In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon joins eco-criticism and postcolonial studies to call our attention to forms of violence visited on the world’s most vulnerable populations at paces too slow to overcome the willful blindness of those benefiting from the runaway capitalism that’s most often at fault. The very environment is the medium for the infliction of much slow violence—climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills—and, as Nixon shows, its victims are pioneering new forms of environmental justice work in their resistance. We’ve seen some such activism in response to the destruction wrought by Typhoon Haiyan, so we invited Nixon to help us understand these moments when slow violence suddenly sprints.
Q: In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, you call for greater awareness of “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight,” so delayed and dispersed that it is usually not viewed as violence at all. Can you explain why climate change is so central to your conception of slow violence?
Climate change involves outsourcing violence on such a vast scale—temporal outsourcing and geographical outsourcing. It’s the ultimate form of incremental violence as it is shredding our planet’s life-sustaining envelope. Climate change can be mitigated only through a commitment—an ethical, political and imaginative commitment—to safeguarding people and other life forms that are remote from us in time and space. Such a commitment requires that we deeply value life thirty, fifty, one hundred, one thousand years from now. Countering slow violence requires reimagining responsibility over longer time frames.
As a sequel to Slow Violence, I have begun work on a book on the Anthropocene which raises the stakes of the planetary impacts of human actions, including but not restricted to climate change. The premise of the Anthropocene is by now familiar: that for the first time in Earth’s history a sentient species, Homo sapiens, has had a geomorphic impact. What does it mean to reimagine humanity as not merely a historical agent but a force powerful enough to transform the Earth’s very strata? How might asking that question reframe our understanding of human agency and human responsibility not only towards our own species, but toward the whole planet? If the advent of the Anthropocene involves layered forms of slow violence, climate change is a critical indicator of our alarming, often reckless morphological powers.
Q: We are becoming increasingly accustomed to extreme weather events like hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like, the intensity of which is widely understood to be a function of climate change. As with last week’s typhoon in the Philippines, the devastation wrought by these “natural disasters” is often so complete that affected areas are routinely likened to war zones. Is there a sense in which you see these events as episodes of acceleration in the course of slow violence? And does their increasing frequency require any reconsideration of the pace and invisibility that have for you characterized slow violence?
Yes. For so long people were characterizing the environmental crisis as five-minutes-to-midnight. You could find people saying that in the 1960s. But what if it’s 12.23am? In addition to scaling back our CO2 omissions and other deleterious impacts on the biosphere, we’re going to have to undertake large-scale adaptation. The crucial battle may well be the battle over the technologies and other resources whereby different communities—rich and poor—are given the chance to adapt to unrecognizable, often life-threatening conditions. I foresee more and more uprisings by the poor—in the North but particularly in the global South, by communities who feel abandoned to sacrifice zones, to the unprotected frontlines of climate chaos.
Q: For the vast majority of people in the West, exposure to events such as a typhoon in the Philippines or a monsoon in the Bay of Bengal comes via intense but brief coverage from media outlets with short attention spans. When the reporters move on, awareness of a disaster’s aftermath can quickly become as faint as that of, say, drought in Africa. What role, then, does the media play in perpetuating slow violence?
I’m teaching an interdisciplinary Faculty Development Seminar at the University of Wisconsin on the Anthropocene and this week we were talking about media coverage of Haiyan and other major climate calamities. Several folks remarked that while there is a general air of catastrophe fatigue—that in precarious times Americans can only take on so much gloom—the corporate media here are devoting less and less coverage to climate change. It’s all about the weather with very little big picture analysis. And so, storm by storm, drought by drought, wildfire by wildfire, flood by flood these increasingly frequent and increasingly extreme events are treated in isolation, whereas in the aggregate they could be used to occasion bold, ongoing coverage of the incremental, but profoundly consequential climate changes that are occurring.
However, we are fortunate to have so many alternative sources of environmental news that refuse to descend to the level of storm trackers, rubber necking present disasters without a care about the larger patterns, the science, or future implications. Grist, Common Dreams, The Nation, Truthout, George Monbiot in the Guardian, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Kolbert, Naomi Klein, Subhankar Banerjee’s ClimateStoryTellers.org, and TomDispatch among others are all indispensable alternatives to the fleeting, episodic sensationalism that has become the modus operandi of a corporate media that is largely in hock to the energy majors.
Q: In your book you highlight a number of writer-activists whose work reflects the environmentalism of the poor in the global South. Has the situation in the Philippines put you in mind of any particular author or passage?
The most powerful voices are sometimes those of writers, sometimes not. In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, someone whose testimony has gone viral is Naderev Saño, the lead negotiator for the Philippines at the Warsaw climate talks. He spoke this week while not knowing the fate of his family and relatives who are from the worst affected area. Here’s part of what he said:
I speak for my delegation, but I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm. I speak also for those who have been orphaned by the storm. I speak for the people now racing against time to save survivors and alleviate the suffering of the people affected. We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons become a way of life.
Super typhoons as a way of life. Saño’s appeal reminds me of native scholar Daniel Wildcat’s insistence that we need a “cultural climate change.” And the call by writer-activist Leanne Betasamosoke Simpson—who has been a leading force in Idle No More—for alternatives to the consumption-extraction mindset that has gotten us into this mess. Of course, the full impact of that mess is felt unevenly, felt most acutely in the Arctic, in Pacific island nations and the Sahel for instance, regions whose inhabitants have historically light carbon footprints.
This is not the first time that Saño’s heartfelt oratory has gone viral. Here he is eleven months ago at the Doha climate summit, appealing to the rich nations to take action, boldly and immediately. What I admire about him is his readiness—his desperate readiness—to crash right through the wall of bureaucratic language. He is not just another suit; he puts his whole body, his whole being, behind his words.
Saño’s 2012 appeal came after 16 typhoons had struck the Philippines in a single year, although none of them was as devastating as Typhoon Haiyan. He is now on hunger strike against catastrophic climate policy inaction.
Will the national leaders who can make a difference continue to sleep walk into the future? Walter Benjamin knew nothing about climate chaos, but he had an aphorism for every circumstance, even ones he hadn’t imagined:
“That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe.”
As Walter Benjamin didn’t say: we can keep kicking this can down the road until there is no more road.