By Anne Dance
This post is the first in a series responding to the first two sections of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.
The central argument in Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor—that there’s a long history of people and their homes being treated as disposable—is worth restating. It’s worth shouting from the rooftops.
Rob Nixon’s book shows how the invisible, destructive impacts of neoliberalism stretch across vast spatial and temporal scales. Within this history, profits are internalized and risks exacerbated as they are offloaded on poor communities. The repercussions of slow violence are less conspicuous than those of environmental problems like the Pacific Garbage Patch, but they are no less real, and all the more challenging because they have eluded effective policy making.
Contesting the idea that environmentalism is exclusively the cause célèbre of privileged activists in rich countries, Nixon discusses the long history of writers and ordinary people resisting slow violence and provides a solid introduction to key environmental justice case studies such as the 1984 Bhopal chemical explosion and concepts like biological citizenship (Nixon 45-67). Clear writing and careful engagement with relevant scholarship makes Slow Violence ideal for students and others seeking to understand environmental justice issues.
As discussed by Nixon, corporations’ appropriation of scientific ideas about nature’s resiliency especially resonates with research on land remediation (Nixon 21). Industry and government claims that the environment can heal itself ignore the longer environmental impacts of development and are symptomatic of a willfully ignorant appreciation of science. The argument also allows operators, regulators, and other actors to forgo any obligation to spend money or develop better regulations to clean up polluted sites. This is an ongoing problem around the world, as remediation activities are not keeping up with extraction (Worrall et al 1426-1434).
Slow Violence effectively contests the logic of numerous ethically, environmentally, and socially disastrous decisions, such as America’s ongoing use of imprecise cluster munitions in Afghanistan and Iraq (Nixon 199-232). “Scientific and imaginative testimony” can help make the impacts of these decisions visible (Nixon 14). So too can embedding environmental justice considerations and more comprehensive environmental assessments into existing policy regimes and foreign policy, drawing on precedents set by the US Executive Order #12898 and growing recognition of risk societies (Haalbom et al. 227-241).
Slow Violence is also a call to spend more time with literary efforts that stretch our understanding of temporal and spatial violence while evoking empathy without complacency, works that show how communities and individuals have lived with the ongoing legacies of this violence.
Anne Dance is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is funded by Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic and is studying mine remediation in the north.
Haalboom, Bethany, Susan J. Elliott, John Eyles and Henry Muggah. “The Risk Society at Work in the Sydney ‘Tar Ponds’.” Canadian Geographer 50, no. 2 (June 2006): 227–241.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Worrall, Rhys, David Neil, David Bremerton, and David Mulligan. “Towards a sustainability criteria and indicators framework for legacy mine land,” Journal of Cleaner Production 17 (2009): 1426-1434.