Carrie Duke Recommends “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor” by Rob Nixon

Carrie Duke has taken the scenic route to graduate school.  She has spent the past 13 years teaching part-time and traveling to every continent in the world except Antarctica (which is on her bucket list). In her previous life, she also worked as a horticulturist, and now she brings her love of nature into her study of literature by concentrating on ecocriticism. Today, Carrie’s back in graduate school at Ball State as a third year Ph.D. student studying 19th century American literature. Read below as Carrie recommends Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon.

Environmental studies, at least in some literature departments, are often viewed as a secondary concern to the more visible or pressing issues related to the humanities. We are, after all, studying the humanities and all the interconnected complications that touch on or influence human culture. So it’s no wonder that environmental studies seem so distant to our most urgent concerns of hearing what historically have been voiceless people—women, ethnic minorities, and the LGBT communities just to name a few. Behind all of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements, even in the production of our precious books, we understand that there remains a trail, sometimes slight and sometimes enormous, of environmental destruction. It’s no wonder that we in the humanities glance at the world of environmental studies with what might be called apprehension or fear—surely not loathing. And then there are those in environmental studies who actually do proclaim a type of loathing toward human kind; we are the parasites of the earth slowly killing our motherland while fantasizing about our future intergalactic escape from an utterly ruined planet.

How can we possibly bring together a sincere dialogue between the celebration of human cultural production and the nature-desecrating criminality of human existence? Of course my hyperbolic binary is merely meant to explicate the conflict at its most extreme, but I think it is this extremity that undergirds the complexity of discussing environmental issues in literary studies. Those scholars who have been doing ecocriticism have certainly been crossing this academic chasm for over twenty years, and a recent critical study is moving the discussion in an even more productive direction by combining environmentalism with postcolonial studies.

Rob Nixon’s recent book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor opens up an extremely vital area of research for literary studies. Before Nixon’s book, which was published in 2011, few critical works had concentrated on the importance of viewing postcolonial literature through an environmental perspective. Nixon strongly argues that we can no longer afford to separate the oppression of poverty stricken communities around the world from impending concerns of environmental degradation. Nixon’s critical vantage point is primarily targeted at an American audience, and it is an essential read for anyone curious about the intersections between poverty and nature. But more importantly Slow Violence is significant for Americans who are already interested in environmental studies because Nixon’s writing helps to broaden the discussion of what it means to be environmentally aware in the United States. Often the discussion about environmental preservation and conservation overlooks or completely dismisses, with what Nixon would argue is a continued 21st century colonialist view of, the world’s “disposable people.”

In other words, the dominant vision of American environmentalism, which harshly judges population growth and urban life over the rootedness of the individual’s right to place, severely erases the presence of voiceless people throughout the world who subsist on lands that are not the precious wild places enshrined by American writers like Thoreau. Likewise, Nixon argues that an environmental perspective will also help to enliven postcolonial discourse in the U.S. which has either become too abstruse for readers outside academia or is losing ground to a more generalized understanding of global literature.

Beyond the interests of ecocritics and postcolonialists, I would argue that Nixon’s text provides an interesting read for anyone who wants to expand their understanding of significant events throughout the world as well as the individual lives of authors and writers who are rarely found in the mainstream U.S. literary curriculum. Slow Violence is not a rehashing of what many Americans already know about logging in the Amazonian rainforest, but a more thorough investigation of less known socio-environmental destruction in Africa, India, Iraq and the Maldives that is not spectacular and does not find its way to the nightly news. Instead, Nixon brings to light the type of violence that does not seem like violence, and that may not seem like anything to those who do not live in the hidden spaces of poverty and pollution. These spaces include oil spills and endless gas flares in Nigeria that pollute fields and water so that no crops can grow; or the continual spread of deadly depleted uranium which was used on American missiles launched in Iraq and continues to cause cancer and birth deformities long after the initial strike.

Nixon’s writing does not just present incredibly pertinent information about the people and places that time and distance often renders invisible; the prose in Slow Violence is also beautiful, fluid, and entirely approachable. Nixon’s writing, even when he describes the most heart wrenching stories of suffering and death, demonstrates a striking poetic quality. Stunning sentences, like the following, open up new realities for readers unaware of some of the socio-environmental horrors that exist in the world and that are erased through the inattention of the American media: “We need to find (as Rachel Carson did some fifty years ago) new ways to tell the slow-moving stories about the long dying; about last year’s cluster bombs that turn into next year’s killers, about depleted uranium that treats its arbitrary enemy the child of a child as yet unborn” (232).

I recommend this book to everyone because we should not live our lives in ignorance of the devastation carried out by transnational companies unfettered by international regulations or the industrial military complex of the United States. Nixon provides us with the historical background to the slow violence caused by U.S. companies and military throughout the world and offers us a great reading list including Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, Abdebrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s detention diary A Month and a Day, and Wangari Maathai’s memoir Unbowed. Although an eco-system cannot speak for itself, the people who subsist in these eco-systems throughout the world can open our eyes to the repercussions of slow violence.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2011. Print.

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