All posts by nguyeho2

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 =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/adorno/>.

REDEEMING the revolution

The Storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution

In Kathryn Yusoff’s book A Billion Black Anthropocene or None, the author seeks to critique and work through the categories of geology to show the way it hides and naturalizes the exploitation and oppression of black and brown folks around the world. Throughout this critique, Yusoff makes a variety of claims about modern liberalism. Two of which I take issue with. The first is her view of private property. Yusoff associates private property with the “inhuman” and with geology. This is because “geology is often assumed to be without subject (thinglike and inert)” (Yusoff 19). Furthermore, Yusoff often describes the acquisition of property as an “extractive” process that “enacts colonialism” (20). However, when one examines the views of the classical liberal philosophers a different vision of private property emerges. According to John Locke for instance, a man’s private property comes from the fact that “the labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own” (Locke 11). Thus, property is not merely something that is inert that one extracts out of the ground. It is not inhuman; it is an extension of the human. It is an extension of the individual since all private property contain a piece of their labor in it, in other words, a piece of themselves. Yusoff’s description might apply to the way private property functions in the 21st century, but she is wrong to attribute this to the liberal tradition. Underlying this mistake is Yusoff’s approach to critiquing modern liberalism, mainly through a rejection of liberalism. On the one hand, Yusoff wants to go “beyond liberal individuation”, but on the other hand, all of Yusoff’s critique rely on pointing out the hypocrisy of liberalism, reinforcing liberal values. To truly go beyond liberalism requires not a rejection of the liberal tradition but a redemption of its revolutionary potential. It will require the completion of the work started by the liberal tradition. As Karl Marx once wrote “our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past […] it will becomes plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work” (Marx par. 11).

  1. Locke, John. “CHAP. V. Of Property.” Second Treatise of Civil Government, https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/politics/locke/ch05.htm.
  2. Marx, Karl. “Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge.” Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm.

The Original Sin

The fall of man from the garden of Eden

Although Lynn White Jr. and Pope Francis might at first appear as opposing poles in the ecological debate, closer examination reveals them to be merely two sides of the same coin. Underlying their attack and defense of Christianity is the conviction that our modern ecological crisis has been brought about by the dangerous belief in man’s dominance over nature. For White this original sin was found in the heart of Christianity itself, with the story of creation and the idea that “God planned all of this [nature] for man’s rule” (White 4). On the other hand, Pope Francis, being the head of the Catholic church, trace the idea to our alienation from God. In his book, Pope Francis wrote“the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (Francis 48).This raises an interesting question. Christianity has been around for thousands of years and humanity’s alienation from God, according to the Christian tradition, have been present since the dawn humanity. Why has the ecological crisis only now appeared? It is true that instances of human caused environmental damage have been around for a long time, but the scale and rapidity of environmental degradation did not exist until the Industrial Revolution. After all, it was this degradation that led to the rise of Romanticism in Europe in the early 19th century (“Romanticism” par.1). Both Francis and White miss what is historically specific about the modern ecological crisis. Another problem with both their approach is their hostility to human freedom. For White it was the use of a new type of plow in the 7th century by northern Europeans that turned distribution of land from one based on need to one based on “the capacity of a power machine to till the earth” (White 4). White appear to suggest that the move away from subsistence farming was a mistake. What he forgets is that this move allowed for the production of surplus and enables human culture and freedom. For the first time, humans no longer have to be solely occupied with the production of food freeing ourselves to develop other capacities. This is what separates us from other animals. Francis pays closer attention to the question of freedom, but he falls into a similar trap as well. In saying that “the earth was here before us and it has been given to us”, Francis reduce the role of humans to that of a housekeeper in God’s mansion. The earth is no longer a place where we can freely develop our human capacities. What all these problems in Francis and White’s arguments amount to is their misunderstanding of the problem. What’s important about the ecological crisis is that it was caused by human actions and that it threatens our free development. In other words, the ecological crisis is not a crisis of nature. It is a crisis of human society.

1. “Romanticism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism.