Skip to Main Content

SD 3610- Issues in Environmental Sustainability: Home

Your Turn- In Class Activity

Your Assignment


EMBLEMATIC SPECIES NARRATIVE | a personal essay on the biodiversity crisis
Elizabeth Kolbert, in her Pulitzer Prize winning book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, uses
narrative rich, science-based communication to help the public understand the current biodiversity crisis.
In each chapter, Kolbert tells the story of a species that is in some way emblematic of (i.e., a “poster child”
for) the broader crisis. Her writing at times focuses on the very scientific and at times focuses on the
personal—her own personal experiences and responses to the biodiversity crisis as well as the
experiences and responses of scientists and conservationists whose work addresses threats to
biodiversity. Kolbert also implicitly, and at times explicitly, reminds us of the dynamic nature of life on the
planet over geologic time as well as the dynamic nature of science as an evolving consensus of experts.
Narrative rich, science-based communication like Kolbert’s can help promote a cultural shift in terms of
our understanding of our relationship with the environment and all of the “more than human” living
beings that we are inextricably connected with. For this assignment, you will practice this kind of
communication by writing a creative non-fiction essay (this genre’s mantra is "true stories, well told")
using Kolbert’s writing as a model. You will write about an emblematic species of your own choosing.
Select a species whose story is illuminating and can help us better understand the current biodiversity
crisis. Instructions for your essay follow:
 Choose your focal species. Start by identifying the key point(s) about the broader biodiversity
crisis that you want to make. Don’t just pick a species that you admire/love; choose one whose
story helps you best make a point that you feel the public needs to better understand in order to
understand the biodiversity crisis.
 Write a 1200-1500 word essay about your species in the style of Kolbert.
 Your audience is a general public audience; make your essay engaging and accessible. Avoid long
sentences and long paragraphs.
 Weave together science and narrative/personal elements to convey an understanding of your
chosen species and its plight. One way or another, make sure that you emphasize the broader
relevance of your species’ story. One clear way to do this is to identify the other species or kinds of
organisms whose story is represented by your focal species and write about them too.
 For the science thread, include at least one key concept that we have focused on this semester
(planetary boundaries, Anthropocene, keystone species, etc.). Consider using metaphor to explain
a scientific concept that may be foreign to your public audience.
 Pour your mind, your heart, and your own voice into writing this piece. Feel free to use personal
experience, philosophical reflection, humor, imagination about the future, and other
creative/narrative/personal elements to connect with readers and deepen their understanding.
 Choose a short title that doesn’t reference the name of the species, but rather communicates (or at
list hints at) the key message of your essay. See Kolbert’s chapter titles as examples.
 Sources: You must use and cite at least eight scientific sources, and at least five of your sources
must be peer-reviewed academic/scholarly journal articles. Look for relatively recent studies;
literature review articles are ideal sources as they synthesize a whole body of research in one
article. You may not cite website text, but you may cite reports published by credible
organizations that are available online. Do not use direct quotes from sources—paraphrase and
then attribute the idea/information by citing the source. Provide a list of your sources at the
bottom and use in-text citations throughout your essay. You may choose your citation style (APA,
Chicago Author-Date, CSE), but be consistent.

 Clearly connects species' story to the story of the broader biodiversity crisis _____ 20 pts
 Content meets other requirements; illuminates key concept(s) of the biodiversity crisis: _____ 50 pts
- provides clear scientific understanding of focal species and its plight
- includes at least one key concept we’ve learned this semester
- narrative/creative elements deepen understanding of focal species and its plight
- title communicates key message of essay
- style is engaging and accessible (appropriate for a public audience)
 Sources list meets requirements; consistent formatting _____ 20 pts
 Quality of writing: clear writing that flows logically and is free of errors _____ 10 pts
TOTAL _____ 100 pts

I will select the strongest student essays for one or both of the following opportunities for broader
exposure and impact:
1. Publication on my Emblems of the Anthropocene website, which features essays written by me and
previous students (see website snapshot below).
2. Inclusion in the Climate Stories Showcase on Instagram. The showcase is a project of the Climate
Stories Collaborative, a transdisciplinary learning community at Appalachian focused on growing
the capacity of both faculty and students to be more creative and compelling climate storytellers.
The Collaborative's previous Climate Stories Showcases have featured creative climate stories
works produced by hundreds of students in classes around the university (photos below).

Opinion pages of newspapers provide a forum for public discussion of current issues, including
issues of environment and sustainability. For this assignment, you will write an opinion editorial
and a letter-to-the-editor. We will discuss these pieces more in class.
An op-ed is a newspaper article that expresses the opinions of an expert writer who is not
affiliated with the newspaper's editorial board. These are different from editorials, which are
usually unsigned and written by the newspaper’s editorial staff or board members. An op-ed can
reach millions of readers, swaying hearts and changing minds. It can help reshape a public
debate and affect policy. Experts from non-profit organizations often submit op-eds on the issues
that their organizations are working on.
You will write an op-ed on a current environmental sustainability topic of your choice. Choose a
topic about which you have a strong opinion. We will explore this writing format more through
an in-class workshop, and you will need to bring a draft of your op-ed to that class session as part
of it will include peer review. Follow these instructions (and refer to this advice on "How to
Write an Op-Ed") as you write your op-ed:
 Sources: You must use at least 4 sources, at least 2 of which should be peer-reviewed
academic journal articles. Review articles are especially useful sources as they synthesize
large bodies of research related to a topic (you will do research for a weekly assignment
 Length: 500-750 words, broken up into several paragraphs (short paragraphs work best
when writing for a public audience)
 Begin by referring to the recent event or news story that makes your topic current.
 Express your opinion on the topic immediately (in the 1st or 2nd sentence). 
 Your tone should be that of a topical expert, but yet still accessible to a public audience.
Your readers will be more likely to accept your argument if you connect with them.  
 Use clear, powerful, direct language. 
 Make an evidence-based argument. Elaborate and support your opinion with facts and
 Also make a values-based argument. Appeal to readers’ hearts by connecting to what
readers care about. 
 Do not use direct quotes or parenthetical citations. Attribute facts/ideas by referring to
their source in your text (e.g., “According to the Environmental Protection Agency, …”)
 At the end, re-state your position and issue a call to action—ask both your readers and
our leaders to do something to address the problem.
 Title: Choose a strong title that clearly embodies the opinion you express in the piece.
 Read your op-ed out loud to make sure it makes sense and flows well.
 PROOFREAD—Your credibility suffers if you’ve made spelling and grammatical errors.

A letter-to-the editor (LTE) is a common format for everyday people to express their opinions on
current issues of public concern. You will write an LTE on a topic TBA. Here are some
guidelines for your LTE:

 200 words maximum, all one paragraph
 Refer to the recent news story to which you are responding (i.e., your partner’s op-ed).
 State your opinion boldly and immediately. Make one key point and support it well.
 Use facts and figures sparingly.
 Use your own voice (casual) and make it personal.
 Read your letter out loud to make sure it makes sense and flows well.
 PROOF READ! Your credibility suffers if you’ve made spelling and grammatical errors.
Examples of LTEs online:

Science Librarian