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

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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.

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