Slow violence

This harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all

by Ben Shread-Hewitt

Slow violence: Suffering, degradation, and pain inflicted upon people and communities by impersonal, dispersed forces; spread across time and space, with no defined point of impact, but nevertheless the result of a perpetrator/s’ actions.

In the Niger delta, the glowing flames of oil refineries rob the people of night. In northern Thailand, months of endless smoke seep silently through lungs and into bloodstreams. On the island of Tuvalu, the gentle waves creep implacably up the shoreline, set to consume it into the ceaseless ocean.

These are all forms of slow violence: induced environmental conditions that cause active harm to the people they affect. But this harm is slow, ill-defined, and often perceptible only in retrospect, when its perpetrators are long gone, if they were ever physically present at all.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all. When oil companies create populations so heavily poisoned their home becomes known as ‘Cancer Alley’, it is violence. But legally, if recognized at all, the act is not seen as an assault on the health of its victims, nor do those that suffer often perceive it as such. Even if the perpetrators come to justice, it will be for their negligent industrial practices, not for carcinogens they put into living bodies.

There is a difficulty in conceptualizing, or locating, slow violence when compared to its ‘fast’ counterpart, and one of its most insidious aspects is that it is often not recognized as violence at all

For the victims of slow violence, there is no punctual moment of disaster, there is no discernable beginning to their suffering and there is no end to hope for. The harm is environmental, their lifeworld becomes a weapon inflicted upon them. Furthermore, like the steady accumulations of poison in bloodstreams, slow violence is “not just attritional but also exponential” as Rob Nixon – the originator of the term – points out. It acts as “a major threat multiplier; it can fuel long-term, proliferating conflicts in situations where the conditions for sustaining life become increasingly but gradually degraded.”

Rob Nixon is a professor of English, and the importance of this becomes clear as one explores slow violence. It is ultimately a concept of narratives: what is harm? Who decides if it is or not? And who gets to claim it? In the neoliberal world, the story of progress is all pervasive, environmental issues are side effects to be managed, fixed, or superseded by innovation and entrepreneurship. This is a specific narrative at play, a framework which we use to piece the facts of reality into a coherent story. Silicone Valley and Peruvian lithium mines are both facts of global capitalism, but which one is the focus of the narrative? The poisoned waters and collapsing communities, or the shiny Tesla’s cruising financial district streets?

Nixon’s book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor is constructed on a series of mediations on different books or literary genres all focused on environmental degradation and the people caught in its wake. Whilst covering real world examples at points, it is largely a discussion of fictional – though by no means unrealistic – literature. At first glance, this focus on the narration of environmental disaster, rather than its empirical basis, might discourage us from its usage as a tool of political ecology. But as Erik Swyngedouw points out, environmental policy requires the choice of one narrative over another; so, to be acquainted with the narratives of slow violence, how they are constructed, viewed, or ignored, is one of the most integral lessons to be learned from Nixon’s work.

This narrative understanding is important because slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters. Environments act on many timescales: seasonal, biological, hydrological, or geological, they are often connected, but not synchronized. Environmental phenomena rarely occur at ‘humans speeds’, and causes may not render their effects for decades; or they may manifest themselves slowly and unevenly, an imperceptible drip of the past into the present. Neither do they follow the pathways we are accustomed to. Ecological materials do not transmit through markets or cultural exchange, they dissolve through webs of interconnections until they appear hidden, only to rejoin and accumulate again far from their source in both space and time. When applied to environmental pollutants, the difficulty of connecting the human scale of polluters and polluted with the twisting ecological pathways that connect the two becomes plain to see.

Slow violence defies most conventional understandings of harm. Whilst its victims and perpetrators may be human, the way it plays out is environmental, it does not neatly fit into news cycles, election seasons, or economic quarters.

The last military spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam, for example, was in 1971, yet its poisonous effects persist half a century later, killing, maiming, and deforming thousands. It lingers, percolating, pooling, and welling in muds, soils, and water, biomagnifying through food chains and into populations. The cancers it inflicts can be as deadly and debilitating as any instantaneous bomb or bullet, but they act slowly and implacably, when the aggressions have long since disengaged, and (for some, at least) the political story has moved on. Agent Orange is a pertinent example of slow violence, but it is amongst the easiest to recognize. From the poisoned waters of Flint to Pacific Islanders living in the wake of nuclear testing, long-term, proliferating violence constructs and blights their futures in hidden and pervasive ways.

Narratively novel it may be, we must be careful not to depoliticize slow violence as some ethereal, inexplicable force. Rob Nixon often speaks about the ‘out of site’ character of slow violence, but as has been pointed out by Thom Davies, ‘out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful. News cycles come and go, but the poisons, cancers, and broken socioecological systems remain, as do the communities that bear them witness.

‘Out of sight’ is a relative term; to those afflicted by slow violence it is rarely unnoticed. What consigns it to the category of ‘out of sight’ is its lack of political recognition in the mainstream narrative; whether implicit or purposeful.

Nor, for that matter, should we take ‘out of sight’ to mean perpetrators of slow violence are only ever guilty of ignorance. When, in a confidential memo from the then-president of the World Bank Lawrence Summers, he describes the ‘impeccable… economic logic’ of “dumping toxic waste in lower wage countries”, there is not ignorance at play. When Summers described higher wage nations as ‘over-polluted’, he was implicitly acknowledging the negativity of pollution, but the narrative constraints of his worldview did not permit him to rally against it, but simply to manage it. The harm was acknowledged, but it was going to be put out of sight, rather than simply find its way there. The reason Summers could propose inflicting toxic waste upon faraway communities, even when all agreed upon its danger, was the narrative. In this way, it is not violence, but simply rational decision making; whether inflicting a substance that can harm, main, or even kill someone is construe as ‘violent’ all depends on who is telling the story.

Slow violence is a tool for overcoming these long-imposed barriers on what we can claim to be right or wrong, violence or not. It is a particularly important device for political ecologists in the era of the ‘Anthropocene’, where the seeming abstractness of global issues like climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution can be used by the biggest perpetrators to forgo responsibility for the harm they inflict. If we are to strive for a more just ecological future, then recognizing what is to be overcome is one of the first challenges.

Further resources

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (2011)
The original source of the term, it explores examples, both real and fictional, to help the reader understand the concept and its implications for environmental justice in the globalized world.

The Environmentalism of the Poor by Joan Martinez Alier (2002)
Exploring the parallel, but initially unconnected environmental justice movements of the Global South and how they differed from those the North.

Promises of the Political: Insurgent Cities in a Post-Political Environment by Erik Swyngedouw (2018)
Environmental questions are inherently political, but increasingly they are consigned to technocratic decision making. This book looks at how to overcome this thinking and bring back the democratic voice to our shared environmental futures.

The Political Ecology of the State: The Basis and the Evolution of Environmental Statehood by Antonio Ioris (2014)
This book is dense and philosophical, but if you want to understand why and how states theorize environmental issues (and those affected by them) in the way they do, then it’s worth the effort.

Green Politics for a Divided Planet: Toward a Postcolonial Environmentalism by Douglas Torgerson (2005)
A good introductory paper to postcolonial environmentalism to those with no background in it.

Ben Shread-Hewitt is a masters student at Cardiff University, studying Sustainability, Planning and Environmental Policy. Find him on Twitter.