Nixon, Rob

Assigned: Nixon, Rob. From Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, from “Introduction” (2355-68); from “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea” (2369-72). Also read the editors’ introduction (2353-55).

From Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011)

From Introduction

1. On 2355-57 (“When Lawrence Summers, then…”), Rob Nixon begins his study with a quoted memo by former president of the World Bank Lawrence Summers—a memo that seemingly advocates the dumping of toxic materials from rich Western nations into Africa. (2356) How is this an instance of “slow violence,” as Nixon defines that term? What exactly is Nixon’s definition of slow violence? What challenges does such violence pose to environmental activists, and in what sense is the problem they face “representational” and media-related, not simply material or political? (2356-57)

2. On 2357-58 (“This book’s second, related focus…”), Nixon writes that his second emphasis is “the environmentalism of the poor” (2357). What special problems do poor communities face in relation to the “slow violence” of environmental degradation? How, according to Nixon, has resistance on the part of the poor increased? In his view, how have poor people to some extent shifted their perspectives on involvement in their struggle by environmentalists from rich Western nations? Why have such environmentalists generally been distrusted among poor activists and publics, and what may account for changing attitudes towards them now?

3. On 2358-59 (“The challenge of visibility that…”), Nixon describes his third matter of concern as the value of the “often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist” (2358). How does he describe relations between these individual writers and large environmental movements? What are his expectations with regard to their writings on the “slow violence” perpetrated against the global environment?

Slow Violence

4. On 2359-60 (“In this book, I have sought…”), Nixon focuses on the problem of “our inattention to calamities that are slow and long lasting…” (2359). What interlinked material and psychological factors, according to him, are largely responsible for the rich Western countries’ short attention span when it comes to disasters or indeed almost anything else? What irony does Nixon derive from the anti-colonialist author and activist Frantz Fanon’s early 1960s reference to the pesticide DDT as a metaphor for fighting Western oppression? (2360)

5. On 2360-62 (“Attritional catastrophes that overspill…”), why, according to Nixon, are “[a]ttritional catastrophes” (2360) such as the atomic testing bombardments of the Marshall Islands by the US military between 1948 and 1958 so easily forgettable for the nations who are responsible for them? How do such catastrophes highlight the need to think about environmental violence as “a contest not only over space, or bodies, or labor, or resources, but also over time” (2361)? In what sense, according to Nixon and others whom he cites, is “the post” of postcolonialism and postmodernism “never fully post…” (2361)? How is the sheer speed and pace at which the West lives a powerful force gravitating against remembrance of past environmental sins? (2362)

6. On 2362-63 (“The oxymoronic notion of slow…”), what challenges, according to Nixon, are posed by the slow violence of environmental destruction? Why is it difficult for people to get legal redress for injuries suffered in such a manner, or to get politicians to do something about long-term problems (or even medium-term problems) that science tells us need attention now? What is it about our democratic political systems in the West that—however many good things we can fairly say about them—renders foresight and planning almost impossible? (2362) Finally, what insight does Nixon draw from the experience of marine biologist Rachel Carson during the 1950s-1960s when she began to write about problems such as “biomagnification” of toxins in the marine food chain and “toxic drift” in the oceans? (2363)

Slow Violence and Structural Violence

7. On 2363-64 (“Seven years after Rachel Carson…”), Nixon discusses the work done by Johan Galtung on what that author calls “indirect or structural violence” (2363). What features does Nixon say that his own concentration on “slow violence” shares with “structural violence” (2363)? How would the IMF and World Bank’s strict rules about debt in the so-called developing world constitute an instance of structural violence? (2363) According to Nixon, in what significant way does his own theory of slow violence differ from Galtung’s idea of structural violence—what can the former theory capture that the latter cannot?

8. On 2364-65 (“Let me address the geological…”), Nixon explores the significance of Paul Crutzen’s phrase, “the Anthropocene Age” (2364), which that author dates to the mid-1750s with the invention by James Watt of the steam engine that so greatly contributed to industrialization in the West. What does the phrase “Anthropocene Age” imply about human impact upon the planet? What is the “Great Acceleration” (2365), and what are its implications with regard to global climate change? According to Nixon, how does the Great Acceleration coincide in an unfortunate way with the changes wrought upon human perceptual and intellectual habits by the increasingly digital nature of our lives? (2365)

9. On 2365-66 (“Efforts to make forms of slow…”), Nixon addresses the impact of the 9/11 attacks upon the American public’s conception of what constitutes violence. What dramatic images centered on those attacks have made it more difficult to sway the public on the less visible and immediate kinds of violence that Nixon focuses on? How too is the way we talk about America’s participation in the Vietnam War an instance of “representational bias against slow violence…” (2366)? In Nixon’s view, what is wrong with the temporal phrase, “during our dozen years there…” to describe the environmental destruction and human suffering wrought not only during the war but afterwards, especially with regard to the spraying of the extremely dangerous chemical Agent Orange to defoliate the dense forests of North Vietnam?

Slow Violence and Strategies of Representation: Writer-Activism

10. On 2366-67 (“How do we bring home…”), Nixon turns to consideration of what individual writer-activists can do to make the public more aware of “slow violence.” What special significance does the term “apprehension” (2367 top) hold for Nixon with regard to gaining attention for environmental issues? What does he suggest about “visibility” as a key concern in campaigns aiming to increase public awareness of environmental problems? In what sense are matters more complex than simply making things visible—in Nixon’s view, what more must be considered with respect to who sees what, when, and from what perspective? (2367)

11. On 2367-68 (“Against this backdrop, I want…”), what hopes does Nixon invest in the imaginative work done by “environmental writer-activists” (2367)? In what sense can such work, according to Nixon, offer us “a different kind of witnessing: of sights unseen” (2368 top)? How are “[c]ontests over what counts as violence” and “who counts as a witness”(2368) central to the struggle for environmental viability and justice?

12. General question: In our selection from Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon examines the difficulties involved in getting large numbers of harried, distracted people to attend to significant but relatively slow-moving environmental issues. He suggests that the powerful imaginative work of writer-activists is an important vehicle for reaching the public and moving it to demand action. To what extent do you agree with this view? To consider in responding: it seems sensible to argue that if the public doesn’t know what is happening or is left at the mercy of corporate and political disinformation campaigns, it can hardly be expected to demand serious action. Still, is it possible that many people do understand what is happening but can’t prioritize it thanks to their busy, often financially insecure lives? What about the possibility that even the most dramatic images—heart-rending videos of desperate polar bears adrift on a dwindling slab of iceberg, and so forth—are easily devalued by political polarization or ignored due to the despair they instill in us? In sum, how do you assess the possibilities when it comes to moving the public to demand environmental action?

13. General question: In 2020, documentarian Michael Moore released a film (directed by Jeff Gibbs) titled Planet of the Humans, which advances the belief that some of the environmental movement’s most eminent figures on renewable energy (wind, solar, etc.) have sold out to, or have been duped by, amoral corporations who feign interest in “renewables” as cover for their wasteful ways. The film has its advocates and its detractors, the latter of whom generally suggest that the filmmakers are leveling dated, inaccurate broadsides against sincere, tireless environmental champions like Al Gore and Bill McKibben. In our selection from Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon points to the inherent political, legal, and representational difficulties in getting enough people to demand serious improvement in our environmental behavior. He stresses the importance of writers—and presumably filmmakers like Michael Moore, too—in helping us, the public, to imagine in vivid and emotionally powerful ways things that we either don’t yet know, or know only in a distracted, confused way. Watch Moore and Gibbs’ film if you haven’t already seen it, and offer a brief opinion on what, if anything, you think the film achieves in the service of environmental awareness and action.

14. General question: In our selection from Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon argues that it is vital to focus the public’s attention on environmental problems that could do enormous damage to the planet over time. Nixon published this book in 2011, three years before the beginning of what is now referred to as “the Flint, Michigan water crisis.” Learn the details on your own, but in brief, the crisis came about because certain government officials decided to switch the city of Flint’s water supply to the long-polluted Flint River. The result? A whole city population—mostly consisting of poor people, many of them people of color— drinking water that contained damaging levels of toxins. Among the toxic materials in the water was lead, which can cause irreparable damage to vulnerable young minds and bodies. Even though this crisis in Flint has (thus far) unfolded over a relatively short period of time, how might it be considered paradigmatic with regard to Nixon’s idea of the “slow violence” of environmental degradation? What features of the crisis lend themselves to that description, and why so? Explain.

From The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea” (2014)

1. On 2369-70 (“What would it mean to imagine…”), Rob Nixon explains that it was chemist Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer who coined the term “Anthropocene” as a way of marking the end of the Holocene Epoch and the beginning of a new, human-dominated era. When did this era begin, according to Nixon and the above-mentioned authors? What is the “Great Acceleration” that is said to have begun in the 1950s? (2369) What are the primary indicators that a new era has indeed come to pass—in what ways, according to Nixon, have human beings already changed the earth and left their mark within and upon it? Among academics, what has been the reaction to Crutzen and Stoermer’s announcement: how has it brought together researchers from disparate fields? (2369-70) On what grounds does Nixon defend the “vital” (2370) significance of the humanities in the discourse on the Anthropocene?

2. On 2370-71 (“To such imaginative questions we…”), Nixon discusses the main disagreements among the proponents of the Anthropocene as a descriptive term for our own times. In particular, what problem do some theorists see with the “grand species perspective on the human” (2370) adopted by many such proponents? Then too, what disagreement exists between “command-and-control Anthropocene optimists” and “those who are skeptical of such a mindset” (2370)? What arguments are advanced on either side of this debate? (2370-71) What point does Nixon himself add to the debate? (2371)

3. On 2371-72 (“Concern over hubristic responses…”), Nixon examines the “third controversy” (2371) between those interested in the Anthropocene as a descriptive term for the present time. What risks do some theorists see in making such a large claim as the one involved in naming an entire epoch after ourselves? According to Nixon, in what ways and venues is the idea of the Anthropocene gaining traction with the public at the time of the present article’s writing in 2014? To what extent does he apparently see the increasing traction of this term as an opportunity for scholars to come together and reflect on what direction humanity might go from here on out, and how best to represent the global and local changes taking place?

4. General question: In our selection from “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea,” Rob Nixon examines the coming-on, according to some scholars, of the first truly human-dominated epoch in earth’s history, an as-yet brief epoch that includes grave and lasting damage to the entire planet. What do you think of the feasibility of reducing consumption as a way of solving our environmental problems? Would getting back to a simpler way of consuming and living help us stay viable as a species? This is a theory that, in a modern American context, is rooted in the neo-Romantic “hippy” movement of the mid-to-late 1960s, a time when many (especially younger) people in the U.S.A. became disenchanted with the stultifying quality of corporatized life, racial disparity and injustice, heedless environmental destruction, endless wars, and other longstanding problems. Is it possible for us to “return to nature” as we approach the third decade of the twenty-first century? (To consider: were we ever actually there?) Or is the only way forward to work towards progress through smarter technology in terms of how we build, how we consume, how we live? Is that plan, too, likely to be a vain hope—has humanity ever applied its technological cleverness wisely, or constrained its voracious appetites and desires voluntarily? Explain.

5. General question: In our selection from “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea,” Rob Nixon does not discuss at length whether he is optimistic or pessimistic about humanity’s future on earth, though it seems he has some hope for a better future. What do you think? Is the Anthropocene likely to be a rolling, self-targeting extinction event, or can we (especially those of us in the West, who are, after all, the worst polluters) turn things around in time? What evidence do you see for your viewpoint in terms of material developments and your view of human nature or behavioral patterns?

6. General question: In our selection from “The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea,” Rob Nixon considers the impact of humanity on the planet in what some scholars call the “Anthropocene,” the first fully human-dominated epoch in earth’s history. How much progress do you believe human beings have made in their relationship with the natural world since ancient times, when “nature” was generally regarded as the most fearsome enemyof pitifully ill-equipped, by no means robust humankind? Even into the nineteenth century, we might say, nature was still regarded either with vestigial fear or—thanks to our increasing technological mastery over the most dangerous animals and the harshest terrains—with a ruthless indifference bordering on contempt. So where are we now in our longstanding relationship with nature? (“We” means mainly the post-industrial West, though if your expertise moves you to include non-Western “developing” nations, feel free to include them or discuss them instead of the West.) Explain your view, and provide a sense of your overall optimism or pessimism regarding humanity’s prospects.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake