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The Language of Information and Action

bothsidesnow's picture

In last week's draft I wrote a comparison list between Kolbert and Oreskes and Conway in terms of their writing styles and impact: /oneworld/changing-our-story-2015/kolbert-versus-oreskesconway-style-and-impact. This week, I took Anne's question of "are you interested in kolbert's 'up close and personal' approach, vs. what you call oreskes/conway's 'more distant' one? where might that distinction take you...?' and commented on the vocabulary and pronouns that the authors use to address their topics and their audience/humans. We had also talked about language in class when we discussed the "lexicon of archaic terms". I found that Van Jones' style of activism had similarities to the authors and lead into the next step beyond informing and speculating: communication and action. 

Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway The Collapse of Western Civilization, and Van Jones’ ideas expressed in “Greening the Ghetto” serve as warnings and calls for action, however their individual styles both vary and intersect. Kolbert is rooted in the present and past, much more so than Oreskes and Conway. Their use of fictional elements, new vocabulary, speculated events for the future, such as the Second Black Plague, is more ambitious yet also more abstract. They are looking at the longer term, not the short term fixes that are convenient right now. Van Jones’ plans for eco-activism focus on long-term solutions to fix those problems while providing accessibility through casual language but still presents broader, riskier possibilities. The language used when discussing environmental ideas contrasts Kolbert’s  style with Oreskes and Conway’s but Van Jones’ contains aspects of both to mobilize commentary and speculation into ambitious plans for action.

Vocabulary varies between the three texts from casual, direct words to complex, invented words. Kolbert mentions “background extinction" as being extinctions of small, individual species over millions of years. She later talks about forming a definition for anthropocene, which describes the current age that humans introduced. Paul Crutzen invented this term but Jan Zalasiewicz and members of stratigraphy committee of Geological Society of London discussed whether it was an accurate description of the current epoch. The first term Kolbert introduces is a clear combination of two common words but anthropocene is more complex. Using that term in comparison to her other, more common words shows the complexity that lies within these ecological problems. This fits well because Kolbert starts The Sixth Extinction with examples of extinction and writes in more abstract, larger ideas at the end of the text.

Anthropocene is the first word in “lexicon of archaic terms” at the end of Collapse, along with others that are defined and used often in the story. Some of the others like “human adaptive optimism” and “synthetic-failure paleoanalysis” are even more debatable than anthropocene. Using these terms suggest the seriousness and intricacy of the issues that humans face but also overwhelm them.

Van Jones breaks down his speech for the public, telling Kolbert “‘That was my street, you get to hear my elite rap later on.’” When he discusses his proposals to politicians and liberal groups, his vocabulary is not much more elaborate. However, it is effective, in getting Nancy Pelosi to say “Clean Energy Jobs Bill.” Jones is still taken seriously with his informality. This begs the question, is complexity required to talk about crucial issues?

Unlike the breadth of vocabulary, personal pronouns provide a small range of language however they still distinguish between the accessiblity to environmental ideas and action. Kolbert speaks in the first-person about her personal experience joining scientists in the field. She uses stories about extinct or nearly extinct species to show the severity of climate change, however uses “we” often to talk about the situation that humans are in in relation to the animals’. With this method, she sends a clear message about humans needing to ameliorate the problems they created. However, seen by the examples of the frogs and frozen zoos, the situation is perplexing and overwhelming.

The scenarios that Oreskes and Conway present are even more troubling than the real ones of Kolbert. They talk clearly about humanity, in a large scale and as if they are removed from the events happening. Sometimes they use “us” once and “we” a few times, indicating that they were part of the human race and message in their story also spoke to them. By speaking distantly, in third-person, Oreskes and Conway are able to write about fictional events that could seem exaggerated but also could be possible, if there is no serious intervention by governments and the masses.

Van Jones’ “greening the ghetto” idea and plans digs into the aforementioned action needed. In his interview, Jones tells Kolbert about his plans for bringing green jobs to poverty-stricken city youth. Her piece places the reader at some of his speeches to youth and politicians. In these speeches, he addresses the audience with “you.” “You” is direct; it asking and telling people what to do, not what “we” as a human race can do but can be done now and in the near future if the audience can be mobilized. Jones is one person talking personally to others but his influence can be infectious, and that is what he trying to do, to some environmental problems at the same time as larger social problems. Where Kolbert, Oreskes and Conway leave the readers with a sense of doom if there is no change, Jones has ambitious ideas directed at groups, destitute and powerful, rather than small fixes for the short term. Collapse presents the world as looking back from four hundred years into the future, showing that long-term alterations are necessary.

Jonathan Schnell said “‘Futurology has never been a very respectable field of inquiry,’” (qtd in Kolbert 259). The definition of futurology is “systematic forecasting of the future, especially from present trends in society” (Oxford Dictionary). Kolbert says “human ingenuity will outrun any disaster human ingenuity sets in motion" (268). Van Jones, with his urging for green jobs, has mobilized his hopeful ideas by talking to city works leaders, politicians, other environmental activists, and most importantly, the general public. Taking futurology, as presented in Collapse, and transforming it into a growing movement started by Jones can encourage more people to take risks with their own solutions and perhaps, we save ourselves. 

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. 2014. New York: Henry Holt and Co. Print.

Oreskes, Naomi and Conway, Erik M.The Collapse of Western Civilization2014. New York: Columbia University Press. 

Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Greening the Ghetto." The New Yorker. 12 January 2009. Online. 



Anne Dalke's picture

you've turned, this week, from the (unanswerable) question of which text is 'more effective' to developing an eco-semiotic analysis of the differences in pronoun usage:  Kolbert, you report, uses “we” often; in contrast, Oreskes and Conway talk, from a distance, about what "they" have done, as if they are removed from the events happening; while Jones addresses the audience with “you.”

I'm liking this fine-grained comparative analysis of pronoun usage. And/but I'm wondering where it leaves "them," "us," and "you." Are you celebrating Jones' pronouns over the others? Where does this analysis leaves bothsidesnow? Do you see yourself as part of "them," "us," or "you"....? Do you now find one pronoun more "effective" than the others? In what ways, and to what ends?

You also ask, along the way, whether "complexity is required to talk about crucial issues." Not sure I'm seeing, here, the answer to that query...