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Book excerpt: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, continued

Let me ground this point by referring, in conjunction, to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. In 1962 Silent Spring jolted a broad international public into an awareness of the protracted, cryptic, and indiscriminate casualties inflicted by dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT). Yet, just one year earlier, Fanon, in the opening pages of Wretched of the Earth, had comfortably invoked DDT as an affirmative metaphor for anticolonial violence: he called for a DDT-filled spray gun to be wielded as a weapon against the “parasites” spread by the colonials’ Christian church.

Fanon’s drama of decolonization is, of course, studded with the overt weaponry whereby subjugation is maintained (“by dint of a great array of bayonets and cannons”) or overthrown (“by the searing bullets and bloodstained knives”) after “a murderous and decisive struggle between the two protagonists.” Yet his temporal vision of violence and of what Aimé Césaire called “the rendezvous of victory” was uncomplicated by the concerns that an as-yet inchoate environmental justice movement (catalyzed in part by Silent Spring) would raise about lopsided risks that permeate the land long term, blurring the clean lines between defeat and victory, between colonial dispossession and official national self-determination. We can certainly read Fanon, in his concern with land as property and as fount of native dignity, retrospectively with an environmental eye. But our theories of violence today must be informed by a science unavailable to Fanon, a science that addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse.

Rob Nixon
Rob Nixon is the Rachel
Carson Professor of English
and an affiliate of the Nelson
Institute Center for Culture,
History and Environment.

Attritional catastrophes that overspill clear boundaries in time and space are marked above all by displacements temporal, geographical, rhetorical, and technological displacements that simplify violence and underestimate, in advance and in retrospect, the human and environmental costs. Such displacements smooth the way for amnesia, as places are rendered irretrievable to those who once inhabited them, places that ordinarily pass unmourned in the corporate media. Places like the Marshall Islands, subjected between 1948 and 1958 to sixty-seven American atmospheric nuclear “tests,” the largest of them equal in force to 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. In 1956 the Atomic Energy Commission declared the Marshall Islands “by far the most contaminated place in the world,” a condition that would compromise independence in the long term, despite the islands’ formal ascent in 1979 into the ranks of self-governing nations. The island republic was still in part governed by an irradiated past: well into the 1980s its history of nuclear colonialism, long forgotten by the colonizers, was still delivering into the world “jellyfish babies” headless, eyeless, limbless human infants who would live for just a few hours.

If, as Said notes, struggles over geography are never reducible to armed struggle but have a profound symbolic and narrative component as well, and if, as Michael Watts insists, we must attend to the “violent geographies of fast capitalism,” we need to supplement both these injunctions with a deeper understanding of the slow violence of delayed effects that structures so many of our most consequential forgettings. Violence, above all environmental violence, needs to be seen and deeply considered as a contest not only over space, or bodies, or labor, or resources, but also over time. We need to bear in mind Faulkner’s dictum that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” His words resonate with particular force across landscapes permeated by slow violence, landscapes of temporal overspill that elude rhetorical cleanup operations with their sanitary beginnings and endings.

Kwame Anthony Appiah famously asked, “Is the ‘Post-’ in ‘Postcolonial’ the ‘Post-’ in ‘Postmodern’?” As environmentalists we might ask similarly searching questions of the “post” in postindustrial, post–Cold War, and postconflict. For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies,which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. Something similar applies to so-called postconflict societies whose leaders may annually commemorate, as marked on the calendar, the official cessation of hostilities, while ongoing intergenerational slow violence (inflicted by, say, unexploded landmines or carcinogens from an arms dump) may continue hostilities by other means.

Ours is an age of onrushing turbo-capitalism, wherein the present feels more abbreviated than it used to at least for the world’s privileged classes who live surrounded by technological time-savers that often compound the sensation of not having enough time. Consequently, one of the most pressing challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice. If, under neoliberalism, the gulf between enclaved rich and outcast poor has become ever more pronounced, ours is also an era of enclaved time wherein for many speed has become a self-justifying, propulsive ethic that renders “uneventful” violence (to those who live remote from its attritional lethality) a weak claimant on our time. The attosecond pace of our age, with its restless technologies of infinite promise and infinite disappointment, prompts us to keepflicking and clicking distractedly in an insatiable and often insensate quest for quicker sensation.

“One of the most
pressing challenges
of our age is how to
adjust our rapidly
eroding attention
spans to the slow
erosions of environ-
mental justice.”

The oxymoronic notion of slow violence poses a number of challenges: scientific, legal, political, and representational. In the long arc between the emergence of slow violence and its delayed effects, both the causes and the memory of catastrophe readily fade from view as the casualties incurred typically pass untallied and unremembered. Such discounting in turn makes it far more difficult to secure effective legal measures for prevention, restitution, and redress.

Casualties from slow violence are, moreover, out of sync not only with our narrative and media expectations but also with the swift seasons of electoral change. Politicians routinely adopt a “last in, first out” stance toward environmental issues, admitting them when times are flush, dumping them as soon as times get tight. Because preventative or remedial environmental legislation typically targets slow violence, it cannot deliver dependable electoral cycle results, even though those results may ultimately be life saving. Relative to bankable pocketbook actions there’ll be a tax rebate check in the mail next August environmental payouts seem to lurk on a distant horizon. Many politicians and indeed many voters routinely treat environmental action as critical yet not urgent. And so generation after generation of two- or four-year cyclepoliticians add to the pileup of deferrable actions deferred. With rare exceptions, in the domain of slow violence “yes, but not now, not yet” becomes the modus operandi.

How can leaders be goaded to avert catastrophe when the political rewards of their actions will not accrue to them but will be reaped on someone else’s watch decades, even centuries, from now? How can environmental activists and storytellers work to counter the potent political, corporate, and even scientific forces invested in immediate self-interest, procrastination, and dissembling? 

To address the challenges of slow violence is to confront the dilemma Rachel Carson faced almost half a century ago as she sought to dramatize what she eloquently called “death by indirection.” Carson’s subjects were biomagnification and toxic drift, forms of oblique, slow-acting violence that, like climate change, pose formidable imaginative difficulties for writers and activists alike. In struggling to give shape to amorphous menace, both Carson and reviewers of Silent Spring resorted to a narrative vocabulary: one reviewer portrayed the book as exposing “the new, unplotted and mysterious dangers we insist upon creating all around us,” while Carson herself wrote of “a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure.”

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervenerepresentationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency.

Copyright © 2011 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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