Social Class and the Environment Textbook: A Course Textbook

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: Imperialism and Society

In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon defines the concept of slow violence as a form of violence that is silent, invisible, and ongoing. Nixon describes slow violence as the type of violence that is "gradual and out of sight" and "incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales" (Nixon, 2). This definition describes that slow violence is not the typical form of violence, but because of its "out of sight" nature, it becomes visible only after much of the damage has been done. It is only by complicating the understanding we have of violence that we start to see the displacement caused by environmental damage. Nixon makes the point that the environment is treated as critical but not always urgent, which therefore delays the realization and actual "sight" of slow violence.

Slow violence creeps upon those most vulnerable: people of color, those who live in areas that have been deemed “sacrifice zones,” and marginalized communities. These communities not only are seen as deserving of discomfort and violence, but also as not deserving of representation or visibility which exacerbates any violence against them and encourages inaction against the injustices that rob them of their homes, their health and their livelihoods.

Slow violence is able to be both ignored and perpetuated by the lack of media attention. Nixon writes about our “media bias toward spectacular violence,” which reveals the way the news and television highlight only the most brutal and sudden instances of disaster - think shootings, hurricanes, etc. - in part, because, that is what is sells. The implications of this silencing are that “it exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems treated as disposable by turbo-capitalism, while simultaneously exacerbating the vulnerability of those whom Kevin Bale, in another context, has called ‘disposable people’” (4). How are people supposed to know that they should care if they, first off, do not know that this violence is occurring, but also, have been influenced by the narratives that deem certain groups of people “disposable?" 

Nixon introduces the Marshall Islands as an example of slow violence - a place where the “attritional” and timeless nature of the catastrophe has allowed for the underestimating of the “human and environmental costs” (7). Due to a history of American nuclear tests, that geographical region was deemed, in the 1950s, “contaminated,” which allowed former colonizers to forget about the region and leave their destruction “in the past.” Nevertheless, babies in the Marshall Islands continued to be born with major birth defects through the end of the 20th century; this injustice speaks to how the narratives that have been shaped by the history of colonialism and imperialism continue to wreak havoc today - but silently.

Environmental issues tend to be discussed bureaucratically at conferences, summits and UN meetings, however very rarely do we see this environmental discussion focused on the people it is affecting the most. These marginalized communities are implicated the most yet they are never part of the conversation, rendering them invisible and silencing their voices. Especially in the United States, there exists a cemented industry that is referred to as the "polluter-industrial complex," which describes how the capitalist structure of this country is inducing slow violence while silencing poor communities that are directly affected (Faber, 8). Faber explains how capitalism has benefitted and been prioritized over time as corporate powers continue to pollute the environment and contribute to injustice. Many poorer communities tend to live near factories and highly polluted areas, and are therefore directly harmed. Large corporations are not as concerned with environmental damage, their goal being maximized profit: not focusing on environmental risks is the cheaper option. Unfortunately, since the individuals living in these communities are voiceless and unheard, it allows for incredibly damaging slow violence in their community.

One way that the powerful capitalize on environmental injustice is through “resource imperialism inflicted on the global South to maintain the unsustainable consumer appetites of rich-country citizens” (Nixon, 22). This occurs often when a “rich-country conservation ethic is uncoupled from environmental devastation, externalized abroad, in which it is implicated” (Nixon, 23). Therefore the invisibility of certain groups, people and the regions they inhabit (particularly in the global South) allow for powerful countries to engage in acts that result in removed environmental degradation but fuel their capitalist engines. Furthermore, Nixon highlights the lack of “on-the-street” awareness of this injustice: “it is a pervasive condition of empires that they affect great swathes of the planet without the empire’s populace being aware of that impact,” further exhibiting the relationship between those who are rendered invisible, slow violence, and how the powerful capitalize on environmental injustice (Nixon, 35).

Such inattention allows for inaction: "Such discounting in turn makes it far more difficult to secure effective legal measures for prevention, restitution, and redress" (Nixon, 9). How convenient it is that this violence goes unseen--the rhetorical and political negligence allows for the violence to persist, meaning whatever gains--reaped from this suffering--augment for the rich and powerful. Within the silence of slow violence, the powerful can safely and freely operate and capitalize on suffering. Nixon defines "superpower parochialism" as "a combination of American insularity and America's power as the preeminent empire of the neoliberal age to rupture the lives and ecosystems of non-Americans, especially the poor, who may live at a geographical remove but who remain intimately vulnerable to the force fields of U.S. foreign policy" (Nixon, 34). The non-American poor live not only at a "geographical remove," but also at a representational remove, which allows for America's continuous imperialism to live on, unchallenged, even unnoticed. Within this space, the powerful profit. The legacy of imperialism, which manifests as various “distancing mechanisms,” has also worked to invisiblize certain groups of people. According to Nixon, certain practices, such as globalization, militarization, privatization, and deregulation “have heightened capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract” (Nixon, 41). These mechanisms “make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental accountability harder to impose” (Nixon, 41). Therefore there are certain mechanisms in our culture, from media to education, that force us to look away from root causes of issues; doing so allows those in power to narrate the dominant discourse around issues of environmental justice, further invisibilizing those affected and allowing people to turn a blind eye.

Animal’s People, which tells the story of the 1984 chemical leak in Bhopal, India and the victims’ fight for justice, demonstrates the concept of invisibility, which both Nixon and Faber describe. In Animal’s People, Zafar explains that “the Khaufpur media, or some of them, may be sympathetic to us, but in the world the Kampani is powerful. The Kampani has armies of lobbyists, PR agencies, hired editorialists. We must be impeccable, or else we make it easy for them to say, ‘these people are extremists,’ from there it’s a short step to ‘these Khaufpuris are terrorists’...” (Sinha, 282). This shows how many people’s voices and stories are erased by Western capitalist media, which is a form of slow violence discussed by Nixon (“media bias toward spectacular violence”). Not only does the media skip over situations of slow violence, but when they do gain attention, corporations and those in power attempt to undermine and subdue media attention, once again rendering the people experiencing slow violence “invisible.” The contrast between the media coverage of 9/11 and the coverage of the disaster in Bhopal highlights how the media can sustain the invisibility of certain groups of people. When mass death happens to privileged, wealthy and “visible” people, it is given an enormous amount of attention by the media, whereas the people of Khaufpur, who not only suffered “that night” but continue to suffer eighteen years later, get little to no media coverage or effective aid. Post-9/11, Animal describes how “the tele is going crazy, playing the crash over and over again” (Sinha, 60). Animal, shortly after seeing footage of 9/11 and believing that he’s watching a “clip from a movie,” narrates, “Stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life. Not in Amrika anyway. Here in Khaufpur it’s different. Here in Khaufpur we had that night. Nothing like that has ever happened anywhere else” (61). Sinha implies that violence or disaster is not worth our attention or concernunless it happens to those deemed worthy and visible. Violence toward certain people - represented by “that night”- is a given and remains unacknowledged and unmourned. Only when violence extends to the rich and powerful (for example, those who died in the United States on 9/11), do we consider an event memorably violent. Furthermore, 9/11, due to its brutal but also sudden nature, serves as an example of “spectacular violence” - an event that the media can easily grab on to and ultimately, profit from (Nixon, 2). Whereas the disaster in Bhopal, due to the water contamination and poison that lingered for years after the chemical leak, represents a type of violence that is "gradual and out of sight," which creates invisible individuals that are not heard from (Nixon, 2).

While “that night” is not well heard of, Animal is able to share his story. For someone that was “invisible” and ignored for a long time, having the optionality to share his perspective does not bring him joy. When he is speaking to the Jarnalis he says “You were like all the others, come to such our stories from us, so strangers in far off countries can marvel there's so much pain in the world” (Sinha, 5). It is clear that he does not want to share his story because he feels that nobody but the people in this community understand the pain caused by the Kampani. At the beginning of the story, when arguing about how his story will be published he wonders “How can foreigners at the world’s other end, who’ve never set foot in Khaufpur, decide what’s to be said about this place?” (Sinha, 9). Western media’s inability to faithfully relay the pain of “that night” and its repercussions speaks to how physical distance between two places allows for people to be rendered invisible and for a lack of mutual understanding. In conclusion, the media has power in what stories it chooses to cover and their decisions can result in the further silencing of marginalized groups of people. Therefore, it is critical for the media to highlight the voices of those that are deemed “disposable people" to challenge the corporate power that unjustly controls prevailing narratives.

Contents of this path:

This page references: