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Tag: "environment"

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.

Can We Execute Those Who Miss Their Tornado Touch Down Predictions by One Mile?

[ 54 ] October 22, 2012 |

Nothing is more likely to guarantee good science than sentencing those who allegedly missed an earthquake prediction to six years in prison.

Big Urban Farms

[ 32 ] October 22, 2012 |

The inevitable cycle of capitalism continues. Small businesses, designed to have tight community values and reject older ways of capitalism, become the next state of centralized big capitalist development. This time it is with once small urban farms that are growing increasingly larger and more centralized, spurring fears of big growers dominating the urban landscape, food sprawl, and social and environmental inequality.

In food, this is not unlike what happened with the organic label. What was once a rejection of an industrialized food system soon become dominated by huge companies like Cascadian Farms and lobbying groups looking to redefine the term in the interests of those companies.

I’m not entirely sure this is a bad thing per se. Local food is probably better than a worldwide food system. If we do want to solve the food problem, bigness has to be part of the equation. But that bigness comes with inherent environmental, planning, and equality problems. And thus, another movement will come along to challenge this latest manifestation of food capitalism.

Misreading Environmentalism

[ 24 ] October 12, 2012 |

Like Chris Bertram, I have to take exception to Alex Gourevitch’s characterization of the environmental movement as a bunch of Debbie Downers who dismiss the concerns of the developing world.

As someone whose professional work critiques the history of environmentalism’s interaction with working-class people, I read a lot of criticism of the movement. While I don’t disagree with it necessarily, I find that Gourevitch and others assume a lot of power by environmentalists to set an agenda, a power they don’t have.

Sure, helping the global South to “industrialize” might be a good idea. Gourevitch argues that it should be environmentalists’ top priority. That is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, he somehow assumes that environmentalists have this magical power that would make this happen. Second, he seem to assume that the powers that will make that happen, i.e., industrial capitalism, aren’t already making it happen and aren’t a big part of the reason why Guatemala and Honduras are underdeveloped. Third, he shows a surprising lapse of logic in understanding the costs of industrialization to both people and nature. That’s why I put “industrialize” in quotation marks above. Is Gourevitch really calling for industrialization? Wouldn’t a call to build a green economy while skipping the heavy industry side of an industrial revolution make a lot more sense from an environmentalist’s perspective?

I’d also like to see Gourevitch think a bit deeper on the skepticism of size that he says both environmentalists and Occupy share. Looking at James Scott’s Seeing Like a State, one can understand why big centralized projects might cause skepticism, especially when wrapped in calls to “dominate nature,” a term Gourevitch uses. You mean like turning German forests into monocultures that become disease-ridden simplified spaces? Like giving government agencies tremendous power to build dams, projects that rhetorically are about flood control and giving people better lives but in reality usually turn out to serve the industries of huge corporations and destroy ecosystems? Shouldn’t we be skeptical of this? I say this as someone who is actually a lot more comfortable with centralized control than a lot of people on the left today. But talking about dominating nature through big centralized projects is way problematic on a lot of levels.

I also think Gourevitch misreads the history of environmentalism. While one can certainly identify antihumanist strains in the movement, those get played up time and time again by those who also ignore how environmentalists have reshaped cities to be clean, healthy spaces; organized to stop industrial pollution, and focused a great deal of attention on public health. The reason, I think, that environmentalism has had a hard time connecting to the larger political discourse in the last 20 years is precisely that the movement has been too successful in that side of its mission. Environmentalism’s popularity in the 1960s and 1970s was multifaceted, but a lot of it had to do that the air people breathed made them sick, the rivers in their communities were full of gunk, and they could see industrial factories pollute every day. That is all a thing of the past, partially through legal victories and partially through the globalization of heavy industry as capitalists looked to move to places where they could continue to pollute and to exploit labor. These successes by environmentalism lead to the more difficult tasks–enforcing the Endangered Species Act in local communities, working with international agencies to force governments to act responsibility, talking about huge and somewhat abstract issues like climate change.

As for the crying wolf nature of environmentalism, it might not make good politics. People don’t want to hear that climate change is going to radically change life on earth. But so what. The problem with criticizing environmentalists for this is that climate change is indeed going to radically change life on earth, and almost entirely for the worse. There is virtually nothing within human existence that is sustainable over a long period of time and very little that is sustainable for the next century. We waste resources with abandon, poor farming practices slowly erode away the breadbaskets of the earth, we have a petroleum based economy with declining petroleum reserves, etc. All of these things are true. It may be against human nature to respond to apocalyptic calls, but when the apocalypse is upon us, what are environmentalists supposed to do? Not tell the truth?

Plus, Gourevitch, as he does when conveniently ignoring how industrialization actually works on the ground, also elides how elites create public opinion. He talks about environmentalist authoritarianism forcing science down our throats, turning people off, etc. Not only do I not think this is accurate, it also is not the reason environmentalists have had problems convincing people about climate change. That has to do with a vast right-wing corporate media machine propagandizing for polluters whose interests it is to see that no meaningful climate regulations are enacted. I don’t think you can critique environmentalism’s media message without first demonstrating how media coverage of this issue actually works.

White Nose

[ 1 ] September 24, 2012 |

Sometimes, it’s hard for me to write about environmental issues because it makes me want to cry. One example is white nose syndrome, a fungus that is devastating the bat population of the east and will quite possibly send every population of hibernating bats into extinction. But at least the Nature Conservancy is working with some universities to try and figure out what the heck is going on. That’s a sign of hope at least.

A Question for Creationists

[ 150 ] September 13, 2012 |

I have trouble understanding people who don’t believe in the theory of evolution. This is like not believing in gravity or climate change. Oh yeah, these people don’t believe in that either. Anyway, I was struck by the recently discovered lesula monkey in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. How can you see this and not believe that humans and monkeys are related?

Of course, they, and all the other species in the forest recently explored by scientists for the first time, will all probably be extinct in 20 years anyway. And then we can go back to denial! Monkeys, aren’t they like unicorns?

The Lost Species

[ 8 ] September 11, 2012 |

Take a look at some of the amazingly beautiful species we are driving to extinction. Pictures are all our descendants will have of these species.


[ 119 ] August 31, 2012 |

Kevin Drum’s piece about the Paul Ryan budget was illustrative not only of how horrible that granny starver is and how much of a professional con artist he is, but also of how the current generation of young(ish) Democrats see priorities. Here is an excerpt:

But it gets worse: He wants to cut all other spending—aside from Social Security and Medicare—by 70 percent. And even that understates things. He’s made it plain that he doesn’t want to see substantial cuts in the defense budget, which means that the domestic budget would probably have to go down to something like 1.5 percent of GDP. That’s a cut of 80 percent or so and it affects everything. It affects prisons, food assistance, education, the FBI, assistance to the needy, courts, child nutrition, drug abuse counseling, FEMA, rape prevention, autism programs, housing, border control, student loans, roads and bridges, Head Start, college scholarships, unemployment insurance, and job training. Everything. Most of these programs would simply disappear, and the ones that remained would be shriveled and nearly useless.

You all can talk about the horrible reality of Ryan’s budget in comments, but I found that list super interesting for what it did and did not include. It’s a pretty good run-down of what people value these days. Some traditional subjects–education, unemployment, etc. Some topics that have only recently galvanized our national interest–autism, FEMA. And then nothing on the environment. That’s what struck me. This list in 1970 or 1980 or 1990 would have likely had 3 or 4 environmental programs listed. EPA. Superfund. Clean Air and Water Act enforcement. Etc. Today, nothing. And that’s pretty indicative of how far the environmental agenda has fallen off the map for a lot of young progressives. Today, you have young people with environmental concerns even running away from the term. That’s both shocking and sad for the planet.

Note that I’m not trying to be unfair to Drum. Such a list could have been drawn up by any number of people and it wouldn’t have included environmental programs.

Unscalable Options Have Little Value

[ 65 ] August 22, 2012 |

I like Tom Philpott’s work at Mother Jones, but this piece connecting Americans’ disposable society and clothing with malnutrition around the world had one point that bothered me. I think in principle the article’s idea is a good one. Our clothing purchases have skyrocketed in the last 50 years, far faster than income growth. We throw away a lot of clothes (well actually I never throw away clothes, much to the chagrin of my wife) and don’t think twice about it. What is the environmental impact? A good question. Cotton grown in India and Africa for American clothing markets has a big impact. Philpott tries to connect that to malnutrition. It’s possible; certainly the world produces enough food to feed all people, especially given the gigantic amount of food that goes to waste. People who idealize globalization have a vision of a smooth running mechanism moving products from place to place so that you don’t have to grow your own food, but that doesn’t really work in the real world. Does growing cotton in Africa directly lead to malnutrition there? I don’t know. It likely plays a role but it’s probably not the whole story. This doesn’t even get into the other environmental negatives of clothing production for the western market such as the desertification of Mongolia to produce cheap cashmere.

Anyway, that’s all fine and good. Philpott goes on to suggest some options:

So what are your options for a guilt-free closet? Vintage and secondhand, of course, are good options, and some major retailers (Patagonia, Eileen Fisher) encourage customers to send back used clothes—then repurpose them or offer them for sale at a steep discount. If thrift stores aren’t your thing, many manufacturers (including H&M) now offer some products made from organic cotton, which requires fewer chemicals and a little less water. But most of it is grown in the same regions as conventional cotton—meaning the farmers still get a raw deal. By far, the most effective strategy is to give up the supermarket sweep approach to clothes shopping and instead buy a few durable pieces. As for me, I’ll be thinking twice next time I’m tempted to grab a cheapo item off the rack at a chain store. Come to think of it, I just might splurge on a spendy wool sweater I’ve been coveting. Considering how long it will last, it might not be so extravagant after all.

Again, the overall point here is good–the real answer is that we should buy less and keep what we have. But I have to say that the thrift store market argument drives me crazy. Not that there’s anything wrong with it in principle. But it’s completely unrealistic and unserious as a real option for most people because there’s just not enough clothes in them to feed the market and because to rush en masse to thrift stores would raise the prices beyond what people who actually rely on these clothes to survive could afford. Yet people who try to reject sweatshops, capitalism, unsustainable practices, and other problems in the modern world run this argument out as an example of how to do things differently time and time again. And it drives me crazy because it is so obviously not scalable.

Now I know that I am not fashionable in my leftism. I despise anarchism. I don’t think corporate campaigns are worth much. I am skeptical of online activism (though the tools obviously have value). I think consensus decision-making is a joke. I think the emphasis on individualism that drives our economic and social lives is great in some ways but also prioritizes individual action within social movements like Occupy over getting things done. I also think these kind of individual decisions to opt out of a system (in this case clothing capitalism) by making some kind of fashion statement (I buy used clothes! Look how fashionable and anti-capitalist I am!) are essentially meaningless. If solutions aren’t available to the masses, probably driven by grassroots campaigns but, importantly, implemented by governments, they probably aren’t really solutions.

To be fair, it’s not like I’m really accusing Philpott of being this way. That sentence of his was just a good launching point.

Food Waste

[ 25 ] August 22, 2012 |

The Natural Resources Defense Council has released a paper detailing the grotesque waste of food in the United States and suggesting common-sense plans to reduce this waste.

Food is simply too good to waste. Even the most sustainably farmed food does us no good if the food is never eaten. Getting food to our tables eats up 10 percent of the total U.S. energy budget, uses 50 percent of U.S. land, and swallows 80 percent of freshwater consumed in the United States. Yet, 40 percent of food in the United States today goes uneaten. That is more than 20 pounds of food per person every month. Not only does this mean that Americans are throwing out the equivalent of $165 billion each year, but also 25 percent of all freshwater and huge amounts of unnecessary chemicals, energy, and land. Moreover, almost all of that uneaten food ends up rotting in landfills where it accounts for almost 25 percent of U.S. methane emissions.

What’s particularly outrageous is that 50% of the seafood in the United States goes to waste. 50%!!!!! These are wild animals, the last wild animals we harvest commercially for food. Some of these species are in severe decline and are becoming endangered. Yet we treat this food so casually as to dump 1/2 of it in landfills. This is outrageous.

Of course, the national appetite for government-led environmental initiatives is now close to zero so I suppose nothing will get done.

Cleaning the Rivers

[ 17 ] August 14, 2012 |

A very good piece on the trickiness of Superfund attempts to clean up rivers. Is it better to clean up the toxic sludge at the bottom of rivers flowing through industrial sites, even though it could stir up those toxins in the short term? Or is better to risk those short-term problems in order to create healthy rivers in the centuries ahead? No easy answers, that’s for sure.

Republican Climate Policy

[ 10 ] August 13, 2012 |

I suppose that maybe this was a misspoken statement, but it certainly seems to fit with the rest of the Republican response to Obama to blame the national drought on the president. Not the response, the drought itself. And who doubts that a certain segment of American society believes the drought is God’s response to electing a black Islamofascist to the presidency?

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