Violence is sudden; violence is fast. Violence is bullet, fist, crashing glass. So what can it mean to speak of “slow violence”? At the interpersonal level, slow violence might conjure something like the steady incremental pain of abuse, a relentless emergency rendered as normal, everyday life. Rob Nixon has coined the term as a way of thinking about pollution, toxicity, and anthropogenic climate change, the human effects of which are disproportionately concentrated in the global south. Nixon explores the themes of his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor in a couple excellent interviews. One in print, at the Social Text blog, and most recently in an extended audio interview on the Against the Grain podcast. Working at the intersection of several disciplines – from environmental to literary – Nixon discusses key social movements, in India, Africa, and the Middle East, that resist the slow violence of the 21st century and the writers like Arundhati Roy and Ken Saro-Wiwa who take up complicated intermediary positions between on-the-ground mobilization and broader, global publics.
Environmentalists face a fundamental challenge: How can we devise arresting stories, images, and symbols that capture the pervasive but elusive effects of 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. All of these processes originate in catastrophic actions, but actions that do not lend themselves to spectacular representation.
At the heart of slow violence is the paradox of the long-term emergency. We’re taught to deal with immediate emergencies first, then turn to the long-term. Long-term can wait. But while we’re waiting for the right time to address the long-term emergencies, those emergencies aren’t static–in the interim, they’re being compounded; often they encroach more and more emphatically on the present. If you look at the climate crisis, for example, for decades it has been described as a five-minutes-to-midnight crisis. We pretend we have stopped the clock–that those five minutes can stay suspended for an eternity, while politicians get on with supposedly more pressing issues that determine mid-term election after mid-term election.