Sunday, 10 August 2014

Rob Nixon: "How can we devise arresting stories that capture the pervasive but elusive effects of 'slow violence'? Climate change, deforestation, oil spills, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental crises."

The South African academic Rob Nixon has addressed the problem of how to capture people's imagination over the 'stories' around what's happening - slowly but surely - to the environment. 

Here's the opening of an interview a couple of years ago in the Huffington Post:

Writing About Slow Violence

Posted: 06/27/11 04:13 PM ET Amitava Kumar

Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His new book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon is a very appealing writer. His scholarly works display a lucidity and nimble thought that should be the envy of most academics; his nonfiction is inventive and affecting. Here are some questions I asked him about his new book but also about academic writing and style:

What was the greatest challenge for you while writing Slow Violence?

RN: I have tried to walk the line between environmental story telling and analytical insight. On the one hand, Slow Violence celebrates those nimble, determined writers who have testified to the environmental struggles that are intensifying across the global South--struggles for access to water, land, food, energy, and sustainable hope. I'm thinking here of writers like Arundhati Roy, Indra Sinha, Wangari Maathai, and Ken Saro-Wiwa who encourage us to rethink what environmental activism looks like, beyond the stereotypes of affluent, hippy-dippy tree-huggers in the Pacific Northwest. I am moved by the stories such writers tell -- and fascinated by the rhetorical strategies they develop to gain an audience, against all odds. In the course of reflecting on their story telling, I recount some environmental stories of my own.

But there's another, less narrative side to this book, as I try to generate a different analytic vocabulary from the standard one we use for talking about violence. Most environmental crises -- from climate chaos to deforestation and the poisonous aftermaths of wars -- are characterized by a slow-motion urgency. In an age that genuflects to the divinities of spectacle and speed, how do we take seriously the forms of environmental slow violence that are deficient in instant drama but high in long-term catastrophic effects? If, as psychologist Christopher Chabris notes, the Web intensifies our tendency to "vastly overvalue what happens to us right now," how do we balance that restless drive for immediate novelty with activism that needs to remain focused on the long term? In an age of digital drift how do we keep track of toxic drift -- those deferred casualties of our poisonous, unsustainable practices?

So the primary challenge the book posed was how to reconcile these contending impulses. I wanted to find a voice that was conceptually freighted yet not so weighed down that it felt alienated from the story telling impulses that I sought to celebrate and participate in.

What tips can you offer those who are interested in writing on environmental issues?

RN: Edward Said stressed the need for creative vigilance when we confront "the normalized quiet of unseen power." There are so many lively precedents out there for that kind of vigilance. I'm thinking of all those writer-activists who have found ways to disturb the "normalized quiet," people like Naomi Klein, Mike Davis, Wangari Maathai, Rebecca Solnit, Arundhati Roy, George Monbiot, and John Berger. So my first advice to aspirant environmental writers would be go get a feeling for the possibilities by soaking up the writings of such exemplary figures. Pay attention not just to the arguments but even more so to the voice, on the assumption that before you can be true to your own voice you'll need to be indebted to someone else's.

In volume and velocity, the new media are making available testimony on a previously unimaginable scale. I'm neither as romantic about the new media landscape as, say, Clay Shirky, nor as cynical as Malcolm Gladwell. But what's indisputable is the experimental energy that digital forms are unleashing. Among my students and among up-and-coming artists, I find myself startled by the creative responses to the technological, environmental, and political upheavals of our time. Let me ground this in example: "My Water's On Fire Tonight," the so-called fracking song, which compresses into a hip, educational two-and-a-half minute music video the basic science and politics of hydraulic fracturing.

Under the banner of austerity, we are witnessing a gigantic resource grab that is widening the gulf between the uber-rich and the ultra-poor. But if neo-liberal austerity is the new normal, so too are the resource rebellions being mounted, from Wisconsin to Egypt, from China to Brazil, by people whose dignity and prospects are being trampled on. I am talking about ordinary people making the link between their communities being treated as disposable and the assumption that the environments they depend on are disposable as well. What gives me hope is the kind of bridgework I'm seeing between social movements on the one hand, and young writers and artists on the other, all intent on opposing such pitiless, short-term thinking.

Amitava Kumar: Writing About Slow Violence

In this lecture, Nixon challenges notions of environmental story-telling - and even challenges the iconic David Attenborough approach:

Edward Said Memorial Conference - Robert Nixon - YouTube

And he looks back at the first 'environmental story-teller' of our modern times, Rachel Carson:

To address the storytelling challenges that slow violence poses is to confront the dilemma that Rachel Carson faced almost half a century ago as she sought to dramatize what she called “death by indirection.” Carson’s subjects were biomagnification and toxic drift, forms of oblique, slow damage that, like climate change, pose formidable imaginative difficulties for writers and documentary makers alike. In struggling to give shape to amorphous menace, both Carson and reviewers of “Silent Spring” resorted to a narrative vocabulary. One reviewer portrayed the book as exposing “the new, unplotted and mysterious dangers we insist upon creating all around us,” while Carson herself wrote of “a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure.”

Slow violence and environmental storytelling – Nieman Storyboard - A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

Nixon has asked:

How can we devise arresting stories, images, and symbols that capture the pervasive but elusive effects of what I call "slow violence"? Climate change, the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, deforestation, the radioactive aftermaths of wars, oil spills, acidifying oceans, and a host of other slowly unfolding environmental crises confront us with formidable representational obstacles that hinder efforts to mobilize for change.

Slow Violence - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Cover: Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor in PAPERBACK

The violence wrought by climate change, toxic drift, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly. Using the innovative concept of “slow violence” to describe these threats, Rob Nixon focuses on the inattention we have paid to the attritional lethality of many environmental crises, in contrast with the sensational, spectacle-driven messaging that impels public activism today. Slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor — Rob Nixon | Harvard University PressSlow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor | General | Times Higher Education

To take a specific example:


TUE, 3/11/2014 - BY BRIAN DAVIS

Whereas the Hoover Dam, or the flaming surface of the Cuyahoga River in 1969 Cleveland (a spectacular disaster that galvanized public opinion and policy-making and lead to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency after catching the attention of Time Magazine) are immediate and spectacular, compacted soil and contaminated aquifers don't make headlines.

The perception and representation of violence shapes the public discourse on environmental and industrial issues. It was violence at the demonstrations over the Vaca Muerta agreements in Neuquén that attracted so much media attention. However, this limited conception of violence makes it difficult to represent and understand long-term negative effects of an operation like fracking. As a result, much of the conversation ends up either extolling the immediately visible benefits such as new jobs or lower energy prices, or making broad environmental justice arguments that are difficult to quantify or verify in a short time-span.

The Slow Violence of Fracking in Argentina | Occupy.com

A powerful example of 'story-telling' is the greenbelt movement in Kenya, led by Nobel-prize winning Wangari Maathai:
Futures Forum: Save Our Green Spaces: "protecting green spaces in the south west from development"... videos and stories about the green belt

And just before the climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2010, Sky News took us to an underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives:

Maldives Cabinet Meeting underwater (sky news) - YouTube

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