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Hope: Good or bad?

Alexandra's picture

     In two contrasting approaches, Elizabeth Kolbert who wrote The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway who collectively wrote The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future, all write to warn humanity of its detrimental impact on the earth. The authors utilize different components to reach the same conclusion; society must change if it expects to survive.  

     In her novel, Kolbert tells of non-fiction, devastating events that have prevailed because of human impact on the environment"A group of biologists... had concluded that the golden frog was in grave danger. They decided to try to preserve a remnant population by removing a few dozen of each sex from the forest and raising them indoors. But whatever was killing the frogs was moving even faster than the biologists had feared. Before they could act on their plan, the wave hit (5). Throughout the novel, Kolbert tells of various species disappearing that contribute to the sixth extinction. In contrast, Oreskes and Conway detail the fall of western civilization with a sense of overwhelming fatalism through fictional events“As food shortages and disease outbreaks spread and sea level rose, these governments found themselves without the infrastructure and organizational ability to quarantine and relocate people” (83). Oreskes and Conway are careful to intertwine real, historical events with future, fictional occurrences, creating a credible storyline.  

     In addition to the non-fictional events that she describes, Kolbert writes her novel in a positive tone to share with society that there is still hope in saving the environment. "Does it have to end this way?… Isn't the whole point of trying to peer into the future so that, seeing dangers ahead, we can change course to avoid them?” (261). Kolbert wishes to inspire a change in society. "Wouldn't it 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” (263). Kolbert uses scientific evidence with a positive tone to ultimately declare that if humans are more mindful, we can save the earth. Whereas Oreskes' and Conway's storyline details the fall of civilization with an underlying negativity. "The most startling aspect of this story is just how much these people knew, and how unable they were to act upon what they knew. Knowledge did not translate into power.” (16). This futuristic, climate-fiction book recounts the end of civilization, indicating there was and is no hope.  

     In each of the texts, the blame of the environment's fall is accepted or shifted. While Kolbert accepts her responsibility for human mistake, Oreskes and Conway distance themselves from the collapsing society, shifting the blame away from themselves. Those of us alive today not only are witnessing one of the rarest events in life's history, we are also causing it (7). Kolbert employs diction such as "us" and "we" to show she wants society to work together to improve. “Maintaining the carbon-combustion complex was clearly in the self-interest of these groups, so they cloaked this fact behind a network of “think tanks” that issued challenges to scientific knowledge they found threatening” (64). Oreskes and Conway use diction such as "they". “And so the development that the neoliberals most dreaded—centralized government and loss of personal choice—was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place.” (80). Because of this distancing, Oreskes and Conway want readers to recognize their own mistakes. This forces the audience to feel responsible for the downfall of society in a powerful manner 

     Kolbert's novel and the Oreskes' and Conway's science fiction are quite opposite. With a positive tone and non-fictional events, Kolbert hopes her audience can alter the outcome of humanity and our Earth. The Collapse of Civilization leaves the reader unnerved with its harsh end to life and the stories of the ignorance of humanity.  

The question I pose is if people will feel more inclined to correct habits if a situation seems hopeless? 

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.



Jody, in this essay I focused on gathering evidence to further my claim in the next paper. I hope that with more time, and more discussion I can further analyze which approach of text would evoke more of a change from society.. Oseskes and Conway write in such a daunting manner, however, I feel that Kolbert would evoke a more positive response in regard to society acting in a way that benefits the environment..? These are just thoughts I am working through as I prepare for the final draft of this essay. 


jccohen's picture


I appreciate your note at the end about this draft as a space where you’re exploring the ways that these two texts take contrasting approaches to a shared goal, and I agree that a likely next step is to consider “which approach of text would evoke more of a change from society.”  It sounds like you’re leaning toward Kolbert, at least at the point of this writing.  If indeed you go with the claim that Kolbert’s approach  is more likely to engage people in a “more positive response in regard to society acting in a way that benefits the environment,” then you might want to set up the essay this way:  After an intro in which you lay out your subject/question and claim, you could briefly set the terms and then examine what O & C are doing, and then use this as a springboard to look at Kolbert’s work at greater length, using the same terms to provide a point of departure that will highlight Kolbert’s likely impact. 

You’ll need to help your readers see how predicting a sixth extinction occurring because of “human intervention” is potentially a more helpful way to frame the issues…  Right now a part of your essay that’s working very well in this regard is your contrast of O & C’s “they” with K’s “we.”