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  • Ecological Imagination
  • George B. Handley (bio)
Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Rob Nixon. Harvard University Press. 370 pages; cloth, $45.00.

Aldo Leopold famously claimed that "we can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in." Environmentalism has been characterized ever since by a concerted effort to identify the contours, presence, and ecological character of the myriad life forms upon which our human lives depend. The prevailing assumption—and a very American one at that—has been that environmental education, based primarily in a local ethos of place, will provide a sufficient antidote to a persistent anthropocentrism that blinds us to these ecological realities and thus inhibits our ethical response. But, as Rob Nixon persuasively argues, the often invisible or delayed effects of such environmental problems as climate change, toxic spills, and contemporary warfare require something more than a heightened sensitivity to the physical world that surrounds us. They require an imagination that stretches across broad geographies, classes, and through long periods of time to be able to sufficiently trace what is otherwise what Nixon calls the "hidden agency" behind such violence. To be environmentally ethical, in other words, we must begin with a more honest account of the impact of the modern economy of violence on the poor which most official accounts have been too brief, narrow, and self-interested to provide. We have, in Nixon's words, listened for too long to the narratives of "reckless corporate short-termism." Indeed, the dual fetishes for the local and for wilderness in the American environmental ethos, Nixon suggests, may contribute to our blindness regarding the environmental devastation our foreign policy and way of life are causing elsewhere, what he calls a "superpower parochialism."

Nixon takes literary criticism to task, deservedly so, for being parochial in its own right, failing to avail itself of broader social, geopolitical, and environmental contexts and the scientific and social scientific research that pertains to them. This is no idle criticism. Nixon's book is the best monograph in ecocriticism to date of such interdisciplinarity and planetary reach, mapping out this needed international and environmental turn for future generations. Indeed, it might not be hyperbolic to say that, given its deeply comparative, rigorously interdisciplinary, and consistently brilliant and thorough analyses of the environmental and political crossroads out of which contemporary postcolonial writers have emerged, Nixon's book belongs among the most important and compelling works of literary criticism of recent years. What emerges from this well-researched book is the implication that no serious consideration of the fate of literature in the twenty-first century can afford to ignore the fundamental problems of disparity of wealth and disparity of environmental health that shape and often motivate virtually every inter- and intra-national conflict in the world today. It doesn't hurt that Nixon writes with sweeping and persuasive prose that is accessible for a wide range of readers while also engaging various international contexts and cultures, various genres of literature, and always grounded in the relevant science and social science. It is a triumph of scholarship, ethical to its root, and directed everywhere.

Slow Violence reads as much as a book about the transnational trade in environmental and human exploitation as it does about literature's response to it. It is, in other words, a work of environmentalism itself, as well as a model of environmental criticism. Nixon is a worthy heir to the triumvirate he names as his chief influences: Rachel Carson's discourse of toxicity, Edward W. Said's transnational postcolonial approach to literature, and Ramachandra Guha's trenchant critique of Western environmentalism and his own articulation of an environmentalism of the poor. The book provides exhaustively researched histories of the human and environmental costs of such cataclysms as the 1984 Bhopal disaster, Chernobyl, the transnational corporate violence of the petroleum industry, the explosive growth of construction of megadams, the social violence of hunting preserves in Africa, the BP oil spill, the legacies of land mines, and the long-term effects of "surgical" bombs developed and deployed by the US that use depleted uranium. For these...


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pp. 6-7
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