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Book Review: Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

[ 22 ] November 4, 2012 |

At the intersection of our hyperactive 24-hour news cycle media culture and the long-term effects of environmental inequality lies what the post-colonial literary scholar Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.” Nixon argues that the long-term cumulative effects of climate change, toxic dumping, deforestation, and other environmental catastrophes both escape the developed world’s short attention span (the slow violence that the developed world doesn’t think of as violence) and eventually lead to what he calls “the environmentalism of the poor.” That is a very different style of environmentalism than the wilderness and biodiversity environmentalism of the wealthy United States; these movements are about the poor defending themselves from the corporate and state environmental exploitation they face that steals their water, poisons their soil, and makes them sick.

Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (usefully summarized in this Chronicle piece) has multiple audiences. Nixon creates a Venn diagram of influences in his preface, placing himself where Edward Said, Rachel Carson, and Ramachandra Guha meet. His choices have a point–scholar-activists who transcended discipline and audience to speak to the world. Nixon is frustrated with how postcolonial studies (and literary studies more broadly) have retreated into a jargon-heavy cocoon of the academy, dooming itself to growing irrelevancy. Nixon wants to use textual analysis to make a difference in the world and to bring environmental literary studies and postcolonial studies together. He rightfully notes that literary environmentalism has too often taken on an American cast with an American conception of environmental problems while postcolonial studies has repeated the beliefs of postcolonial states that environmentalism is a colonial movement with the nefarious goal of preventing Africa, Asia, and Latin America from rising to world power.

As an environmental historian and not a literary scholar, I can’t speak to the literary criticism or Nixon’s critique of his field with any great insight. He uses a broad range of texts, focusing heavily on writers of the developing world such as Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jamaica Kincaid, and the towering Cities of Salt by Abdul Rahman Munif (reading about John Updike’s condescending critique of the book as not properly formal or within the Euro-American tradition was both amusing and eye-rolling at the same time). He also focuses on non-fictional texts, particularly from Wangari Maathai and Arundathi Roy, with the broader goal of elucidating the relationship between writers and social movements.

I can however offer my insights into the broader idea of slow violence, which I think is tremendously useful. Think about the Haiti earthquake in 2010. As Nixon wryly notes, slow violence doesn’t mesh with media and electoral cycles in the United States and Europe, so it drops out of sight quickly. Despite Anderson Cooper’s noble attempt to keep the story in the news cycle longer than such an event normal’s coverage, it has almost totally disappeared off our radar screens. Yet the people of Haiti still deal with the long-term implications of this every day. The Haiti earthquake isn’t a direct act of corporate or state violence, but like most natural disasters, the aftermath was created by social and economic inequalities developed over a long period of time. The long history of French slave colonialism, Euro-American isolation of the black republic after independence, and American interventions and support of dictators in the 20th century means that Haiti does not have the political, social, or economic resources to recover from catastrophic events.

Eventually, poor people often organize around the slow violence to their environments, health, and lives. Wangari Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement was a tremendous challenge to the Kenyan state of Daniel arap Moi. The Ogoni Rebellion that led to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution was a response to the Nigerian government-oil corporation alliance to exploit the Niger delta and allow the tribes who make that once fertile area home live with widespread pollution and violence every day. These are landscapes that Nixon notes are rendered disposable by capitalism; faraway and with no media attention paid to them, corporations can make alliances with corrupt local elites to trash a region and its people for short-term profits. If they do get called out in the United States or Europe, their public relations people can draw on talk about the resiliency of nature to undermine calls for regulations or to punish their behavior. Meanwhile, the slow violence continues, whether it is Indians in Bhopal still suffering from the aftermath of the Union Carbide disaster or Iraqis dying from depleted uranium exposure.

Nixon’s conception of slow violence has usefulness for our understanding of the past as well. Certainly capitalism viewed the forests of the Pacific Northwest as utterly disposable and wanted to leave local people to deal with the consequences, like it had done in Alabama and Maine and Minnesota. People like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot could respond to the very visible environmental damage done to the forests, but the lives of loggers were more hidden. Getting sick and dying from the industrialized landscape of the forests, loggers themselves were forgotten about, even by most regional reformers. The Pacific Northwest was a center of Progressive and socialist politics, yet it’s amazing how completely off the radar screen the region’s struggling itinerant labor force was to reformers, suffering from violence slow and distant enough even to fall out of the media cycle of a century ago. I am arguing in my book that loggers created their own environmentalism of the poor, to use Nixon’s term, between 1910 and 1950.

Nixon’s book is not only important reading within literary studies, but to anyone thinking about environmental justice and the relationship between the developed and developing world. Even leaving aside what I assume are quite valid critiques of his academic subdisciplines, Nixon helps to rethink both the role of the writer as activist and the relationship between the media cycle, violence over space and time, the corporate-state alliance, and environmental organizing among the world’s poor.

  • Gareth Wilson

    There’s a big potential conflict between the environmentalism of the poor and conventional environmentalism, isn’t there? The former is assuming that ecosystems should serve the needs of humans, whereas the latter says they have intrinsic value. So if it’s in the interests of poor Africans for every African animal bigger than a dog to go extinct, environmentalists of the poor would be out there with an elephant gun. If that’s too far-fetched, think of tigers in India.

    • First, I think we need to step back and ask ourselves to examine “conventional environmentalism.” What is that? Are we normalizing what environmentalism in the US has looked like in the last 30 years? I’d rather argue that there are multiple definitions of environmentalism out there that are reconcilable but which also each prioritize particular things, sometimes at the cost of others.

      In this particular case, I don’t think Nixon’s idea of an environmentalism of the poor is necessarily at odds with an environmentalism focused on biodiversity, precisely because capitalism is far more of a threat to biodiversity than the poor and the destruction of the Niger Delta by Royal Dutch Shell and others is far worse for biodiversity than almost anything else imaginable.

      Of course conflicts do exist, for instance with the colonialist game parks of Africa, but even those issues and questions are dominated by poor governance, colonial legacies, and endemic poverty that perhaps could be alleviated in other ways than the destruction of all African wildlife which would provide nothing more than short-term help for the poor anyway.

      • Gareth Wilson

        OK, let’s try an example from my country, New Zealand. We have National Parks, with vast and priceless biodiversity. But they’re uninhabited, used only for recreation by mostly middle-class people. You could burn them to the ground and actual poor New Zealanders wouldn’t notice. They generate a bit of income through tourism, but pulping the forests and turning them into dairy farms and mines would generate far more jobs and be far more helpful to poor people. If you want to get into specific policy, the National government had tentative plans to allow mining for tungsten and rare earth minerals in Mount Aspiring National Park. What’s the enivironmentalism of the poor argument against that?

        • There may not be any argument against it at all.

          The environmentalism of the poor actually means an environmental ethic. Clearcutting the forests for jobs would not suggest that.

          • Gareth Wilson

            Fair enough. But that means that EoP is only meaningful when the interests of poor people and the environment are aligned. There’s plenty of examples where they aren’t, and you have to choose between them. Even Nixon is implicitly arguing to spend less effort on environmental causes that don’t help human beings. This reminds me of Ben Elton, who said he was in favour of preserving the environment because he lived in it. But managing the global environment for the convenience of one Australian man could allow all kinds of environmental horrors.

        • Murc

          You could burn them to the ground and actual poor New Zealanders wouldn’t notice.

          Poor New Zealanders would sure as hell notice when they couldn’t suck in a breath without coughing and eating anything other than a kind of vegetable gruel was an unimaginable luxury.

          The planet needs a certain amount of untouched wilderness in order to make it, what’s the word, oh yeah, INHABITABLE. Pulping all the forests and turning them into dairy farms and mines would quickly turn this rock into something completely incapable of supporting human life.

          • Gareth Wilson

            You’re talking about oxygen produced through photosynthesis, right? Most of that comes from sea algae. You could sterilise the entire land surface of the Earth and humans wouldn’t have any trouble breathing. Now, pulping forests does have greenhouse gas implications, but you can offset that by growing forests where it’s uneconomic to farm. Or just dump iron powder in the ocean to encourage more algae. In the real world, only small areas of the New Zealand National Parks would ever be developed – most of the places that are economic to farm have already had the forest burnt down. So oxygen production and climate change wouldn’t be big issues, just biodiversity. There’s a post-apocalyptic book series by S. M. Stirling, where the rural main character comes across an American National Monument, and reflects that those places are always terrible for farming. Same idea.

            • cpinva

              source please, because that’s the very first time i’ve ever heard/read that claim made.

              You’re talking about oxygen produced through photosynthesis, right? Most of that comes from sea algae.

              • Gareth Wilson

                My mistake, it’s actually only half the oxygen. So sterilising the entire land would cause breathing problems. But that doesn’t mean we need any untouched wilderness at all. We need ecological services – oxygen production, carbon fixation, groundwater absorption for flood control, and so on. we use wilderness for that now, but there’s no reason why a more profitable land use couldn’t do the same thing. Plantation forests for timber produce oxygen and store carbon too.

            • Mea

              Agh. Your statement “Or just dump iron powder in the ocean to encourage more algae” is the gullible or trusting repetition of a falsehood pushed by an opportunist who is set on making money off of selling carbon credits. Credible scientists who have looked into the theory disproved its validity. The decomposition of dying algae more than equaled the CO2 offsets, if I am remembering the details of the original NY Times article correctly (came out several years ago) In my personal opinion, this American is looking to do his bogus money-raising ocean dumping “experiments” outside of the United States to avoid liability for violating the ocean dumping act.

              Quick google search for a link:


              Note the part that says:

              Canada’s Environmental Minister Peter Kent has denied the project was approved.

              The controversy is likely to grow, as the project may have broken two international moratoria on ocean fertilization, the United Nations’ convention on biological diversity and the London convention, which found large-scale experiments in ocean fertilization unjustified.

              George has attempted ocean-fertilization projects before, most notably in 2007, when his plan to dump iron near the Galapagos Islands drew fire from researchers and helped trigger the United Nations moratoria against such experiments.

              • giovanni da procida

                Agh. Your statement “Or just dump iron powder in the ocean to encourage more algae” is the gullible or trusting repetition of a falsehood pushed by an opportunist who is set on making money off of selling carbon credits. Credible scientists who have looked into the theory disproved its validity. The decomposition of dying algae more than equaled the CO2 offsets, if I am remembering the details of the original NY Times article correctly (came out several years ago)

                I don’t think saying his statement is gullible or trusting. I should note here that I am a graduate student in oceanography. This stuff isn’t what I work on, but it is related.

                Did you read the article you linked to? There is a link within that article to the results of a study by Smetacek et al. (2012) showing that under some conditions, iron fertilization can cause phytoplankton to sequester carbon.

                The theory behind it is simple: Phytoplankton in the ocean are responsible for about half of yearly oxygen production (Falkowski 1994). In many parts of the ocean, their growth is limited by iron, and the addition of iron can cause blooms which can then sequester carbon by sinking it into the deep ocean. Different open ocean experiments have shown varying results (google Ironex and Sofex ocean experiments for more details- the wikipedia page on iron fertilization seems like a good place to start).

                I don’t think that the decomposition of the dying algae could release more CO2 than they sequestered. Part of the carbon will go into the bacteria doing the decomposition, part will go into dissolved organic carbon, and the rest will go into CO2.

                The creation of anoxic zones in deep waters under the blooms is a concern.

                The fact that it may be possible to do it doesn’t mean that we should do it, or that we can do it on a large enough scale to combat climate change. And we certainly shouldn’t sanction the behavior of idiots like Russ George.

                • Mea

                  Thank you for your reply. I admit I was too quick to react. I am not an oceanographer, nor am I a scientist. What I have seen, in following the popular press is that every article I have read has Mr. George at its basis. Obviously, it makes me crazy.

                  And anoxic zones – THAT is what I was trying to remember.

                  I am going to go off and read the link you provided. Since you have a background in this, can I ask a basic question that you might be able to quickly answer: what effect on ocean acidification is possible from this type of experiment?

                • giovanni da procida

                  Hi Mea,

                  I can’t reply to you, so I’ll reply above you, and hopefully that will work. This is a quick reply- caveats apply!

                  The ocean acidification thing is driven by CO2, so more photosynthesis sends CO2 -> organic carbon, which will decrease acidification (because less CO2). However at the same time, bacterial respiration is going the other way, so oxygen and organic carbon are changing into CO2. In most of the open ocean photosynthesis (production) and respiration tend to be close to each other.

                  If (and again, this is a big if) these experiments are done and are successful on a large scale, the drawdown of CO2 could lead to less acidification (because less CO2 in the seawater leads to less acid formed) in the short term (although the co2 is then in the deep ocean and will come to the surface over hundreds to thousands of years), but then if we keep putting CO2 into the air, it will just keep going into the ocean.

                  So even if we were using iron fertilization to offset human CO2 release, it would probably balance out in terms of acidification, unless we were using it to take up even more CO2 than humans were producing- which would probably require additions of silicate and possibly other nutrients as well.

                  Again, Russ George is an opportunistic idiot, and we don’t understand these systems well enough to be doing this on an industrial scale.

        • Dave

          In global terms, there are no “poor” in NZ – nobody there lives a hand-to-mouth existence from subsistence agriculture, or is employed at a rate of cents-per-hour doing work too dirty or hazardous for a “developed” country to tolerate.

    • Zoltar the Magnificent

      While I’m not sure how well Jared Diamond’s Collapse has stood up factually, it does go through the problems that massive destruction of ecologies poses for people trying to live there–one of the contrasts he makes is between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Of course DR environmentalism was imposed from above by a sociopath.

      As for eating every animal in Africa larger than a dog (and why stop there?), that seems like a recipe for collapse–let’s get dependent on bush meat, then exterminate it. Hopefully if local people are not in a truly desperate situation they will realize this faster than we did in the PNW.

  • Incontinentia Buttocks

    When I first saw the title of this post, I misread its first and third words as imperatives ;-)

  • This looks like an interesting work, thanks for highlighting it

    • Mea


  • cpinva

    again, source please:

    or Iraqis dying from depleted uranium exposure.

    every so often, i read (usually from some very extreme venue) about the US supposedly using depleted uranium in either artillery/tank shells, or as plate armor on vehicles. however, and this is kind of a big however, if true, we should have expected the soldiers exposed to this to also have developed radiation-related illnesses. unless, of course, they’re all wearing lead-lined suits, which would seem, at the least, really uncomfortable in the desert. in other words, i’ve yet to see any actual evidence of this. not saying it isn’t true mind you, just a lack of tangible evidence supporting it.

    • It’s in the book. Check it out.

    • The wiki page on depleted uranium has a bunch of linked research.

      In any event the proposed vectors for disease rely on DU accumulation in the body and are much more problematic for exposed fetuses. It’s completely consistent for DU use to be a huge public health problem without being able to detect much effect in US soldiers.

  • Tom Waters

    I really love the Cities of salt books too.