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Sixth Extinction vs Collapse: what makes a character? east vs west, intersection of culture and science

awkwardturtle's picture

Storytelling: What Constitutes a Character?

Both “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert and “The Collapse of Western Civilization” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway are texts about the destructive human impact on the environment (which humans are a part of, and although “environment” is deemed an archaic term by Oreskes and Conway, it is too difficult at this point to not separate “humans” and “environment”?). In this rough draft I will look at how the concept of “characters” in a novel apply to both of these texts.

In “The Sixth Extinction,” there are many living characters in the novel, as well as many references to life despite being about extinction. Kolbert places herself in her writing, with many uses of “I,” “I first read about the frogs of El Valle in a nature magazine for children,” (5) “I had vivid, troubled dreams, the only scene from which I could later recall was of a bright yellow frog smoking a cigarette through a holder,” (22) “The first time I visited EVACC,” (10), and many others. The placement of the author in the novel raises questions about why an author would place themself in their own writing, and how that impacts the writing and the other characters in the novel. For example, Kolbert herself as a possibly main character could make her and other humans seem more powerful than the nonhuman characters in the novel, since she knows what she is thinking but can only assume the thoughts of the frogs, etc. In the first chapter, both the frogs and the chytrid fungi are almost like characters in the novel, “getting to know the frogs as individuals” (10), and often presented with human characteristics, “they [the frogs] look intelligent,” (8) and “the mysterious killer that was claiming frogs” (13). The concept of nonhuman characters is interesting, as the term “character” almost always conjures up images of humans. Although elevating nonhumans in the novel to the status of a character gives them more power, in many cases a  hierarchy presented in the novel with humans at the top, as humans have “the capacity to name things,” (1) “the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one,” (3) and “shift organisms from one continent to another, reassembling the biosphere” (2). Although Kolbert highlights the destruction caused by humans, she also talks about the power of individual humans and groups of humans to effect change, “Certainly humans can be destructive and shortsighted; they can also be forward-thinking and altruistic” (261). In either case, humans are depicted with a lot of power over the environment, with a focus on individual or otherwise small-scale actions, such as John Muir’s writing and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (261),  as well as more institutional or organized action, such as the EVACC (8),  the San Diego Zoo (260), and the Congressional ban of DDT. In both cases, there is an emphasis on individuals, “the lengths to which people have gone to protect creatures,” (262) “Millions of Americans who don’t participate directly in such efforts support them indirectly,” (262) and many direct references to names. I am interested in how this portrayal of humans and living nonhumans in The Sixth Extinction impacts the stories told, especially when there is a simultaneously hopeless and hopeful outlook on the future of the Earth. The type of characters written by Kolbert are very different than what would be the closest things to characters in The Collapse of Western Civilization.  

I will also apply the concept of character to The Collapse of Western Civilization, which will require a lot of stretching to fit, since there are few direct or explicit references to individual living organisms. The authors do not place themselves into their writing, and references to humans deemed unimportant are vague, “the cause was people,” (16) and “some scientists” (16). Even when individual humans are referenced, there is a lack of interest in their individual stories, “Karl Marx argued that...,” (39) and “such as Margaret Thatcher...and Ronald Reagan” (42). The names are mentioned only in relation to the philosophies and ideas presented. I wonder if this is to demonstrate the inconsequential nature of individual humans when western civilization collapses, or that individual humans are not able to effect changes without systemic changes? And even if an individual is inextricably tied to a philosophy either by origin or practice, do concepts become more powerful than the humans that create and practice them? The main players in the climate conflict are institutions, such as governments, “the carbon-combustion complex,” (36) and organizations such as the IAICEP (28). The philosophies presented in the novel are also written as contributing to unaddressed climate change within themselves, such as “Baconianism,” (36) and “market fundamentalism” (37). The presenting of philosophies almost as characters again questions who or what are the agents of change when confronted by a problem like climate change. Does it require changing systems of government or systems of thought? Or does the breakdown of these systems require seeing the humans that make up and create these systems? Or both? The novel also categorizes the “characters” into “western civilization” and everything else. (Whether that is “eastern civilization” or just “other” I do not know.) “Western civilization” is often equated to developed, colonizer, “In the 1950s and 1960s, the West experienced high overall the late 1970s and 1980s...neoliberal ideas attracted world leaders searching for answers to their countries’ declining economic performance” (42). Why is Latin America not included in “the West” despite being in the western hemisphere? “Eastern civilization” is portrayed rather positively in Collapse, “China, for instance, took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon-based energy sources,” (6) and the “Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness” (8). This raises questions of what allows for the categorization of east and west, since this categorization of humans, cultures, etc. is not apparent in Kolbert’s writing. The continent of Africa is mentioned very sparingly, “the human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out” (33). Africa is much larger than Australia (a country and continent), which seems to have a generalizing effect on an entire continent. Also, Africa is rarely categorized as “western” or “eastern.” Lastly, I am also interested in the intersection between culture and science, as all science is represented as one field in The Sixth Extinction, but Collapse highlights differences with the Type I and Type II fallacies of western science practices (17) and the successful implementation of genetic engineering by Japanese scientist Ishikawa (32).



Anne Dalke's picture

i'm liking very much the direction you take here, awkward turtle--this sounds to me like an incipient ecolinguistics project, one that is thinking about the sorts of stories we might be writing as we try to turn attention to questions of environmental concern:

* is making characters important in writing clifi?

* should they be emphasized (turning frogs into characters, as Kolbert does), or

* deemphasized (moving away from individual idiosyncracy, as Oreskes/Conway do?)

* what is the effect of either strategy on you as a reader?

we can talk through these possibilities in your conference this week; in preparation, you might look @ an essay that thinks about the shape of eco-stories:

Allen, Paula Gunn. "Kochinnenako in Academe: Three Approaches to Interpreting a Keres Indian Tale." The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. 222-244; it's included in our protected reading file;

as are Robert lugg's reflections on 'Basic Environmentalism.'

if neither of those 'hook' you, i have a couple of others (Ursula LeGuin's ""The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" and/or Joseph Meeker's "The Comic Mode" and/or Gary Snyder's "Unnatural Writing") up my sleeve...;