Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

How Best to Tell People that the Environment is at Risk

isabell.the.polyglot's picture

            With the effects of climate change becoming more and more pronounced over the past decade, many authors have taken to writing about issues that deal with the environment in intersectional ways. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, along with Naomi Oreskes and Erik Konway’s The Collapse of Western Civilization, are two such texts that approach the environment using different methods. Kolbert brings up multiple arguments in a factual and observational fashion; Oreskes and Konway present a heavily biased, one-sided argument that blurs the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Kolbert also focuses viewing the environmental problems through the perspective of environmentalists and scientists, while Oreskes and Konway view it from the eyes of corporations. However, in both cases, their strategies work in causing the readers to think about the destructive relationship humans have with the environment and the consequences of our personal interactions with it.

            While Kolbert’s main argument is that humans are the “one weedy species” that are causing mass extinction, she offers contrasting points about what to do about this. On the one hand, trying to clean up the effects of human-caused environmental destruction can go on to no end, often with pointless results. Her example of keeping the frogs in the intensive preservation unit, the EVACC, is a prime example of this. While it was evident that this effort was good for the preservation of the frogs, Kolbert acknowledged that “the center’s goal was to maintain the animals until they could be released to repopulate the forests”, though “they couldn’t imagine how this would actually be done” (14). She expressed that it seemed unlikely that humans could be the frogs’ caretakers forever, and we had to know when to let go of a species forever. With another example, she also mentions that she attempted to calculate how many now extinct animal corpses humans were trying to save by freezing them in vials, but there were “too many numbers to keep in my head” (261). The sheer number of animals going extinct in this mass extinction is too large, and trying to save the DNA of every last one of them seems an impossible task. She, in some way, critiques in what ways humans are dealing with mass extinction, as many of our efforts seem superfluous and pointless.

            However, Kolbert targets environmentalists and says that “it would be better, practically and ethically, to focus on what can be done and is being done to save species, rather than to speculate gloomily about a future in which the biosphere is reduced to little plastic vials” (262). In a sense, she is crediting the works of the scientists who have made an effort to save the species from going completely extinct, yet she questions whether the efforts are going to the right places. She argues that environmentalists and scientists should focus on the causes of this mass extinction, rather than the effects. She posits that environmentalists should not look to “reengineer the atmosphere” and rely on future inventions, but rather look at problems in the present day which are causing these devastating consequences.

            Though Oreskes and Konway have a similar conclusion, their approach is much more one-sided. The majority of this ‘cli-fi’ novel was spent criticizing the inaction of humans during this current period. It was clear throughout the book that every component of our modern day society was problematic, which was why the catastrophe in 2093 came to be. Scientists had the knowledge, but “knowledge did not translate to power” and scientists were blamed for not actively trying to publicize their findings (2). Western governments refused to separate from their market fundamentalist beliefs. “The very science that had led to U.S. victory in World War II and dominance in the Cold War became the target of skepticism, scrutiny, and attack. (Science was also attacked in communist nations for the same basic reason—it came into conflict with political ideology) (43). Corporations and people both equated consumption with happiness, and refused to see sustainability as an important issue. Oreskes and Konway attacked all possible groups, most heavily western governments and corporations. Oreskes and Konway claimed that the government and corporations were at fault, and implicitly argued that it was those groups that must change their actions in order to make a real change. Yet, not one group had their sympathy, unlike Kolbert who was willing to recognize that at least environmentalists could make a change. In order to achieve their purpose, Oreskes and Konway exaggerated their bias to clearly say that action must be taken to change our current approach to the environment. By presenting one point of view, it gives the reader no doubt what they are trying to say, much unlike Kolbert’s book which allows room for interpretation.

            Moreover, the fact that The Collapse of Western Civilization blurred the lines between fiction and nonfiction was also effective in that it presented the speculations about the future as if they were fact. This made the consequences of our actions today that much more ominous, as it presented a realistic and believable possibility of our future. Because it was written much like a textbook, it seemed as if it was much more objective and there was less room for negotiation. Writing it as a novel would have taken the attention away from the main idea. However, because it also included fictional images about the future, it left enough hope for the readers to think that they could prevent all the catastrophes that would ensue if we were to continue exploiting the environment as we are today. This format was definitely effective for their point to be brought across.



jccohen's picture


You do a nice job here of laying out what Kolbert on the one hand and Oreskes & Conway on the other are doing to achieve their shared ends “causing the readers to think about the destructive relationship humans have with the environment and the consequences of our personal interactions with it.” 

A couple of considerations as you move forward to revise this essay:

First, are you equally interested in these two texts, in which case you’ll want to stay with a comparison/contrast format, or do you want to use one of the texts more briefly to provide a lens to more fully illuminate the other?  Right now it’s looking to me like you might be equally interested in both…

Secondly, what do you want the reader to take away from your essay, that is, how does this first draft guide you toward your claim?  And some questions in that vein:  Do either (or both) of these texts strike you as catalyzing greater understanding that could lead to some kind of action?  You make the point that Kolbert offers “contrasting points about what to do” whereas O & C are “more one-sided”; which of these approaches is more likely to be effective?

This point about O & C seems to me particularly insightful:  “because it also included fictional images about the future, it left enough hope for the readers to think that they could prevent all the catastrophes that would ensue if we were to continue exploiting the environment as we are today.”  One way to focus the essay would be to look at the question of where the two texts create space for hope (and change?) in the context of the very dire situation they describe…