Environmental Ethics

Volume 23, Issue 4, Winter 2001

Mick Smith
Pages 359-376

Environmental Anamnesis
Walter Benjamin and the Ethics of Extinction

Environmentalists often recount tales of recent extinctions in the form of an allegory of human moral failings. But such allegories install an instrumental relation to the past’s inhabitants, using them to carry moralistic messages. Taking the passenger pigeon as a case in point, I argue for a different, ethical relation to the past’s inhabitants that conserves something of the wonder and “strangeness of the Other.” What Walter Benjamin refers to as the “redemptive moment” sparks a recognition of the Other that allows us to engage in heartfelt mourning for them, rather than falling into the repetitive self-absorption characteristic of Freudian melancholy. This redemptive moment changes forever our relations to the world around us.