Interrupting Slow Violence: Amplification and Embracing Human Agency

by Erin D. Matson

March 22, 2017

Abstract: Though contemporary environmentalism is dominated by “Big Green” transnational NGOs, the strong concurrent thread of environmental justice has long dealt with Rob Nixon’s conception of “slow violence.” Modern environmental history presents a number of examples of Nixon’s “incremental, accretive” violence that were brought to public attention either through the narrative-building of journalists and activists, or through a sudden outbreak of conventional violence. The task for a “slow environmentalism” moving forward is to incorporate an awareness of slow violence into its political tactics and long-term strategy in order to proactively identify and interrupt instances of slow violence without waiting for investigations or sudden disasters to highlight them. This paper’s proposed foundation to begin working toward this goal is to privilege the voices of those who are experiencing slow violence while reflecting critically on the beyond-human-time effects of our actions.

Environmentalism Is Not a Monolith.

As Peter Dauvergne describes in Environmentalism of the Rich, the human campaign on behalf of nature, environmental health, and the living planet has always been a “movement of movements” working across place and scale (2016, 6).  Currently, as Dauvergne asserts as his book’s basic premise, mainstream environmentalism is dominated by corporate NGOs who collaborate with the hegemonic neoliberalism that has given rise to the globalization of environmental destruction.  However, concurrent with “Big Green” preeminence, environmentalism contains strong thread of environmental justice, concerned with the intersectional struggles of marginalized and victimized peoples. Environmental justice has long dealt with what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence,” (2011) the delayed, harmful consequences of environmental misbehavior, the sources of which are concealed through time and obfuscation. Many catalysts of environmental action have occurred when slow violence has transformed into conventional violence, explosive outbursts which highlight, in hindsight, the “incremental and accretive” violence that preceded (Nixon 2011, 2). An environmentalism that integrates a proactive awareness of slow violence, rather than a simply reactionary stance, would challenge itself to identify and interrupt instances of slow violence before they catalyze. This “slow environmentalism” would avoid the acute danger of conventional violence and, crucially, would address those instances of slow violence that may never come to a head. The foundation required to begin working toward this goal is to privilege the voices of those who are experiencing slow violence while reflecting critically on the beyond-human-time effects of our actions.

Environmentalism’s History with Slow Violence

Would embracing a slow violence-orientation represent a new trajectory for the environmentalism movement? Many salient modern examples of environmental harm would have fallen under Nixon’s conception of slow violence had the obliviating effects of time been allowed to run their course. For the public to understand the causal relationship between DDT and songbird die-offs, Rachel Carson had to craft an arresting and visceral image of a town afflicted by an eerie stillness. The Love Canal disaster was uncovered by local residents and journalists who linked the illness of the community directly to the Hooker Chemical Company and the negligence of the Niagara Falls school system— a causation that Hooker deliberately attempted to absolve itself of through legal means and the quiet passage of time. These two examples demonstrate first that slow violence is not a new motivating force in environmental movements, but also that it can take an activist with a strong voice and a platform to bring people to action. Other instances of slow violence have only been recognized when they have collided suddenly with what Nixon calls conventional violence —  highly visible disasters that make the news and highlight histories of “slow-motion” harm. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the damage inflicted was catastrophic, but it was concentrated in neighborhoods that had been marginalized and deprived for many years. The Cuyahoga River fire of 1969, which spurred the passage of the Clean Water Act, was merely the most dramatic instance of over a century of accumulated pollution (Grant 2015). Slow violences are nearly synonymous with the twists and turns of the environmental movement, but predominantly in those instances where, through sudden cataclysm or skillful narrative, they have been thrust into the sphere of public attention.

Big Green: A Neoliberal Departure

How, then, has the environmental movement been sidelined from recognizing and being catalyzed by slow violence? Peter Dauvergne argues that environmentalism’s dominant orientation, the powerful Big Green wing, has shifted away from grassroots action against the status quo towards minor slimming of environmental footprints through green consumerism and Western-style, colonialist conservation. As environmental organizations have matured and sought to be the most effective advocates for the environment in our neoliberal-capitalist world, they have ceded ground to that very neoliberalism which perpetuates the dispossession and displacement (in place) of the world’s poor (Nixon 2011, 19). Though Big Green has a history of “produc[ing] measurable, if incremental improvements” (Dauvergne 2016, 142), these do not add up to a long-term strategy and may even create larger problems overall, like improved supply chain efficiency leading to more production and consumption. The allure of easy “victories” as well as money and its attendant power have by and large left the “powerful transnational nature NGOs” (18) as perpetrators and collaborators in the progression of slow violence, rather than its antagonists and interrupters.

Slow Environmentalism: A Retro Reorientation

So, slow violence is not necessarily a new concept in environmentalism — incorporating slow violence into the framework for environmental action is more of a return to the movement’s retro spirit of community outrage than an entirely new conception. What is new in a deliberate accounting of slow violence is recognizing where it is occurring without relying on the transformative revelations of intrepid journalists or waiting for an outbreak of conventional violence. How then can slow environmentalism uncover, publicize, and counteract the ongoing Silent Springs and Love Canals that continue unrecognized today? How can slow environmentalists address the ways that entire communities are deprived of their livelihoods, securities and freedoms, before their anonymous faces are plastered on the news after a “natural” disaster? While Nixon speaks of apprehending slow violence — understanding, preventing, or slowing it (2011, 30) — “interrupting” it feels like a stronger and more direct tactic. Interruption implies a cutting off, an inserting of self into the middle of the action. Slow environmentalists cannot be afraid to use their very bodies in service of cutting off the forces of slow violence. To translate this tactic into a political strategy requires, first and foremost, that those environmentalists who have been unwittingly participating in the environmentalism of the rich — the mostly white, wealthy, and Western actors who are becoming more aware of the consequences of their green-consumerist complacency — begin to share their privilege of societal authority with the unheard victims of ongoing slow violence.

Listen & Empower

One of Nixon’s critical questions for environmentalism is how “we [can] turn the long emergencies of slow violence into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant political intervention” (2011, 3). Nixon frames the storyteller as somewhat separate from slow violence itself, a person with privilege who conveys an otherwise anonymous experience. Nixon recognizes this framing and goes on to challenge the societal valuation of “who counts as a witness” (16). Building on this challenge, slow environmentalism would seek to restructure those cultural ideas of authority and trustworthiness — to privilege people’s accounting of their own experiences. One of the ways that a person’s social position and worth is conceptualized is through social capital. Just like other forms of capital, social capital allows the bearer access to resources, in this case relational resources that stem, at least in part, from a person’s perceived standing based on race and class. In slow environmentalism, those with the most social capital would spend the bulk of their time bringing the poor, marginalized, people of color who are experiencing the brunt of slow violence “into the room.” That is the main comparative advantage of a Westerner with white skin in an intersectional environmental movement — the ability to convince the powers-that-be to sit down at the table with the previously unheard. Lending and transferring social capital through introductions and passing the mic is the strongest way that the practitioners of environmentalism of the rich may join slow environmentalism.

In turn, as the stories of the marginalized are heard, wider audiences will begin to understand the nature of the slow violence being inflicted upon communities on a daily basis. Nixon highlights the challenges of turning the “unapparent” effects of slow violence into actionable “materiality” (2011, 16). However, overcoming that challenge may be as simple as flooding the airwaves with sheer volume. One person’s life story may only reveal subtle damages which may be hard to pinpoint to any particular cause. But, like big data, the patterns will emerge in the aggregate. As many previously unheard voices are lifted up, privileged to authority, and (re)broadcast, the indisputable drama and suffering of the victims of slow violence will become all too apparent.  For slow environmentalism, the compounding stories of the previously unheard will provide guide rails for refining the movement’s trajectory.

Beyond Human Time

As part of slow environmentalism’s turn to proactivity, activists must (p)recognize the long-term effects of our actions. Through incorporating deep reflections into the causal history of previous and ongoing instances of slow violence, slow environmentalism can begin to predict, and strive to avert, new instances of slow violence. By giving up the immediate gratification of Big Green-style short-term, inconsequential goals, slow environmentalism can focus on integrated reflection, incorporating both nature’s long-term resilience as well as humans’ responsibility for violence and destruction. Therefore, long-term strategic planning must be one of the most prized skillsets of a slow environmentalist.

Often when people think in timescales beyond human experience, they tend to emphasize nature’s inherent resilience in the face of drastic change. Nixon highlights the complacency that this framing might engender, wondering how to balance the kind of “deep-time thinking that celebrates natural healing” with a beyond-human sense of time that maintains human agency and responsibility (22). Anna Tsing’s (2015) concept of contaminated diversity presents a possible solution to humanity’s tendency to grant itself “advance or retrospective absolution” for the environmental harms it inflicts (Nixon 2011, 22). Diversity, as Tsing explains, is a natural outcome of adversity — conflict causes organisms to adapt and change in a variety of ways. In doing so, the survivors of conflict are necessarily marked by the conflict itself; they have become “contaminated” by violence. Though diversity is the foundation of resilience, it is that very diversity which “implicates survivors in histories of greed, violence, and environmental destruction” (33). Through recognizing how all humans are implicated in the slow violence of neoliberalist extraction, from direct beneficiaries in the Global North to those who simply persevere in the Global South, slow environmentalists can maintain the sense of human responsibility for slow violence that previously had been “decoupled” from its cause “by the workings of time” (Nixon 2011, 11).

Dauvergne points to the need for government and corporate policy to be based on integrated understandings of cause and effect, rather than “ahistorical, fragmentary, and linear” reasonings (5). The same could be said for environmental organizations, which for the sake of funding and donor support, often go for the easy “win” rather than the “root causes” of unsustainability (147). Slow environmentalism, with its radical expansion of the timescales of human causality and the recognition of both nature’s resilience and human responsibility, would by contrast achieve few noticeable victories in the short-term. Indeed, slow environmentalists must be willing to slog in the trenches for decades before achieving change that may only be visible in the rearview mirror of history.

Forward Drive

The concept of slow violence presents an opportunity for environmentalism to reorient itself toward proactive, deliberate long-term strategy as the “age of consequences” (Campbell et al. 2007) forces a reckoning with the effects of human activity. By fusing a postcolonial recognition of extractivist imperialism with an environmental justice orientation toward combating degradation and empowering communities, the recognition of slow violence connects global and local scales of action as well as diverse segments of environmental engagement. More importantly, perhaps, in its subtle realignment of these rhetorical frameworks, slow violence gives new motivation to a generation of social justice warriors seeking tangible outlets for intersectional, decentralized, and deliberative environmental action. If slow environmentalism succeeds in amplifying the voices of the unheard and promoting deep reflection on the consequences of human action, the public will not be able to avoid recognizing the unsustainability of the current imperialist, extractivist system that inherently perpetuates slow violence. 


Works Cited

Campbell, Kurt M., Jay Gulledge, John R. McNeill, John Podesta, Peter Ogden, Leon Fuerth, R. James Woolsey, Alexander T. Lennon, Julianne Smith, and Richard Weitz. 2007. The age of consequences: the foreign policy and national security implications of global climate change. Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, DC.

Dauvergne, Peter. 2016. Environmentalism of the Rich. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Grant, Julie. 2015. “How a Burning River Helped Create the Clean Water Act.” Allegheny Front.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. “Introduction.” Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 1-44.

Tsing, Anna. 2015. “Contamination as Collaboration.” In The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 27-36.