the angel of history

In Thompson’s “Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World”, Thompson lays out two conceptions of a new kind of environmental ethics. One he calls “virtues of transition”, and the other “virtues of the future”. Virtues of transition prepares one for living well through a period of radical transitions brought about by the ecological crisis. These virtues aim at opposing “despair and hopelessness” and urged everyone to fight on against ecological destruction and the injustices and sufferings that it brings (9). On the other hand, virtues of the future, are our newly developed virtues after the ecological crisis has been stopped that will allow us to deal with the wreckage that the crisis has left. For Thompson this involves an abandonment of the concept of nature and a requirement that human civilization itself takes responsibility for the continued survival of nature (12). Although I think the idea of responsibility for nature as a virtue is an interesting one, I oppose Thompson’s distinctions of the two virtues. This distinction put means and ends at odds. The means (virtues of transition) being backwards looking involves returning to nature it’s autonomy and undoing the consumptive habits of society while the ends (virtues of the future) involves taking the responsibility for caring for nature which is forward looking (9, 12). Thompson provides an apocalyptic vision of change where the future has to be rebuilt after the end of the world. However, this vision misunderstands the significance of the environmental justice movement. The struggle for environmental justice, if it is to be effective, must be a struggle for freedom. It must be a call for humanity to take responsibility for its own fate and its own decisions in the world. In other words, it must rely on “virtues of the future” and not simply “virtues of transition”. Thompson sees the inevitable suffering brought about by ecological degradation as tragic, but this is not true. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote: “thought which does decapacitate itself leads to transcendence and to the idea of a world constitution in which not only is present suffering abolished’, but even the suffering that lies in the past and is beyond recall might be revoked” (qtd. in Zuidervaart). In other words, it is the achievements of future which sets the context for the suffering of the past. The sufferings of the present and near future can only be tragic if we have failed our historic tasks. Since we have only begun to realized our historic mission, I suggest we wait a little longer before passing judgement.

1. Zuidervaart, Lambert, “Theodor W. Adorno”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<>.

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