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Paper 10- draft

changing9's picture

Nayanthi Peiris

Paper #10



Cole versus Kolbert



Reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” was indeed an eye opening experience to say the least. She narrates the devastating but true story of the extinction of various species and how humans are the root cause of it. However, it is my opinion that part of what makes it an interesting read is her journalistic style of writing. She approaches the highly sensitive topic of the forthcoming Sixth Extinction in a manner that makes it relatable to the average human by tackling it as she would a newspaper article. She makes it clear in the book, and in the discussion we had with her at the ESem talk that she is by no means an expert in any of the fields explored in the book. By making this disclosure, she immediately puts herself on the same level as her readers.


That been said, while reading the book, one of the first things that came to my mind is the article by Teju Cole titled The White Saviour Industrial Complex. While the incidents that Cole is referring to are about the reaction Americans have to political issues in Africa, if one were to momentarily forget about the subject matter Cole is talking about, the core of his argument is valid even for the subject area that Kolbert discusses. However, there are certain things that Kolbert and Cole would most definitely disagree on.


Cole states, “I am a novelist. I traffic in subtleties, and my goal in writing a novel is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn't have a point.” (Cole 1) This perfectly resonates with the idea Kolbert is seen to be playing with. She explicitly stated in the discussion that it was not her intention to give a solution or a concrete conclusion to the massive problem of extinction at the end of the book. Her goal was to report on an ongoing issue and leave the concluding up to the readers. Whether the readers choose to reach the end of the book and simply toss it aside and go about their lives completely unaffected by it, or to immediately start researching about what they can do to contribute to the cause, is entirely in the hands of the readers.


While Cole and Kolbert would most probably be in agreement about Kolbert’s style of writing and how she handled this vast topic, it is unclear as to whether Cole would endorse the actions by various scientists featured in the book. While reading Cole’s article the idea it gave out was that he did not agree with the seemingly impulsive acts of charity that privileged Americans were committing towards less privileged Africans. How then, would he analyze the extreme measures taken by scientists in order to conserve certain species? Would he praise the Frog Hotel? Or would he call this “the banality of evil transmute[d] into the banality of sentimentality”? (Cole 1)


Kolbert argues that "[Humans] are capable of driving virtually any large mammal species extinct, even though they are also capable of going to great lengths to guarantee that they do not" (Kolbert 234) This statement is located at the end of a chapter in which Kolbert describes the excruciatingly painstaking method in which a group of conservationists accomplished the mammoth task of saving the entire species of the Sumatran rhinoceros by going to extreme lengths to ensure that the only surviving female reproduced. As a result of their actions, the Sumatran rhinoceros was not wiped off the face of the Earth. These actions, which saved an entire species, can be interpreted to have originated from enthusiasm- the same enthusiasm that Cole views so cynically. He stated, no doubt sarcastically, that Americans think, “The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.“ (Cole 1)


Moreover, the fact that Kolbert decided to write and publish a book which discusses the effect that the actions of humans have had on the planet, may seem hypocritical to some including Cole. The infinite paper and resources that went into printing this book can be considered to be a waste of resources and a further contribution towards the very result that Kolbert is attempting to stall by shedding light on the matter. However, I am reminded of Paulo Friere who stated, “Reading the world thus precedes reading the word and writing a new text must be seen as one means of transforming the world.” (Friere 5) This goes on to imply that certain sacrifices are indeed necessary for the greater good.


A conversation between Kolbert and Cole would be a fascinating one. While Cole’s view might be applicable to certain aspects of the Sixth Extinction- it is after all humans that instigated the whole ordeal, his views cannot explain the success that humans themselves have made in ensuring the protection of at-risk species.


Works Cited


Cole, Teju. "The White-Savior Industrial Complex." The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 21 Mar. 2012. Web. 15 Nov. 2014. <>.


Freire, Paulo.  "The Importance of the Act of Reading." Trans. Loretta Slover. Brazilian Congress of Reading, Campinas, Brazil. November 1981. Rpt. Journal of Education 165, 1 (Winter 1983): 5-11.


Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.





Anne Dalke's picture

changing 9--
I’m sure whether to partner you tomorrow with Hidayyah, who is thinking specifically, as you are, about what Cole and Kolbert might have to say to one another; or with Virushi and Selena, who are both writing about style. In either case, I think you might be on to something interesting here. Cole says (as you say) that a novelist “traffics in subtleties,” and that his goal “is to leave the reader not knowing what to think. A good novel shouldn't have a point.” But of course in the essay we read by him, he is not subtle @ all, and is very explicitly telling us what to think: we should not act impulsively or with enthusiasm; we should do research, learn about the causes of the actions that distress us, get involved with our own political system, which brought them into being. Actions that matter, he says, are long-term and thoughtful. Read through his lens, I see the extreme actions of the scientists that Kolbert catalogues not as ‘impulsive” or “enthusiastic,” but (as you also say) “excruciatingly painstaking,” and (I would say) not “only” sentimental.

But I’m actually more intrigued here in the contrast of style with which you begin, with Kolbert’s decision (as you report) not “to give a solution to the massive problem of extinction,” but rather “to report on an ongoing issue and leave the concluding up to the readers.” What does contrasting her measured, non-advocating style with Cole’s very-much-advocating one teach you about the effectiveness of different writing styles (particularly on matters of environmental concern) and about the evolution of your own writing?

I’m actually more led in that direction than the one you’ve taken so far, which has to do with the question of how Cole would judge the scientists whose work Kolbert reports on.

Judgment just…

stops thinking.

As you get into this, also beware generalizations like “the average human being.” For whose reading experience and reaction can you speak with authority? Certainly not that of “the average human being.”