The Varieties of Environmental Violence

By Subhankar BanerjeeNovember 22, 2013

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon

EQUIPPED WITH a homeopathic vial filled with critiques of neoliberal globalization and militarism, and a literary guide who is determined to make distant sights visible through narrative, you’ll embark on a bullock cart for a transitional safari through the global South — the Caribbean, Kenya and Nigeria, India, Indonesia and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and South Africa — with Rob Nixon via his latest book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. When you return home, after a slow, rough ride, having survived the media’s acid rain, your understanding of what environmentalism is today will surely be broader.

Nixon coins the term “slow violence” by thinking through two concepts: visibility and time. Large-scale environmental violence in recent years (deadly floods in India, Australia, and Pakistan; catastrophic hurricanes across the Eastern Seaboard of the United States; devastating wildfires in the Russian taiga and the southwestern US desert) are visible. Slow violence, however, as Nixon points out, occurs “out of sight.” He also works with two concepts of time: strictly temporal (slow or fast) and aesthetic (spectacular or unspectacular). Slow violence occurs, needless to say, “gradually”; the “insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular and unspectacular time,” he writes.

In the preface, Nixon pays respect to three towering literary figures: Rachel Carson, Ramachandra Guha, and Edward Said. The roles of the first two are relatively easy to grasp because their writings profoundly changed our understanding of environmentalism. But why Said, who never wrote anything about the environment? This will become clear later.

In her book Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson used such words as “sudden” and “swift” when describing the horror brought about by industrial toxins:

This sudden silencing of the songs of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed by those whose communities are as yet unaffected.

In Carson’s footsteps, Nixon uses “out of sight” and “insidious,” in referring to the “protracted” casualties inflicted by DDT, which helped Nixon realize the slow nature of environmental violence. In conjoining the two words, he admits that they are “oxymoronic.”

Similarly, “environmentalism” and “the poor” tend to pull away from each other. How could the poor (afford to) be environmentalists? In 1994, sociologist Ramachandra Guha presented the paper “The Environmentalism of the Poor” at a conference in Ecuador. In his book Environmentalism: A Global History (2000) he referred to the phrase as “a convenient umbrella term that I shall use for these varied forms [“struggles against environmental degradation” and “struggles for environmental renewal”] of social action [in the global South].” A few years later, Juan Martinez-Alier published The Environmentalism of the Poor: A Study of Ecological Conflicts and Valuation (2003), and eight years later the phrase shows up in the title of Nixon’s book. More than these other books, Nixon relates the concept to foreign policy of the global North.

Thus Slow Violence begins with the proposal made by Lawrence Summers, then president of the World Bank, “to export rich-nation garbage, toxic waste, and heavily polluting industries to Africa.” Summers might have thought this would be appealing to the environmentalists in the United States and Europe, who, in the aftermath of Carson’s Silent Spring, “were campaigning against garbage dumps and industrial effluent that they condemned as health threats and found aesthetically offensive.” Summers’s violent proposal cleverly evaded standard imperial strategies — that of invading a country by using bombs and drones. Instead, it advocated “invading countries with mass forms of slow-motion toxicity.”


One of the great strengths of Slow Violence is the way it reframes some familiar topics. For example, war casualties are not normally a topic for discussion in environmental studies, and yet Nixon makes it one. At the beginning of an eye-opening chapter, “Ecologies of the Aftermath,” Nixon poses the question, “What is a war casualty?” And then he goes on to expose “war’s hidden human and environmental costs,” with major implications on our thinking about how “contemporary war kills.”

It is at this juncture that Nixon links photography to war. A war casualty “asserts itself less through argument than through visceral photographs: a torso shredded by a roadside bomb,” he writes. “Yet such images account only for immediate, visually arresting fatalities.” Of course, he is not the first to do this. Susan Sontag had observed, in Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), “bypassing disputes about exactly how many were killed […] the photograph gives the indelible sample.” While Sontag dwelled on the finitude, however, Nixon opens the subject up toward the incalculable:

After official victory has been declared, how do we track the persistence of unofficial hostilities in the cellular domain, the untidy, attritional lethality that moves through the tissue, blood, and bones of combatants and noncombatants alike, moving through as well the living body of the land itself?

Nixon contrasts the “official victory” with the “persistence of unofficial hostilities” by critiquing Michael Kelly’s Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War (1993) and following the tragic story of an army nurse. In March 1991, Sergeant First Class Carol Picou, a US combat support nurse, had set up a field hospital alongside the Highway of Death that “stretches north from Kuwait City through the border town of Safwan and from there on to Basra, Iraq’s primary port.” There, having entered incinerated tanks, she was exposed to depleted uranium. She didn’t know anything about the substance’s toxic effects, as the Gulf War was the first conflict in which depleted uranium was used. Kelly traveled the same road, during the same week, but saw everything with different eyes. Nixon writes that where Kelly’s “small war” ends, Picou's protracted story “of her own disintegrating organs and crumbling bones” begins.

The US and coalition forces had used large quantities of depleted uranium in Iraq — in the 1991 Gulf War, and again in the 2003 Iraq War. While the euphemism “depleted” was used to play down the impact of this deadly toxin, in reality, depleted uranium has a radioactive half-life of 4.51 billion years. That’s why Nixon connects depleted uranium with war casualty:

Who is counting the staggered deaths that civilians and soldiers suffer from depleted uranium ingested or blown across the desert? […] Who is counting the victims of genetic deterioration — the stillborn, malformed infants conceived by parents whose DNA has been scrambled by war’s toxins?

When slow violence is taking place, it is difficult, in most cases, to see anything of immediate significance. Yet along a long, open arc, if we pause, we can glimpse into what slow violence really looks like. In March 2013, journalist Dahr Jamail showed pictures of babies from Fallujah, Iraq: babies with two heads, with half of their internal organs outside of their bodies, and cyclops babies with one eye. Jamail reported that the “amount of congenital malformations in Fallujah is 14 times greater than the same rate measured in the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings.” Such examples make Nixon’s account more urgent than ever.

Nixon talks insightfully of the “softening of euphemisms,” which have been deployed to sell, justify, and perpetuate wars in the 21st century: “precision” (“precision warfare”), “surgical” (“surgical strikes”), “smart” (“smart wars”), “depleted” (“depleted uranium”), “miracle” (“miracle drones”), “cluster” (“cluster bombs”). He explores in detail the two most prominent “regiments of euphemisms”: cluster bombs and depleted uranium. In 1997, Princess Diana’s walk through the Angolan minefields attracted much attention and resulted in the Ottawa Landmine Treaty (banning further production and use of landmines), signed by 150 nations. Yet, cluster bombs have replaced landmines. When a cluster bomb is released, it is no longer a “cluster” but as many as “63,600 potentially lethal pieces driven outward by the blast wave at ballistic speed,” many of which do not detonate and kill years later.


Slow Violence is an important contribution to the growing field of ecocriticism. Nixon first acknowledges the strong link that now exists between long-established environmental history and ecocriticism, and then points out the need to build a bridge between environmental studies and social sciences. He makes efforts to strengthen these links and, a literary scholar himself, warns that literary studies mustn’t get “uncoupled from worldly concerns.” In doing so he engages with a body of texts by a select group of “combative writers.”

According to Nixon, the writer-activists’ “narrative imaginations” can help us visualize slow violence. Yet he is concerned with much more than just “seeing.” “Apprehension” is a better term, because it encapsulates “perception, emotion, and action.” These three elements of apprehension come together in his discussion of the work (the posthumous detention diary A Month and a Day) and life of Ogoni writer-activist Ken Saro-Wiwa:

It is his pipe that governs the picture [Saro-Wiwa’s portrait on the cover of A Month and a Day]. It is an intellectual’s accessory, a good pipe to suck and clench, to spew from and lecture with. Saro-Wiwa had expected tobacco to kill him […]. In the end, it was the other pipes that got him, the Shell and Chevron pipes that poured poison into the land, streams, and bodies of Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni people, provoking him to take up the life of protest that was to be his triumph and his undoing.

In 1958, when the first tanker carrying Nigerian crude left Port Harcourt for the Shell refinery in England, Saro-Wiwa was 17. He went on to become a prolific writer. Shell and other oil companies, in partnership with the Nigerian government, meanwhile, went on to plunder and ravage the Ogoni homeland. After one of his own sons died in 1992, Saro-Wiwa devoted himself entirely to the Ogoni people’s struggle against petro-imperialism.

Four decades of oil extraction from the Niger Delta has resulted in $600 billion of revenue. Yet some 90 million Nigerians (64 percent of the population) have received little benefit — they survive on less than a dollar a day. The situation is worse for the Ogoni and the delta’s 40 other micro-minority communities. Their environment (air, water, and land) has become severely poisoned by natural gas burning and oil spills. In addition to the deaths caused by the oil companies, in 1993, after an anti-Shell rally, the Nigerian regime razed 27 villages, killing 2,000 Ogoni people and displacing 80,000 others. Nixon points out that 80 percent of Nigeria’s government’s income comes from oil, and consequently “Nigerian oil (of which the United States buys 40 percent) has readily become a precondition of and a byword for militarization.”

The Ogoni comprise only about 0.4 percent of the Nigerian population (half a million in a country of 140 million people), and they lack any political influence. Yet Saro-Wiwa had a deep conviction that “written testimony, backed by activism, could make a difference.” So he kept writing. Initially, Greenpeace and Amnesty International ignored his appeal. But as his Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) gathered momentum, several NGOs, including Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch/Africa, and International Pen started supporting his cause. In the end, however, this didn’t help Ken Saro-Wiwa: on 10 November 1995 the Abacha regime hanged him along with eight other MOSOP activists in Port Harcourt on trumped-up charges of murder. The incident prompted international outrage against Abacha and Shell. While there have been several prominent writers from Nigeria, including Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, Nixon points out that Ken Saro-Wiwa was “the first African writer to articulate the literature of commitment in expressly environmental terms.”

Nixon further broadens the scope of ecocriticism by bringing postcolonial studies to the table. He points out that from a postcolonial perspective, “the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices.” We thus come to understand why Nixon drew inspiration from Edward Said for writing Slow Violence. While scholars in other disciplines have written extensively on “resource wars” (Michael Klare) and “resource rebels” (Al Gedicks), Nixon’s Slow Violence is the first book in environmental literary studies to explore the connection between natural resource extraction and petro-imperialism.

Nixon discusses Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, a quintet of novels. Unlike Saro-Wiwa, Munif had moved away from “organized resistance” and wrote instead “in defense of socioenvironmental memory.” Cities of Salt spans more than a century and gives vivid description of the pre-petro eco-cultural richness of the Persian Gulf, and then exposes ecological devastation and the cruelties of American and British economic imperialism, coupled with Saudi despotism. In Nixon’s reading, Munif exposed

the ways American and British petroleum powers — whether in competition or collaboration, whether backed by the CIA or MI6 or both — cynically fomented and funded political Islam, propped-up petro-despots, helped subvert or assassinate democratically elected leaders, and thwarted street-level efforts to advance a more equitable spread of regional oil wealth.

To challenge a despotic nation-state can be life-threatening. Munif’s novels were banned in several Gulf states and Egypt; his Saudi citizenship was revoked. In the United States, Cities of Salt was reviewed harshly. In a New Yorker review, John Updike called its narrative voice “a campfire explainer.” In a detailed and illuminating rebuttal, Nixon cuts through Updike’s American hubris and regards Munif as “one of the most mercilessly visionary writers to have engaged imaginatively with the politics of sustainability in its local, regional, transnational and transhistorical dimensions.” Munif and Saro-Wiwa, Nixon shows, provide an expanded view of the petro-resource wars in the 20th century.


In a chapter titled “Stranger in the Eco-village,” Nixon traces four physical journeys that shed light on hyper commercialization of nature, “racialized politics of looking,” and dispossession. The first journey is autobiographical, and Nixon is an exquisite storyteller. His story is light, funny, but ends with a twisted tragedy. Nixon grew up in South Africa and as a journalist covered Nelson Mandela’s 1994 election. One day he went to meet J. P. Klienhans, an Afrikaner who had created a private hunting lodge. “At the very moment of black empowerment […] Kleinhans was creating a racial and temporal enclave,” Nixon writes. He was charging trophy hunters (from America, Russia, Italy, Germany, and Canada) top dollar to kill “dangerous African animals.” Nixon had heard rumors that some of the 70 lions in the reserve were in fact “canned lions,” sold on the black market by emigrating whites from their circuses and private zoos. Six months after Nixon visited the lodge, Kleinhans was killed by two of his lions.

Nixon also closely reads three literary journeys — Njabulo Ndebele’s “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists,” James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village,” and Nadine Gordimer’s “The Ultimate Safari.” Nadine Gordimer’s short story points to what’s behind “nature tourism”: lands taken away from local inhabitants, restricted access to subsistence resources, and the criminalization of traditional activities. The story follows a group of refugees on a trek from Mozambique to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. On reaching the destination, Gordimer’s narrator, the 10-year-old girl says:

Long ago, in the time of our fathers, there was no fence that kills you, there was no Kruger Park between them and us, we were the same people under our own king, right from our village we left to this place we’ve come to.

Ndebele’s essay demonstrates that the “insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular and unspectacular time”: the experience of shooting wild animals (with a camera or a gun) is a perfect example of “spectacular time,” while the “unspectacular time” spent by black laborers — building hunting lodges, game reserves, and national parks — remains “out of sight.” At a time when memoir,” Nixon writes, discussing this and others, “has come under fire for self absorption, we would do well to remember that the ‘if-it’s-me-it-must-be-interesting’ memoir is not the only type.” Wangari Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed, tells the story of how, alarmed by the slow violence of deforestation and soil erosion in Kenya, Maathai and her cohort of likeminded women founded the Green Belt Movement on Earth Day in 1977. Over three decades they created “6,000 local tree nurseries and employed 100,000 women to plant 30 million trees,” providing employment while “helping anchor soil, generate shade and firewood, and replenish watersheds.” This environmental justice movement successfully bridged the gap between what Ramachandra Guha had called “struggles against environmental degradation” and “struggles for environmental renewal.”

Nixon describes the Chipko movement, which took place in the Garwhal Himalayas of Uttarakhand in the 1970s, mobilized to save trees from commercial exploitation. Few environmental justice movements went from local to global as quickly and as widely as the Chipko movement. Guha and Vandana Shiva gave the movement a powerful voice; the former through his widely acclaimed book, The Unquiet Woods (1989), and the latter by telling the story of the Chipko women all over the world. More than a decade later, Haripriya Rangan wrote Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History (2001).

And yet, as Rangan notes, that in their “eagerness to prove Chipko’s transhistorical and transregional significance, its narratives have stripped the region and its communities of their histories,” and it “has affected social and material life in the Garhwal Himalaya in ways that have been neither benevolent nor innocent.”

Indeed, how do we deal with the messiness of the local as we bring in a transnational perspective on slow violence? In addition to engaging with writer-activists, which Nixon has done so well, we should also engage with local knowledge. What have the local people to say? What have they written? What art have they created or performed? In addition to bridging the gaps between ecocriticism, social science, and postcolonial studies, we should also try to bridge the one with anthropology, and reach toward a Geertzian “thick description” of the environmentalism of the poor.

Nixon acknowledges that environmentalism of the poor is not an exclusive condition of the global South, yet all his examples in Slow Violence come from there. But as Marla Cone’s book, Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic makes clear, the

people and animals of the Arctic are hundreds of miles from any significant source of pollution, living in one of the most desolate spots on the planet, yet paradoxically, they are among the planet’s most contaminated living organisms.

Industrial toxins migrate from every corner of the earth to the high Arctic, by air and ocean currents, and enter the cells of the smallest of animals to the biggest predators. This is a classic case of slow violence, yet it eludes easy characterization.

While there is no movement to address the “slow poisoning of the Arctic,” there is now a rapidly growing global movement to address climate change. Nixon briefly mentions climate change in his book, including in its epilogue. Climate change is a vast and evolving subject, and Nixon’s notion of slow violence is a useful frame for understanding it.

Slow Violence eschews dense prose and indecipherable academic jargon for the rigorous, clear writing of someone with the mind of a critic and the heart of a humanist. From now on, thanks to this book, no discussion on environmentalism would be complete without taking slow violence into account. For that I bow my safari hat to our guide, Rob Nixon.


Recommended Reads

  • Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1962)

  • Environmentalism: A Global History, by Ramachandra Guha (Longman, 2000)

  • Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, edited by Subhankar Banerjee (Seven Stories, 2012; pbk 2013)

  • The Unquiet Woods, by Ramachandra Guha (Oxford University Press, 1989)

  • Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History, by Haripriya Rangan (Verso, 2001)

  • Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, by Marla Cone (Grove Press, 2005)


Subhankar Banerjee’s most recent book is Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.

LARB Contributor

Subhankar Banerjee’s most recent book, Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, will be published in paperback on October 8 (Seven Stories). His arctic photographs were shown at the 18th Biennale of Sydney: All Our Relations and the desert photographs Where I Live I Hope to Know at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.


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