AND THE ENVIRONMENTALISM OF THE POOR
Rob Nixon, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, 370 pp.
Reviewed by Daniel Grant (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The concept of the Anthropocene has gained recent traction in the environmental humanities to describe an age of humans as actors on a geologic scale. In much popular writing, the Anthropocene is framed as a disaster on a planetary scale. Radiation from the Fukushima nuclear meltdown winds up in the waters off the coast of California, and mega-dams built by multinational corporations displace thousands of local residents in the Narmada Valley of India. Disasters like these would seem to define this global epoch and expand the temporal and spatial horizons of what counts as the “environment.” But by conceiving of these disasters on global scales, we risk homogenizing the uneven human experience of their impacts, which too often fall on the shoulders of the poor and marginalized.
In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, literary scholar Rob Nixon defines this coupling of lingering aftermaths and uneven victimhood with the term “slow violence.” If we might expand the temporal and spatial bounds of what counts as the “environment” and by whom it is inhabited, he argues, so too must we expand how we conceive of the globe as a disaster zone, and how what happens “over there” and what happens “here” are more connected than we might realize. It is in this central revelation that this book’s power as a teaching tool lies.
To undergraduates whose exposure to global disaster zones has been limited to media portrayals of dramatic spectacles, disasters that are slow acting, invisible, and attritional remain largely abstract if not unknown. Nixon compels us to pay attention to these species of disasters over the course of eight chapters, each a stand-alone essay taking on a different form of slow violence and its effects on communities located largely in the Global South. Toxic leakage in Bhopal, remnant undetonated explosives after the Gulf War, or sea level rise in the Maldives are but a few manifestations of slow violence. The pervasive geographic scope of these examples animates broader theoretical arguments bridging environmental studies and postcolonial studies that each chapter takes on piecewise. Nixon devotes his concluding chapter to pondering the contributions each field might make for the other. We see how much more capacious the term “environment” can be if applied to landscapes more critically.
Left to a less imaginative scholar, the book could have been a litany of invisible tragedies, which would have been useful in their exposition alone. But Nixon is not defeatist, and takes his argument one step further. In a turn towards the literary, he attends to writer-activists in each chapter who source their stories in the ashes and rubble of the aftermath of disaster to draw attention to the politics of emplacement. These writers who are native to their damaged lands and thus attuned to their specific geography of suffering will likely be foreign to American students who are more familiar with the classic canon of American nature writing – authors like Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey are often some of the first who come to mind in this tradition. But Nixon focuses instead on writer-activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa and Jamaica Kincaid, thus expanding our conception of what counts as “nature writing” to include more diverse and vulnerable perspectives.
Students would benefit by considering the radically different kinds of landscapes each cadre of authors fears and envisions. Perhaps most striking is the difference between Thoreau’s or Abbey’s aspirations for unpeopled landscapes and Saro-Wiwa’s or Kincaid’s aspirations for peopled ones. It is in this turn towards the local representations of slow violence that the term “environment” becomes more expansive, interesting, and fraught. We as an audience become invested in the stakes of these stories of war, nuclear fallout, and sea level rise, for they happen somewhere to someone and yet too often sprawl unnoticed on undefined temporal and spatial horizons. For this reason, Nixon’s treatment of these writer-activists and the slow violence they represent might seem to serve more theoretical purposes than historical ones. Indeed, the power of the concept derives from its global applicability, so we are tempted to see dams as Dams, war as War, oil as Oil. But Nixon’s narratives also require that we notice the particular contours of each story and remember that slow violence acts differently across time and space.
If the Anthropocene challenges us to discern human connections behind global disasters, what moral obligation do we have to those we know exist but whose pains we cannot see? Slow violence summons us to critically engage what Nixon calls a “transnational ethics of place.” From a pedagogical perspective, the beauty of this term is its versatility. It just as easily applies to the American places from which students will likely be reading as to the international places that students will likely have imagined and critiqued but not inhabited. This term emphasizes emplacement in every corner of an interconnected world, and will be useful for any course that explores global citizenship. In this way, the redemption that we as the audience need – to avoid the despair of critique with nowhere to go – is balanced by the melancholy pathos of fragile human interdependency across oceans of water and political standing in the world.
The disaster may happen invisibly “over there,” and we may not be privy to the story of its slow and insidious workings over time, but we remain accountable: not only as complicit actors but also as witness bearers. Nixon compels us to care about what happens “over there” because we recognize our mutual emplacement in our respective landscapes and our mutual connections between them.
 Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 243.