May 4, 2013 | Climate Connections
Note: Cynthia Hendel is a former holistic educator and long-time volunteer for Global Justice Ecology Project. -The GJEP Team
Book by Rob Nixon. Review by Cynthia Hendel, May 4, 2013.
Graciela Galup’s cover design for Rob Nixon’s book is arresting. An image of early industrialism’s smokestacks dominates the scene. Superimposed as a dark mass over a barely visible line of trees, the smoke seems to cross time. In the distance lies the risen city of a human progress founded on centuries of degradation and pain. The skyscrapers are faint, almost entirely erased in the smog-dense air of a ruined sky. The cover resonates urgency, but in the end Nixon’s book is not an urgent work.
Given the compelling theme and cover, Nixon’s position as Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madision, and the fact that a social justice/ecology organization of on-the-ground activists (who have been confronting slow violence for decades) was contacted for this review, I expected the book to focus on the living, dying realities of the “poor” of the title.
In part it does. Nixon’s chapters offer a history of slow violence across recent decades. From the contaminative practices of industry, to corporate land grabs for resource extraction, to the aftermath of chemical, oil, and nuclear accidents, and the mutagenic effects of radioactive cluster bombs and bullets used in recent US wars, Nixon describes how a military-industrial complex of economic growth powers on for the elite while the unvalued are left to suffer and die. The introduction opens with a juxtaposition of quotes that inspire empathy and outrage and set a tone for the book. The first is from Arundhati Roy:
I think of globalization like a light which shines brighter and brighter on a few people and the rest are in darkness, wiped out. They simply can’t be seen. Once you get used to not seeing something, then, slowly, it’s no longer possible to see it.The second is from Lawrence Summers while president of the World Bank, from a confidential memo (December 12, 1991):
I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in thelowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. . . . .I’ve always thought that countries in Africa are vastly under polluted; their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles. . . .Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the Least Developed Countries?I was ready at this point to learn about the lives of the people made invisible by Lawrence Summers’ dirty ethic, to see and hear from those who too long have gone unseen, unheard. Nixon writes of “developer dispossessors,” of “distant, shadowy, economic overlords,” of “transnational corporations, NGO’s, and [rich-nation] governments . . . working hand-in-fist with authoritarian regimes,” of “corporate shape-shifting and name changing to avoid accountability,” and of whole communities “forced to live their dislocated lives in place” if they are not pushed out by toxicity to become resource-extraction refugees. He devastatingly describes the terrain of abuse that drives “the politics of the visible and the invisible.”
But ironically, it is the “poor” of the title we do not hear or see. They remain anonymized, historical generalities or abstractions on the way to a different purpose: an exploration of nuances of symbol and theme through literary criticism that uses ecological disaster as the back drop for analysis. Political urgency diminishes as the sentences begin to wind with requisite scholarly footnoting that must pay homage to an array of others before an idea can be re-named or extended (spotlighted with the phrase “what I call”) and thus claimed anew for future citation. It all begins to have the feel of idea for idea’s sake.
The text also frequently moves toward culminating questions that become departmental and curricular as readers are addressed like attendees at a literary conference: “If al-Tih is a transnational masterpiece of Arab literature, as is conventionally observed, then it also warrants being read with a supplementary set of transnational questions in mind, among them this: how can such a novel help us rethink the conventional parameters of American wilderness literature?” (p. 90)
The hybrid purposes of the book thus for me became a frustrating read. On the one hand, searing geopolitical critique, and on the other, what felt like privileged academic irrelevancies. Direct questioning of the global economic order—described extensively as feeding off the extreme suffering of the many for the gross benefit of the few while climate, environment and life’s basic resources are devastated by war and greed–goes missing.
In the end, Nixon advises that nations address global warming by doing what British Petroleum (BP) failed to do after its “Beyond Petroleum” advertising campaign. With a bow toward innovation and efficiency–not a call for profound societal change–Nixon suggests we fuel the monster another way. He urges nations to invest “on a transformative scale in post-hydrocarbon possibilities” and adds, “This should be the long-term focus of our risk management, an alternative option that holds out job-generating possibilities to boot.” (p. 270) The cover image of the churning factory came to mind, technologically updated, alternatively fueled, and peopled for assembly of a “greener” line, but fundamentally the machinery of an unchanged paradigm.
We live in urgent times. Infinite-avarice capitalism is consuming the world alive as global warming reaches tipping points and resources as basic as clean air, land and water decline. Transnational corporations in league with powerful, rich-nation regimes are ravaging the globe for strategic military control and capital gains. Blame of industry and government for irreparable ecological damage and human suffering is averted, as Nixon notes, by time, distance, the power of money, and systematic lies–especially when the lands and peoples most affected are the already marginalized and unseen, especially when the most insidious legacies of ruin may lie for years hidden in the cells of the human body or in the reaches of geologic time.
Meanwhile a public at home somewhere in the empire is hooked on news as a flickering spectacle. As Nixon describes, when a chemical explosion like Bhopal, an oil disaster like Deepwater Horizon, nuclear meltdowns like Chernobyl or Fukushima, or the next US resource war in the name of freedom and democracy gains media attention, the blitz runs for a spectacular stretch before coverage moves on, leaving behind the illusion of crisis-at-an-end, though the toxic brutalities continue to deepen and spread. Thus public concern can be brief. Impunity for the powerful is secure. And the popcorn gets passed.
Nixon unifies his chapters by asking how writer-activists can engage a spectacle-dazed public on issues of slow violence that are “by definition image weak and demanding on attention spans.” (p. 276) More than fifty years ago, Rachel Carson wrote about a chemical, nuclear, military-industrial war on Nature and Life itself. When she went before Congress accused of trying to bring down not only the pesticide industry but the country, her pelvic bones were so riddled with cancer that she had difficulty standing. She spoke truth to legislative power. But first she wrote to the people. The discussion resonated and spread, and a watershed of change began.
Carson said that she used poetry and science both to write Silent Spring because it was the only way she knew to fully convey the truth. She skipped footnotes, instead providing critical resources at the end. She wrote about what she knew and what she foresaw. She offered readers a comprehensive perspective. A government they trusted was not taking care of them. Instead it was protecting the interests of industry. Birds were dying from toxic chemicals that also thinned their eggs. Children were playing outside as aerial toxins dusted over them. Industry was recklessly poisoning the earth and the future. She dared to describe and profoundly to question. People responded with conscience to realities lived.
Nixon’s closing image uses a quote from Nadine Gordimer to praise the writer-activist as a sort of hero whose creative brilliance will help transform societies in ways they “could never imagine, let alone demand.” (p. 280) Maybe it is not the writer-activist’s ingenuity that will save the day. Maybe the tragedies of our times are not “spectacle deficient.” Maybe they are perspective and conscience deficient. Maybe now more than ever we need to see and hear the truths of the people and places most affected, and then out of a sense of shared urgency, there will be no choice but to redefine what we value and how we live.