- Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon
On November 10, 1995, Nigeria’s Abacha regime put to death writer Ken Saro-Wiwa for his leadership in the Niger Delta’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). Saro-Wiwa is perhaps the most compelling exemplar of the figure that Rob Nixon terms the “writer-activist,” who puts prose to work in mobilizing communities against neoliberalism and its environmental and social consequences. Nixon develops his core concept of “slow violence”—defined as “incremental and accretive” forms of violence that harm peoples and ecosystems around the world—to connect the writers, communities, and environmental catastrophes his book surveys (2). The project of Slow Violence is to elucidate both political and literary forms of resistance to slow violence that give voice to the environmentalism of the poor (a term coined by sociologist Ramachandra Guha).
Nixon’s concept of slow violence expands to include the 1984 chemical explosion in Bhopal, oil drilling in the Niger Delta and the Middle East, deforestation in Kenya, dam building in India and the western United States, cluster bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, and climate crisis in the Maldives. One could thus understand slow violence as an updated theory of structural violence. In response, Nixon contends that the latter framework does not address the issues of temporality, scale, and representation that he explores at length. Nixon suggests that the contemporary era centers on a “cultural milieu of digitally speeded up time” that impedes narratives of intergenerational environmental legacies (13). The writers and movements of Slow Violence share, in this context, a refusal to speak only of short timescales, spectacular events, or visible environmental impacts.
A watershed book for the fields of postcolonial literary studies and the environmental humanities, Slow Violence ultimately resonates across disciplines, and beyond the academy. In this sense, the book dovetails with the work that Stacy Alaimo, Lawrence Buell, Ursula K. Heise, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Robert Marzec, Timothy Morton, and others have done in expanding the bounds of ecocriticism to engage with critical theory on the one hand and the social and natural sciences on the other. While no doubt in conversation with this constellation of critics, Nixon aims to correct what he sees as a still persistent silence in ecocriticism regarding US foreign policy and its brutal environmental and social legacies.
Nixon opens his first body chapter with Raymond Williams’s celebration of writing that tackles “‘the close living substance’ of the local while simultaneously tracing the ‘occluded relationships’ . . . that invisibly shape the local” (45). The chapter goes on to describe [End Page 847] the novel Animal’s People (Indra Sinha’s fictionalized story of Bhopal) as a narrative centrally concerned with “temporal and spatial webs of violence on a vast scale” (46). Comparing the picaresque discourse of chemical fallout in Animal’s People to the somber tone of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Nixon concludes that, if Sinha’s “novel gradually enfolds a wider community—Animal’s people—it does so by maintaining at its emotional center Animal, the cracked-voiced soloist, who breaks through the gilded imperial veneer of neoliberalism to announce himself in his disreputable vernacular” (66).
The following two chapters trace forms of resistance to “Big Oil” in the Middle East and Nigeria. Chapter 2 considers Jordanian-Iraqi writer Abdul Rahman Munif’s quintet Cities of Salt, which orbits around the nomadic Bedouin people and state-sponsored oil drilling. For Nixon, the quintet’s significance lies in its allegorical critique of petro-carbon imperialism. The chapter is strongest where it delves into the timescales around which Munif structures his novels: at “the pre-petroleum oasis, or wadi, a cyclical set of expectations prevails . . . whereas the official, linear, developmental narrative of the naturally rich nation-state suppresses notions of finitude and steward-ship” (82). In Munif’s narrative, the Bedouin culture stands as one in which exchange occurs through stories as much as through goods, whereas those who arrive to extract oil and consolidate power are most striking for having no stories to tell. What Nixon...