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Scare or Comfort? *DRAFT*

Lavender_Gooms's picture

Elena Luedy

Professor Cohen




Scare or Comfort?

            Both The Collapse of Western Civilization and The Sixth Extinction warn their readers of what is to come if humans continue to taint the Earth as we have in the recent past and continue to today. Both authors mention past errors, however The Collapse of Western Civilization goes on to predict the future as a disaster, The Sixth Extinction offers a more hopeful outlook. Both books approach the readers with the hope that they will change their actions to reduce the ecological footprint they leave, however they do so in very different ways

            The Collapse of Western Civilization is referred to as Climate Fiction (Or Cli-Fi), a pioneer in the genre. The manner in which the story is presented is very academic; it almost reads as if it were a textbook written in a science fiction story. The book claims (?) to be written in the year 2093 in China during the Second (or Neocommunist) People’s Republic (Oreskes & Conway 69). Although a bit eerie to read of modern times as the past, it allows readers to recognize that the impact of one small thing today can lead to very drastic measures down the road. This is one way The Collapse of Western Civilization influences its readers to better the environment.      

The Collapse of Western Civilization, as it is written looking at the past, tells the readers how the current state of the globe got to be the way it is. For example the “Sea Level Rise Denial Bill” (Oreskes & Conway 13) is a comment on current government officials failing to acknowledge scientific evidence that points to humans contributing to global warming. Although this is not a bill that has actually been passed in the United States nor by any other countries, it is not a stretch to think such a bill could be passed. By providing the reader with this type of fiction, the threat the book offers as our future reality becomes quite daunting.

            On the converse, The Sixth Extinction takes on a very different style. Peppered with anecdotes from both Kolbert’s own life and stories from times gone by, Kolbert illustrates various methods of extinction. With this method of writing, readers can focus in on one particular method of extinction that they can help try to stop. For example, in ‘The Things with Feathers’ Kolbert gives us examples on how to preserve the species we have left. Not all people have to go to the extremes of giving a crow a hand job, however. (Kolbert 264) spins a tale that, while the message is the same as The Collapse of Western Civilization, ends up a bit more hopeful.

            In terms of calling people to action, Kolbert and Oreskes & Conway both use different approaches. Oreskes & Conway paint a picture of what our future has in store for us if we do not change our ways.  They do not claim to be spreading any message in particular, instead claiming “Books are like a message in a bottle. You hope someone will open it, read it, and get the message. Whatever that is,” (Oreskes & Conway 79). On the other hand, Kolbert lays out an action plan. She demonstrates the different ways our surroundings could go extinct as well as providing a story on how people are already saving the day.




Works Cited

Elizabeth Kolbert, Prologue, Chapters 1, 5 & 13, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Henry Holt, 2014. 1-22, 92-110, 259-269.

Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014. ix-52.


jccohen's picture


Interesting that you frame Kolbert as hopeful relative to Oreskes & Conway; I think Kolbert lays out some pretty dire scenarios…  You talk some about her tone being lighter; how else do you see her offering hope?  At the end you say she talks about “how people are saving the day,” but I’m seeing her ending as that upbeat - ?

You do a nice job of setting up a comparison and contrast between how these two texts approach the shared subject of how human beings can “change their actions to reduce the ecological footprint they leave.”  For your revision, the key question is: what is your emphasis, or what’s the most pressing point you want to make about how either or both of these texts accomplish that goal?  For example, you could start with Kolbert’s effort to communicate to readers the dangers in the context of hope, and use that as a lens on O & C’s effort to “scare” readers by their dire playing out of a worst case scenario.  Which text seems to you more effective in achieving its ends, and why?