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Does it Really Affect Us?

purple's picture

Just like other organisms on the planet, we as humans are primarily concerned with our own survival. However, unlike other species, we are also very much concerned with our own advancement. Arguably, the most significant factor in whether or not we care about something is how much it actually affects us. With all the issues that take place in our world today it is difficult to follow every problem, much less actively involve ourselves in the issue. This is especially true when it comes to environment becuase many environmental problems are not immediately clear, and do not directly impact us as much as other worldly situations do. Both Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway are  environmental texts that take a stance on the impact of human life on the environment. The Collapse of Civilization: A View from the Future is a science-fiction text from the perspective of the future, past a point when current civilization has collapsed as a result of human destruction. Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction is a non-fiction piece explaining the mass extinction currently happening in the world as a result of human impact in comparison to other mass extinctions that have taken place in the past. Both texts agree that humans are negatively impacting the environment and both attempt to elicit a response about taking action to solve environmental issues.

 Kolbert's text includes interactions she had with scientists and others studying and working on preventing different species from reaching extinction. She documents some of the efforts taken to save these creatures including creating a "Frozen Zoo" where cells of different species are cultured and preserved in liquid nitrogen, and a hotel for frogs. The author acknowledges the destruction that humans have posed on the environment but focuses on the positive impact humans are having in working towards fixing the damage and preventing further damage. Through this positive lens, the author focuses on individuals and groups of people who are working tirelessly to prevent the extinction of many species. Kolbert says “Certainly humans can be destructive and shortsighted; they can also be forward thinking and altruistic” (Kolbert 261). This statement is a largely a generalization, as it only applies to a relatively small group of people. It is also a statement that makes humans out to be more altruistic than they really are.

In Sixth Extinction Kolbert intends to encourage people to focus lessening the negative effects of human involvement by showcasing the positive work that has been done, and the potential it has to continue. It certainley paints a hopeful image for the future, while also being mindful of the unsustainablitiy of the species-saving practices. The author calls for more initiative to be taken towards stopping a mass extinction by outlining the ways we can help. However, I think the positive tone of the piece elicits a reaction that is less emotional and more complacent. The hopeful attitude is what we as humans like to hear, but it is also what makes us less likely to involve ourselves in the issue. Every person has to decide where their priorities lie, and what specific issues, out of the many constantly in play, they want to involve themselves in. Kolbert's investigation and analysis presents a disturbing predicament that does not have a clear solution, but does seem to have many people working towards a solution. 

Unlike Kolbert, these Oreskes and Conway have a more negative tone towards today's environmental situation. The Collapse of Civilization takes a more macro focus, emphasizing the role of government, countries, and society as opposed to the large role that a few individuals are taking on. The futuristic narration criticizes the choices made by humans in present day and in the past that continue to spiral into more and more environmental damage.  The text directly challenging and criticizing the choices large organizations of people have made. In one such critique it says: "To the historian studying this tragic period of human history, the most astounding fact is that the victims knew what was happening and why" (Oreskes 35). By calling humans “victims” of the environmental crisis, the authors place humans directly in the line of action. This is a disturbing statement implying that not only are humans the perpetrators of the environmental crisis, they are so incapable of fixing the situation that they become the victims. 

The environmental crisis is a multi-faceted issue, but is most disconcerting to us when it is specifically referencing the effect on humans. Whereas Kolbert's text focuses on other species, The Collapse of Civilization focuses on the human race. The scope of humans on a macro level allows the authors to critique human behavior from many areas and show human demise as a result of the damage we have perpetuated in all aspects of life. The authors use historical and scientific evidence as backing for their futuristic claims. Many of the ideals we hold true and use in society today are torn apart and called into question. When talking about environmental concerns, most of the potential effects are things that have not happened, but might happen in the future. To see a perspective showing where our current actions are leading us has the ability to elicit a very emotional reaction. 

The emphasis of the positive impact of a select few individuals in Kolbert's book creates an image that fixing the damages of human induced environmental change is attainable. On the other hand, Oreskes and Conway create a more globally encompassing and negative perspective that explicitly explains how we are out of control in our attempts to solve the environmental crisis we have created. The negative tone in The Collapse of Civilization causes the reader to look critically into historical events and scientific data and re-evaluate our own lives. It is certainly disturbing and disconcerting to have modern science and modern society questioned, and this is what makes us more likely to take action to remedy the problems we have caused. While Sixth Extinction  is also somewhat disturbing, the positive focus is hopeful and makes us feel less like there is immediate action that needs to be taken by everyone in order to solve these problems. Though The Collapse of Civilization addresses the situation on a much larger scale, the fact that it focuses specifically on the human race sends a more urgent message for drastic change to be taken than Sixth Extinction does.


 Works Cited

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

You show us here that Kolbert's book has a historical focus-- it places the current extinction in the context of those from the past. In contrast, you say, Oreskes/Conway are futuristic-- they play forward the current crisis into the future. You claim that Kolbert's "hopeful" account of what folks are now doing to stop the extinction will actually make us "less likely to involve ourselves in the issue," while (in contrast) you think that Oreskes/Conway's "more negative" orientation makes it clear what we are "perpetrator-victims," "incapable of fixing the situation." (And so more likely to get involved? You've lost me here..)

You end by claiming that "the negative tone in The Collapse of Civilization causes the reader to look critically into historical events and scientific data and re-evaluate our own lives." But how can you say this? What do you know about readers' responses? Have you conducted a survey? Or just generalized from your own reactions?

Remember that you need to stick your neck out to make a claim for each of these papers--and/but that your claim needs to be defensible, i.e.: backed up with evidence. What evidence do you have, here, to back up the claim you are making?