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

You are here

An End?

calamityschild's picture

As I read “The Sixth Extinction” by Elizabeth Kolbert and “The Collapse of Civilization” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, I noticed that “The Sixth Extinction” had a more hopeful, optimistic tone than “The Collapse of Civilization” and furthermore, that the format contributed to the overall character of each book. Oreskes and Conway present a vision of Earth in regression, after it has suffered a host of injuries and crises. The depiction does not have the same sentimentality as Kolbert’s does, and because of this, “Collapse” has a more jarring and antiseptic sensibility to it. My impression was that Kolbert brought light to the environmental crisis with a biotic approach (heavily focused on its living organisms, the way the intrinsic fertility of the earth that gives rise to all things is being threatened), as opposed to Oreskes and Conway’s abiotic approach (focused on the inadequacy of 21st century thought and language, the shortcomings of political regimes, prevailing philosophies, and economic systems).

Kolbert’s perspective is developed after a series of anecdotes about ancient species that have been wiped off as the Earth cycles through periods of mass extinction and repopulation. The reader is transported to times and places before that “predate modernity,” to the age of graptolites and Paleolithic megafauna, and quickly to the recent past, wherein human activity begins to take its toll on the natural world (Kolbert, 266). As she walks the reader through her experiences around the world, a sense of awe for nature is conveyed. I would go so far as to say it feels mythological at times. This stylistic choice gives the Earth a fuller, more sensory narrative than “The Collapse of Civilization” does. In a way, I think it gives the Earth more dimension. It shows the Earth as being a mosaic of species, so saturated with life that mass extinction seems like a necessary interruption, a way of refreshing. 

Kolbert tries to explain “both sides: the excitement of what’s being learned as well as the horror of it” (Kolbert, 3). Her excitement is apparent as she writes, “Obviously, the fate of our own species concerns us the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed” (Kolbert, 268). I think Kolbert offers a grain of hope, though. In the last chapter of “The Sixth Extinction,” it becomes clear that humans will be responsible for the next global breakdown of species, but Kolbert’s summation of the crisis points towards a more lively future, although humans are not guaranteed to be a part of it. She suggests that the Earth will recover. She believes in “life long after everything people have written and painted and built has ground into dust and giant rats have--or have not--inherited the earth” (Kolbert, 269). Although the sixth mass extinction might erase all traces of human achievement, this version of the end of humanity is a more ambiguous one. Kolbert shows a fidelity to Earth’s geologic history, in which recovery is as natural as devastation, despite the intervention of humans.

This is different from the Earth that is described in “The Collapse of Civilization.” Oreskes and Conway have devised a post-apocalyptic account that points to human activity as being the underlying cause for the widespread devastation that affected the Earth in 2093. In this story, the “Great Collapse” has already occurred. Society has survived, though not without sustaining deep losses, and as it pieces together the fragments of society, it questions how things got so bad to begin with. The Earth is spoken of in terms of statistics and empirical measures, while the Great Collapse is attributed to the incompatibility of nature and market fundamentalism in the 21st century. The collapse is a result of the systems humans constructed, creating “power [that] did not reside in the hands of those who understood the climate system, but rather in political, economic, and social institutions that had a strong interest in maintaining the use of fossil fuels” (Oreskes and Conway, 36). Whereas Kolbert described past extinctions with a language that brought to mind ecological systems and phenomena, Oreskes and Conway are Throughout the book, the authors treat with great disbelief the inaction of humans to prevent the disaster that caused so much displacement and disruption. 

I would argue that the tragedy in “The Collapse of Civilization” is the failure of humanity to act accordingly when faced with a crisis, whereas the tragedy of “The Sixth Extinction” is the loss of diversity and life from the biosphere. The book is a criticism of human stupidity and human obedience to consumption/our attachment to such a flawed ideology as capitalism, not a eulogy of life as we know it, as in "The Sixth Extinction." Is it possible that Oreskes and Conway are offering a perspective that the loss of human progress is more depressing than the loss of forests and species (in the context of "The Collapse of Civilization," the environment)? Is it possible that Oreskes' book is more disturbing, more shocking to read, because we recognize ourselves in it in a way we do not with Kolbert's? Are Oreskes and Conway mourning Western civilization, while Kolbert mourns the natural cycle of life and each remarkable species that is lost because of human intervention?

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

Oreskes, Naomi. and Conway, Erik. The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. Print.



Anne Dalke's picture

calamityschild (writing this, addressing you, i realize i've never found out the origin of your user name; given your topic this week, i'm doubly curious!)

so! this is already a rich, fully developed comparison of a 'biotic' (more organic, sensory, multi-dimensional, mythological) approach, vs. an 'abiotic' (antiseptic) one, to climate disaster. it's an analysis that seems to 'wrap' oreskes/conway's critique of humancentric inadequacy within the larger, longer, less catastropic tale of geologic history, of  the unsurprisability of sudden, unpredictable change in a world of catastrophe alternating with continuity.

i'm struck by your juxtaposition of biotic w/ abiotic, which you make into an opposition (when abiotic processes, of course, underlie all biotic ones....).

the paper's very nicely done.

so: where/how can you grow it? it'll be fun to explore some possibilities during your conference this week....