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Kolbert and Omelas Draft

Sydney's picture

Sydney Huff

ESem Paper #10

November 14, 2014


When discussing Kolbert’s the Sixth Extinction in class, I noticed trends throughout each chapter. Numerous species of animals are endangered or have already been extinct due the various activities and habitation of humans. We allow ourselves to utilize the presence of various species and their habitats for our benefit, selfishly ignoring their frail existences. Our too blissfully ignorant and selfish lifestyles parallels the story of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. In that text, the inhabitants of Omelas live in a Utopian society plagued by the suffering of one child. The people of Omelas are aware of the child’s pitiful existence at an early age, yet they chose to ignore its pain in order to maintain their happiness. Unfortunately, I think that our society is too similar to Omelas. I don’t think that we would want to admit that we are selfish, yet many of us learn from an early age about the extinction and endangerment of species. However, as we grow older, we often sacrifice our youthful drive to make a difference in exchange for a pleasant lifestyle led by ignorance. Kolbert reveals to us that there are major consequences in our future if we continue to fear sacrificing our lifestyles to make a positive difference. Each chapter contains an eerily similar message: humans have caused extinction and we are now the cause of a new extinction period, and by continuing our lifestyles, the world will become a different environment. The question is, then, should we walk away alone, like those in Omelas, or should we do something more if outraged by present society?


I want to use chapter one and EVAAC to show how a few people cannot just walk away from society. In Omelas, it was said that when leaving Omelas, “each one goes alone” (Le Guin7). Although the efforts by EVAAC to save species of frogs is commendable,  don’t think that they can make a difference. The majority needs to come to an agreement to make change. In Omelas, the child still lived in a state of suffering although people left the town.

From an early age, children learn about extinction and often endangerment of species. Kolbert even open chapter 2 saying that children are give dinosaur toys to play with, so extinction is an accepted idea in our society. From personal experience, I know that children desire to save endangered species when they are discussed in school. However, with age, it seems that we accept their turmoil so that we can live without having to struggle to alter our lifestyles for the benefit of the animals. The people in Omelas are similar because “most of those who come to see the child are young people...They feel anger, outrage, impotence, despite all the explanations” (Le Guin 5).


Continuing with this idea, I took the quote “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). By the end of the book, I did not feel hopeful. I think that Kolbert tries to express a tone of hope, yet the facts do not provide me with the consolation I need. I haven’t found a quote yet from Kolbert’s book that relates to this or does the opposite (I’m not sure which way I’d rather go yet), but I think there should be a good one for this around the beginning or the end.


“Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine soufflés to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh.” (Le Guin 3 ). I felt that this line was contradictory to the message of the story of Omelas. It seems that exploiting the religious figures for the needy is similar to us who rely on other species when we are needy. I think that a line just a bit later in the text immediately contradicts this line as well.“The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial” (Le Guin 3). I think that both lines present interesting ideas as to how we j]shouldn’t really be in bliss as we ignore the needs of animals and our environment. In chapters 6 and 7, I felt fearful for the Earth. There is something about the destruction of the coral reefs that terrifies me. I think it is easy for us to destroy something as vital as the coral reefs because we don’t feel as emotional towards their demise. Unlike furry mammals, the coral reefs go quite unnoticed. Kolbert’s experience on One Tree Island help to demonstrate just how isolated the reefs are from many humans. In the next decades to come, the reefs will probably be successfully diminished. Like the second quote from Omelas, it is a fearful that people can live happily knowing that some rock-like creature within the sea is dying almost with care.

I don’t have quotes from Kolbert yet, but I am going to search for them for the next paper.

Ursula LeGuin, The Ones Who Walk Away from Ormelas. The Wind's Twelve Quarters. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.


Anne Dalke's picture

you make “selfish ignorance” a keynote of your analysis; is that Kolbert’s central idea ? (I’d say that instead, she seems to emphasize restless curiosity, the capacity to imagine an alternative world…). She also places the sixth extinction in the context of the first five; @ least four of these were NOT caused by humans—so what does that do to the focus on our self-indulgence?

I’m liking the link to LeGuin’s story, and can see some possibilities there--though I don’t think Kolbert gives us the option of “walking away”; rather the point seems to be that we cannot, that we are too deeply imbricated in our world to separate out from it…also LeGuin’s story is about walking away from social need, not environmental disaster (maybe Van Jones’s work would be relevant here, since he tries to bring the two together into a single issue?) I’m hooking you up with Grace tomorrow, since she also starts with the frogs, in the hopes that you two might help each other along…

As you work through this, searching for a thesis (not just a lament, not just a call to action…) beware of speaking for others and so overgeneralizing from your own experience as if you are an authority on theirs (as in, “as we grow older, we often sacrifice our youthful drive to make a difference in exchange for a pleasant lifestyle…”)

For whom can you speak? Well, closer to home is your own personal lament: “I felt fearful for the Earth. There is something about the destruction of the coral reefs that terrifies me…The facts do not provide me with the consolation I need.” Do you need consolation? Does Kolbert think so? Does LeGuin? Why is seeking consolation the way to go….?