: Slow Violence And The Environmentalism Of The Poor

Slow Violence And The Environmentalism Of The Poor

Daniel Reynolds

slow violence and environmentalism of the poor nixonRob Nixon; Harvard University Press, 2013; 280pp; $65.00 (paperback)

At first glance, the title to Rob Nixon’s latest book may baffle casual window shoppers; ‘what has violence to do with environmentalism?’ one could quite reasonably ask. Yet this popular tendency to treat the two concepts as worlds apart is precisely what Nixon seeks to address, and he does so with great vigour and persuasive force.

The central premise of the text is best put in the author’s own words. In his opening chapter, Nixon laments that:

Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different a kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales.

Though this proposition will have an immediate resonance to most subscribers of contemporary social discourses, Nixon wastes no time in proving its utility and applicability to a far broader range of contexts than first expected, with varying degrees of success. To call Slow Violence a ‘grand narrative’ would be, if anything, a conservative description: megadams, tourism, development, the global economy, bureaucracy, petro-despots, transnationalism, minority rights, corporate social responsibility, and legal structures all come under the firing line. Sceptics might retort that the book attempts to do too much — and indeed at times the reader feels a sense of inertia as Nixon veers from topic to topic — yet he does so with such lyrical finesse that you often can’t help but be charmed by the sheer poetry of this sweeping manifesto.


Where Slow Violence is most successful is in its insistence that writers and activists must strive to ‘amplify the media-marginalised causes of the environmentally dispossessed’. Nixon’s enemy is not so much climate change scepticism or denial, but rather the short attention spans perpetuated by a spectacle-driven corporate media. Thus the book is relentlessly expansive: Nigeria’s oil history is no longer a whirlwind tale of Western corporate pillaging, but rather a far-reaching epic where deregulation, disingenuous narratives of progress, forceful intimidation, constitutional failings and tokenistic compensation have converged and combined to bring about the total dispossession and alienation of the powerless locals. The Vietnam War is no longer merely a regrettable scene in America’s foreign policy history, but an ongoing epidemic where millions of Vietnamese today continue to suffer the after-effects of Agent Orange, their blood streams containing 135 times the medically acceptable levels of dioxin. And on it goes with the modern-day plight of Ukrainian Chernobyl victims, the sinking future of the Maldives, the lethal levels of radioactivity and unexploded cluster submunitions still proliferating in Iraq, the developmental refugees of India’s megadams, and dozens more.

For the most part, Nixon is also compelling when he advocates for an overhaul of traditional North-South power imbalances, where the cultural authority of poor non-White non-urban writers is discounted in favour of more conventional stereotypes of what constitutes a literary heavyweight. Why is it, he asks, that in a 1995 New York Times shortlist of prominent newcomers writing about environmental humanities, that 25 out of 25 of the authors on that list were American? Environmentalism cannot and must not be a luxury indulgence for the world’s wealthy, and in that vein, Nixon continually features the work of a growing base of powerful Southern activists: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Indra Sinha, Abdelrahman Munif, and Wangari Maathai are but a few of his sources of inspiration. Notwithstanding the undoubtable validity of that point, Nixon does tend to deliver his arguments on literary representation in overly technical language, which — though no doubt quite natural to him as an English professor — can tend to have a distancing effect on the less initiated of his readership. By way of example, a few readings may be required to fully comprehend how ‘postcolonialism can help diversify our thinking beyond the dominant paradigms of wilderness and Jeffersonian agrarianism in ways that render ecocriticism more accommodating of what I call a transnational ethics of place’.

This leaves us with the issue of law. Nixon’s approach to legal thinking is at least ambivalent, and at most schizophrenic. On one hand, he deplores transnational corporations for using legalistic arguments to shirk responsibility for their actions. He laments that today’s international legal system was birthed in a context where emergent nation-states remained saddled with colonial resource treaties all while revelling in their newfound ‘independence’. Business mergers are an unspeakable act of ‘corporate necromancy’ used to disappear potential defendants in claims for damages. On the other hand — though perhaps less frequently — he sees a glimmer of hope in constitutionally entrenched minority rights, regulatory systems that protect the vulnerable, international humanitarian law treaties that acknowledge the indiscriminate effects of landmines, and statutes that endow municipal courts with universal jurisdiction to try crimes against humanity.

But this inconsistency — rather than undermining Nixon’s authority on legal matters — is for the large part well-defended throughout the book. Slow Violence tends to demonstrate quite well that the real ambivalence here is not in the author’s apprehensions, but rather the law’s own inherent contradictions as a tool for both the possessors and the dispossessed, for assailants and victims, for shirkers and claimants, and so on. For these reasons I commend the book at least as a catalyst to begin questioning assumptions, and at its highest, as a comprehensive critique of a prevailing myopic worldview that limits violence to purely spectacular acts at the expense of a multitude of its more insidious expressions.

DANIEL REYNOLDS is a 6th year B Inst/LLB student from UNSW.

(2013) 38(2) AltLJ 134
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