Temporality and Waste: Slow Violence

By Arn Keeling
This is the concluding post to our series on Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

Amidst our speed-obsessed culture, it seems like slowness is finally getting its due. Whether in social movements for slow food and slow cities, or in scholarly preoccupations with practices like slow science or phenomena like “slow disasters,” not to mention the deep-time thinking surrounding the Anthropocene that puts time on a geological scale, there is an evident desire to downshift and refocus on duration and process, rather than simply instant and event. While not explicitly aligned with such trends, at the forefront of Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor are similar questions of time or, more accurately, temporality–the quality of time.

Nixon argues that the central representational challenge of environmental degradation is the characterization of impacts that are “incremental and accretive” and dispersed through time. He draws a contrast between slow-moving environmental impacts and more immediate and spectacular violence and displacements, suggesting that while the latter have typically attracted attention and even action or resistance, the gradual and delayed manifestation of the former have made it difficult to recognize as a form of violence or displacement. The goal of Nixon’s book is to explore how writer-activists, particularly in the developing world, have taken up this representational challenge through various literary and political interventions.

Graffiti artist Blu's mural in Grottaglie, Italy.

Graffiti artist Blu’s mural in Grottaglie, Italy.

The distribution of environmental damage in time as well as space is a key aspect of this problem, one not always recognized in the oft-invoked notion of pollution as “matter out of place.” As Kummerer notes, harm from pollutants is related to their appearance “in the wrong quantities, to the wrong place, at the wrong point in time, and for the wrong duration” (Kummerer 1996: 228). And the “wrongness” of such distributions extends not only to where certain people are exposed to environmental damage, but when and for how long. Similarly, Nixon contends, “we need to account for how the temporal dispersion of slow violence affects the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social afflictions” (3) as well as the “temporal distance between short-lived actions and long-lived consequences” (22).

One of Indra Sinha's  ad,  part of his long running campaign for justice for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy.

One of Indra Sinha’s ad, part of his long running campaign for justice for the victims of the Bhopal tragedy.

Nixon’s ruminations on time highlight the preponderance of spatial metaphors in temporal thinking: location, distance, dispersion, distribution; shallowness, depth; forward and backward (motion), and more. For Nixon, questions of distance and scale seem to be the main preoccupation. Slow violence, due to either of both of its delayed effects or duration, entails for Nixon the effect of distancing or estranging a spectator from the time between incident and effect, between perpetrator and victim. The representation challenge, then (nicely illustrated with reference to the author Indra Sinha’s writing about the unfolding Bhopal disaster), is to “induce a double gaze backward in time to loss and forward to yet unrealized threats”—to somehow at once contemplate the historical events and origins, then present unfoldings, and the uncertain future impacts of environmental degradation. While Nixon frames this in the context of his study as a literary challenge, it is worth highlighting the rich vocabulary and narrative strategies developed by environmental historians for the representation of intertwined socio-ecological processes, or perhaps reach further back to the Annales school’s effort to represent both of structure and conjuncture in their accounts of how human societies experience and understand the longue durée of environmental and social change.

Worth deeper consideration, too, is the mobilization of presumed temporal and spatial scales in Nixon’s account. Nixon characterizes the representational challenge of slow violence as one of scale, of overcoming “the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance…. The task of thinking on such a geographical scale—let along a temporal one—can seem overwhelming” (38). Lurking in the contrast between “spectacular” events and “slow” violence are assumptions about scales of time and space as inherent to the phenomena under consideration hat make some things seem natural while others do not. For me, these scales are more properly thought of as co-produced and multiple, and a more productive focus on temporalities might draw attention to how environmental degradation, whether through “slow disasters” like Bhopal or other forms of environmental displacement, actually produces the scalar effects attributed to it, whether in time or space (or perhaps, following May and Thrift, in timespace). Questions of duration (ir/regular, chronic, gradual) and pace (intermittent, rhythm, de/acceleration) are also illuminated by a relational view of temporality. Towards the end of Chapter 1, Nixon does acknowledge that “multiple temporal orders”  make up the human experience of place and environment; similarly, a richer notion of scale might be deployed to highlight the complex intersection (and co-production) of scalar effects of environmental degradation from the body to the biosphere. It would also help us point to the ways in which the temporal manifestations of environmental contamination may be at once fast and slow, at once accretive and ephemeral, and at once permanent and sporadic.

May, John, and Nigel Thrift (2003). Timespace: Geographies of temporality. London: Routledge.

Kummerer, Klaus (1996). The ecological impact of time. Time and Society 5(2): 209-235.


Arn Keeling is an Associate Professor of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and a member of the Waste, Environment, Science and Technology (WaSTE) working group. His research includes Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada, Toxic Legacies: Community perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine, and Northern Exposures: Science, Indigenous People and Northern Contaminants.