC, Kolbert describes a small community of scientists who live on a small island atop of a coral reef called One Tree Island (Kolbert  125). Although their research is producing  insightful information as to how destructive human activities are to the survival of the coral reefs, not enough people are acting on their  suggestions.  Because these scientists dedicate their lives to study or to save Earth's endangered species, I perceive their motives as nobles.  However, society is pinning these scientists in helpless positions that are causing even their efforts to appear as guilty attempts to erase the actions of mankind. If people consistently ignore the advice of the scientists, then what good are their actions doing the environment?

Those who escape from the paradoxically Utopia that forces suffering onto one child are all too aware of how unjust their lives are in comparison to this child. The decide to leave because they try to ignore the suffering, “yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives.Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free” (Le Guin 6). Although they feel hopeless, their escape is not noble. They run away out of guilt, and their actions can not save the child. In our society, it is unfair that the scientists that Kolbert discusses dedicate their lives for a noble cause yet are essentially similar to those who walk away from the city of Omelas. The scientists know better than the majority of society what unhappiness is to come in the future because of the selfish nature of humans. They escape to these small communities, not like the members of the Sierra Club who work for semi selfish local change, but as people who know that the they must live humble lives in the middle of the wild in order to gather evidence that should impact the way we chose to live. By refusing to act on the advice of these scientists, we are no better than the people of Omelas who ignore the child’s sad existence. The thought is unsettling, but through the evidence of environmental despair presented in Kolbert’s book, it is obvious that we are in the middle of an extinction period, and if we do not change our lifestyles now as an entire society, then the future of our planet looks bleak. We cannot chose to run away to save ourselves; we must face the challenge together and assume the responsibility of our species for the survival of our planet’s environment.


Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Greening the Ghetto: Can a Remedy Serve for both Global Warming and ,,,,,,,,,,Poverty?" The New Yorker (January 12, 2009).

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction. New York, New York: Henry Holt, 2014. Print.

LeGuin, Ursula. "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow." The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Short……,…..Stories.  New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 148-178.


Anne Dalke's picture


Looking again @ LeGuin’s short story through the lens of Kolbert’s book gives you a rich new reading, one in which the suffering child is the (anthromorphized) planet, the scientists are those who walk away to do specialized research and/or recovery, and the rest of us stay, living our lives, continuing to contribute to the suffering. It’s a powerful and well constructed re-interpretation.

Where we might talk together further has to do with your characterization of “the rest of us,” those you call “society’s majority,” who “refuse to sacrifice their selfish lifestyles,” as opposed to those “people who know that the they must live humble lives in the middle of the wild, in order to gather evidence that should impact the way we chose to live,” evidence that should teach us to “change our lifestyles now as an entire society.”

 Just recently, in my 360°, we read and discussed an essay by Chandra Mohanty, Under Western Eyes Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles. Signs 28, 2 (2002): 499-535. Mohanty was one of the feminist activist scholars whose work was so inspirational to me during the NWSA conference that I just attended in Puerto Rico. Although her work isn’t directed to matters of environmental concern, she insists on the specificity of difference ("differences are never just ‘differences’”) in a way that I think might sharpen your own analysis. For the old divisions between “majority” vs. “minority” populations, First vs. Third World, North vs. Global South, Mohanty substitutes the terms “1/3 World vs. 2/3 World,” categories which distinguish social minorities from social majorities by focusing on quality of life, draw attention to continuities and discontinuities between the “haves and have-nots,” and highlight the fluidity and power of global forces. Mohanty recognizes herself, for instance, as “part of the social minority with all its privileges,” but her political choices place her “alongside the 2/3 World” (I would say the same for myself).

All of this is to say that, when you say “we” or “them,” remember the contrast between the two very different “contact zones” we watched early in September: the amazing lyrebird singing like a chainsaw, and the Israeli attacks on Palestinean olive trees. Not all humans are positioned equally, not all are as selfishly using the world’s resources, and not all are equally threatened by such diminishment. Ofttimes, the least selfish are the most suffering.