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Popular Music and Society
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Reggae Rhythms in Dignity’s Diaspora:
Globalization, Indigenous Identity, and
the Circulation of Cultural Struggle
Luis Alvarez
Published online: 29 Sep 2008.

To cite this article: Luis Alvarez (2008) Reggae Rhythms in Dignity’s Diaspora: Globalization,
Indigenous Identity, and the Circulation of Cultural Struggle, Popular Music and Society, 31:5,
575-597, DOI: 10.1080/03007760802188272

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Reggae Rhythms in Dignity’s Diaspora:
Globalization, Indigenous Identity,
and the Circulation of Cultural
Struggle
Luis Alvarez

In this article the author surveys the production and consumption of reggae music among

diverse indigenous groups, including Native Americans, Maoris, Aborigines, and Pacific

Islanders. Drawing from oral interviews, music and lyrics, artist and record label

websites, and recent accounts of cultural and political activism, he argues that the

cultural connections between different indigenous reggae artists and their fans constitute

a Diaspora, one based not on any single race, ethnic, or place-based identity, but on their

shared struggles for dignity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of globalization. He

ultimately demonstrates how reggae reveals the political, economic, and social

possibilities and contradictions of indigenous identity.

Several years ago I attended a live performance by Mutabaruka, the politically

outspoken Rastafarian dub poet from Jamaica, at a small night club in Mesa, Arizona.

The audience was diverse in its racial and ethnic make-up, including a large number

of Native American Indians from the surrounding Tohono O’odham, Yavapai, Pima,

and Gila River Indian communities. After a nearly two-hour performance during

which the crowd enthusiastically responded to his many references to the history of

struggle by indigenous peoples, Mutabaruka closed with two poems entitled

‘‘Whiteman Country’’ and ‘‘De System.’’
1

Dedicated to the ‘‘native peoples’’ in

attendance, these final numbers prompted the audience to push forward, crowd the

area directly in front of the stage, and sway in unison to the thick drum and bass line

that accompanied lyrics emphasizing indigenous land claims, resistance to

colonization, and the unity of different native populations.

My observations from the Mutabaruka concert are a good place to begin thinking

about the ways indigenous identity and the African Diaspora meet in the production

and consumption of reggae music, how the political and cultural struggles of

Popular Music and Society
Vol. 31, No. 5, December 2008, pp. 575–597

ISSN 0300-7766 (print)/ISSN 1740-1712 (online) # 2008 Taylor & Francis
DOI: 10.1080/03007760802188272

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different aggrieved populations intersect, and whether popular music offers any kind

of recourse for people seeking autonomy and dignity in their lives. In this article, I

explore the growing popularity of reggae music in indigenous communities of the US

southwest, New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific Islands. I investigate how the

consumption and production of reggae by indigenous groups simultaneously

critiques the impact of globalization on their communities and makes use of its far-

reaching networks. I examine how reggae cultivates trans-regional indigenous

identities and cultural exchange while it also emphasizes local experiences, places, and

histories. I consider how reggae serves as a vehicle for some indigenous groups to

claim dignity in the face of the dehumanizing effects of globalization at the same time

as it contradicts such a political project by denying the dignity of others and

reinforcing relations of economic inequality. These lines of inquiry, moreover, reveal

that there is often an intricate relationship between reggae and indigenous social

movements, lending support to the contention that some cultural practices and

venues have the potential to be turned into resources that might ‘‘be mobilized in the

pursuit of social justice under certain circumstances’’ (Yudice 53). The consumption

and production of reggae music in indigenous communities is thus one example of

how globalization operates in the form of everyday cultural and political expression

as much as it does in the activity of transnational corporations and nation-states.

The popularity of reggae among indigenous peoples has been most often

chronicled as a small part of reggae’s larger globalization, as a footnote to reggae’s

popularity in Europe, Africa, or Latin America, or as it has developed in singular

indigenous communities. Much less has been said about how the globalization of

reggae illustrates the shifting nature of indigenous identity, the African Diaspora, and

how cultural politics connects the two. The reggae rhythms emanating from

indigenous communities speak to local social, political, and economic struggles at the

same time as they relate to those of others. The consumption and production of

reggae by indigenous groups ultimately reveals that their shared ‘‘indigenous’’

identity often rests on intersecting desires for dignity, justice, and autonomy as much

as, or even more than, it does on any racial determinism.

I ultimately argue that the connections between different indigenous reggae artists

and their fans constitute a Diaspora, one based not on any single race, ethnic, or

place-based identity, but on their shared and ongoing struggles for dignity amid the

often demoralizing and marginalizing forces of global capitalism and post-colonial

nation-states. Reggae music simultaneously illumines particular ethnic, cultural, and

historical experiences of indigenous populations and the possibilities of an

indigenous identity that draws from shared political struggles and convergences.

The Diaspora fueled by the reggae rhythms in indigenous communities is thus as

much about what cultural and political connections might be in the present and

future as much as it is about similar historical experiences of colonialism, land

displacement, and racism.

Following a brief discussion of the impact of globalization on commercial culture

and reggae music, in particular, the rest of this article chronicles the reggae music

576 L. Alvarez

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scenes in several indigenous communities around the world. I draw from oral

interviews, recent music and lyrics, artist and record label websites, and reports by

several indigenous themed periodicals to reveal reggae’s popularity among Native

Americans in the US southwest, Maori in New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia, and

other ‘‘native’’ peoples in the Pacific islands. In the final section I speculate further on

indigenous reggae both as a struggle for dignity and on the ways it underscores

economic and gender inequality.

Globalization, Reggae, and Indigenous Struggles for Dignity

Though global economic and political relations have been evident for centuries,

intensification of the deregulation of world markets, global flows of capital, ideas, and

labor, and growth of mass technology and communication systems in the last 50

years have led to what many scholars have described as the transnational phase of

globalization. For many indigenous populations this has meant the continuation of

intense struggles to maintain access to their historical land base, to control natural

resources, and to exercise political autonomy, language rights, and freedom of

religious and cultural expression. From Hopiland to East Timor to New Zealand

there are countless narratives of state-sanctioned ethnocide extinguishing indigenous

cultures and communities in the name of progress, tourism, nation-building, and

transnational economic development. The devastating consequences of capital’s

continued globalization have left indigenous communities around the world facing

varied, yet similar conditions of economic stagnation, lack of social services and

political representation, and erasure from the dominant historical narratives of many

nations. Native American efforts to alleviate the often high rates of unemployment,

alcoholism, and corporate influences on reservations, along with the ongoing post-

colonial struggles of Maori communities in New Zealand, Aborigines in Australia,

and native Pacific Islanders to ensure cultural and political autonomy point to the

myriad challenges faced by indigenous populations. As anthropologists Bartholomew

Dean and Jerome Levi (20) argue, many indigenous groups around the world

continue to be dehumanized as folkloric citizens and international tourist

commodities as they are forced from their homelands by corporate mining and

logging interests and encouraged to abandon their ‘‘traditional’’ languages and

cultures.

Alongside processes of ‘‘Coca-colonization, Nike-ization, and McDonald-ization,’’

however, everyday cultural expression is also subtly disseminated around the globe,

opening up possibilities for new social formations (Hall). According to cultural critic

George Lipsitz (12), popular music, in particular, embodies the contradictions of

commercialized culture and serves as a ‘‘dangerous crossroads,’’ ‘‘an intersection

between the undesirable saturation of commercial culture in every area of human

endeavor and the emergence of a new public sphere that uses the circuits of

commodity production and circulation to envision and activate new social relations.’’

It behooves us, in other words, to recognize that new identities often emerge in the

Popular Music and Society 577

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spaces between capitalist networks and the social or cultural practices they presume

to, but cannot totally, control (Lowe and Lloyd 25). Though popular music may not

have the power to repel the dominant forces of globalization head on, in large part

because it is deeply embedded in the circuits of transnational capital itself, it can

provide a vehicle for indigenous and other historically marginalized populations to

share unique histories of struggles against globalization, form community across

geography, and imagine a future where cultural difference is valued and respected

rather than erased or subsumed in the name of profit, marketing, and political

homogeneity.

Amid contradictory economic policies and new forms of colonialism that neglect

their livelihood and erase the historical memory of ethnocide, a discourse of dignity

encompassing new social relations and forms of resistance has emerged in the

cultural and political practices of indigenous groups dealing with the ill effects of

globalization. The Zapatista resistance against neo-liberal incursions into their Mayan

communities in Chiapas, Mexico provides one intriguing example of how dignity

can function as a central organizing principle for indigenous social movements. As

a form of grassroots theorizing, the communiqués of Zapatista spokesperson

Subcomandante Marcos and the activities of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberacion

Nacional (EZLN) suggest dignity is less a static quality or state of being worthy,

honored, or esteemed and more the lived struggle for pride, hope, and humanity

against poor life chances defined by the seemingly overwhelming forces of

globalization. In the eyes of the Zapatistas, dignity is a politics of refusal: a refusal

to accept humiliation, a refusal to quietly endure dehumanization, and a refusal to

conform. Dignity does not require a formal political organization nor is it defined by

racial, regional, or gender borders of identity or community. As a struggle against its

own denial, the fluid and inclusive nature of cultural, political, and social

relationships ultimately defines dignity.
2

Albeit less explicitly theorized than in the

case of the EZLN, reggae music is another forum in which the right to live with

dignity reveals itself as a prominent feature in how indigenous groups navigate the

pitfalls of globalization. Against the denial of their dignity by globalization, diverse

indigenous groups have generated a vibrant cultural and political exchange about

how to resist, survive, and thrive against such seemingly overwhelming forces.

As it has become a global music, reggae has emerged as one vehicle for indigenous

and other marginalized populations to articulate their struggles against incursions

of transnational capital into their local communities. A number of scholars (Foster;

Savishinsky; Spencer) have documented the spread of reggae from Jamaica, where

the music evolved from previous traditions of ska and rock steady before being

heavily shaped by Rastafarians in the late 1960s and early 1970s into reggae, to

virtually every part of the world, including Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia, Latin

America, and North America. As ethnomusicologist Steven Feld argues (Feld 273),

reggae’s ‘‘perception by indigenous people outside the Caribbean as an opposi-

tional, roots ethno-pop form has led to its local adoption by migrants and

indigenous in places as diverse as Europe, Hawaii, native North America, aboriginal

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Australia, Papua New Guinea, South Africa, and South East Africa.’’ Part of reggae’s

appeal in indigenous communities thus stems from its rhetorical use of sweeping

and general critiques of exploitation evident in multiple genres of protest music

(Knupp 384–5). At the same time, however, others (Gaztambide-Fernandez;

Giovannetti; Moyer; Yudice) have documented the ways that reggae has grown in

relation to local economic, social, and political conditions, specific histories of

colonization and subsequent resistance, and particular experiences of racialization

to accrue unique meanings in places such as Brazil, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania. In

these and other places, reggae has experienced what Gaztambide-Fernandez (231)

describes as ‘‘hybridization through globalization,’’ where the ‘‘complex interactions

between local and global economic, political, and cultural dynamics drive the

production and reproduction of musical styles around the world.’’ This growing

body of literature on reggae reveals how different communities consume and

produce reggae as a mechanism to reflect, refract, and speak to local politics at the

same time as they are in dialogue with other populations and cultures through the

music. As Lipsitz argues for popular music more generally, reggae works ‘‘through

the conduits of commercial culture in order to illuminate affinities, resemblances,

and potentials for alliances among a world population that now must be as dynamic

and as mobile as the forces of capital’’ (17).

The commercial character of reggae music and the struggles for dignity it helps

facilitate have implications for our understanding of indigenous identity. For many

indigenous peoples, the intensification of consumerism has turned their ‘‘traditional’’

cultures into commodities that are packaged as products and made available to a

global audience (Dean and Levi 3). This can have multiple effects, including, on the

one hand, putting longstanding historical and local systems of knowledge at risk as

their meanings become increasingly appropriated and warped and, on the other,

helping advance the worldviews of indigenous groups and legitimize struggles for

indigenous rights. At the same time that commercial culture transmits indigenous

culture around the globe, it also broadens the pool of cultural influences and

resources that shape indigenous identity, including, for the purposes of this article,

reggae music from Jamaica and elsewhere around the world. As I argue below, the

variant forms of indigenous reggae facilitate a dialogue about how different

populations share histories of colonial violence and the ways they continue to

struggle for better lives, including by (1) securing control and use of their historical

land base; (2) maintaining control over natural resources available on such lands; (3)

practicing political autonomy against incursions by post-colonial nation states; (4)

fighting for the right to speak their ancestral languages; (5) establishing freedom of

religious and cultural expression (Dean and Levi 19–20). These themes all emerge to

varying degrees in the reggae of indigenous communities around the world and

provide points of commonality for different groups to identify with other indigenous

groups and talk back to the power of globalizing economic and political forces.

‘‘Indigenous’’ identity thus garners its meaning from the historical context in which

it is performed, shifts over time and place, and is heterogeneous. The rest of this

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article charts how reggae reveals the contours and possibilities of indigenous identity

in this moment of globalization.

Reggae on the Rez

As my experience at the Mutabaruka concert in Mesa illustrates, there is a strong

reggae following on the Native American reservations in the US southwest. Dating

back to the early 1970s when the music of Bob Marley and the Wailers helped bring

the reggae sound to much of the world, the number of Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo, and

other Native American reggae fans has grown dramatically. In the early 1980s British

filmmaker Joe Menell, working with music producer Chris Blackwell of Island

Records, explored the phenomenon of ‘‘reggae on the rez’’ in a documentary film

chronicling the intense popularity of Marley and reggae in the Havasupai Indian

community, a small reservation located at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The

documentary process included three days of footage and a live concert on the

Havasupai reservation with Cedella Booker, mother of Bob Marley, and Tyrone

Downie, keyboardist for the Wailers. Though the footage was never made

commercially available, the project was widely reported and came to serve as a

hallmark moment in charting the reggae–Native American story (Collins 2). Around

the same time as the Havasupai documentary filming, the popularity of reggae in the

region received another boost when a group of Hopi Indians initiated a concert

series. After years of driving several hours into metropolitan Phoenix for live reggae

shows, several Hopi brought a local Phoenix area band to play at an elementary

school gym on the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. When more than 200

people showed up, a tradition was born (Weber 36). In the years that followed, the

Hopiland concerts grew exponentially to help bring the biggest Jamaican, British, and

African reggae acts to Hopiland, spread reggae’s popularity throughout the Native

American southwest, and inspire local Native American musicians to produce their

own reggae.

A few scholars have speculated as to why reggae has come to be so popular among

Native Americans (Collins; Savishinsky; Ullestad). The most common assumption is

that there are a number of cultural and historical commonalities between Native

Americans and black Jamaican Rastafarians, including spirituality in their everyday

lives, deep-rooted connections to the land, longstanding struggles against colonialism

and slavery, and more recent battles against tourism, mining, and logging. Journalist

Steve Helig (46) argues as much when he notes that ‘‘Rastafarians and American

Indians are both deeply spiritual peoples, both displaced and downtrodden,

struggling for identity and integrity, sometimes with a psychoactive sacrament used

as an integral part of worship.’’ Ras Joseph, a transplanted Jamaican Rastafarian

living in the metro Phoenix, Arizona area where he promotes local reggae concerts,

similarly argues:

Reggae [is] popular all over the world really, you know. Native Americans love
reggae music ‘cause of the culture, you know.’ Cause the culture [reggae and Rasta]

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coincides with their culture pretty much, you know. You know, a lot of things the
Indian believe as far as the earth and the natural things Rasta believe. So I think
that’s what brings them [Native Americans] more into it [reggae].

3

Though such observations may be accurate to some degree, as cultural critic Loretta

Collins points out, they also tend to reduce Native American and Rastafarian

cultures, along with reggae music itself, to a series of essential components and static

characteristics. It is perhaps more useful to consider the historical and cultural

commonalities between different Native Americans and black Rastas as the impetus

for a dynamic process of cultural exchange and borrowing through reggae music.

Neither Native American, nor Rasta, nor reggae cultures, in other words, are

unaffected by their encounters with one another. As I will explore below, Native

American lives are shaped by reggae just as the music and perspectives of black Rastas

who make reggae are influenced by its growth on the reservations in the US

southwest.

One result of the growth of reggae on the reservations is the intensification of

cultural exchange and social ties between Native Americans and Afro-Caribbean

Rastafarians. Near the Hopi reservation in northern Arizona, the Navajo in Arizona,

and the Pueblo in New Mexico, a cultural infrastructure including touring concerts,

specialty shops, and networks of informal exchange of tapes, CDs, and reggae apparel

has emerged. In particular, the number of live performances in areas near Native

American reservations fuels reggae’s popularity and makes the music a vehicle for

bringing different Indian groups together. Dennis Sydney, a teenage Hopi youth in

northern Arizona, notes as much when he observes: ‘‘Young people come to the

concerts from all over. Not just Hopi, but Navajos, people from Flagstaff, people

from all over. It is a celebration for the native peoples of the world’’ (Brinkley-

Rogers). Lucas Naranjo, a Pueblo youth from northern New Mexico, recounts the

buzz created by big reggae concerts among his classmates at the Santa Fe Indian

School:

Yeah, they got the big Sunsplash. Sunsplash, that’s like where there’s a lot groups
coming. It’s the best concert of all reggae and at the Paolo Soleri [amphitheater] in
Santa Fe they have a lot of … The Paolo Soleri at the Santa Fe Indian School so
that’s where like, I mean all, mostly all the reggae concerts come to Santa Fe at the
Paolo Soleri at the Indian School. So, I mean, most of the Indian School, everyone
from there goes.

4

While reggae has a particularly large following among Native American youth, it is

also not a social scene exclusive of older people or the very young. The Mutabaruka

concert I attended in Mesa illustrated this, as the Native Americans that filled the

small, dark, and smoky nightclub varied in age from toddlers to those over 60. One

Navajo mother, Yoli, allowed her six-year-old son and five-year-old daughter to stay

out late for the concert.
5

The increasing number of visits by Jamaican and British artists to the US southwest

since the 1980s helped launch a local economy of reggae music that includes the

informal exchanging of music and the emergence of reggae specialty shops catering to

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Native American clientele. Lucas Naranjo attests to the popularity of reggae among

Pueblo youth at the Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe when he states: ‘‘Most

everybody I know, it’s like, they like reggae, R and B, and rap.’’ He remembers

listening to reggae, collecting and trading homemade cassette tapes, and exchanging

reggae-inspired shirts, hats, artwork, and jewelry with friends as early as the fifth

grade. He also explains the popularity of reggae as the choice for graduation theme

music among his middle-school classmates:

Reggae I think a lot of people like, like our eighth grade promotion, like our class
song was ‘‘Three Little Birds’’ by Bob Marley. Yeah, I don’t know … Everyone was
like ‘‘think of a class song.’’ First there was a hip hop song, ‘‘no, think of another
one.’’ Then there was a metal heads song, ‘‘no way dude.’’ Then it’s like, ‘‘How
about Bob Marley, ‘Three Little Birds.’’’ We’re like, ‘‘yeah, yeah.’’ For most of the
promotions it’s always been reggae.

6

Of course, Lucas and many of his classmates may be drawn to reggae for a variety of

reasons, many of which may not have anything to do with the politics of either the

music or their Indian communities. It may simply be that the exotic, rebellious, and

trendy nature of reggae caught their attention. At the same time, however, it is

difficult to imagine reggae flourishing to such depths in the Pueblos of northern New

Mexico and other Native American communities without a deeper cultural, spiritual,

and political overlap with reggae and its Rastafarian creators.

The appeal of reggae to Native Americans and, in turn, the appreciation of Native

American culture by many Afro-Caribbean and African Rastas is evident in the

growth of Rasta-owned and -operated reggae specialty shops near Indian reservations.

In Santa Fe, the reggae- and world beat-oriented store Tribal Expressions was one

popular outlet for reggae music, T-shirts, caps, posters, and art work throughout the

1990s. Shop owner, Rastafarian, and St. Kitts island native Sylko asserts that most of

his customers are Native American. ‘‘They tend to really appreciate having us here

and supporting us and getting the stuff,’’ he says.
7

Another transplanted Rastafarian,

Ethiopian-born Daniel Wesega, has owned and operated his reggae shop Rasta Tings

for more than a decade. Originally located in Mesa, Arizona because it served as a

central location in area Native American demands for reggae music and goods, Rasta

Tings has since moved to a larger building in Tempe near the campus of Arizona

State University. Prior to the move, Wesega estimated that nearly 80% of his business

came from Native American customers. He simply states that ‘‘The way they [Native

Americans] look at it, reggae music is part of their life, you know. They can’t live

without reggae music.’’
8

In addition to Tribal Expressions and Rasta Tings, there are

several other reggae shops throughout Arizona and New Mexico, along with locally

run record stores, like Que Pasa Music/The Trader in Taos, New Mexico, that, while

not specializing in reggae, cite it as one of their biggest sellers and include Native

Americans among their clientele (Christman 85).

At the same time that Native Americans of the US southwest consume reggae and

black Rastas become part of their communities by opening shops, the growth of

reggae in these areas has not been lost on Jamaican, British, and US-based reggae

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performers. In fact, in addition to making frequent stops in Hopiland, Phoenix,

Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and other sites where Native Americans make up large

numbers of their concert audiences, many artists reference American Indians in their

music and lyrics. The San Diego-based reggae band Big Mountain, whose lead singer

Quino is Chicano/Irish, articulate their spiritual support for the native peoples of the

US southwest in the liner notes of their second album, Unity. They explain the

meaning and symbolism of their group’s name by stating:

Special recognition goes to the Dineh’ People [Navajo] of the Big Mountain region
of Northern Arizona. It was their struggle that inspired us to name ourselves Big
Mountain. They are involved in a bitter fight with various forces, including the US
government, that conspire to remove them from their ancestral lands, and turn
their lands over to mining interests. This could only lead to the destruction of their
sacred land, their culture, and the only way of life they’ve ever known.

9

Big Mountain continue by drawing links between the struggles of indigenous

populations around the globe, claiming they

are dedicated to bringing awareness to the struggles of indigenous peoples
everywhere. Whether it be the sovereignty movement of the Hawaiian people, the
Zapatista freedom fighters in Chiapas, or the incidents at Oglala, we are all bound
in the common fight for the survival of our native cultures. We must recognize the
solidarity, we all must share against injustice.

10

A number of other artists solidify the relationship between Rastas and Native

Americans by referencing the Native American love of reggae. For example, in

‘‘Reggae on the River,’’ a salute to their many fans, longtime roots reggae harmony

trio Israel Vibration (1991) wail, ‘‘Up in Hopi Land the Indians just a skank it man.’’

Similar lyrical references are made by Mutabaruka, Burning Spear, Toots and the

Maytals, and others. Interestingly, many of these same artists pay homage to the

Arawak Indians, the tribe native to Jamaica, by recognizing their historical

connection to the land and shared struggle with black Rastafarians against

colonialism and white supremacy in the Caribbean.

The Native American interest in reggae music is perhaps most evident in the

increasing number of Native American reggae artists. Groups like Native Roots from

Albuquerque and Casper Loma Da-Wa from Hopiland are among those performers

who address education and poverty on the reservations, inter-tribe unity, and native

claims to land and historical representation through their unique brand of Native

American reggae. More than simply replicating or covering Jamaican reggae, these

musicians incorporate tribal music, chants, and cultural references to make the music

their own.

Founded near Albuquerque, New Mexico by Emmett ‘‘Shkeme’’ Garcia of Santa

Ana Pueblo and John Williams, for example, Native Roots claim to add ‘‘beads and

fringes’’ to the drum and bass rhythm of reggae by mixing blues and rock influences

with traditional Pueblo drums and rattles, chants, language, and flute to produce a

repertoire of reggae styles including ragamuffin, roots, lovers rock, and dancehall.

Since their inception in 1997 Native Roots have released two full-length compact

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discs (A Place I Call Home in 1999, which won the 2000 Native American Music

Award for ‘‘Best Recording by an Independent Label,’’ and Rain Us Love in 2001,

which won the 2002 Native American Music Award for ‘‘Best World Music

Recording’’), performed with such international reggae stars as Israel Vibration,

Burning Spear, and Toots and the Maytals, and played major events like the Winter

Olympics, Cherokee Tribal Fair, Seminole Tribal Fair, Sundance Film Festival, and

the National Indian Education Association Convention.
11

Though many of their songs are not overtly political in their lyrics, their songs do

often speak to local Pueblo issues rooted in northern New Mexico. In the chorus of

‘‘A Place I Call Home’’ (A Place I Call Home, 1999), for instance, Native Roots wax

nostalgic about living on reservation land. The song references both the physical

geography of the Pueblo region in northern New Mexico and the peace of mind that

comes from being with their families and fellow Indians:

Beautiful Mountains, beautiful valleys, beautiful mesas, and the canyons too
A place I call home, a place we call home
That’s where I find love, that’s where I find support
That’s where I find happiness and comfort

The song ends by making a more overt call for tribal rights to ancestral territories on

behalf of Navajos, Pueblos, Apaches, and Sioux. In ‘‘Rez Yard’’ (Rain Us Love, 2001)

Native Roots combine Pueblo and Rastafarian traditions by borrowing the often-used

slang of ‘‘yard,’’ traditionally employed in Jamaican reggae to refer to the urban

tenement yards in Kingston and rural camps where many poor black Jamaicans

reside, to describe Native American reservations. In addition to alluding to parallel

experiences of how racialization and poverty are inscribed on the living spaces of

reservation Indians and urban black Jamaicans, lead singer ‘‘Shkeme’’ Garcia invokes

the challenges of both past and future life on the reservation when he condemns those

who ignore history by believing ‘‘tradition no part of the plan’’ and those who ‘‘no

care about the tribal future’’ because they ‘‘forget about the Indian people.’’ ‘‘Rez

Yard’’ urges reservation Indians to battle against the longstanding issues of

depression and alcoholism, all the while underscoring that their ‘‘fate is right here

in the yard.’’ Other Native Roots tunes from Rain Us Love (2001), including

‘‘Firewater,’’ ‘‘Frybread,’’ ‘‘Roots and Culture,’’ and ‘‘Native Dancehall,’’ similarly

address issues of Pueblo and other Native American struggles for control over

reservation lands, maintenance and practice of traditional cultures and language, and

political autonomy.

Native Roots further promote indigenous rights and inter-cultural dialogue

beyond their music. ‘‘Shkeme’’ Garcia and Native Roots are also actively involved in a

variety of ongoing political struggles, organizing, and activism advocating indigenous

rights. Native Roots, for example, have played at and helped organize numerous

native arts festivals, benefits against mining and development initiatives in

reservation areas, and inter-indigenous tribal exchanges. In addition to playing with

Native Roots at festivals like the Annual Electric 49 show in Albuquerque that

highlights Native American music from reggae to rap to rock, ‘‘Shkeme’’ Garcia is

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co-owner and manager of Emergence Productions, an outfit that plans and

coordinates a wide variety of events such as the eleventh annual Native Roots &

Rhythms festival held in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2005. As one of the premiere Native

American performing arts festivals, Native Roots & Rhythms includes indigenous

musicians, dancers, and artists from all over the Americas, a cross-section of

contemporary and traditional performers, and serves as a platform for the growth of

aspiring Native American artists through workshops, events, and interaction with other

performers.
12

In another example, Native Roots played a benefit in 2004 hosted by the

grassroots Navajo organization Dine Bidzill, a group engaged in struggles against

environmental destruction of native lands and the protection of sacred sites. The event,

held in Farmington, New Mexico in January of 2004, was geared towards protesting

new uranium mining development plans targeting Navajo lands in a federal energy bill,

an issue that built on years of anti-mining organizing among indigenous groups in the

US southwest for the destruction of land, radiation dangers, and loss of political

autonomy for native peoples.
13

‘‘Shkeme’’ and Emergence Productions also played a

vital role in the 2005 Emergence Youth Cultural Exchange (EYCE), which included

Upper Sioux Dakota from Minnesota, Seminole from Florida, Yavapai from Arizona,

and even Maori from New Zealand in an inter-tribal cultural gathering in the Pueblos

of northern New Mexico. The multi-day event brought youth from these different

indigenous groups together to learn more about one another and their histories, and,

because it was held in New Mexico, included traditional feasts, music, and dancing in

the Pueblos. In addition to facilitating goals of inter-tribal networking, connecting

different indigenous struggles and identities, and valuing multiple indigenous cultures,

language retention, and life experiences, the EYCE spawned future efforts to continue

such dialogue like the efforts of Pueblo youth to attend the World Indigenous Peoples

Education Conference in New Zealand later in 2005.
14

Just as Native Roots have been an active voice in Native American reggae in the last

decade, so too has Casper Loma-Da-Wa. Born of a Hopi father and Navajo mother,

Loma-Da-Wa was raised in Hopiland in Northern Arizona, where he was deeply

shaped by both Hopi and Navajo cultural traditions, as well as by the visits of popular

reggae performers like Burning Spear, Steel Pulse, Aswad, and Bob Marley. Casper, as

he has come to be known, is perhaps the most well-known Native American reggae

artist. He has released several full-length compact discs on his own Third Mesa Music

label, including Original Landlord (1997) and The Sounds of Reality (2000), the last of

which won the Native American Music Award for ‘‘Best World Music Recording.’’

He has performed across the United States, with internationally renowned reggae

bands such as the Wailers, Burning Spear, and Culture, and was even a featured

musical guest at the American Indian Inaugural Ball in Arlington, Virginia in 2001,

one of several events leading up to the presidential inauguration.
15

Much of Casper’s music draws on traditional Hopi rhythms and beats at the same

time as it is firmly rooted in a variety of reggae styles, including roots and djay

styles. Casper’s versatility as both a singer and djay, in fact, often lead observers to

describe him as a singjay. Whether he is singing in the tradition of roots reggae or

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rapping in a dancehall djay style, Casper maintains that ‘‘I feel what I sing,’’ a

sentiment reflected not only in his passion for reggae and his Hopi/Navajo identity,

but also in the lyrical content of his music. Many of his songs, for example, advocate

for Hopi land rights, political autonomy, and freedom of cultural expression against

forces of the US government and multi-national development companies. In the

title track to his first solo-produced CD, Original Landlord (1997), for instance,

Casper relates the fight by Hopi and Navajo peoples against the US government and

Peabody Energy Company, which has long mined the area for coal while leaving

little but ecological destruction and human rights abuses in its wake. Over a heavy

drum and bass line, Casper chants:

Tell you about the things the world not see

And of the ways, government policies

They strip upon me land at ah Peabody

This a serious, this is not ah funny

In other songs, like ‘‘Hundred Years of Redemption’’ and ‘‘No Indian,’’ Casper

excavates what feminist and cultural critic Donna Harroway (575–99) might

identify as Native American ‘‘situated knowledges’’ of violence and colonization.

Casper shares the often-ignored history of the Hopi to claim their own land and

rights at the same time as he recognizes how Hopi struggles are often shared by

others. In his song ‘‘Hopiland Winter’’ (The Sounds of Reality, 2000), for example,

Loma Da-Wa’s dedication to the ‘‘indigenous people throughout the world’’

highlights his shared sense of struggle and identity, yet his lyrics and music explicitly

anchor his reggae in his Hopiland. In ‘‘How the West was Won’’ (The Sounds of

Reality, 2000), Casper plays dramatically on the Jamaican reggae slang of djaying in

a ‘‘murder style’’ by chanting ‘‘gonna tell you how the west was won, inna murder

style’’ as he references Hopi, Navajo, Sioux, and other indigenous struggles against

white settlement, violence, and manifest destiny. The same song, as literary critic

Loretta Collins (7–8) points out, challenges standard interpretations of the ‘‘wild

wild west’’ in the reggae genre that emphasize the renegade and hyper-masculine

virtues of Hollywood-made Western-style films. Casper, rather, recognizes the

dehumanization of native peoples in Western history and their claims to dignity in

the face of such oppression. In another song, ‘‘Why?’’ (Original Landlord, 1997),

Casper delivers lyrics in a classic singjay style that, despite its essentializing

tendency, draws links between the experiences of Native Americans and black

Africans. He sings:

Being a native, and living in America

Is like being black and living down in Africa

Me don’t get it, me really don’t understand

In people’s eyes I’m a 2nd class citizen

Like Native Roots, moreover, Casper Loma-Da-Wa’s inter-racial and multi-ethnic

politics extend beyond his music to supporting a variety of programs and initiatives

for indigenous rights, including demonstrations against Peabody Energy and other

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mining interests, promotion of native performing arts, and support for efforts to

increase Hopi and Navajo control in devising environmentally safe and economically

successful energy sources on reservation lands.
16

While Native Roots and Casper are among the most recognized Native American

reggae artists, several other bands, musicians, and poets, including Joy Harjo, Red

Earth, and others, experiment with reggae in their performance art (Ullestad). These

artists often convey the spiritual and political connections that Hopi, Navajo, Pueblo,

and other Native Americans have with black Rastafarians. They perform their

indigenous identity in ways that stretch beyond the boundaries of their own

reservations and tribal nations. Indigenous reggae thus facilitates cross-cultural

exchange at the same time as it engages very local experiences and histories. As

globalization intensifies the gap between the haves and have-nots, indigenous reggae

thrives within the very channels of global capital to help fuel new social relationships

and claims to dignity, social justice, and political autonomy.

Reggae from the ‘‘Other’’ Islands

Just as Native Americans have used reggae to make sense of globalization and explore

their connections with other marginalized groups, so too have other indigenous

peoples around the world. Reggae’s message of liberation and resistance against the

dehumanization of colonization and globalization has long resonated with the Maori

of New Zealand, Aborigines of Australia, and native islanders across the Pacific. The

Maori, in particular, have developed their own brand of reggae music and style,

overlapping reggae with other musical styles ranging from hip hop to traditional

Maori haka chants and rhythms. The political thrust of much Maori reggae,

moreover, highlights the anti-colonial movement still strong in New Zealand today,

efforts to maintain the Maori language (many of these artists combine English and

native Maori lyrics in their performances), and points of commonality with other

native populations. Beginning with Dean Hapeta’s hip hop–influenced Upper Hutt

Posse (UHP) in 1985, bands like Katchafire; Dread, Beat, and Blood; and David

Grace and Injustice have underscored the specific experiences of Maori colonization,

land rights struggles, resistance, and cultural expression. For example, in their first

release, Revival (2003), which was the top-selling album on www.maorimusic.com

for the first several months of 2004, the pop-oriented reggae of Katchafire creates

their own Maori brand of reggae at the same time as they pay homage to Bob Marley

with a version of his ‘‘Redemption Song’’ and to Jamaican Rasta and reggae culture

more generally with songs like ‘‘Reggae Revival,’’ ‘‘Collie Herb Man,’’ and

‘‘Sensimillia.’’ David Grace, who helped begin the Dread, Beat, and Blood band in

the mid-1980s and the Injustice band in the 1990s, is more overtly political in his

musical documentation of Maori history. His roots reggae repertoire from Dread,

Beat, and Blood’s Tribute to a Friend (1985) includes songs like ‘‘Colonial Law’’ and

‘‘Teach the Children.’’ Grace’s lyrics on Weapons of Peace (1997) in songs like ‘‘One

People,’’ ‘‘Revolution,’’ ‘‘Empower My People,’’ and ‘‘Live as One’’ are a particularly

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poignant example of how reggae music has become a salient vehicle for calls for

Maori unity, autonomy, empowerment, and anti-colonization. Grace’s ‘‘Pakaitore’’

from the same compact disc, for instance, is a powerful number in support of the

Whanganui Maori, who drew support from Maori all over New Zealand when they

moved onto their ancestral lands in spite of governmental efforts to block them. The

song recalls the clash between Maori supporters and the police seeking to evict them,

with Grace singing, ‘‘When I see Maori people stand up for their rights, yeah it makes

me feel good inside.’’ Over heavy reggae drum and bass rhythms, Weapons of Peace

also delivers songs like ‘‘Equal Rights’’ and ‘‘Occupation,’’ which draw links between

Maori struggles for dignity and those of ‘‘youth in China,’’ ‘‘black people in

Rwanda,’’ ‘‘black people in Somalia,’’ the ‘‘Kanaky people in New Caledonia,’’ and

Native Americans in the United States.

In New Zealand, however, it is UHP, under the leadership of Hapeta, aka D

Word, that has been the most audible voice in Maori reggae and hip hop. UHP

combines hip hop beats, reggae rhythms, and more traditional Maori music with

English and Maori lyrics stressing the dignity and autonomy of Maori people. Their

music and lyrics, in fact, helped jumpstart the resurgence in Maori nationalism in

the late ’80s and early ’90s that was particularly salient among young people.

Originating in the Upper Hutt neighborhood just outside of Wellington, Hapeta

and UHP were heavily influenced by ideas of nationalism, freedom, and autonomy

in the speeches and political writings of black American leaders Malcolm X, Martin

Luther King, and Louis Farrakhan. Hapeta’s political conscience, in particular, was

also impacted by his tenure working for New Zealand’s Department of Justice, a

position which required him to travel the country to hear Maori land grievances

(Buchanan). The dual influences of black nationalism and Maori rights initiatives

result in UHP’s commitment to musical production and political activism that

simultaneously highlight their identity and rights as Maori in New Zealand and

recognize how Maori experiences intersect with those of other indigenous

and marginalized groups struggling against globalization. Most of UHP’s music

and lyrics contain a strong political and ideological slant. Their reggae- and rap-

influenced ‘‘Te Hono Whakakoro’’ (Te Reo Maori Remixes, 2002), for example,

which translates to ‘‘Movement in Demand,’’ urges the rejuvenation of Maori

grassroots activism against the history of colonial occupation and intra-Maori unity

as means to overcome the divisiveness of tribalism. In the song, Hapeta raps, ‘‘Wake

up, get up. Mash up society/So we can forge a better place to be/Free of wicked

politics and dirty tricks against true humanity/… Actions now are gonna forge the

future tense/Hence we gotta teach peace, truth/Inspiration for true equity that’s

what we gotta be.’’

The political motivations behind Hapeta and UHP’s artistic production are further

underscored in the ways they describe their work. In an interview with New Zealand

Radio, Hapeta expounds on his stances against globalization and colonization and for

inter-tribal activism and unity. Hapeta squarely views the music of UHP as

‘‘continuing the struggle against malignant governmental and corporate greed

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systems who stifle liberty through falsehood and foster allegiance to so-called

democracy and other deceitfulisms.’’ Hapeta more specifically locates UHP as a

critical voice in the Maori struggle for cultural autonomy against the pakeah, or white

colonizers of New Zealand, when he asserts that ‘‘… over here, you know, they’re

crying for us to become Kiwis, call ourselves New Zealanders, all of this sort of

nonsense. You know what I mean, that’s why I say ‘F-U-C-K New Zealand because

Aotearoa is the name of the country!’’’
17

Hapeta and UHP’s devotion to their Maori identity and struggles, however, also

encourages collaboration with other people fighting the ill effects of globalization and

colonization. Hapeta, for example, recently completed a docu/rapumentary film,

Ngatahi: Know the Links (2003), in which he explores the intersections of local hip

hop, reggae, poetry, and activist scenes around the world through an amazing array

of video footage, music, and interviews with individuals from Washington, DC, New

York, San Francisco, Kingston, London, Havana, Paris, Toronto, Auckland, Bogota,

Sydney, and elsewhere. Know the Links illustrates both the wide reach of globalization

and the myriad ways that local populations mobilize cultural forms to articulate often

seething critiques of its impact on their most immediate surroundings. The film and

the lengthy process Hapeta undertook to create it demonstrate how local cultures

simultaneously engage the global penetrations of transnational corporations, mass-

produced goods, and mass media, on the one hand, and traditions, rituals, and

longstanding elements of place, on the other. The result is a conversation between

seemingly disparate local cultures on how to resist, survive, and negotiate

globalization that is facilitated by the inter-related and growing local networks of

reggae, hip hop, poetry, and political activism.

Hapeta and UHP’s efforts to link their music, culture, and politics to those of

others, like their other Maori and Native American reggae counterparts, is part of a

larger discussion among different indigenous groups about the nature of indigenous

culture, identity, and struggle. Though Jamaican Rastafarian reggae artists have not

explicitly noted in their lyrics the popularity and influence of their music among the

Maori as they have with Native Americans, Maori and Native American reggae artists

have initiated more extensive social and political relations with one another. In

March of 2004, for example, the Albuquerque-based Native Roots performed in New

Zealand as part of the festival for ‘‘Indigenous Unity Through Reggae Vibrations.’’
18

Featuring a number of international and New Zealand–based artists, it is no

coincidence such a concert took place in Wellington and echoed the efforts of the

Native American-based EYCE’s travels to New Zealand to attend the World

Indigenous People’s Education Conference.

Beyond New Zealand, indigenous populations in the Pacific Islands and Australia

have also generated local reggae scenes. Hawaii, for example, is quickly becoming

known for its uniquely island-influenced brand of ‘‘Jawaiin’’ reggae from artists like

the Typical Hawaiians, Mana Ohana, and others. Throughout the Pacific Islands

there are many others, including Fiji, who traces his roots to the island country of the

same name, Australia’s Kineman Karma, and Papua New Guinea’s O-Shen. These

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artists have all emerged as leading voices in the Pacific and South Pacific reggae

scenes, many having produced numerous full-length compact discs and compila-

tions.
19

Much of their music incorporates music, rhythms, sounds, and language

native to their own islands and also re-narrates their own island’s history to focus on

the ill effects of colonization and racism, the political potential of trans-Pacific Island

unity, and efforts to maintain native cultures.

Kineman Karma, for instance, has been at the forefront of the burgeoning

Aboriginal reggae scene in Australia since its inception in 2002. The band represents a

diverse cross-section of Australians, including several Aboriginal and Maltese-

Australian members, but squarely identifies with the country’s indigenous groups in

its music, lyrics, and politics. Formed by John Rigney, a member of the Ngarrindjeri

Aboriginal community from southern Australia and former member of the

Ngarrindjeri band Rough Image who performed at a number of indigenous

themed-music festivals in the 1990s, including on the Pala Native American

Reservation in California, Kineman Karma has come to be a stalwart in local music

and political scenes in Adelaide, South Australia. The band won back-to-back South

Australian Music Awards for Indigenous Acts in 2004 and 2005 and participated in a

variety of indigenous music and art festivals, including the Unity Against Racism

concert and event series.

According to the band members themselves, Kineman Karma ‘‘aim to document

traditional and contemporary Australian and Ngarrindjeri political issues’’ through

their unique blend of roots and rock steady reggae, funk, ska, country, and jazz

influences.
20

Rigney elaborates on the band’s meaning, pointing out that

‘‘Kineman’’ is the Ngarrindjeri word for ‘‘Black’’ and is meant to stand for ‘‘the

people of this land, the spirits of our ancestors and represents the black culture’s

struggle for true freedom.’’ ‘‘Karma,’’ continues Rigney, ‘‘stands for positivism,

energy, togetherness. One circle of people creating peace through reggae music.’’
21

Like their Native American and Maori counterparts, consequently, Kineman Karma

simultaneously view their music as a localized cultural performance and a vehicle

for creating political dialogue with others. Many of their songs focus on

Ngarrindjeri and other Aboriginal issues of social justice, environmentalism, and

cultural survival and reconciliation. For example, in an interview Rigney describes

the song ‘‘Ancestors Calling’’ as being about how ‘‘language is a very important tool

in our community to signify our strength.’’ He continues, ‘‘If you don’t have

language it becomes very hard to identify who we are as an Aboriginal person. I

mean, you can identify with who you are as an Aboriginal person but our

connection to our culture and our community is our language.’’
22

Other Kineman

Karma originals center on similar issues, such as ‘‘Murras,’’ the Ngarrindjeri word

for ‘‘hands,’’ which urges younger generations of Aborigines to learn from and talk

to their elders. In another song, ‘‘Political War,’’ the lyrics of Rigney and Kineman

Karma articulate Aborigines’ struggle against the cultural genocide imparted by a

paternalistic Australian government that claims to know what is best for them.

While their music might very well be their primary platform to find their political

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voice, Kineman Karma, like so many other indigenous reggae artists, extend their

activism off stage as well. Rigney explains this practice, stating, ‘‘I also focus my

efforts as a community ambassador with local events in the community as well,

where I talk about my experiences as an Aboriginal person and as a musician

working abroad.’’
23

Another of the most popular reggae artists to emerge on the Pacific Island scene

is O-Shen. Born Jason Hershey to American medical missionary parents in Papua

New Guinea, O-Shen grew up in the small village of Butaneng, learning to speak the

native Pidgin language and practice local customs. When he was 15, O-Shen moved

with his family to attend high school in Spokane, Washington, where he began for

the first time to speak English as his everyday language and, eventually, spent time

in the state prison at Walla Walla after being arrested for burglary. Soon after his

release, O-Shen launched his musical career from his new home base in Hawaii,

incorporating influences from Papua New Guinea and the hip hop he learned to

love as a high school student in his own brand of Pacific Island reggae. He has since

recorded numerous full-length compact discs and performed across the Pacific and

in the mainland United States. His popularity is such that one of his performances

in Palau generated the largest human gathering in the island’s history.
24

O-Shen’s music and performance style are deeply shaped by his connection to

Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific. He makes heavy use of indigenous

drumming and chanting and the Pidgin language in his music, while centering his

lyrics on calls for Pacific Island independence and inter-island unity. He claims, ‘‘I

like to hit issues in my lyrics. I want people in the Islands to be proud of their cultures

and languages and lifestyles.’’
25

O-Shen’s ‘‘Free Island People’’ (Island Warriors,

2000), for example, echoes the calls for local indigenous autonomy made by Native

American groups in the US southwest and Maori groups in New Zealand. In a

particularly powerful verse over a hard-driving reggae drum and bass line, O-Shen

sings, ‘‘We don’t want European government, We don’t need American government,

don’t like to see too much foreign power here, cause western influence been killing us

for years.’’ O-Shen’s lyrics extend to question the production of knowledge and who

has the power to narrate history when he croons, ‘‘Captain Cook never discovered

anything, the Polynesian people had already settled in, so they telling lies in all the

various story books, we better open up the past and take another look.’’ He concludes

with a call for pan-Pacific islander independence and sovereignty that might just as

easily apply to Native Americans, the Maori, and Australian Aborigines. ‘‘Pacific

Island independence, the way that it should be, but they don’t want to go, they say

that we need them, from Hawaii to Tahiti, the whole Pacific Sea, I’m hearing children

as they’re crying for freedom.’’ While some might argue that O-Shen’s relatively

privileged background as a well-traveled and educated Euro American discounts him

as an indigenous cultural performer or marks him as an exploiter of his ‘‘Island Boy’’

image for commercial gain, his music and politics also illustrate the dynamic,

multiple, and contradictory nature of what it means to be indigenous in this moment

of globalization.

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Diasporic Contradictions and the Politics of Listening

There is, of course, much more historical and ethnographic work to be done to

analyze the reggae scenes in the Native American southwest, New Zealand, Australia,

and the Pacific. Even this cursory examination, however, illuminates the multiple

meanings, discourses, and performances of Caribbean and indigenous identity as a

series of intersecting local struggles for political autonomy, cultural survival, and

dignity against the dehumanizing effects of globalization. Just as Native Americans,

Maori, and Pacific Islanders simultaneously draw from and transcend the tradition of

reggae music as a black, Jamaican Rastafarian practice, so too does O-Shen force us to

examine what it means to be indigenous. The cultural performances of Casper,

Native Roots, UHP, Kineman Karma, O-Shen and others suggest that their identities

depend as much on social and political commitments, relationships, and obligations

as they do on any racial or ethnic markers. If the complicated personal histories of

these artists and their diverse fan bases come together in a Diaspora where indigenous

groups struggle for dignity against a globalization marked by longstanding

experiences of colonization, violence, and exploitation, however, this is not without

contradictions.

Among the most apparent of contradictions is the degree to which musicians and

their fans are complicit with the very circuits of global capital they critique in their

lyrics and political activities. One might argue that their commodity consumption or

production momentarily shifts the capitalist gaze, enabling them to better navigate

the marketplace at the same time that they cultivate a subversive politics. There is

still, however, the potential for the overtly political nature of their reggae music to

become lost in its own commercialization, tourism, and market forces of the

globalized music industry, oftentimes within the same regions where it galvanizes

indigenous struggles for dignity and against globalization. One author (Giovannetti),

for example, has demonstrated how Puerto Rican reggae foments a subculture that is

disconnected from the more overt politics of its musical tradition and is more drawn

together by reggae’s relationship to tourism, surfing, and other leisure activities.

More extensive research on the reggae scenes in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, the

Pacific Islands, and even the Pacific coast of Mexico might yield similar findings.

While indigenous reggae music is part and parcel of the matrix of global capital, its

producers and consumers are often quite aware of the contradictions created by their

dual roles as practitioners and critics of globalization. Dean Hapeta and UHP, for

example, describe themselves as ‘‘just part of the continuing struggle to live on this

planet as one people holistically, ‘cause as you notice Pakeah (white) don’t live

holistically.’’ When asked how they might play a role in helping Pakeah society in

New Zealand to acknowledge their violent history with Maori and work to recognize

indigenous autonomy, members of UHP half-jokingly suggest, ‘‘They can buy our

CD!’’ Hapeta further highlights how he unabashedly manipulates the same patterns

of globalization he has dedicated his life to fighting against. He argues ‘‘by any means

necessary, Malcolm X told us that. If we need some money to get somewhere for a gig

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and the Ku Klux Klan’s gonna come up with it, well, I’m taking that money and

getting on that plane and I’m gonna be there.’ Cause I just take their stink money, I

don’t have any problems about it.’’
26

Hapeta, UHP, and other indigenous reggae

musicians employ global networks of capital at the same time as they struggle against

their dehumanizing impact. Their musical and political activity points to what we

might consider a kind of ‘‘globalization from below,’’ where indigenous reggae

performers and their followers explore new possibilities of identity formation and

cultural struggle that make use of the everyday social and political spaces that result

from capital’s reach into virtually every mode of human life.

If some indigenous groups struggle against the dehumanizing effect of

globalization by realizing their commonalities with other communities through

reggae music, they do so in ways that sometimes deny the dignity of others. It is

particularly evident that the deeply gendered nature of indigenous reggae often

replicates much of the male-dominated and hyper-masculine character of the larger

music industry, indigenous communities, and national societies in which these artists

and their fans reside. There is a strong tendency in many of the songs and lyrics by

indigenous reggae artists, for example, to equate resistance and warriorlike activity

with manhood. In songs like Fiji’s ‘‘Warrior of Love’’ (Island Warriors, 2000) or

O-Shen’s ‘‘Strong Like a Warrior’’ (Faya, 2006) or ‘‘Island Boy Don’t Play’’ (Rising

Son, 2005), the artists articulate their masculinity as dependent upon being physically

strong and tough, and refusing to be bullied by others. This trend not only risks

reinforcing the longstanding patterns of patriarchy in many of their communities,

but also obscures and silences a wider range of gender identities and voices. The

failure to recognize masculine stereotypes and patriarchal power may, in part, result

from situations where male reggae performers entertain largely male audiences

(Bucknor 79).

Conversely, there is also a seemingly requisite inclusion of songs on virtually all of

the compact discs discussed above that construct a typology of indigenous women

either as objects of male sexual desire or as feminine protectors of the ‘‘old ways.’’ In

songs like Casper’s ‘‘Hopiland Girls’’ (The Sounds of Reality, 2000), O-Shen’s ‘‘Maoli

Girl’’ (Faya, 2006), ‘‘Cool Fever’’ (Rascal in Paradise, 2002), or ‘‘Sweet Thang’’

(Rising Son, 2005), Mana Ohana’s ‘‘Island Dream Girls’’ (Island Warriors, 2000) or

Native Roots’ ‘‘Native Girls’’ (A Place I Call Home, 1999), Native American,

Hawaiian, and other ‘‘island girls’’ are noted mainly for their physical attributes and

appearance or for the maternal role they play as a giver of ‘‘traditional’’ culture.

Mirroring strains of the gender politics evident in reggae’s digital dancehall genre

over the last 20 years, these male performers assume the ability to understand women

and know what they want in ways that uncritically accept longstanding assumptions

about patriarchal power (Bucknor 75). In ‘‘Native Girls,’’ for example, Native Roots

sing, ‘‘I want one with brown brown skin, pretty face and jet black hair, I want one

that wants to be there, that’s got to be there, never wants to be selfish, really wants to

be conscious …’’ Such trends not only limit the liberatory potential of indigenous

reggae because they risk denying the dignity of indigenous women, but they also echo

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conventional treatment of gender performance, women, and sex in popular music

more generally. What is more, they distinguish indigenous reggae as a cultural terrain

where dominant or heroic masculine and sexual identities are defined as such against

the subordination of alternative masculine, feminine, and sexual identities. Cultural

critic Michael Bucknor convincingly argues that such patterns demonstrate how the

reggae aesthetic often ‘‘elides the politics of gender and sexuality in the favor of the

politics of artistic revolt’’ (72).

The contradictions embedded in indigenous reggae music have much to teach us

about the shifting contours of indigenous identity and struggles for dignity. Native

American, Maori, Aborigine, and Pacific Island reggae illuminates how different

indigenous identities intersect in unexpected ways, sometimes resulting in

interlocking struggles for dignity and social justice and, at other times, leading to

increased economic or gender tension. The eclectic world of indigenous reggae music

brings into focus an indigenous identity that, as anthropologists Bartholomew Dean

and Jerome Levi (27) argue, has no universal definition and is no longer simply an

instrument of categorization wielded by colonial powers. Indiginism, Dean and Levi

(7–8) suggest, is a useful poly-ethnic identity that can serve as a platform for

mobilizing cultural identity and political action among diverse peoples within and

between existing countries. If the shifting nature of indigenous identity is at least

partially a result of efforts to maintain cultural autonomy and continuity in a world

increasingly dominated by global processes, indigenous reggae music is one way to

track such changes and monitor struggles for dignity. The Diaspora of indigenous

reggae, in other words, is also a Diaspora of dignity. Or, as cultural critic Stuart Hall

argues about Diasporas more generally, indigenous reggae ‘‘doesn’t cling to closed,

unitary, homogenous models of cultural belonging, but’’ embraces ‘‘the wider

processes—the play of similarity and difference—that are transforming culture world

wide’’ (18). Dean Hapeta of UHP puts it another way. He argues, ‘‘We’re all of the

planet. It’s the most crucial thing, you know. We are of this planet. So why I got to be

in my little corner? That’s a problem with the planet, too many people in their

corners … But that’s not all of us, it sure as hell ain’t UHP.’’
27

As indigenous artists

continue to make reggae ‘‘at the risk of being heard,’’ we might all benefit from

listening to them. We just might learn a lot about how seemingly powerless groups

struggle against the overwhelming forces of globalization to make their lives better.

Notes

[1] Both ‘‘Whiteman Country’’ and ‘‘De System’’ appear on Mutabaruka, Check It!, Ras Records,
2003.

[2] John Holloway, ‘‘Dignity’s Revolt,’’ in Holloway and Pelaez 159–98. This formulation of
dignity as a category of critical analysis, like many new and continuing social movements
around the world, has been inspired by the Zapatista opposition to the acceleration of
capitalist relations that value profit over humanity. In a communiqué shortly after their
armed uprising in January of 1994, the Zapatistas located dignity at the center of their
oppositional politics. ‘‘We saw that not everything had been taken away from us, that we had
the most valuable, that which made us live, that which made our step rise above plants and

594 L. Alvarez

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animals, that which made the stone be beneath our feet, and we saw, brothers and sisters,
that all we had was DIGNITY, and we saw that great was the shame of having forgotten it,
and we saw that DIGNITY was good for human beings to be human beings again, and
dignity returned to live in our hearts, and we were new again, and the dead, our dead, saw
that we were new again and they called us again, to DIGNITY, to struggle.’’ Ejercito
Zapatista Liberacion Nacional, La Palabra, vol. 1: 1222, as quoted in Holloway and Pelaez
159.

[3] Ras Joseph, interviewed by author, 14 October 1995.
[4] Lucas Naranjo, interviewed by author, 25 May 1996.
[5] Yolanda and Rosando, interviewed by author, 12 October 1995.
[6] Lucas Naranjo, interviewed by author, 25 May 1996.
[7] Sylko, interviewed by author, 28 December 1995.
[8] Daniel Wesega, interviewed by author, 12 October 1995. See also Brinkley Rogers.
[9] Liner notes from Big Mountain, Unity, Giant Records, 1994.

[10] Liner notes from Big Mountain, Unity, Giant Records, 1994. Incidents at Oglala refer to
multi-national mining interests pillaging of land and labor in West Papua, Indonesia.

[11] For more on the biography of Native Roots, see their website at .

[13] For more on this event, see Norrell, ‘‘Remembering.’’
[14] For more on the EYCE, see Norrell, ‘‘Youths Participate.’’
[15] For more on Casper Loma-Da-Wa, see his website at ; Collins;

Edwards; Rozemberg; Weber.
[16] For descriptions of examples of such projects, see the website for Third Mesa Music at

.
[17] Interview with Dean Hapeta and Upper Hutt Posse, broadcast on New Zealand Radio. MP3

available at .
[18] Press release, ‘‘Indigenous Unity Through Reggae Vibrations,’’ March 5, 2004. Located at

.
[19] See, for example, Island Warriors, Hobo House on the Hill Records, 2000.
[20] For descriptions of Kineman Karma, see the band’s website at .
[21] John Rigney, quoted in Telfer.
[22] Interview with John Rigney, transcript located at .
[23] Interview with John Rigney.
[24] ‘‘O-Shen Between Two Worlds,’’ Pacific Magazine, September 2002, located at . For more on O-Shen,
see his website at .

[25] ‘‘O-Shen Between Two Worlds,’’ Pacific Magazine, September 2002.
[26] Interview with Dean Hapeta and Upper Hutt Posse, broadcast on New Zealand Radio. MP3

available at .
[27] Interview with Dean Hapeta and Upper Hutt Posse, broadcast on New Zealand Radio.

Works Cited

Brinkley-Rogers, Paul. ‘‘Reggae Vibrations Take Root in Mesa.’’ The Arizona Republic 24 April
1995: B1.

Buchanan, Kerry. ‘‘A Maori Warrior Claims New Territory.’’ Unseco Courier, July–August 2000

Bucknor, Michael A. ‘‘Staging Seduction: Masculine Performance or the Art of Sex in Colin
Channer’s Reggae Romance Waiting in Vain?’’ Interventions 6.1, 2004: 67–81.

Christman, Ed. ‘‘Sisters Dress Up Taos, New Mexico Music Outlet: Store Caters to Diverse Locals
in Tourist Community.’’ Billboard 12 February 1994: 85.

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Collins, Loretta. ‘‘Ribbon Shirts in Rasta Colors: Native American Syncretic Musical and Visual
Strategies of (Jamaican) Resistance in the Lyrical Imagery, CD Jacket Art, and Performance
Costuming of Hopi/Dine Reggae Singjay Casper Loma-Da-Wa.’’ Image & Narrative: Online
Magazine of the Visual Narrative 11 (May 2005).

Dean, Bartholomew, and Jerome M. Levi, eds. At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous
Rights, and Postcolonial States. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2003.

Edwards, Michelle. ‘‘A Voice of Hope: Casper Uses Roots to Fight for Hopi People.’’ The Pulse 24
May 1999: 26.

Feld, Steven. ‘‘From Schizophonia to Schismogenesis: On the Discourses and Commodification
Practices of ‘World Music’ and ‘World Beat’.’’ Music Grooves: Essays and Dialogues. Ed.
Steven Feld and Charles Keil. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Foster, Chuck. Roots Rock Reggae: An Oral History of Reggae Music from Ska to Dancehall. New
York: Billboard Books, 1999.

Gaztambide-Fernandez, Ruben A. ‘‘Profetas de la Cultura: Notes on the Puerto Rican Reggae of
Cultura Profetica.’’ Centro Journal 16. 2, fall 2004: 227–247.

Giovannetti, Jorge L. ‘‘Popular Music and Culture in Puerto Rico: Jamaican and Rap Music as
Cross-Cultural Symbols.’’ Musical Migrations Volume 1: Transnationalism and Cultural
Hybridity in Latin/o America. Ed. Frances Aparicio and Candida Jaquez. New York: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2003.

Hall, Stuart. ‘‘Thinking the Diaspora: Home-Thoughts from Abroad.’’ Small Axe 6, September
1999: 1–18.

Harroway, Donna. ‘‘Situated Knowledge: The Science Question in Feminism as a Site of Discourse
on the Privilege of Partial Perspectives.’’ Feminist Studies 14. 3, 1988: 575–599.

Helig, Steve. ‘‘First People’s Music Opening the Door to New and Ancient Native American
Music.’’ The Beat 15. 2, 1996: 46–53.

Holloway, John, and Eloina Pelaez. Zapatista! Reinventing Revolution in Mexico. London: Pluto
Press, 1998.

Knupp, Ralph E. ‘‘A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven: Rhetorical Dimensions of Protest
Music.’’ The Southern Speech Communication Journal 46, Summer 1981: 377–89.

Lipsitz, George. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism and the Poetics of Place.
London: Verso, 1994.

Lowe, Lisa, and David Lloyd, eds. The Politics of Culture in the Shadow of Capital. Durham, NC:
Duke U P, 1997.

Moyer, Eileen. ‘‘Street-Corner Justice in the Name of Jah: Imperatives for Peace among Dar es
Salaam Street Youth.’’ Africa Today 51. 3, Spring 2005: 31–58.

Norrell, Brenda. ‘‘Remembering the ‘Yellow Sand’.’’ UN Observer and International Report. January
2004 .

———. ‘‘Youths Participate in Cultural Connections.’’ Indian Country Today. 15 August 2005
.

Rozemberg, Herman. ‘‘Hopi Message Takes Form of Reggae Beat.’’ The Arizona Republic 18
December 2000: B1, B4.

Savishinsky, Neil J. ‘‘Transnational Popular Culture and the Global Spread of the Jamaican
Rastafarian Movement.’’ New West Indian Guide 68. 3–4, 1994: 259–81.

Spencer, William D. ‘‘Chanting Change around the World through Rasta Riddim and Art.’’
Chanting Down Babylon: The Rastafari Reader. Ed. Nathaniel Murrell, William D. Spencer,
and Adrian McFarlane. Philadelphia: Temple U P, 1998. 253–65.

Telfer, Waiata. ‘‘Kineman Karma ‘Stir it Up’ in Adelaide.’’ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
Online 6 February 2006 .

Ullestad, Neal. ‘‘American Indian Rap and Reggae: Dancing ‘To the Beat of a Different Drummer.’’’
Popular Music and Society 23. 2, summer 1999: 63–90.

Weber, Bruce. ‘‘Reggae Rhythms Speak to an Insular Tribe.’’ New York Times 19 September 1999:
36.

Yudice, George. ‘‘Afro Reggae: Parlaying Culture into Social Justice.’’ Social Text 69, 19. 4, winter
2001: 53–65.

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Websites and Films

Casper Loma-Da-Wa .
Kineman Karma .
Native Roots .
Ngatahi: Know the Links, Dean Hapeta, 2003.
O-Shen .
Upper Hutt Posse .

Selected Discography

Big Mountain. Unity. Giant Records, 1994.
Casper Loma-Da-Wa. Original Landlord. Third Mesa Music, 1997.
———. Sounds of Reality. Third Mesa Music, 2000.
David Grace and Injustice. Weapons of Peace. Jayrem, 1997.
Dread, Beat, and Blood. Tribute to a Friend. Jayrem, 1985.
Israel Vibration. Forever. RAS Records, 1991.
Katchafire. Revival. 2B1 Records, 2003.
Native Roots. A Place I Call Home. SOAR/Warrior, 1999.
———. Rain Us Love. SOAR/Warrior, 2001.
O-Shen. Faya. Sharpnote Records, 2006.
———. Rascal in Paradise. Hobo House on the Hill Records, 2002.
———. Rising Son. Sharpnote Records, 2005.
Upper Hutt Posse. Te Reo Maori Remixes. Kia Kaha Productions, 2002.
Various Artists. Island Warriors. Hobo House on the Hill Records, 2000.

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You may print or download ONE copy of this document for the purpose of your own research or study.

COMMONWEALTH OF AUSTRALIA
Copyright Regulations 1969

WARNING
This material has been reproduced and communicated to you by or on behalf of the University of

Wollongong pursuant to Part VB of the Copyright Act 1968 (the Act).

The material in this communication may be subject to copyright under the Act. Any further

reproduction or communication of this material by you may be the subject of copyright protection

under the Act.

Do not remove this notice.

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Text Box
Craswell, G 2005, ‘Whole text development’, in Writing for Academic Success: A Postgraduate Guide, SAGE, London, pp74-90.

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Slow Violence and the

Environmentalism of the Poor

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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Slow Violence and the

Environmentalism of the Poor

R o b N i x o n

h a r v a r d u n i v e r s i t y p r e s s

Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England 2011

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Copyright © 2011 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

a l l r i g h t s r e s e r v e d

Printed in the United States of America

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Nixon, Rob, 1954–

Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor / Rob Nixon.
p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-674-04930-7 (alk. paper)

1. Commonwealth literature (English) —History and criticism.
2. American literature—History and criticism. 3. Ecology in literature.

4. Environmentalism in literature. 5. Human ecology in literature.
6. Postcolonialism in literature. 7. Colonies in literature. 8. Ecocriticism.
9. Human security. 10. Poor—Developing countries. 11. Imperialism—

Environmental aspects. 12. Globalization—Environmental aspects. I. Title.
PR9080.5.N59 2011

820.9’36—dc22 2010049797

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F o r A n n e

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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Contents

Preface ix

Introduction 1

1. Slow Violence, Neoliberalism, and the
Environmental Picaresque 45

2. Fast-forward Fossil: Petro-despotism and the
Resource Curse 68

3. Pipedreams: Ken Saro-Wiwa, Environmental Justice, and
Micro-minority Rights 103

4. Slow Violence, Gender, and the Environmentalism
of the Poor 128

5. Unimagined Communities: Megadams, Monumental
Modernity, and Developmental Refugees 150

6. Stranger in the Eco-village: Race, Tourism, and
Environmental Time 175

7. Ecologies of the Aftermath: Precision Warfare and
Slow Violence 199

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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c o n t e n t s

[v i i i ]

8. Environmentalism, Postcolonialism, and American Studies 233

Epilogue: Scenes from the Seabed and the Future of Dissent 263

Notes 283

Acknowledgments 339

Index 343

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Preface

In writing this book, I have returned repeatedly for inspi-
ration to three towering fi gures. Edward Said, Rachel Carson, and Ramach-
andra Guha are a diverse and unlikely triumvirate, by training a professor
of literature, a science writer, and a sociologist respectively. Yet all three
exemplify an ideal of the public intellectual as someone unafraid to open
up channels of inquiry at an angle to mainstream thought; unafraid more-
over to face down the hostility that their unorthodoxy often prompted.
In ranging from archive-driven scholarship to the public essay to op-ed
polemics, Said, Carson, and Guha all have demonstrated a communicative
passion responsive to diverse audiences, indeed a passion that has helped
shape such audiences by refusing to adhere to conventional disciplinary or
professional expectations.

The beauty of the teaching life is this: the possibility of setting a life on
course with nothing more complex than the right reverberation struck at
the right time. Said had that kind of impact on me in the mid-1980s when I
was a graduate student at Columbia. There I had found myself confronted
with two unappetizing options: to follow either the fusty old formalists,
with their patched-tweed Ivy League belle-lettrism, or the hipper new for-
malists, whose lemming run toward the palisades of deconstruction was
then in full spate. To a young man, an unsettled greenhorn in America with
a twinned passion for literature and world politics, Said offered a third way,

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encouraging me to reconcile those passions and fi nd a voice in which both
could be articulated. I felt emboldened by Said’s determined search for a
style—or rather, a whole repertoire of styles—equal to his wide-ranging
commitments. He thrived on intellectual complexity while aspiring to clar-
ity; he taught and wrote as if—and I know this should sound unremark-
able for a literature professor—he yearned to be widely understood. His
approach felt fervent, luminous when measured against the alternatives:
close readings sealed against the world or deconstructionist seminars in
which the stakes were as obscure as the language, as we poked at dead-on-
delivery prose in the hopes of rousing enough life from it for our exertions
to qualify as “play.” Said, by contrast, was alive to the high-stake worlds of
persuasion and coercion, alive to political doublespeak and to the worldly
costs of verbal camoufl age. As a reader, he believed in context—historical,
political, and biographical context—all of which was material to him.

Said’s vocal fl exibility amplifi ed his intellectual reach: across disciplines,
continents, and all forms of the media. He scorned the cult of diffi culty, the
notion that leaden writing signals weighty intelligence. He understood that
it is far more diffi cult to theorize with the cunning of lightness than it is to
fob off some seething mess of day-old neologisms as an “intervention.” His
devotion to style became integral to his political idealism and inseparable
from his belief in an insurrectionary outwardness.

As an environmentalist one must ask: what place for earthliness in Said’s
worldliness? In 2003, a month before his death, Said concluded an essay for
Counterpunch with a yearning for a future informed by “alternative commu-
nities all across the world, informed by alternative information, and keenly
aware of the environmental, human rights, and libertarian impulses that
bind us together in this tiny planet.”1 Despite this late acknowledgment, one
would be hard-pressed to call him, in any conventional sense, environmen-
tally minded. However, it is quite possible, indeed probable, that as the ener-
gies of the transnational environmental justice movements I discuss in this
book permeated the humanities more deeply, Said would have recognized
their pertinence to his own work on bulldozed olive groves, land rights, and
water politics, issues that come alive, most graphically, in After the Last Sky.

If Said was dismissive of what he called “the petty fi efdoms within the
world of intellectual production,” such impatience is equally evident in the
writings of Rachel Carson, an even more maverick fi gure.2 Carson believed

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that the mission of the public intellectual included exposing the euphe-
misms and bromides promulgated by cold-war America’s military-indus-
trial complex. As she famously insisted, herbicides and insecticides should
be unmasked as biocides: those supposedly precise weapons in the “war”
on pests targeted nothing more precise than life itself. Almost two decades
before neoliberalism implemented breakneck deregulations, Carson fore-
warned that, if left unchecked, capitalism’s appetite for the unregulated, spe-
cialist consumer product would leave behind a trail of nonspecialist fatalities.

Carson redirected some of the national anxiety away from the Red
Peril to the aerosol can of Doom perched on the kitchen shelf. By reveal-
ing how small, domestic choices can help secure a more inhabitable world,
Silent Spring altered the landscape of fear and, crucially, fear’s time frame as
well. The book, which appeared just weeks before the Cuban Missile Cri-
sis, exhorted an America awash with paranoia to take charge of its fears by
changing the way it lived in the short term to reduce long-term catastrophic
risk. Carson’s extended view of risk’s time frame encouraged citizens to
campaign for more stringent environmental legislation, in America and
nations beyond. In so doing, Carson gave us pointers on how to hope and
act across domains large and small.

Like Said, Carson voiced a profound suspicion of the certifi ed expert
whom she saw as implicated in the economics of professional capitula-
tion in ways that jeopardized society’s capacity to sustain uncompromised
research. Carson had almost nothing to say directly about empire, class, and
race, yet her work speaks powerfully to the environmentalism of the poor
because she was passionately concerned with the complicity of the military-
industrial complex in disguising toxicity, both physically and rhetorically.
Her approach, moreover, helped hasten the shift from a conservationist ide-
ology to the more socioenvironmental outlook that has proven so enabling
for environmental justice movements. Above all, Carson was a renegade
synthesizer: her gestures toward the big picture challenged institutionalized
defi nitions of what constituted originality. In exposing the dubious funding
of partitioned knowledge—and its baleful public health implications—she
recast herself as an insurrectionary generalist.

It is a measure of how tentative the rapprochement between postcolonial
and environmental studies is that Said never mentions Carson in his work.3
(It is a measure too, one should add, of Said’s persistent, baleful indifference

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to any ascendant female voice.) Yet Carson in crucial ways anticipated
Said’s skepticism toward compartmentalized expertise, toward the pol-
luted funding structures of research, and toward obfuscatory language.
She too mistrusted academic endeavor that, cushioned by corporate fund-
ing, feigned objectivity; she also mistrusted scholars interested in talking,
undisturbed by inexpert audiences, always only to themselves. For Carson
the culture—and cult—of the specialist was, as Said would later recognize,
intellectually debilitating and ethically lamentable, entrammelled as it was
in cold-war geopolitics.

Ramachandra Guha is the third unclassifi able fi gure from whom I have
drawn particular inspiration. A sociologist by training, an environmental
historian by instinct, a journalist, opinion maker, and sports writer, Guha
is a man who, in his own judgment, decided to be “methodologically pro-
miscuous.”4 Like Carson, Guha chose the complex mix of freedoms and
risks that arise from working outside the tenured security, obligations, and
compromises that university positions entail. Equally discomfi ted by dis-
ciplinary and national chauvinisms, he has arguably done more than any
intellectual to dispel the myth that environmentalism is “a full-stomach
phenomenon” affordable only to the middle and upper classes of the world’s
richest societies.5 He has drawn on—indeed, drawn out—neglected strands
of American and European environmental thought while refusing them a
global centrality.6 As far back as 1989, he dismantled the well-intentioned
but ultimately counterproductive project of deep ecology that, while pos-
ing as planetary, was at root profoundly parochial.7 Guha underscored the
need to keep environmentalism connected to global questions of distribu-
tive justice, connected as well to the unequal burdens of consumption and
militarization imposed on our fi nite planet by the world’s rich and poor, in
their capacity as individuals and as nation-states. While unearthing tena-
cious traditions of environmental thought and activism among the poor,
Guha has resisted sentimentalizing “traditional” cultures as peopled by
“natural” ecologists.

Guha has sought out collaborators who complement his expertise, nota-
bly the Indian ecologist and anthropologist Madhav Gadgil and the Catalan
economist Joan Martinez-Alier. Together they have generated an indispens-
able vocabulary that informs this book (and many others across an array
of disciplines). Terms like “the environmentalism of the poor,” “ecosystem

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p r e f a c e

[x i i i ]

people,” “omnivores” (those wealthy consumers who overstrain the planet),
and “socioenvironmentalism” were all brought into circulation by Guha
and his collaborators.8 Several of these terms have gone on to achieve trac-
tion in the broader worlds of the media and public policy. That success is
testimony to Guha’s rhetorical adaptability as he strives to be innovative yet
accessible, alert to the opportunities on offer across occasions, geographies,
and genres. Extrainstitutional by instinct, disciplined yet never ploddingly
disciplinary, Guha is an indispensable exemplar of what used to be called the
free-fl oating intellectual.

Writing outside the mainstreams of both Marxism and 1980s Western
environmentalism, Guha had to weather, on the one hand, scorn from
third-world radicals who dismissed environmentalism as reactionary, self-
indulgent frippery and, on the other, from deep ecologists who charged him
with being anti-ecological and anti-American.9 Yet over the long haul his
writings have decisively reshaped many debates that animate the environ-
mental humanities and social sciences.10

It is from these three diverse, unclassifi able intellectuals—a Palestinian
literary scholar exiled in America, a marine biologist with roots in rural
Pennsylvania, and a social scientist from Dehra Dun in the Himalayan foot-
hills—that I have drawn particular inspiration, as much from their opposi-
tional examples as from the tenor of their thought.

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Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Slow Violence and the

Environmentalism of the Poor

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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Introduction

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 some-
thing, then, slowly, it’s no longer possible to see it.

—Arundhati Roy

I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste
in the lowest-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 ineffi ciently low
compared to Los Angeles. . . . Just between you and me, shouldn’t
the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty indus-
tries to the Least Developed Countries?

—Lawrence Summers, confi dential World Bank memo,
December 12, 1991

When Lawrence Summers, then president of the World
Bank, advocated that the bank develop a scheme to export rich nation gar-
bage, toxic waste, and heavily polluting industries to Africa, he did so in
the calm voice of global managerial reasoning.1 Such a scheme, Summers
elaborated, would help correct an ineffi cient global imbalance in toxicity.
Underlying his plan is an overlooked but crucial subsidiary benefi t that he

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 ]

outlined: offl oading rich-nation toxins onto the world’s poorest continent
would help ease the growing pressure from rich-nation environmentalists
who were campaigning against garbage dumps and industrial effl uent that
they condemned as health threats and found aesthetically offensive. Sum-
mers thus rationalized his poison-redistribution ethic as offering a double
gain: it would benefi t the United States and Europe economically, while
helping appease the rising discontent of rich-nation environmentalists.
Summers’ arguments assumed a direct link between aesthetically unsightly
waste and Africa as an out-of-sight continent, a place remote from green
activists’ terrain of concern. In Summers’ win-win scenario for the global
North, the African recipients of his plan were triply discounted: discounted
as political agents, discounted as long-term casualties of what I call in this
book “slow violence,” and discounted as cultures possessing environmental
practices and concerns of their own. I begin with Summers’ extraordinary
proposal because it captures the strategic and representational challenges
posed by slow violence as it impacts the environments—and the environ-
mentalism—of the poor.

Three primary concerns animate this book, chief among them my con-
viction that we urgently need to rethink—politically, imaginatively, and
theoretically—what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a vio-
lence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruc-
tion that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is
typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as
an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in
space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe,
to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacu-
lar nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous
repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing,
we also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic chal-
lenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence. Climate change,
the thawing cryosphere, toxic drift, biomagnifi cation, deforestation, the
radioactive aftermaths of wars, acidifying oceans, and a host of other
slowly unfolding environmental catastrophes present formidable represen-
tational obstacles that can hinder our efforts to mobilize and act decisively.
The long dyings—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties,
both human and ecological that result from war’s toxic aftermaths or

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introduction

[ 3 ]

climate change—are underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in
human memory.

Had Summers advocated invading Africa with weapons of mass
destruction, his proposal would have fallen under conventional defi nitions
of violence and been perceived as a military or even an imperial invasion.
Advocating invading countries with mass forms of slow-motion toxic-
ity, however, requires rethinking our accepted assumptions of violence to
include slow violence. Such a rethinking requires that we complicate conven-
tional assumptions about violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy
because it is event focused, time bound, and body bound. We need to account
for how the temporal dispersion of slow violence affects the way we per-
ceive and respond to a variety of social affl ictions—from domestic abuse to
posttraumatic stress and, in particular, environmental calamities. A major
challenge is representational: how to devise arresting stories, images, and
symbols adequate to the pervasive but elusive violence of delayed effects.
Crucially, slow violence is often not just attritional but also exponential,
operating as a major threat multiplier; it can fuel long-term, proliferat-
ing confl icts in situations where the conditions for sustaining life become
increasingly but gradually degraded.

Politically and emotionally, different kinds of disaster possess unequal
heft. Falling bodies, burning towers, exploding heads, avalanches, volca-
noes, and tsunamis have a visceral, eye-catching and page-turning power
that tales of slow violence, unfolding over years, decades, even centuries,
cannot match. Stories of toxic buildup, massing greenhouse gases, and
accelerated species loss due to ravaged habitats are all cataclysmic, but they
are scientifi cally convoluted cataclysms in which casualties are postponed,
often for generations. In an age when the media venerate the spectacular,
when public policy is shaped primarily around perceived immediate need, a
central question is strategic and representational: how can we convert into
image and narrative the disasters that are slow moving and long in the mak-
ing, disasters that are anonymous and that star nobody, disasters that are
attritional and of indifferent interest to the sensation-driven technologies of
our image-world? How can we turn the long emergencies of slow violence
into stories dramatic enough to rouse public sentiment and warrant politi-
cal intervention, these emergencies whose repercussions have given rise to
some of the most critical challenges of our time?

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[4 ]

This book’s second, related focus concerns the environmentalism of the
poor, for it is those people lacking resources who are the principal casual-
ties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibil-
ity of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives. Our media
bias toward spectacular violence exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosys-
tems treated as disposable by turbo-capitalism while simultaneously exac-
erbating the vulnerability of those whom Kevin Bale, in another context,
has called “disposable people.”2 It is against such conjoined ecological and
human disposability that we have witnessed a resurgent environmentalism
of the poor, particularly (though not exclusively) across the so-called global
South. So a central issue that emerges is strategic: if the neoliberal era has
intensifi ed assaults on resources, it has also intensifi ed resistance, whether
through isolated site-specifi c struggles or through activism that has reached
across national boundaries in an effort to build translocal alliances.

“The poor” is a compendious category subject to almost infi nite local
variation as well as to fracture along fault lines of ethnicity, gender, race,
class, region, religion, and generation. Confronted with the militarization
of both commerce and development, impoverished communities are often
assailed by coercion and bribery that test their cohesive resilience. How
much control will, say, a poor hardwood forest community have over the
mix of subsistence and market strategies it deploys in attempts at adaptive
survival? How will that community negotiate competing defi nitions of its
own poverty and long-term wealth when the guns, the bulldozers, and
the moneymen arrive? Such communities typically have to patch together
threadbare improvised alliances against vastly superior military, corporate,
and media forces. As such, impoverished resource rebels can seldom afford
to be single-issue activists: their green commitments are seamed through
with other economic and cultural causes as they experience environmental
threat not as a planetary abstraction but as a set of inhabited risks, some
imminent, others obscurely long term.

The status of environmental activism among the poor in the global
South has shifted signifi cantly in recent years. Where green or environmen-
tal discourses were once frequently regarded with skepticism as neocolo-
nial, Western impositions inimical to the resource priorities of the poor in
the global South, such attitudes have been tempered by the gathering vis-
ibility and credibility of environmental justice movements that have pushed

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introduction

[ 5 ]

back against an antihuman environmentalism that too often sought (under
the banner of universalism) to impose green agendas dominated by rich
nations and Western NGOs. Among those who inhabit the frontlines of the
global resource wars, suspicions that environmentalism is another guise of
what Andrew Ross calls “planetary management” have not, of course, been
wholly allayed.3 But those suspicions have eased somewhat as the spectrum
of what counts as environmentalism has broadened. Western activists are
now more prone to recognize, engage, and learn from resource insurrec-
tions among the global poor that might previously have been discounted
as not properly environmental.4 Indeed, I believe that the fate of environ-
mentalism—and more decisively, the character of the biosphere itself—will
be shaped signifi cantly in decades to come by the tension between what
Ramachandra Guha and Joan Martinez-Alier have called “full-stomach”
and “empty-belly” environmentalism.5

The challenge of visibility that links slow violence to the environmen-
talism of the poor connects directly to this book’s third circulating con-
cern—the complex, often vexed fi gure of the environmental writer-activist.
In the chapters that follow I address not just literary but more broadly rhe-
torical and visual challenges posed by slow violence; however, I place par-
ticular emphasis on combative writers who have deployed their imaginative
agility and worldly ardor to help amplify the media-marginalized causes
of the environmentally dispossessed. I have sought to stress those places
where writers and social movements, often in complicated tandem, have
strategized against attritional disasters that affl ict embattled communities.
The writers I engage are geographically wide ranging—from various parts
of the African continent, from the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, the
United States, and Britain—and work across a variety of forms. Figures like
Wangari Maathai, Arundhati Roy, Indra Sinha, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Abdulrah-
man Munif, Njabulo Ndebele, Nadine Gordimer, Jamaica Kincaid, Rachel
Carson, and June Jordan are alive to the inhabited impact of corrosive trans-
national forces, including petro-imperialism, the megadam industry, out-
sourced toxicity, neocolonial tourism, antihuman conservation practices,
corporate and environmental deregulation, and the militarization of com-
merce, forces that disproportionately jeopardize the livelihoods, prospects,
and memory banks of the global poor. Among the writers I consider, some
have testifi ed in relative isolation, some have helped instigate movements

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 6 ]

for environmental justice, and yet others, in aligning themselves with pre-
existing movements, have given imaginative defi nition to the issues at stake
while enhancing the public visibility of the cause.

Relations between movements and writers are often fraught and fric-
tional, not least because such movements themselves are susceptible to
fracture from both external and internal pressures.6 That said, the writers
I consider are enraged by injustices they wish to see redressed, injustices
they believe they can help expose, silences they can help dismantle through
testimonial protest, rhetorical inventiveness, and counterhistories in the
face of formidable odds. Most are restless, versatile writers ready to pit their
energies against what Edward Said called “the normalized quiet of unseen
power.”7 This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed
havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence.

Slow Violence

In this book, I have sought to address our inattention to calamities that are
slow and long lasting, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation
while remaining outside our fl ickering attention spans—and outside the
purview of a spectacle-driven corporate media. The insidious workings of
slow violence derive largely from the unequal attention given to spectacular
and unspectacular time. In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow vio-
lence is defi cient in the recognizable special effects that fi ll movie theaters
and boost ratings on TV. Chemical and radiological violence, for example,
is driven inward, somatized into cellular dramas of mutation that—particu-
larly in the bodies of the poor—remain largely unobserved, undiagnosed,
and untreated. From a narrative perspective, such invisible, mutagenic the-
ater is slow paced and open ended, eluding the tidy closure, the contain-
ment, imposed by the visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat.

Let me ground this point by referring, in conjunction, to Rachel Car-
son’s Silent Spring and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. In 1962 Silent
Spring jolted a broad international public into an awareness of the protracted,
cryptic, and indiscriminate casualties infl icted by dichlorodiphenyltrichlo-
roethane (DDT). Yet, just one year earlier, Fanon, in the opening pages of
Wretched of the Earth, had comfortably invoked DDT as an affi rmative meta-
phor for anticolonial violence: he called for a DDT-fi lled spray gun to be

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 7]

wielded as a weapon against the “parasites” spread by the colonials’ Chris-
tian church.8 Fanon’s drama of decolonization is, of course, studded with
the overt weaponry whereby subjugation is maintained (“by dint of a great
array of bayonets and cannons”) or overthrown (“by the searing bullets and
bloodstained knives”) after “a murderous and decisive struggle between the
two protagonists.”9 Yet his temporal vision of violence—and of what Aimé
Césaire called “the rendezvous of victory”—was uncomplicated by the con-
cerns that an as-yet inchoate environmental justice movement (catalyzed
in part by Silent Spring) would raise about lopsided risks that permeate the
land long term, blurring the clean lines between defeat and victory, between
colonial dispossession and offi cial national self-determination.10 We can cer-
tainly read Fanon, in his concern with land as property and as fount of native
dignity, retrospectively with an environmental eye. But our theories of vio-
lence today must be informed by a science unavailable to Fanon, a science
that addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often diffi cult to
source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse.

Attritional catastrophes that overspill clear boundaries in time and space
are marked above all by displacements—temporal, geographical, rhetorical,
and technological displacements that simplify violence and underestimate,
in advance and in retrospect, the human and environmental costs. Such dis-
placements smooth the way for amnesia, as places are rendered irretrievable
to those who once inhabited them, places that ordinarily pass unmourned
in the corporate media. Places like the Marshall Islands, subjected between
1948 and 1958 to sixty-seven American atmospheric nuclear “tests,” the
largest of them equal in force to 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. In 1956 the
Atomic Energy Commission declared the Marshall Islands “by far the most
contaminated place in the world,” a condition that would compromise inde-
pendence in the long term, despite the islands’ formal ascent in 1979 into
the ranks of self-governing nations.11 The island republic was still in part
governed by an irradiated past: well into the 1980s its history of nuclear colo-
nialism, long forgotten by the colonizers, was still delivering into the world
“ jellyfi sh babies”—headless, eyeless, limbless human infants who would live
for just a few hours.12

If, as Said notes, struggles over geography are never reducible to armed
struggle but have a profound symbolic and narrative component as well,
and if, as Michael Watts insists, we must attend to the “violent geographies

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 8 ]

of fast capitalism,” we need to supplement both these injunctions with a
deeper understanding of the slow violence of delayed effects that structures
so many of our most consequential forgettings.13 Violence, above all envi-
ronmental violence, needs to be seen—and deeply considered—as a contest
not only over space, or bodies, or labor, or resources, but also over time. We
need to bear in mind Faulkner’s dictum that “the past is never dead. It’s not
even past.” His words resonate with particular force across landscapes per-
meated by slow violence, landscapes of temporal overspill that elude rhetori-
cal cleanup operations with their sanitary beginnings and endings.14

Kwame Anthony Appiah famously asked, “Is the ‘Post-’ in ‘Postcolonial’
the ‘Post-’ in ‘Postmodern’?” As environmentalists we might ask similarly
searching questions of the “post” in postindustrial, post–Cold War, and post-
confl ict.15 For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never
fully post: industrial particulates and effl uents live on in the environmental
elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and eco-
logically are never our simple contemporaries.16 Something similar applies to
so-called postconfl ict societies whose leaders may annually commemorate,
as marked on the calendar, the offi cial cessation of hostilities, while ongoing
intergenerational slow violence (infl icted by, say, unexploded landmines or
carcinogens from an arms dump) may continue hostilities by other means.

Ours is an age of onrushing turbo-capitalism, wherein the present feels
more abbreviated than it used to—at least for the world’s privileged classes
who live surrounded by technological time-savers that often compound
the sensation of not having enough time. Consequently, one of the most
pressing challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention
spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice. If, under neoliberalism,
the gulf between enclaved rich and outcast poor has become ever more pro-
nounced, ours is also an era of enclaved time wherein for many speed has
become a self-justifying, propulsive ethic that renders “uneventful” violence
(to those who live remote from its attritional lethality) a weak claimant on
our time. The attosecond pace of our age, with its restless technologies of
infi nite promise and infi nite disappointment, prompts us to keep fl icking
and clicking distractedly in an insatiable—and often insensate—quest for
quicker sensation.

The oxymoronic notion of slow violence poses a number of challenges:
scientifi c, legal, political, and representational. In the long arc between the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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introduction

[ 9 ]

emergence of slow violence and its delayed effects, both the causes and the
memory of catastrophe readily fade from view as the casualties incurred
typically pass untallied and unremembered. Such discounting in turn makes
it far more diffi cult to secure effective legal measures for prevention, restitu-
tion, and redress. Casualties from slow violence are, moreover, out of sync
not only with our narrative and media expectations but also with the swift
seasons of electoral change. Politicians routinely adopt a “last in, fi rst out”
stance toward environmental issues, admitting them when times are fl ush,
dumping them as soon as times get tight. Because preventative or remedial
environmental legislation typically targets slow violence, it cannot deliver
dependable electoral cycle results, even though those results may ultimately
be life saving. Relative to bankable pocketbook actions—there’ll be a tax
rebate check in the mail next August—environmental payouts seem to lurk
on a distant horizon. Many politicians—and indeed many voters—routinely
treat environmental action as critical yet not urgent. And so generation after
generation of two- or four-year cycle politicians add to the pileup of defer-
rable actions deferred. With rare exceptions, in the domain of slow violence
“yes, but not now, not yet” becomes the modus operandi.

How can leaders be goaded to avert catastrophe when the political
rewards of their actions will not accrue to them but will be reaped on
someone else’s watch decades, even centuries, from now? How can envi-
ronmental activists and storytellers work to counter the potent political,
corporate, and even scientifi c forces invested in immediate self-interest,
procrastination, and dissembling? We see such dissembling at work, for
instance, in the afterword to Michael Crichton’s 2004 environmental con-
spiracy novel, State of Fear, wherein he argued that we needed twenty more
years of data gathering on climate change before any policy decisions could
be ventured.17 Although the National Academy of Sciences had assured
former president George W. Bush that humans were indeed causing the
earth to warm, Bush shopped around for views that accorded with his own
skepticism and found them in a private meeting with Crichton, whom he
described as “an expert scientist.”

To address the challenges of slow violence is to confront the dilemma
Rachel Carson faced almost half a century ago as she sought to dramatize
what she eloquently called “death by indirection.”18 Carson’s subjects were
biomagnifi cation and toxic drift, forms of oblique, slow-acting violence that,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 0 ]

like climate change, pose formidable imaginative diffi culties for writers and
activists alike. In struggling to give shape to amorphous menace, both Car-
son and reviewers of Silent Spring resorted to a narrative vocabulary: one
reviewer portrayed the book as exposing “the new, unplotted and myste-
rious dangers we insist upon creating all around us,”19 while Carson her-
self wrote of “a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and
obscure.”20 To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give
fi gurative shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed
across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring
creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in
instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representation-
ally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as
well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency.

Slow Violence and Structural Violence

Seven years after Rachel Carson turned our attention to the lethal mecha-
nisms of “death by indirection,” Johan Galtung, the infl uential Norwegian
mathematician and sociologist, coined the term “indirect or structural vio-
lence.”21 Galtung’s theory of structural violence is pertinent here because
some of his concerns overlap with the concerns that animate this book,
while others help throw into relief the rather different features I have sought
to highlight by introducing the term “slow violence.” Structural violence,
for Galtung, stands in opposition to the more familiar personal violence that
dominates our conceptions of what counts as violence per se.22 Galtung was
concerned, as I am, with widening the fi eld of what constitutes violence. He
sought to foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of per-
sonal violence and constitute forms of violence in and of themselves. Such
structural violence may range from the unequal morbidity that results from
a commodifi ed health care system, to racism itself. What I share with Gal-
tung’s line of thought is a concern with social justice, hidden agency, and
certain forms of violence that are imperceptible.

In these terms, for example, we can recognize that the structural vio-
lence embodied by a neoliberal order of austerity measures, structural
adjustment, rampant deregulation, corporate megamergers, and a widen-
ing gulf between rich and poor is a form of covert violence in its own right

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[1 1]

that is often a catalyst for more recognizably overt violence. For an expressly
environmental example of structural violence, one might cite Wangari
Maathai’s insistence that the systemic burdens of national debt to the IMF
and World Bank borne by many so-called developing nations constitute a
major impediment to environmental sustainability.23 So, too, feminist earth
scientist Jill Schneiderman, one of our fi nest thinkers about environmental
time, has written about the way in which environmental degradation may
“masquerade as inevitable.”24

For all the continuing pertinence of the theory of structural violence
and for all the modifi cations the theory has undergone, the notion bears
the impress of its genesis during the high era of structuralist thinking that
tended toward a static determinism. We see this, for example, in Galtung’s
insistence that “structural violence is silent, it does not show—its is essen-
tially static, it is the tranquil waters.”25 In contrast to the static connotations
of structural violence, I have sought, through the notion of slow violence,
to foreground questions of time, movement, and change, however gradual.
The explicitly temporal emphasis of slow violence allows us to keep front
and center the representational challenges and imaginative dilemmas posed
not just by imperceptible violence but by imperceptible change whereby vio-
lence is decoupled from its original causes by the workings of time. Time
becomes an actor in complicated ways, not least because the temporal tem-
plates of our spectacle-driven, 24/7 media life have shifted massively since
Galtung fi rst advanced his theory of structural violence some forty years
ago. To talk about slow violence, then, is to engage directly with our con-
temporary politics of speed.

Simply put, structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking dif-
ferent notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow
violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence, but
has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions
of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence
enacted slowly over time. The shift in the relationship between human
agency and time is most dramatically evident in our enhanced under-
standing of the accelerated changes occurring at two scalar extremes—in
the life-sustaining circuits of planetary biophysics and in the wired brain’s
neural circuitry. The idea of structural violence predated both sophisti-
cated contemporary ice-core sampling methods and the emergence of cyber

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 2 ]

technology. My concept of slow violence thus seeks to respond both to
recent, radical changes in our geological perception and our changing tech-
nological experiences of time.

Let me address the geological aspect fi rst. In 2000, Paul Crutzen, the Nobel
Prize–winning atmospheric chemist, introduced the term “the Anthropo-
cene Age” (which he dated to James Watt’s invention of the steam engine).
Through the notion of “the Anthropocene Age,” Crutzen sought to theorize
an unprecedented epochal effect: the massive impact by the human species,
from the industrial era onward, on our planet’s life systems, an impact that,
as his term suggests, is geomorphic, equal in force and in long-term implica-
tions to a major geological event.26 Crutzen’s attempt to capture the epochal
scale of human activity’s impact on the planet was followed by Will Steffen’s
elaboration, in conjunction with Crutzen and John McNeill, of what they
dubbed the Great Acceleration, a second stage of the Anthropocene Age that
they dated to the mid-twentieth century. Writing in 2007, Steffen et al. noted
how “nearly three-quarters of the anthropogenically driven rise in CO

2
con-

centration has occurred since 1950 (from about 310 to 380 ppm), and about
half of the total rise (48 ppm) has occurred in just the last 30 years.”27 The
Australian environmental historian Libby Robin has put the case succinctly:
“We have recently entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. There
is now considerable evidence that humanity has altered the biophysical sys-
tems of Earth, not just the carbon cycle . . . but also the nitrogen cycle and
ultimately the atmosphere and climate of the whole globe.”28 What, then, are
the consequences for our experience of time of this newfound recognition
that we have inadvertently, through our unprecedented biophysical species
power, inaugurated an Anthropocene Age and are now engaged in (and sub-
ject to) the hurtling changes of the Great Acceleration?

Over the past two decades, this high-speed planetary modifi cation has
been accompanied (at least for those increasing billions who have access to
the Internet) by rapid modifi cations to the human cortex. It is diffi cult, but
necessary, to consider simultaneously a geologically-paced plasticity, how-
ever relatively rapid, and the plasticity of brain circuits reprogrammed by
a digital world that threatens to “info-whelm” us into a state of perpetual
distraction. If an awareness of the Great Acceleration is (to put it mildly)
unevenly distributed, the experience of accelerated connectivity (and the
paradoxical disconnects that can accompany it) is increasingly widespread.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[1 3 ]

In an age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly diffi cult yet increas-
ingly urgent that we focus on the toll exacted, over time, by the slow vio-
lence of ecological degradation. We live, writes Cory Doctorow, in an era
when the electronic screen has become an “ecosystem of interruption tech-
nologies.”29 Or as former Microsoft executive Linda Stone puts it, we now
live in an age of “continuous partial attention.”30 Fast is faster than it used
to be, and story units have become concomitantly shorter. In this cultural
milieu of digitally speeded up time, and foreshortened narrative, the inter-
generational aftermath becomes a harder sell. So to render slow violence
visible entails, among other things, redefi ning speed: we see such efforts
in talk of accelerated species loss, rapid climate change, and in attempts
to recast “glacial”—once a dead metaphor for “slow”—as a rousing, iconic
image of unacceptably fast loss.

Efforts to make forms of slow violence more urgently visible suffered
a setback in the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, which reinforced a
spectacular, immediately sensational, and instantly hyper-visible image of
what constitutes a violent threat. The fi ery spectacle of the collapsing towers
was burned into the national psyche as the defi nitive image of violence, set-
ting back by years attempts to rally public sentiment against climate change,
a threat that is incremental, exponential, and far less sensationally visible.
Condoleezza Rice’s strategic fantasy of a mushroom cloud looming over
America if the United States failed to invade Iraq gave further visual defi ni-
tion to cataclysmic violence as something explosive and instantaneous, a
recognizably cinematic, immediately sensational, pyrotechnic event.

The representational bias against slow violence has, furthermore, a
critically dangerous impact on what counts as a casualty in the fi rst place.
Casualties of slow violence—human and environmental—are the casualties
most likely not to be seen, not to be counted. Casualties of slow violence
become light-weight, disposable casualties, with dire consequences for the
ways wars are remembered, which in turn has dire consequences for the
projected casualties from future wars. We can observe this bias at work in
the way wars, whose lethal repercussions spread across space and time, are
tidily bookended in the historical record. Thus, for instance, a 2003 New York
Times editorial on Vietnam declared that “during our dozen years there, the
U.S. killed and helped kill at least 1.5 million people.”31 But that simple phrase
“during our dozen years there” shrinks the toll, foreshortening the ongoing

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 4 ]

slow-motion slaughter: hundreds of thousands survived the offi cial war
years, only to slowly lose their lives later to Agent Orange. In a 2002 study,
the environmental scientist Arnold Schecter recorded dioxin levels in the
bloodstreams of Bien Hoa residents at 135 times the levels of Hanoi’s inhabit-
ants, who lived far north of the spraying.32 The affl icted include thousands
of children born decades after the war’s end. More than thirty years after
the last spray run, Agent Orange continues to wreak havoc as, through bio-
magnifi cation, dioxins build up in the fatty tissues of pivotal foods such as
duck and fi sh and pass from the natural world into the cooking pot and from
there to ensuing human generations. An Institute of Medicine committee
has by now linked seventeen medical conditions to Agent Orange; indeed,
as recently as 2009 it uncovered fresh evidence that exposure to the chemi-
cal increases the likelihood of developing Parkinson’s disease and ischemic
heart disease.33 Under such circumstances, wherein long-term risks con-
tinue to emerge, to bookend a war’s casualties with the phrase “during our
dozen years there” is misleading: that small, seemingly innocent phrase is
a powerful reminder of how our rhetorical conventions for bracketing vio-
lence routinely ignore ongoing, belated casualties.

Slow Violence and Strategies of
Representation: Writer-Activism

How do we bring home—and bring emotionally to life—threats that take
time to wreak their havoc, threats that never materialize in one spectacular,
explosive, cinematic scene? Apprehension is a critical word here, a crossover
term that draws together the domains of perception, emotion, and action. To
engage slow violence is to confront layered predicaments of apprehension:
to apprehend—to arrest, or at least mitigate—often imperceptible threats
requires rendering them apprehensible to the senses through the work of sci-
entifi c and imaginative testimony. An infl uential lineage of environmental
thought gives primacy to immediate sensory apprehension, to sight above
all, as foundational for any environmental ethics of place. George Perkins
Marsh, the mid-nineteenth-century environmental pioneer, argued in Man
and Nature that “the power most important to cultivate, and, at the same
time, hardest to acquire, is that of seeing what is before him.”34 Aldo Leopold
similarly insisted that “we can be ethical only toward what we can see.”35 But

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[1 5 ]

what happens when we are unsighted, when what extends before us—in
the space and time that we most deeply inhabit—remains invisible? How,
indeed, are we to act ethically toward human and biotic communities that
lie beyond our sensory ken? What then, in the fullest sense of the phrase, is
the place of seeing in the world that we now inhabit? What, moreover, is the
place of the other senses? How do we both make slow violence visible yet
also challenge the privileging of the visible?

Such questions have profound consequences for the apprehension of
slow violence, whether on a cellular or a transnational scale. Planetary
consciousness (a notion that has undergone a host of theoretical formula-
tions) becomes pertinent here, perhaps most usefully in the sense in which
Mary Louise Pratt elaborates it, linking questions of power and perspec-
tive, keeping front and center the often latent, often invisible violence in the
view. Who gets to see, and from where? When and how does such empow-
ered seeing become normative? And what perspectives—not least those of
the poor or women or the colonized—do hegemonic sight conventions of
visuality obscure? Pratt’s formulation of planetary consciousness remains
invaluable because it allows us to connect forms of apprehension to forms
of imperial violence.36

Against this backdrop, I want to introduce the third central concern of
this book. Alongside slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor,
the chapters that follow are critically concerned with the political, imagina-
tive, and strategic role of environmental writer-activists. Writer-activists can
help us apprehend threats imaginatively that remain imperceptible to the
senses, either because they are geographically remote, too vast or too min-
ute in scale, or are played out across a time span that exceeds the instance of
observation or even the physiological life of the human observer. In a world
permeated by insidious, yet unseen or imperceptible violence, imaginative
writing can help make the unapparent appear, making it accessible and
tangible by humanizing drawn-out threats inaccessible to the immediate
senses. Writing can challenge perceptual habits that downplay the damage
slow violence infl icts and bring into imaginative focus apprehensions that
elude sensory corroboration. The narrative imaginings of writer-activists
may thus offer us a different kind of witnessing: of sights unseen.

To allay states of apprehension—trepidations, forebodings, shadows
cast by the invisible—entails facing the challenge, at once imaginative and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 6 ]

scientifi c, of giving the unapparent a materiality upon which we can act.
Yet poor communities, often disproportionately exposed to the force fi elds
of slow violence—be they military residues or imported e-waste or the ris-
ing tides of climate change—are the communities least likely to attract sus-
tained scientifi c inquiry into causes, effects, and potential redress. Such poor
communities are abandoned to sporadic science at best and usually no sci-
ence at all; they are also disproportionately subjected to involuntary phar-
maceutical experiments. Indeed, when such communities raise concerns,
they often become targets of well-funded antiscience by forces that have a
legal or commercial interest in manufacturing and disseminating doubt.37
Such embattled communities, beset by offi cially unacknowledged hazards,
must fi nd ways to broadcast their inhabited fears, their lived sense of a cor-
roded environment, within the broader global struggles over apprehension.
It is here that writers, fi lmmakers, and digital activists may play a mediating
role in helping counter the layered invisibility that results from insidious
threats, from temporal protractedness, and from the fact that the affl icted
are people whose quality of life—and often whose very existence—is of
indifferent interest to the corporate media.

To address violence discounted by dominant structures of apprehension
is necessarily to engage the culturally variable issue of who counts as a wit-
ness. Contests over what counts as violence are intimately entangled with
confl icts over who bears the social authority of witness, which entails much
more than simply seeing or not seeing. The entangled politics of spectacle
and witnessing have implications that stretch well beyond environmental
slow violence. In domestic abuse, for instance, violence may be life threaten-
ing but slow, bloodless, and brutal in ways that are not always immediately
fatal: a broken nose constitutes a different order of evidence from food or
access to medical treatment or human company withheld over an extended
period. A locked door can be a weapon. Doors for women are often long-
term, nonlethal weapons that leave no telltale bloody trail; doors don’t bear
witness to a single, decisive blow. In many cultures, moreover, rape isn’t
defi ned as rape if it is infl icted by a husband. And in some societies, a rape
isn’t rape unless three adult men are present to witness it. As the journalis-
tic chestnut has it, “if it bleeds, it leads.” And as a corollary, if it’s bloodless,
slow-motion violence, the story is more likely to be buried, particularly if
it’s relayed by people whose witnessing authority is culturally discounted.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[1 7]

The Environmentalism of the Poor and
Displacement in Place

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently
triggered when an offi cial landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one.38
A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps
that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names
and routes, maps alive to signifi cant ecological and surface geological fea-
tures. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed,
is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than
being wholly externalized—treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable
resource. By contrast, an offi cial landscape—whether governmental, NGO,
corporate, or some combination of those—is typically oblivious to such earlier
maps; instead, it writes the land in a bureaucratic, externalizing, and extrac-
tion-driven manner that is often pitilessly instrumental. Lawrence Summers’
scheme to export rich-nation garbage and toxicity to Africa, for example,
stands as a grandiose (though hardly exceptional) instance of a highly ratio-
nalized offi cial landscape that, whether in terms of elite capture of resources
or toxic disposal, has often been projected onto ecosystems inhabited by those
whom Annu Jalais, in an Indian context, calls “dispensable citizens.”39

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous
resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism
has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-
termers who arrive (with their offi cial landscape maps) to extract, despoil,
and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological after-
math and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales. In the
pages that follow, I will highlight and explore resource rebellions against
developer-dispossessors who descend from other time zones to impose on
habitable environments unsustainable calculations about what constitutes
the duration of human gain. Change is a cultural constant but the pace of
change is not. Hence the temporal contests over how to sustain, regener-
ate, exhaust, or obliterate the landscape as resource become critical. More
than material wealth is here at stake: imposed offi cial landscapes typically
discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated
cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the
living, the unborn, and the animate deceased.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 8 ]

The ensuing losses are consistent with John Berger’s lament over capi-
talism’s disdain for interdependencies by foreshortening our sense of time,
thereby rendering the deceased immaterial:

The living reduce the dead to those who have lived; yet the

dead already include the living in their own great collective. . . .

Until the dehumanization of society by capitalism, all the living

awaited the experience of the dead. It was their ultimate future.

By themselves the living were incomplete. Thus living and dead

were interdependent. Always. Only a uniquely modern form of

egoism has broken this interdependence. With disastrous results

for the living, who now think of the dead as the eliminated.40

Hence, one should add, our perspective on environmental asset stripping
should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape
of multiple generations, with all the hindsight and foresight that entails.

Against this backdrop, I consider in this book what can be called the
temporalities of place. Place is a temporal attainment that must be con-
stantly renegotiated in the face of changes that arrive from without and
within, some benign, others potentially ruinous. To engage the temporal
displacements involved in slow violence against the poor thus requires that
we rethink questions of physical displacement as well. In the chapters that
follow, I track the socioenvironmental fallout from developmental agendas
whose primary benefi ciaries live elsewhere; as when, for example, oasis
dwellers in the Persian Gulf get trucked off to unknown destinations so that
American petroleum engineers and their sheik collaborators can develop
their “fi nds.” Or when a megadam arises and (whether erected in the name
of some dictatorial edict, the free market, structural adjustment, national
development, or far-off urban or industrial need) displaces and disperses
those who had developed through their vernacular landscapes their own
adaptable, if always imperfect and vulnerable, relation to riverine possibility.

Paradoxically, those forcibly removed by development include conser-
vation refugees. Too often in the global South, conservation, driven by
powerful transnational nature NGOs, combines an antidevelopmental rhet-
oric with the development of fi nite resources for the touristic few, thereby
depleting vital resources for long-term residents. (I explore this paradox

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[1 9 ]

more fully in Chapter 6: Stranger in the Eco-village: Race, Tourism, and
Environmental Time.)

In much of what follows, I address the resistance mounted by impov-
erished communities who have been involuntarily moved out of their
knowledge; I address as well the powers—transnational, national, and
local—behind such forced removals. My angle of vision is largely through
writers who have affi liated themselves with social movements that seek to
stave off one of two ruinous prospects: either the threatened community
capitulates and is scattered (across refugee camps, placeless “relocation”
sites, desperate favelas, and unwelcoming foreign lands), or the community
refuses to move but, as its world is undermined, effectively becomes a com-
munity of refugees in place. What I wish to stress here, then, are not just
those communities that are involuntarily (and often militarily) relocated to
less hospitable environs, but also those affected by what I call displacement
without moving. In other words, I want to propose a more radical notion
of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of
people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and
resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place
stripped of the very characteristics that made it inhabitable.

For if environmental protest has frequently been incited by the threat of
forced removal, it has also been incited by the threat of displacement with-
out moving. Such a threat entails being simultaneously immobilized and
moved out of one’s living knowledge as one’s place loses its life-sustaining
features. What does it mean for people declared disposable by some “new”
economy to fi nd themselves existing out of place in place as, against the
odds, they seek to slow the ecological assaults on inhabitable possibility?
What does it mean for subsistence communities to discover they are goners
with nowhere to go, that their once-sustaining landscapes have been gutted
of their capacity to sustain by an externalizing, instrumental logic? The des-
perate entrapments, the claustral options that result have galvanized envi-
ronmental justice insurrections, in the global South and beyond.

I would like to ground this point in Stephanie Black’s superb documentary
Life and Debt. The fi lm can be interpreted as dramatizing the way neoliberal
policies impose displacement without moving (or stationary displacement)
on Jamaican communities, a process intimately connected to the long-term
socioenvironmental damage infl icted on the island by slow violence. Life and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 0 ]

Debt adapts to a Jamaican context Kincaid’s Antiguan polemic against tour-
ism and against the neocolonial politics of unequal freedom of movement.
This is a fi lm about arrivals, departures, and those unable either to arrive or
depart. Yet the most consequential arrival is the hardest to depict: the advent
of the “free market” in the form of IMF structural adjustment, rendered vis-
ible by planes disgorging federally subsidized American milk, onions, and
potatoes at prices that destroy unsubsidized Jamaican farmers whose opera-
tions were small scale but intergenerational. To compensate for the resul-
tant agricultural collapse and the rising debt that follows from importing
more subsidized American food, Jamaica must increase its dependence on
tourists who, disgorged from sleek jets, are then immured in dedicated plea-
sure zones. Black’s fi lm sets up an implicit link between the visiting tourists’
structured getaways and the structural adjustment visited upon the locals
from which there is no getaway. We see guard dogs being trained to segre-
gate mobile pleasure-seekers from trapped, angry locals forced to live their
dislocated lives in place. Here, in capsule form, we witness one industry that
has thrived under neoliberalism: the security industry, which has fl ourished
on the insecurities wrought by structural adjustment, by the “opening up”
of markets, and by the erosion of long-term relations to the land through the
annexation—and carting off—of the very conditions of life.

Security has become one of neoliberalism’s signature growth indus-
tries, exemplifi ed by the international boom in gated communities, as walls
have spread like kudzu, and the marketplace in barriers has literally soared,
from Los Angeles to Sao Paolo; from Johannesburg to Jakarta; from Lagos,
Lima, and Mexico City to Karachi. Ironically, as neoliberal policy makers
have pushed to bring down barriers to “free trade,” those same policies
have resulted in the erection of ever higher barriers segregating inordinate
wealth from inordinate poverty. Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concret-
ize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long
term in a world whose resources are increasingly unshared. The wall, read
in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes
temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of
sight out of mind.

Neoliberal assaults on inhabited environments have of course met with
variable success. Whether the target is an immobile resource such as forests,
a mobile resource such as water, or a fugitive resource such as wildlife, the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 2 1]

environment itself is not a predictably quiescent victim.41 Resistance may
assume not just human forms but also arise from an unanticipated recal-
citrance on the part of a targeted resource, which may prove harder to
commodify and profi tably remove or manage than corporate moguls fore-
saw. We have witnessed as much, for example, in the largely unsuccessful
attempts to privatize water: if 20 percent of the world’s largest cities now
have privatized water systems, such efforts have sometimes experienced
reversals—as in Bolivia, for instance—through a mixture of human resis-
tance, topographical impediments, and obstacles to social engineering.

That said, we need to be cautious about romanticizing the noncom-
pliance that may inhere in a targeted resource: relative to the accelerated
plunder involved, say, in the “second scramble” for Africa—as American,
Australian, Chinese, European, and South African corporations cash in
on resource-rich, regulation-poor, war-fractured societies—the resistance
posed by nature itself should not be overstated.42 The recent turn within
environmental studies toward celebrating the creative resilience of ecosys-
tems can be readily hijacked by politicians, lobbyists, and corporations who
oppose regulatory controls and strive to minimize pollution liability. Co-
opting the “nature-and-time-will-heal” argument has become integral to
attempts to privatize profi ts while externalizing risk and cleanup, both of
which can be delegated to “nature’s business.”

This was dramatically illustrated by the Deepwater Horizon disaster—
in the laxity that contributed to the blowout and in the aftermath. Big Oil
and government agencies both invoked natural resilience as an advance
strategy for minimizing oversight. Before the blowout, the Minerals Man-
agement Service of the U.S. Interior Department had concluded that “spills
in deep water are not likely to affect listed birds. . . . Deepwater spills would
either be transported away from coastal habitats or prevented, for the most
part, from reaching coastal habitats by natural weathering processes.”43
Even after the disaster, this line of reasoning persisted. Oil industry apolo-
gist Rep. Don Young (R-AK), testifying at congressional hearings on the
blowout, knew exactly how to mine this “natural agency” logic: the Deep-
water Horizon spill was “not an environmental disaster,” he declared. “I
will say that again and again because it is a natural phenomenon. Oil has
seeped into this ocean for centuries, will continue to do it. . . . We will lose
some birds, we will lose some fi xed sea-life, but overall it will recover.”44 BP

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 2 ]

spokesman John Curry likewise explained how industrious microbes would
cleanse the oil from the gulf: “Nature,” he concluded sanguinely, “has a way
of helping the situation.”45 BP representatives repeatedly invoked the capac-
ity of marine life to metabolize hydrocarbons and the dispersing powers of
microbial degradation. But in conscripting nature as a volunteer clean up
crew, BP and its Washington allies downplayed the way ravenous microbes,
in consuming oxygen, thereby starved other organisms and exacerbated
expanding oceanic dead zones.46 What will be the long-term cascade effect
of the slow violence, the mass die-offs, of phyloplankton at the food chain
base? It is far too early to tell.

In short, the very environment that high-risk, deep-water drilling
endangered was conscripted by industry through a kind of natural out-
sourcing. And so Big Oil’s invocation of nature’s healing powers needs to be
recognized as part of a broader strategy of image management and liability
limitation by greenwashing. Natural agency can indeed take unexpected,
sometimes heartening forms, but we should be alert to the ways corporate
colossi and governments can hijack that logic to grant themselves advance
or retrospective absolution. Crucially, for my arguments about slow vio-
lence, the time frames of damage assessment and potential recovery are
wildly out of sync. The deep-time thinking that celebrates natural healing
is strategically disastrous if it provides political cover for reckless corporate
short-termism.47

Writer-Activists and Representational Power

The environmentalism of the poor is frequently catalyzed by resource
imperialism infl icted on the global South to maintain the unsustainable
consumer appetites of rich-country citizens and, increasingly, of the urban
middle classes in the global South itself. The outsourcing of environmental
crisis, whether through rapid or slow violence, has a particularly profound
impact on the world’s ecosystem people—those hundreds of millions who
depend for their livelihood on modest resource catchment areas at the oppo-
site extreme from the planetary resource catchment areas plundered by
the wealthy—the wealthy whom Gadgil and Guha have dubbed “resource
omnivores.”48 The writer-activists I engage in this book share a desire to
give human defi nition to such outsourced suffering, a desire to lay bare the

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introduction

[ 2 3 ]

dissociational dynamics whereby, for example, a rich-country conservation
ethic is uncoupled from environmental devastation, externalized abroad, in
which it is implicated. Correspondingly, we witness in these writers a desire
to give life and dimension to the strategies—oppositional, affi rmative, and
yes, often desperate and fractured—that emerge from those who bear the
brunt of the planet’s ecological crises.

The writer-activists I discuss in these pages who engage the envi-
ronmentalism of the poor are a heterogeneous cast. Some, like Wangari
Maathai and Ken Saro-Wiwa, helped launch environmental movements
and assumed within them the role of porte-parole. They also became iconic
fi gureheads and ultimately (in a phrase that expresses a contradictory ten-
sion) autobiographers of collective movements. Others, like Arundhati Roy
and Indra Sinha, affi liated themselves with well-established struggles, help-
ing amplify causes marginalized by the corporate media. Roy also served
as a transnational go-between, connecting a specifi c struggle against the
Sardar Sarovar Dam with international campaigns against megadams and,
beyond that, with the antiglobalization movement itself. For Roy, Sinha,
Maathai, and Saro-Wiwa, the extra visibility they afforded the environmen-
talism of the poor entailed, crucially, the development of rhetorical alli-
ances that opened up connective avenues between environmental justice
and other rights discourses: women’s rights, minority rights, tribal rights,
property rights, the right to freedom of speech and assembly, and the right
to enhanced economic self-suffi ciency.

Sometimes a writer-activist’s authority becomes, in their home country,
a lightning rod for controversy in ways quite different from the controver-
sies their writings stir abroad. Roy’s polemical essays in support of the move-
ment opposing the Sardar Sarovar Dam on India’s Narmada River are a case
in point: her testimony reached a vast international audience and enhanced
the visibility of marginalized rural communities who mobilized against
megadams, expressly in the Narmada Valley but more broadly across the
global South. On the one hand, the New York Times refused to publish Roy
(and other dissident public intellectuals, such as Edward Said and Noam
Chomsky) presumably because her antiglobalization essays were ideologi-
cally unsettling. On the other hand, Indian opinion about her interventions
split between those who lauded her for putting her celebrity in the service
of the poor and those who lambasted her for behaving in a self-serving

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 4 ]

manner. An Anglophone Indian writer like Roy, whose national and inter-
national audiences are both substantial, faces particular challenges in trying
to reconcile disjunctive audiences: rhetorical strategies, tonal infl ections,
and informational background that engage an international audience risk
estranging a national one and vice versa. How different the situation is
for a socioenvironmental writer like Derek Walcott from a small society
that comprises an infi nitesimal fraction of his audience; even after he was
awarded the Nobel Prize, Walcott’s books were nowhere to be found on sale
in his natal St. Lucia.

But what of writer-activists operating in circumstances where no viable
movement existed to challenge the imperially buttressed forces of crony cap-
italism, where campaigns for environmental justice took shape before the
term itself existed and where such campaigns assumed the forms of at best
spasmodic protest? One such activist was Abdelrahman Munif who, by shut-
tling across a broad spread of fi ctional and nonfi ctional forms, gave imagina-
tive defi nition to the long view of the resource wars that have affl icted the
Persian Gulf. His writings speak in defense of socioenvironmental memory
itself—above all, the suppressed memory of the uprisings (which peaked in
the 1940s and 1950s) against American petro-imperialism in partnership with
an emergent petro-despotism. By the mid-1980s, when Munif ’s Cities of Salt
appeared, that dissident lineage protesting the petro-state’s union-busting,
racist labor practices had been brutally quashed. Yet Munif was able to give
imaginative and political defi nition to the memory of social protest while
foreshadowing, with uncanny prescience, how the crushed campaigns for
dignity and rights would become dangerously diverted into an anti-imperial
religious fundamentalism.

In turning to the Caribbean and South Africa, I revisit the question of
the writer-activist’s role in fortifying embattled socioenvironmental mem-
ory. Jamaica Kincaid, June Jordan, Njabulo Ndebele, and Nadine Gordimer
found themselves writing into the headwinds of an international nature
industry propelled by a romanticized colonial history and by neocolonial
fantasy. All four writers draw to the surface inconvenient questions about
long-term ecologies of social injustice that cannot be colorfully blended
into touristic boilerplate. In writing against a violent and violating invis-
ibility they engage the contradictions that permeate the marketplace in
idealized natural retreats—a marketplace premised on a retreat from

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introduction

[ 2 5 ]

socioenvironmental memory itself. At stake is the way suppressed histories
of land theft, forced removal, slavery, and coercive labor achieve their most
concentrated form in the fi gure of the spectral servant, whose obligatory
self-effacement smoothes the tourist’s path toward immersion in an unsul-
lied nature rich in pure moment, in serendipitous immediacy.

The anticolonial energies that inform the essays I discuss by Kincaid,
Ndebele, and Jordan are complicated by painfully riven refl ections on rep-
resentational authority. When you have ascended economically as a black
woman or man into the middle classes, where do you stand in relation to
those whose plight you depict and whose service, as a tourist, you depend
on? Where do you belong in the historically sanitized, colonially hued inter-
national marketplace in environmental relaxation? In writing about tour-
ism, poverty, and clashing cultures of nature, Kincaid, Ndebele, and Jordan
all attempt to negotiate, through memoir and polemic, the minefi elds of
race, class, and gender that confront them on entering a realm of nature
industry tourism clearly not designed for them yet to which they can afford
class access.

Many of the writers I consider in this book, as well as the three fi g-
ures whom I acknowledge in my preface—Edward Said, Rachel Carson,
and Ramachandra Guha—exemplify in their work the versatile possibili-
ties of politically engaged nonfi ction. For one of the enduring passions that
informs this book is the special allure that nonfi ction possesses for me as
a writer, scholar, reader, and teacher. I am drawn to nonfi ction’s robust
adaptability, imaginative and political, as well as to its information-carrying
capacity and its aura of the real.49 Yet a tenacious tendency remains to mar-
ginalize nonfi ction, to treat it as at best supplementary to “real literature”
like the novel or poetry rather than taking seriously its adaptive rhetori-
cal capacities, the chameleon powers that make it such an indispensable
resource for creative activism. Indeed, a particular joy of teaching trans-
national environmental literatures is the vigorous, varied writing on offer
from within nonfi ction’s broad domain—memoirs, essays, public science
writing, polemics, travel literature, graphic memoirs, manifestos, and
investigative journalism. Some of the writers I consider in the chapters that
follow work principally in nonfi ction forms, others in fi ction, while most
of them shuttle strategically and instinctively between the two. At a time
when the memoir, in particular, has come under fi re for self-absorption,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 6 ]

we would do well to remember that the “if-it’s-me-it-must-be-interesting”
memoir is not the only type. The most effective memoirists, not least envi-
ronmental ones, fi nd ways to draw on the form’s intimate energies while
also offering the reader a social depth of fi eld.

Much has been written about the literary right to represent, some of it
signifi cant work, some overly elaborate. Clearly power, including represen-
tational power, often works at an exaggerated remove. The writers I engage
have ascended not just into the literate but into the publishing classes, thereby
creating some inevitable distance from the bulk of the impoverished people
about whom they write. Yet in the scheme of things, this hardly seems to me
the most suspect kind of distance. Relative to the invisibility that threatens
the marginalized poor and the environments they depend on, the bridge-
work such writer-activists undertake offers a mostly honorable counter to
the distancing rhetoric of neoliberal “free market” resource development,
a rhetoric that displaces onto future generations—above all through slow
violence—the human and ecological costs of such “development.”

The interplay between representational authority and displacement
matters at a biographical level as well.50 Most of the writers I discuss—
Maathai, Saro-Wiwa, Munif, Kincaid, Jordan, Ndebele, Naipaul, Carson,
Richard Rodriguez, Nadine Gordimer, and James Baldwin—were the fi rst
in their families to attend college.51 From the contradictions of sudden
class displacement—often compounded by transgressed expectations that
attend gender, race, sexuality, or immigrant status—a certain type of pub-
lic intellectual may arise, someone who has to negotiate the vexing terrain
of unfamiliar—and unfamilial—privilege fraught with an anxious sense of
collective responsibility. The public role such fi gures assume is often ani-
mated both by an expressive anger and by the fear that their novel, precari-
ous privilege is temporary or illusory—that one misstep may plunge them
back into a viscerally remembered familial indigence. What frequently
appears, then, is a quest to improvise community, both literal and imagina-
tive, to help counter the isolation that comes from feeling economically,
professionally, and psychologically unsheltered by precedent. These ten-
dencies infl ect the socioenvironmental and creative sensibilities that dis-
tinguish many of the writers in this book. Having extricated themselves
improbably from impoverished circumstances—and then seeing their
work published in the New Yorker, or on being awarded a Ph.D. or even the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 2 7]

Nobel Prize—they stand above the immediate environmental struggles
of the poor yet remain bonded through memory (and through their own
vertiginous anxieties) to the straitened circumstances from which they or
their families recently emerged. Hence, as go-betweens, such writers are at
the very least intimate, highly motivated translators.

The challenges of translating across chasms of class, race, gender, and
nation is thus viscerally connected to memories of self-translation across
dauntingly wide divides, as Tsitsi Dangarembga’s bildungsroman set in
colonial Rhodesia, Nervous Conditions, illustrates so well. The thirteen-year-
old rural heroine, Tambu, is granted the unexpected chance to acquire an
education when her brother dies and a benefi cent uncle decides to divert the
money he had committed to his nephew’s schooling to his niece instead.52 In
approaching the mission school where she hopes to reinvent herself, the fi rst
signal to Tambu of the distance she must travel fi nds expression through
divergent cultures of nature:

The smooth, stoneless drive ran between squat, robust conifers

on one side and a blaze of canna lilies burning scarlet and amber

on the other. Plants like that belonged to the cities. They had

belonged to the pages of my language reader, to the yards of

Ben and Betty’s uncle in town. Now, having seen it for myself

because of my Babamukur’s kindness, I too could think of plant-

ing things for merrier reasons than the chore of keeping breath

in the body. I wrote it down in my head: I would ask Maiguru for

some bulbs and plant a bed of those gay lilies on the homestead

in front of the house. Our home would answer well to being

cheered up by such lovely fl owers. Bright and cheery, they had

been planted for joy. What a strange idea that was. It was a lib-

eration, the fi rst of many that followed from my transition to

the mission.53

Tambu, on the brink of being educated toward middle-class possibility,
experiences the garden as a portal into her imminent self-translation, as an
ornate reminder of the gap she must leap. Emerging from her uncle’s car
as (to use her word) a “peasant,” she cannot yet see this garden, exotically
exempt from human need, as ordinary: it belongs to books, to the wealthy,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 8 ]

to those at liberty to treat the earth as an aesthetic canvas.54 This indigent
rural girl thus stands on the threshold of a divided self: she will be admit-
ted to this garden aesthetic and learn to love it, but always with a double
vision. She will belong forever to two earths: this second soil of luxurious
self-expression but always just beneath it her childhood soil, fraught with
survival’s urgent chores.

A contortionist concern with representational authority can distract
us from the fortitude required by those rare writers who, having escaped
familial poverty, can convey an experientially rooted environmentalism
that straddles immense divides. It is no coincidence that Jamaica Kincaid
alights on Dangarembga’s garden descriptions to contrast them with those
gardens, lush with assumed access, that she encounters in Henry James.55
One senses Kincaid looking on as an outsider at James’s easy familiarity with
dominant upper-class European conventions of horticultural depiction. By
creating an alliance with Dangarembga’s character, by choosing her as an
imaginative coconspirator, Kincaid, the naturalized Caribbean American,
denatures James’s gardens which, for all their literary fl oral familiarity, are
just that: the kinds of gardens that prevail in a literature written predomi-
nantly by those remote from the soil perspectives of the laboring poor.

This recognition scene between an Antiguan-American essayist and
a fi ctional Zimbabwean character speaks to the politics of the unforesee-
able imaginative connection, to the far-off, serendipitous chance fi nd that
becomes an exhortation.56 The scene speaks, more broadly, to the unpredict-
able dynamics of cross-cultural translation that attend the creative circuits
of globalization from below, in literature and other cultural forms. We see
this process at work in the way activists like Saro-Wiwa, Maathai, Chico
Mendes, and Mahatma Gandhi have assumed an allegorical potency for geo-
graphically distant struggles. For example, on the tenth anniversary of Saro-
Wiwa’s execution, anti-Shell activists in County Mayo, a region of Ireland’s
historically impoverished west, unveiled a vast mural of Saro-Wiwa whom
they had adopted posthumously as the iconic transnational fi gurehead of
their local struggle against Shell. The mural displayed a Saro-Wiwa poem
translated into Gaelic and the names of the Ogoni Eight executed alongside
Saro-Wiwa—that in an Irish community enraged by the imprisonment of
the so-called Rossport Five, activists who had nonviolently protested Shell’s
plans to build a refi nery close to their homes. Spill-prone pipelines were to

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 2 9 ]

link the inland refi nery to offshore drilling sites, thereby jeopardizing the
health and livelihood of a fi shing and farming community dependent, as in
the Niger Delta, on fragile intertidal ecosystems.57

Anna Tsing observes similarly how in post-Suharto Indonesia, the
Chico Mendes story became for grassroots activists a malleable, inspira-
tional precedent reformulated for local need. So too the largely female
tree-huggers who had energized India’s Chipko movement entered into
Indonesian environmental parlance as a story of gendered resistance to
forest stripping by globalizing corporate forces.58 Even before the Inter-
net and cell phones became widespread, such circulating allegories were
aided by traveling environmentalists and by writer-activists—like Vandana
Shiva, whose eco-feminist reading of the Chipko movement infl ected its

Figure 1 Mural of Ken Saro-Wiwa in County Mayo, Ireland, for a campaign
by Irish activists against Shell. Some of his poetry (translated into Gaelic) is
displayed, as well as the names of the eight other Ogoni activists executed on
November 10, 1995, by Nigerian military personnel. Reproduced by permission of
Wikimedia Commons.

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 3 0 ]

circulation among antiglobalization environmental movements, as well as
among NGOs, thereby helping reshape the character of international fund-
ing and debate.

Such precedents—whether through iconic fi gureheads or entire social
movements—offer resources of hope in the unequal battle to apprehend, to
stave off, or at least retard the slow violence infl icted by globalizing forces.
Such precedents help us engage, in all their complexity, the politics of the
visible and the invisible, as environmental justice movements—and the
writer-activists aligned with them—strategize to shift the balance of visibil-
ity both in the urgent present and over the long haul, pushing back against
the forces of temporal inattention that compound injustices of class, gender,
race, and region.

The Environmental Humanities and the Edge Effect

Field biologists have devised the term “ecotone” to characterize the border
zones between adjacent communities of vegetation where (as between, say,
grasslands and wetlands) life forms that ordinarily require discrete condi-
tions meet and interact. Ecotones may thereby open up new confi gurations
of possibility (and for some species, introduce new threats) as the transi-
tional areas create so-called edge effects. In university life, we are witness-
ing an upsurge in these edge effects as interpenetrating fi elds proliferate
at the borders between once separate disciplines, at times creating new
dynamic combinations while also, depending on one’s perspective, infl ict-
ing casualties through habitat fragmentation. In the scholarly ecotone, as in
the biological, one may detect an elevated concentration in the sheer variety
of life-forms, but at the expense of less-adaptable, specialist species.

How adaptable will the humanities prove in a less specialist environ-
ment? In particular, what kinds of connective corridors toward other dis-
ciplines can scholars creatively navigate in an intellectual milieu where
habitat fracture is becoming increasingly pervasive? Certainly, the environ-
mental humanities are entering a dynamic phase, as the long-established
fi eld of environmental history has in recent years encountered the ecocriti-
cal terrain of literary studies. We seem to be at a crucial turning point in the
contribution literary scholars can make to the ecological humanities and,
beyond that, to environmental studies at large.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 3 1]

Critical choices now confront us as scholars and writers reaching out to
other fi elds as we try to consolidate transformative possibilities emerging at
the edges of the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences. Infl u-
ential environmental literary critics, like Lawrence Buell, Wai Chee Dimock,
and Ursula Heise have begun to forge innovative connections between liter-
ary environmentalism and the sciences around, for example, chaos theory
and the premises underlying restoration ecology.59 What remains less devel-
oped, however, are the energizing interdisciplinary possibilities, the unreal-
ized creative bridgework, between environmental literary studies and the
social sciences.60 Such possibilities are overdue for recognition and, to that
end, in the chapters that follow I have attempted to strengthen such links.

In so doing, I have drawn on environmental scholarship by anthropolo-
gists, geographers, political scientists, and sociologists like Fernando Coro-
nil, Al Gedicks, Ramachandra Guha, Adriana Petryna, Anna Tsing, and
Michael Watts. I have drawn inspiration, too, from the writings of leading
progressive public intellectuals of our age: John Berger, Mike Davis, Edu-
ardo Galeano, Naomi Klein, George Monbiot, and Rebecca Solnit among
them, all of whom have engaged, with ambitious communicative intent,
transnational questions arising from the borderlands between empire, neo-
liberalism, environmentalism, and social justice. I have thereby sought,
fi rst, to widen the interdisciplinary avenues available to us and, second, to
keep alive a sense of the hugely varied public registers that writers can mar-
shal to testify on issues of world urgency.

When literary studies becomes uncoupled from worldly concerns, we
frequently witness, alongside an excessive regard for ahistoric philosophy,
an accompanying historically indifferent formalism that treats the study
of aesthetics as the literary scholar’s defi nitive calling. Questions of social
change and power become projected onto questions of form so that formal
categories such as rupture, irony, and bricolage assume an infl ated agency
through what Anne McClintock has called “a fetishism of form:”

The question is whether it is suffi cient to locate agency in the

internal fi ssures of discourse. [This] runs the risk of what can

be called a fetishism of form: the projection of historical agency

onto formal abstractions that are anthropomorphized and given

a life of their own. Here abstractions become historical actors;

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 3 2 ]

discourse desires, dreams and does the work of colonialism while

also ensuring its demise. In the process, social relations between

humans appear to metamorphize into structural relations between

forms—through a formalist fetishism that effectively elides the

messier questions of historical change and social activism.61

These concerns have a direct bearing on the relationship between literary
forms, forms of socioenvironmental change, and environmental activism.
Crucially, how do we as environmental scholars keep questions of political
agency and historical change central in order to connect specialist knowl-
edge to broader public worlds in which environmental policy takes shape and
within which resistance movements arise? In this book, I have underscored
those places where writers, by drawing on literature’s testimonial and imagina-
tive capacities, have engaged nonliterary forces for social change. Rather than
displacing social agency onto anthropomorphized, idealized forms, I argue
that any interest in form must be bound to questions of affi liation, including
affi liation between writers and movements for environmental justice.

In addressing slow violence, the environmentalism of the poor, and the
role of writer-activists, I have thus sought to integrate refl ections on empire,
foreign policy, and resistance with questions about aesthetic strategy. It is
sometimes argued that ecocriticism’s singular contribution to environmen-
tal studies ought to be centered on the aesthetic—that an attentiveness to
form is the environmental literary scholar’s proper bailiwick.62 But there is a
risk in this if the aesthetic gets walled off as a specialist domain, severed from
the broader sociopolitical environmental contexts that animate the forms
in question. The more exacting challenge, it seems to me, is how to articu-
late these vital aesthetic concerns to socioenvironmental transformation.
Clearly, genre study remains a pertinent component of our inquiries into the
complex interface between aesthetic forms and forms of socioenvironmental
change. As Wai Chee Dimock and Lawrence Buell have argued succinctly:
“the importance of affect in environmental writing highlights the function
of genre as a point of transit—a kind of switch mechanism—in the reversible
hierarchy between the local and the global.”63 Indeed, some of the most pow-
erful transnational environmental writing, from Sinha and Roy to Munif
and Saro-Wiwa, has arisen at those transit points where genre inventively
mediates foreign policy, nation-state violence, and local resource rebellions.

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introduction

[ 3 3 ]

Postcolonialism and Superpower Parochialism

The most conceptually ambitious and infl uential fi gures within the ecocriti-
cal turn have been Buell and Heise, who deserve special credit for the reach
and rigor of their innovative work, which has powerfully reshaped the pri-
orities of literary studies and the environmental humanities more broadly.
Buell and Heise are both Americanists by expertise and inclination. My
background, and hence my approach, is somewhat different; my training is
in postcolonial studies and, as such, the ‘elsewheres’ that fringe their work
constitute my intellectual foreground.64

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environ-
mental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental
repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contem-
porary imperial practices. To be sure, this failing is not restricted to liter-
ary studies but has dogged the environmental humanities more broadly.
Ramachandra Guha, while applauding the groundbreaking work by Ameri-
can environmental historians, has lamented their tardiness in exploring
the transnational fallout of American environmental practices. Similarly,
Robert Vitalis, the preeminent historian of U.S.-Saudi petro-politics, has
expressed regret that “the U.S. historical profession has not as yet produced
any signifi cant tradition of scholarship in American interventionism that is
comparable to the ‘new social histories’ of European imperialism.”65 Indeed,
if as Greg Garrard noted in 2004, “the relationship between globalisation
and ecocriticism has barely been broached,” one should stress that the eco-
critical silence around U.S. foreign policy has been especially resounding.66
Why is it—as I explore in my fi nal chapter—that in American environ-
mental literary studies, transcendental approaches have typically trumped
transnational ones?

There are signs that the environmental humanities are beginning to
make some tentative headway toward incorporating the impact of U.S.
imperialism on the poor in the global South—Vitalis’s book America’s King-
dom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (2008) is an outstanding instance,
as are powerful recent essays by Elizabeth DeLoughrey on the literatures
associated with American nuclear colonialism in the Pacifi c, Susie O’Brien
on Native food security, colonialism, and environmental heritage along the
U.S-Mexican border, and Pablo Mukherjee’s groundbreaking materialist

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 3 4 ]

work on Indian environmental literatures.67 Yet despite such vitally impor-
tant initiatives, the environmental humanities in the United States remain
skewed toward nation-bound scholarship that is at best tangentially inter-
national and, even then, seldom engages the environmental fallout of U.S.
foreign policy head on. What’s at stake is not just disciplinary parochialism
but, more broadly, what one might call superpower parochialism, that is, a
combination of American insularity and America’s power as the preeminent
empire of the neoliberal age to rupture the lives and ecosystems of non-
Americans, especially the poor, who may live at a geographical remove but
who remain intimately vulnerable to the force fi elds of U.S. foreign policy.

To be sure, the U.S. empire has historically been a variable force, one
that is not monolithic but subject to ever-changing internal fracture. The
U.S., moreover, has long been—and is increasingly—globalized itself with
all the attendant insecurities and inequities that result. However, to argue
that the United States is subject to globalization—through, for example,
blowback from climate change—does not belie the disproportionate impact
that U.S. global ambitions and policies have exerted over socioenvironmen-
tal landscapes internationally.

Ecocritics—and literary scholars more broadly—faced with the chal-
lenges of thinking through vast differences in spatial and temporal scale
commonly frame their analyses in terms of interpenetrating global and
local forces. In such analyses cosmopolitanism—as a mode of being linked
to particular aesthetic strategies—does much of the bridgework between
extremes of scale. What critics have subjected to far less scrutiny is the role
of the national-imperial as a mediating force with vast repercussions, above
all, for those billions whom Mike Davis calls “the global residuum.”68 Davis’s
image is a suggestive one, summoning to mind the remaindered humans,
the compacted leavings on whom neoliberalism’s inequities bear down most
heavily. Yet those leavings, despite their aggregated dehumanization in the
corporate media, remain animate and often resistant in unexpected ways;
indeed, it is from such leavings that grassroots antiglobalization and the
environmentalism of the poor have drawn nourishment.69

As American writers, scholars, and environmentalists, how can we
attend more imaginatively to the outsourced confl icts infl amed by our
unsustainable consumerism, by our military adventurism and unsurpassed
arms industry, and by the global environmental fallout over the past three

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introduction

[ 3 5 ]

decades of American-led neoliberal economic policies? (The immense envi-
ronmental toll of militarism is particularly burdensome: in 2009, U.S. mili-
tary expenditure was 46.5 percent of the global total and exceeded by 10
percent the expenditure of the next fourteen highest-ranked countries com-
bined.)70 How, moreover, can we engage the impact of our outsized consum-
erism and militarism on the life prospects of people who are elsewhere not
just geographically but elsewhere in time, as slow violence seeps long term
into ecologies—rural and urban—on which the global poor must depend
for generations to come? How, in other words, can we rethink the standard
formulation of neoliberalism as internalizing profi ts and externalizing risks
not just in spatial but in temporal terms as well, so that we recognize the
full force with which the externalized risks are outsourced to the unborn?

It is a pervasive condition of empires that they affect great swathes of the
planet without the empire’s populace being aware of that impact—indeed,
without being aware that many of the affected places even exist. How many
Americans are aware of the continuing socioenvironmental fallout from
U.S. militarism and foreign policy decisions made three or four decades ago
in, say, Angola or Laos? How many could even place those nation-states on
a map? The imperial gap between foreign policy power and on-the-street
awareness calls to mind George Lamming’s shock, on arriving in Britain in
the early 1950s, that most Londoners he met had never heard of his native
Barbados and lumped together all Caribbean immigrants as “Jamaicans.”71

What I call superpower parochialism has been shaped by the myth of
American exceptionalism and by a long-standing indifference—in the U.S.
educational system and national media—to the foreign, especially foreign
history, even when it is deeply enmeshed with U.S. interests. Thus, when
considering the representational challenges posed by transnational slow
violence, we need to ask what role American indifference to foreign his-
tory has played in camoufl aging lasting environmental damage infl icted
elsewhere. If all empires create acute disparities between global power and
global knowledge, how has America’s perception of itself as a young, for-
ward-thrusting nation that claims to fl ourish by looking ahead rather than
behind exacerbated the diffi culty of socioenvironmental answerability for
ongoing slow violence?72

Profi ting from the asymmetrical relations between a domestically reg-
ulated environment and unregulated environments abroad is of course not

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 3 6 ]

unique to America. But since World War II, the United States has wielded
an unequalled power to bend the global regulatory climate in its favor. As
William Finnegan notes regarding the Washington Consensus, “while we
make the world safe for multinational corporations, it is by no means clear
that they intend to return the favor.”73 The unreturned favor weighs espe-
cially heavily on impoverished communities in the global South who must
stake their claims to environmental justice in the face of the Bretton Woods
institutions (the World Bank, the IMF), the World Trade Organization,
and the G8 (now G20) over which the United States has exercised dispro-
portionate infl uence. That infl uence has been exercised, as well, through
muscular conservation NGOs (the Nature Conservancy, the World Wild-
life Fund, and Conservation International prominent among them) that
have a long history of disregarding local human relations to the environ-
ment in order to implement American- and European-style conservation
agendas. Clearly, the benefi ciaries of such power asymmetries are not just
American but transnational corporations, NGOs, and governments from
across the North’s rich nations, often working hand-in-fi st with authoritar-
ian regimes.

Yet within these resource wars, image, idiom, and narrative are them-
selves powerful, if unpredictable, resources that regardless of origins can
help advance the environmentalism of the poor. As I note in the chapters
on Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wangari Maathai, the discourse of environmental
justice, borrowed largely from the West (and often through personal expo-
sure to America), is frequently blended with local discursive traditions and,
in these melded forms, adaptively redeployed as a strategic resource. Such
transnational meldings may prove unstable, but they have become signifi –
cant forces in the unequal battles waged by the poor as they strive to be
seen and heard on an international stage. These hybridized discourses can
help afford socioenvironmental struggles an emblematic signifi cance that
strengthens their claim on rich-nation media that might otherwise dismiss
them as obscurely local confl icts. International attention, in turn, can help
afford such movements some protective visibility within their own nation-
states (although a backlash of violence may also result). Among those whom
Al Gedicks has dubbed global resource rebels, the hybridized, traveling dis-
course of environmental justice has proven critical in forging both South-
South alliances and South-North alliances, not least among those who fi nd

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 3 7]

themselves pitted against analogous threats—be they giant hydroelectric
dams, for example, or toxic tailings.74

Moreover, the development of strategic rhetorical common ground,
however fragile, has proven critical in attempts to move beyond knee-jerk
oppositions counterposing misanthropic rich eco-colonialists against third
worlders assumed to be hostile to a narrowly defi ned environmentalism. By
laying claim to the mobile rhetoric of environmental justice, the dispossessed
may enhance their prospects of becoming visible, audible agents of globaliza-
tion from below. It is in the quest for such transnational visibility and audibil-
ity that writer-activists may play a critically enabling role.

In cautioning against a narrowing of literary studies that pulls back from
the wider world, we need to recognize the radical energies that traditions
of postcolonial engagement at their best have encouraged. Debates over the
merits and demerits of the term postcolonial are by now quite extended; no
value is to be gained from rehearsing them.75 That said, postcolonial studies
at its most incisive remains, it seems to me, an invaluable critical presence in
an era of resurgent imperialism, an era in which—sometimes through out-
right, unregulated plunder, sometimes under camoufl age of developmen-
tal agendas—a neoliberal order has widened, with ruinous environmental
repercussions, the gulf between the expanding classes of the super-rich and
our planet’s 3 billion ultrapoor. Indeed, the offi cial and informal militariza-
tion of resource extraction as well as paramilitary conservation practices
in the global South continue to spark or infl ame broader confl icts. Such
environmentally intensifi ed confl icts become indissociable from the eroded
prospects, under neoliberalism, of maintaining sustainable livelihoods,
often under marginal conditions. Gargantuan transnational corporations
like BP, ExxonMobil, Shell, Freeport McMoran, and Walmart have wised up
to the kudos they can gain from greenwashing in the countries of the rich,
through high-minded advertisement campaigns, through strategic dona-
tions to NGOs and universities, by buying out or intimidating scientists who
might testify against the slow violence of their practices, and through rari-
fi ed talk about being fi ne stewards of our delicate planet. Meanwhile, back
on planet Earth, they persist with their profi table devastation of relatively
impoverished, less regulated societies—societies that have little visibility
and recognition value in the rich-country corporate media. Such assaults
on the livelihoods of the poor are given extra muscle by industry lobbyists

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 3 8 ]

who, while greenwashing with one hand, campaign with the other hand to
further skew the terms of trade, weakening whatever frail environmental,
labor, and human rights, and economic regulations stand between them and
a “freer” market. In short, the oil majors and allied transnational corpora-
tions are potent, active players in manufacturing the icons and stories that
shape popular perception of environmental science and policy.

Against this backdrop, I am leery of the widespread assumption that
everything postcolonial studies has enabled can always be assimilated, with-
out loss, to the more ambitious, more contemporary-sounding global stud-
ies. The notion of the straight swap—midsized postcolonial for supersized
global—is too often accompanied by a blunting of the adversarial edge,
the oppositional incisiveness, that has distinguished postcolonial work at
its most forceful. World literature studies has become a rich, dynamic fi eld
too diverse to characterize simply, but I do feel some concern about how
the categorical turn, in literary studies, to world literature often ends up
defl ecting attention away from the anti-imperial concerns that a material-
ist postcolonial studies foregrounded. To be sure, we need scholarship and
teaching that can address, in transnational terms, territories beyond post-
colonialism’s conventional reach. But in so doing we should be watchful that
surface geographical gains are not marred by political retreat, that neolib-
eral acts of violence, for example—especially slow violence—are not hast-
ily euphemized as “global fl ows.” In the classroom and beyond, we need
to challenge globalization’s gung ho cheerleaders. Indeed, the most scintil-
lating work by antiglobalization public intellectuals—Mike Davis, Naomi
Klein, Amitava Kumar, Andrew Ross, and Arundhati Roy among them—
carries forward postcolonialism’s critical energies while moving beyond the
fi eld’s geographical and analytical limitations.

Among the decisive challenges such critical initiatives face is that of
scale: how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force
fi elds of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and
geographical distance? This is a crucial challenge if we are to generate any
sustained understanding of the transnational, intergenerational fallout from
slow violence. The task of thinking on such a geographical scale—let alone a
temporal one—can seem overwhelming. Indeed, Wendell Berry has warned
against the potentially debilitating effects of such large-scale approaches:
“The adjective ‘planetary’ describes a problem in such a way that it cannot

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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introduction

[ 3 9 ]

be solved . . . The problems, if we describe them accurately, are all private
and small.”76 I would argue, however, that although advocating personal
environmental responsibility is essential, to shrink solutions to the level of
the private and the small is evasive, even if it does constructively enhance
one’s sense of agency. Planetary problems—and transnational, national,
and regional ones—cannot simply be resolved by the aggregated actions of
responsible individuals. Institutional actions (and institutionalized inaction)
have a profound impact on environmental outcomes, most blatantly in rela-
tion to climate change, which no collectivized ethical behavior can combat
without backing from well-implemented transnational accords.

Slow Violence and the Production of Doubt

The forces of inaction have deep pockets. Environmental activists face
well-funded, well-organized interests that invest heavily in manufactur-
ing and sustaining a culture of doubt around the science of slow violence,
thereby postponing policies that would help rein in the long-term impacts
of climate change in particular. A coalition of Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big
Tobacco, led by ExxonMobil and Phillip Morris, has amassed an army of
doubt-disseminators: lobbyists, political consultants, media plutocrats like
Rupert Murdoch, right-wing think tanks, fake citizens’ groups on Facebook,
scholarly reviewers of climate science written by non climate scientists,
pseudo-scientifi c websites, university departments endowed to demonstrate
conclusions friendly to Big Oil, Big Coal, and Big Tobacco and to sponsor
uncertainty around climate change and, in the case of tobacco, uncertainty
about the carcinogenic risks of second hand smoke.77

Despite the overwhelming, virtually unanimous, consensus among
climate scientists that climate change is happening, is human-induced, is
accelerating, and will have catastrophic consequences for human and much
nonhuman life on earth, all the misnamed ‘denialists’ need do is keep ensur-
ing that, in the public’s mind, the jury remains permanently out, so that
irresolution rules. This is the point underscored by a leaked memo from
political consultant, Frank Luntz distributed to Republican activists during
George W. Bush’s presidency: “Should the public come to believe that the
scientifi c issues are settled, their views about global warming will change
accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientifi c

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[4 0 ]

certainty a primary issue in the debate.”78 Or, to cite another memo: “Doubt
is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of
fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of
establishing a controversy.”79 Controversy, in turn, plays into the media’s
standard for-and-against formula for debate, even if that binary skews the
consensus radically; even if, as in the case of anthropogenic climate change,
3,000 climate scientists confi rm that it is happening and none deny it. The
against position thus typically devolves to a right-wing activist with no peer-
reviewed climate change publications.

In “Concerning Violence,” the opening chapter of The Wretched of the
Earth, Fanon writes of the role played under capitalism by an army of cul-
tural “bewilderers.”80 The spread of slow violence in our own times has
been exacerbated by a lavishly funded army of new bewilderers, those
doubt producers and doubt disseminators whose job it is to maintain popu-
list levels of uncertainty suffi cient to guarantee inaction. We thus need to
recognize that slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem cre-
ated by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred,
invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevarica-
tive cover for the forces that have the most to profi t from inaction: under
cover of deferred consequences, these energetic new bewilderers literally
buy time. For the new bewilderers, led by Big Oil and Big Coal, doubt is
more than a state of mind—it’s a bankable product. In this context, we
should acknowledge the role played by a raft of public science writers who
are writer-activists in their own way, fi gures like James Hoggan, Elizabeth
Kolbert, Naomi Oreskes, Erik Conway, Andrew Rowell, Tim Flannery,
David Michaels, and the incomparable George Monbiot who have followed
the money and worked industriously to render visible the clandestine net-
works that fi nance doubt.81

Of Vampire Squids and Resource Rebels

In 2009, amidst the global economic crash, Matt Taibbi memorably
depicted Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the
face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that
smells like money.”82 Within a year his deepwater image of life-sucking
avarice would seem an uncanny foreshadowing of petroleum giant BP.

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introduction

[4 1]

Indeed, Taibbi’s vampire squid achieved such popular resonance, I would
suggest, because it gave emotional defi nition to an age, over and above
the tentacular reach of any specifi c transnational corporation. An era of
imperial overreach has brought to crisis a Washington Consensus ideology
premised on globalizing the “free market” through militarization, priva-
tization, deregulation, optional corporate self-policing, the undertaxation
of the super wealthy, ever-more arcane fi nancial practices, and a widening
divide separating the gated über-rich from the unhoused ultrapoor within
and between nations.

Together these practices have heightened capitalism’s innate tendency
to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms
that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and mul-
tinational environmental answerability harder to impose. Such distancing
mechanisms include the rhetorical gulf between development as a grand
planetary dream premised on growth-driven consumption and its socioen-
vironmental fallout; the geographical distance between market forces as,
to an almost occult degree, production has become disaggregated from
consumption; and the temporal distance between short-lived actions and
long-lived consequences, as gradual casualties are spread across a protracted
aftermath, during which the memory and the body count of slow violence
are diffused—and defused—by time.

Yet memory loss is unevenly inhabited. Whether through sustained
activism or more sporadic protests, resource rebels and the environmentally
disenfranchised have mobilized repeatedly against memory loss, refusing to
see their long-term livelihoods abstracted into oblivion, be it through state
violence, transnational corporate rapacity, or some combination of the two.
The resource rebels who rise up (or dig in for the long haul) express ambi-
tions that may be diffi cult to achieve but, in the scheme of things, are typi-
cally not grand: some shelter from the uncertainties of hunger; some basic
honoring of established patterns of agroforestry, fi shing, hunting, planting,
and harvesting; access to clean water; some prospects for their children;
some respect for the cultural (and therefore environmental) presence of the
guiding dead. And, if one accepts as a given that traditions are always muta-
ble, resource rebels seek some active participation in the speed and charac-
ter of cultural change. Failing all that, the rebels may seek compensation
directed not at the nation at large (always an unequal abstraction) but at

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[4 2 ]

those most intimately affected by the defacement of the living land by the
boardrooms of faceless profi teers.

The fraught issue of compensation connects directly with the infra-
structural failures of the state: insurrectionary anger is repeatedly stoked
when a community experiences technological modernization as extractive
theft without service delivery. Under such circumstances, visible reminders
of theft through modernity’s infrastructural invasions—by oil pipelines or
massive hydroelectric dams or toxic tailings from mines—foment rage at
life-threatening environmental degradation combined with the state’s fail-
ure to provide life-enabling public works.83 Often, as a community contends
with attritional assaults on its ecological networks, it isn’t granted equitable
access (or any access at all) to modernity’s basic infrastructural networks—
piped clean water, a sewage system, an electric grid, a public transport grid,
or schools—utilities that might open up alternatives to destitution. Such
communities, ecologically dispossessed without being empowered via infra-
structure, are ripe for revolt. Like those Niger Delta villages where children
for decades had no access to electricity for studying at night, while above
their communities Shell’s gas fl ares created toxic nocturnal illumination.
Too dark for education, too bright for sleep: modernity’s false dawn.

Writers who align themselves with resource rebellions may help render
decipherable the illegible distance between a far-off neoliberal ideology and
its long-lasting local fallout. Such writers may serve as portes-paroles in an
economic order premised on acute inequities in portability—of commodi-
ties, factories, jobs, people, and the environment itself. Writer-activists may
thereby help expose injustices arising from the global freedom of move-
ment afforded powerful corporations and the Bretton Woods institutions,
while swathes of humanity are so ecologically undermined that they are
abandoned to the plight of the stationary displaced. Whether as part-insti-
gators or as amplifi ers, writer-activists can strive to advance the causes of
those who confront turbo-capitalism’s assaults on the resources that shape
their survival. In confrontations between such typically unequal forces,
determined hope is mixed with what John Berger, in the spirit of Antonio
Gramsci, has called “undefeated despair.”84

While honoring the writer’s role, I wish to do so without glamorizing it.
This role requires incessant compromise and incessant reinvention, particu-
larly given the rapid changes in the technological and geopolitical climate

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introduction

[4 3 ]

in which writers must act. I should note here that the events I engage in this
book are clustered in the period from the early 1980s through the late-1990s—
in what one might call neoliberalism’s near present.85 From the beginnings
of the Reagan-Thatcher era through the Bhopal disaster, the collapse of
communism and apartheid, the fi rst Gulf War, the rise of the Save the Nar-
mada Movement in India, the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal,
Delta’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in Nigeria, Kenya’s
Green Belt Movement, to Acción Ecológica in the Ecuadorian Amazon, the
purview of Slow Violence predates two particularly signifi cant environmental
developments. First, the full-blown ascent of Chinese authoritarian capital-
ism, ushering in the Chimerican age as, through entangled rivalry, mutual
dependence, and mutual mistrust, an emboldened China has joined an over-
stretched America as a global force in annexing—and carting off—the very
conditions of life. We see this dramatically, for instance, in the 3-million-acre
swathe of equatorial forest in the Democratic Republic of Congo that China
has bought for a pittance to log and, once logged, has dedicated to monocul-
tural palm oil production, thereby displacing and immiserating the forest’s
inhabitants. This is all integral to the second scramble for Africa, as the con-
tinent’s resource maps are redrawn and its riches carved up among Chinese,
American, European, Australian, and South African corporations typically
working in cahoots with unelected offi cials or regional brigands. Africa may
contain some of the most acute cases of such rampant disregard for socioen-
vironmental survival in the Chimerican age, but it is far from alone.

Alongside this geopolitical shift we are witnessing the most profound
changes in centuries to the technological climate within which writer-activ-
ists must operate. In the era on which I focus, “text” was not yet a standard
verb. Since then, proliferating nonprint platforms, an upsurge in new media
networks, and digital immediacy have transformed the technological milieu
within which oppression is infl icted and dissidence expressed—and within
which speed is experienced. Among the writers I consider, Indra Sinha is by
a long measure the most digitally attuned. His Bhopal novel, Animal’s People,
straddles two eras, as he reconfi gures a cold-war event for a twenty-fi rst
century obsessed with virtual networks and biopolitics. Triggered by the
1984 Union Carbide disaster and the environmental justice movement that
rose from its ashes, Sinha’s 2007 fi ction can be read as an experiment in link-
ing the protest novel to digitally networked dissent.86 Indeed, the public life

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[4 4 ]

of Animal’s People as a novel has been powerfully shaped by Sinha’s mobile,
multimedia approach: on his blog and Web site, for example, he mixes non-
fi ctional testimony from Bhopal survivors with a sardonic visual-and-verbal
fantasia of a poisoned city trying to rebrand itself as a tourist paradise.

If the quarter-century lag between the Union Carbide explosion and
Animal People’s appearance marks a shift from predigital to digital activism,
the lag also allows Sinha to challenge the conventions of what constitutes
a catastrophic event. For the explosion itself plays a relatively minor role in
the novel; instead, Sinha focuses on the less obviously eventful aftermath,
the slow violence that, by the novel’s end, comes to be recognized as the
event itself, a violence that has yet to run its course. It is to this novel and
Bhopal that I now turn.

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1

Slow Violence, Neoliberalism, and the
Environmental Picaresque

It is only right, to my mind, that things so remarkable, which hap-
pen to have remained unheard and unseen until now, should be
brought to the attention of many and not lie buried in the sepulcher
of oblivion.

—Anonymous, Lazarillo de Tormes

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more
novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simul-
taneously tracing the “occluded relationships”—the vast transnational eco-
nomic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics—that invisibly shape
the local.1 To hazard such novels poses imaginative challenges of a kind that
writers content to create what Williams termed “enclosed fi ctions” need
never face, among them the challenge of rendering visible occluded, sprawl-
ing webs of interconnectedness. In our age of expanding and accelerating
globalization, this particular imaginative diffi culty has been cast primarily
in spatial terms, as exemplifi ed by John Berger’s pronouncement, famously
cited in Edward Soja’s Postmodern Geographies: “Prophecy now involves a
geographical rather than a historical projection; it is space and not time that
hides consequences from us. To prophesy today it is only necessary to know
men [and women] as they are throughout the world in all their inequality.”2

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[4 6 ]

Yet the legitimate urgency of spatial prophecy should not, in turn,
distract us from the critical task—especially for environmental writers—
of fi nding imaginative forms that expose the temporal dissociations that
permeate the age of neoliberal globalization. To this end, Animal’s People,
Indra Sinha’s fi ctional reworking of the Bhopal disaster, offers a powerful
instance of a writer dramatizing the occluded relationships of transna-
tional space together with time’s occlusions. Sinha’s novel stands (to adapt
Williams’s phrase) as a work of “militant particularism,” yet it discloses
through that radical particularity temporal and spatial webs of violence
on a vast scale.3 Sinha’s approach to the aftermath of the catastrophic gas
leak at Union Carbide’s Bhopal factory in December 1984 throws into
relief a political violence both intimate and distant, unfolding over time
and space on a variety of scales, from the cellular to the transnational, the
corporeal to the global corporate. Animal’s People can be read as a novel
of risk relocation, not just in Susan Cutter’s spatial sense but across time
as well, for the transnational off-loading of risk from a privileged com-
munity to an impoverished one changes the temporal topography of fear
in the long term.

The power of Animal’s People fl ows largely from Sinha’s single-handed
invention of the environmental picaresque.4 By creatively adapting pica-
resque conventions to our age, Sinha probes the underbelly of neoliberal
globalization from the vantage point of an indigent social outcast. His
novel gives focus to three of the defi ning characteristics of the contem-
porary neoliberal order: fi rst, the widening chasm—within and between
nations—that separates the megarich from the destitute; second, the
attendant burden of unsustainable ecological degradation that impacts the
health and livelihood of the poor most directly; and third, the way power-
ful transnational corporations exploit under cover of a free market ideol-
ogy the lopsided universe of deregulation, whereby laws and loopholes are
selectively applied in a marketplace a lot freer for some societies and classes
than for others.

A neoliberal ideology that erodes national sovereignty and turns
answerability into a bewildering transnational maze makes it easier for
global corporations like Union Carbide to sustain an evasive geopolitics of
deferral in matters of environmental injury, remediation, and redress. Thus,
among the many merits of Sinha’s novel is the way it gives imaginative

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[4 7]

defi nition to the occluded relationships that result both from slow violence
and from the geographies of concealment in a neoliberal age.

Slow Violence, Chernobyl, and Environmental Time

Maintaining a media focus on slow violence poses acute challenges, not
only because it is spectacle defi cient, but also because the fallout’s impact
may range from the cellular to the transnational and (depending on the spe-
cifi c character of the chemical or radiological hazard) may stretch beyond
the horizon of imaginable time. The contested science of damage further
compounds the challenge, as varied scientifi c methodologies may be mobi-
lized to demonstrate or discount etiologies, creating rival regimes of truth,
manipulable by political and economic interests. Moreover, the offi cial
dimensions of the contaminated zone may shrink or dilate depending on
which political forces and which research methodologies achieve the upper
hand. What emerges, then, is a contest over the administration of difference
between those who gain offi cial recognition as sufferers and those dismissed
as nonsufferers because their narratives of injury are deemed to fail the pre-
vailing politico-scientifi c logic of causation; or for that matter, because they
lack the political contacts to gain admission to the inner circle of certifi ed
sufferers and thus to potential compensation. These unstable, complex pro-
cedures—and hierarchies—of toxic recognition may create novel forms of
biological citizenship, as in the long aftermaths of the 1984 Bhopal disaster
and the 1986 Chernobyl explosion.5

The varieties of biological citizenship that emerged in the aftermaths
of Bhopal and Chernobyl were distinct in certain ways, as were the media
responses. Chernobyl received far more sustained attention in the West-
ern media for several reasons. First, because of Chernobyl’s proximity to
Western Europe, it was perceived as an ongoing transnational threat to
“us” rather than a purely national threat that could be imaginatively con-
tained as an Indian problem, over there among the faceless poor of the
third world. Moreover, during the rise of Reagan’s and Thatcher’s neolib-
eral orders, Chernobyl could be directly assimilated to the violent threat
that communism posed to the West, a threat that increased calls for height-
ened militarization and, ironically, for further corporate and environmen-
tal deregulation in the name of free-market forces. Bhopal, by contrast,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[4 8 ]

was easier to dissociate from narratives of global violence dominated by
a communist/anticommunist plotline, thus obscuring the free-market
double standards that allowed Western companies to operate with violent,
fatal impunity in the global South. Indeed, Warren Anderson (then Union
Carbide’s chairman), company lawyers, and most of America’s corporate
media argued in concert that blame for the disaster was local not transna-
tional in character, ignoring the fact that in the run up to the disaster, the
parent company had slashed safety procedures and supervisory staff in an
effort to staunch hemorrhaging profi ts.6

In reading Animal’s People as, among other things, an exposé of these
neoliberal double standards, we can recognize Khaupfur as both specifi c
and nonspecifi c, a fi ctional stand-in for Bhopal, but also a synecdoche for
a web of poisoned communities spread out across the global South: “The
book could have been set anywhere where the chemical industry has
destroyed people’s lives,” Sinha observes. “I had considered calling the city
Receio and setting it in Brazil. It could just as easily have been set in Central
or South America, West Africa or the Philippines.”7

Chernobyl occurred three years before the Soviet Union’s dissolution
in 1989, which was also the year John Williamson coined the term “the
Washington Consensus” to describe the prevailing ideology that united the
World Bank, the IMF, and the U.S. Treasury Department around the pre-
conditions for “development aid” to nations in the global South.8 The devel-
opmentalist, neoliberal ideology of the Washington Consensus became a
crucial foreign policy wing of what George Soros would term “market fun-
damentalism,” a broad crusade that would continue to gather force amid
the postcommunist ideological uncertainty through demands for deregu-
lation, privatization, and the hacking back of government social programs
and safety nets. It was in this neoliberal context that, ultimately, the ailing
survivors of both Bhopal and Chernobyl would fi nd themselves sinking
or swimming.

From a temporal perspective, the Chernobyl disaster of April 26,
1986, was distinguished by an initial catastrophic security lapse followed
by a series of time lapses. The initial catastrophe was spectacular but, in
media terms, deferred: eighteen days passed before Mikhail Gorbachev
appeared on TV to acknowledge the explosion.9 Had the Soviet govern-
ment dispensed nonradioactive iodine pills during that lost time, it could

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[4 9 ]

have averted the epidemic of thyroid cancers that only began, en masse,
four years later at the time of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the
emergence of a Ukraine that was offi cially independent yet bound in envi-
ronmental, epidemiological, and consequently economic terms to the
Soviet-era nuclear disaster.

The different timelines of mutation—international, intranational, inter-
generational, bureaucratic, and somatic—are dizzying even to attempt to
map. The prevailing winds carried the radiation plume north over Belarus,
across eastern, western, and northern Europe, and beyond. Over time,
through toxic drift, the national epicenter of the catastrophe would shift
so that Belarus, not Ukraine, would become the country most pervasively
polluted.10 In both countries, radiochemical poisoning coursed through air,
water, soil, crops, meat, and mother’s milk at divergent speeds. Some symp-
toms manifested themselves relatively quickly, others appeared most dra-
matically among children born a decade or more after the disaster struck.
The stratifi ed slow violence of the fallout was compounded by the tardiness
of the Soviet authorities, whose refl ex response was foot-dragging, equivo-
cation, and denial.

Adriana Petryna’s anthropological work on post-Soviet Ukraine per-
suasively demonstrates the complex entanglements between environmen-
tal fallout and the socioeconomic fallout of being classifi ed as a sufferer or
nonsufferer. Compensation for Chernobyl injuries that rendered a citizen
an offi cial sufferer might be a mere $5 per month. But after Washington
Consensus-style market liberalization was imposed on Ukraine in 1992,
hyperinfl ation and mass unemployment followed, creating a sudden chasm
between economic survivors and economic casualties.11 In this neoliberal
context, offi cial recognition as a Chernobyl sufferer-survivor—and the
modest government compensation that ensued—could make the differ-
ence between subsistence and starvation for a whole family.12 The onus of
proof fell on Ukrainians to develop, over time, an intimate expertise that
was both bodily and bureaucratic. Which symptoms counted and which
were discounted by the state? What work history in which offi cially recog-
nized affected areas (and for how long) would strengthen one’s claim for
the imprimatur of sufferer? Which doctors, lawyers, and bureaucrats could
accelerate one’s efforts to enter that inner circle? How could one meet such
infl uential people? Did they need to be bribed?

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 0 ]

The ground rules for being counted and discounted kept changing.
Even the boundaries of the pollution zones were unstable, shrinking and
dilating through a mixture of bureaucratic caprice, economic expediency,
and slippery science. So the system required energetic, up-to-date pro-
activism on the part of Ukraine’s biocitizens as they scrambled to avoid
plummeting into economic free fall. A key survival strategy was to fi t their
life stories, their self-narrations, into the limited generic narratives of suf-
fering that possessed a state mandate from which a small stream of com-
pensation might fl ow. New categories of identity emerged that—in other
societies, in other times—might have remained confi ned to the domain
of private medical records. Instead, a Ukrainian might introduce herself,
position herself publicly, by announcing, “I am a mother of a child who is
a sufferer. I am an evacuee from Zone Two. My husband is a Chernobyl
worker, Category One.”13

Foreign Burdens: Chernobyl, Bhopal, and Animal’s People

Within ten days of the Chernobyl explosion, the Soviet authorities had
mobilized thousands of Ukrainian coal miners to help with remediation
work at the disaster site. One of them, Dmytro, who labored at the site for a
month, was later affl icted with pulmonary, cerebral, and cardiac disorders
and found to have chromosomal aberrations. In an interview, he portrayed
his body’s radiation load as a “foreign burden.”14 He was referring—as his
interviewer notes—to the sense of harboring an alien, unnatural, and dis-
quieting force within.

But the miner’s choice of phrase deserves a second parsing, one directly
pertinent to my reading of Animal’s People. Dmytro had been saddled, I
would argue, with a “foreign burden” not just in a somatic but in a geo-
temporal sense as well: his post–Soviet Ukrainian body remained under
occupation by a Soviet-era catastrophe. For in the case of Chernobyl, not
only did the radiological toxicity travel across the national border, but (as
the Soviet Union fragmented) the national border traveled across the toxic-
ity. The Ukrainian body politic, though politically autonomous, remained
environmentally and epidemiologically dominated by the “foreign burden”
of a ghosted country, by a Soviet past that (as Faulkner would have it) was
not even past. Through the workings of slow violence across environmental

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[ 5 1]

time, Ukraine’s sovereignty was compromised. If the Ukrainian body poli-
tic at large was affl icted with the burden of involuntary macro memory,
mutagenic chromosomes at the micro level sustained a Soviet heritage that
prompted Dmytro (and many compatriots) to refuse to reproduce for fear of
a future burdened by an affl icted Ukrainian child.

The concept of the foreign burden offers a productive prism through
which to approach Sinha’s novelistic response to the Union Carbide disas-
ter when, one early December night, a cloud of methyl isocyanate gas (in
combination with other toxins) leaked from the company’s pesticide factory
in Bhopal. Estimates of those killed immediately vary wildly, from 4,000
to 15,000 people. In the years that followed, scores of thousands of deaths
and life-threatening disabilities were linked to exposure to the gas cloud. By
some estimates, 100,000 residents continue to be affl icted.15

Although Animal’s People is set twenty years after the disaster, the novel
dramatizes the illusion of the singular event: from a narrative perspective,
the events—like the poisons themselves—are suspended in medias res, in a
state of environmental, epidemiological, political, and legal irresolution. If
the unfolding of slow violence across environmental time is typically man-
aged through powerful strategies of distantiation, in Sinha’s novel those dis-
tancing strategies depend primarily, in geographical terms, on transnational
corporate distance and, in temporal terms, on both the slow emergence of
morbidity and on legal procrastination, which provide prevaricative cover
for the CEOs who wish to exploit time to defuse the claims of the affl icted.
Khaufpur (Sinha’s fi ctional Bhopal) is the “world capital of fucked lungs”; it
is also a place of interminable trials—bodily and legal.16

For twenty years the immiserated people of Khaufpur have been trying
to bring the American CEOs of the corporation responsible—named sim-
ply as the “Kampani”—to stand trial in India. Thirteen judges have come
and gone in successive trials, but the spectral Kampani bosses keep failing
to materialize, maintaining their oceanic distance from a city infi ltrated
and haunted by Kampani poisons. Playing for time, the Kampani resorts
to legal chicanery, political bribery, and backroom deals with India’s Min-
ister for Poison Affairs and his colleagues. What emerges, then, is a contest
between the tenacity of corporeal memory and the corrosive power, over
time and space, of corporate amnesia emboldened by a neoliberal regime
of deregulation.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 2 ]

If Chernobyl’s “foreign burden” is an inheritance from an evaporated
empire, we may read Khaufpur’s burden rather differently as the weight of
absentee corporate colonialism, whereby transnational companies internal-
ize profi ts and externalize risks, particularly in impoverished regions of the
global South. However, as a novelist, Sinha cannot afford to be this explic-
itly polemical. An observation by the Irish writer Eavan Boland is pertinent
to the novelistic challenges Sinha must negotiate: “If the voice of a character
in a fi ction speaks too clearly with the anger and hindsight of an ethical view
of history, then the voice may be made louder by argument but grow less
convincing through being less imagined. Then both humanity and history
can be sentimentalized.”17 Because novels about slow violence suffer from
a drama defi cit, they risk resorting to sentimentality and political moral-
izing as substitutes for arresting spectacle and narrative tension. For these
reasons some critics, like Anthony Lane, have gone so far as to assert that
“eco-drama . . . is a contradiction in terms.”18

Sinha astutely negotiates this ethical and dramatic minefi eld without
compromising his novel’s political energies. He does so by devising a narra-
tor who is at best ambivalent toward the pursuit of justice, yet whose physi-
cal form serves as a bodily shorthand for Khaufpur’s transnational plight.
Through a literal twist of fate—a toxic corkscrewing of his spine—Animal
morphed at the age of six from an upright boy into a creature reduced to
going around on all fours.19 When four-footed Animal (now nineteen) trans-
ports an ailing child on his back, his posture is precisely that of a beast of bur-
den. Thus the symbolic economy of Animal’s body affords Sinha an implicit
yet unforgettable image of a body politic literally bent double beneath the
weight of the poisoned city’s foreign load.

By making an occluded economic relationship physically manifest
through his narrator’s body, Sinha thus ingeniously resolves the dilemma
that Williams posed: how to give a novel a local materiality while expos-
ing the web of transnational forces that permeate and shape the local.
In the process, Sinha engages a temporal question that Williams did not
specifi cally address: how do you dramatize the costs of uneven develop-
ment when their delayed effects are intimate but their genesis is far-off
in time?

Animal’s People stages a simultaneous inquiry into the border zones
between human and animal and the economic boundaries between rich
and poor, the ever-deepening, dehumanizing chasm that divides those

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 3 ]

who can act with impunity and those who have no choice but to inhabit
intimately, over the long term, the physical and environmental fallout of
actions undertaken by distant, shadowy economic overlords. What does it
mean, the novel asks, to belong to the same species—in biological, existen-
tial, ethical, and economic terms?

Figure 2 Photograph of “Animal” sculpture. Reproduced by permission of the art-
ist and photographer, Eleanor Stride.

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 4 ]

Orphaned when the Kampani explosion killed both his parents, Animal
has little truck with the niceties of belonging. His familial isolation, physi-
cal difference, and moral disgust at human inhumanity combine to set him
apart. Despite his singularity, however, Animal also serves as a symbolic
condensation of the vast army of the economically orphaned, abandoned to
their fate by the merciless logic of the neoliberal marketplace.

Animal is a foundling who has morphed into a posthuman change-
ling, a one-of-a-kind creature spawned by a kind of chemical autochthony.
Marooned in the present, Animal views himself as a four-footed species
without precedent or the prospect of progeny, the alpha and omega of his
kind. We can read him as a new beginning, which (in keeping with the nov-
el’s apocalyptic tenor) doubles as the end of time.

Animal has forgotten his childhood human name: it’s as remote, as inac-
cessible as his city’s culturally rich, prelapsarian, pretoxic past. From the
moment children at the orphanage taunt him for walking like an animal, he
embraces the name of his alienation and abasement, scoffi ng at those, like
Zafar (the slum’s chief anti-Kampani activist), who suggest that he is not a
beast just an “especially abled” human.20 The catastrophe that has befallen
Khaufpur, imposing on the city a radically changed culture of nature, has in
the process converted Animal into a fi gure who insists, “I’ve no choice but
to be unnatural.”21

His refusal of the natural is redolent of the stance adopted by Chernobyl’s
self-declared “biorobots” who, through hazardous exposure, inhabited a
related gray zone between the human and the posthuman.22 Four months
after the initial Chernobyl explosion, the Soviet authorities sent in robots to
remove radioactive debris; when off-the-charts radiation levels rendered the
robots dysfunctional, young men were conscripted to replace them. The men
recognized they were being treated not as human employees but as “biologi-
cal resources to be used and thrown out. . . . [S]lated for bio-robotic death.”23
As the Ukrainian director of the Ministry of Health declared, “no one has
ever defi ned the value of a human here.”24 In this context, it is understandable
that the young men would insist on their indeterminate status, not as human
citizens, but as biorobots destined for the scrap heap of expendable parts.
Like Animal, whose humanity was subject to a hostile foreign takeover, the
biorobots exemplifi ed the dissolution of the boundaries of their humanity
through the slow, corrosive violence of environmental catastrophe.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[ 5 5 ]

The Environmental Picaresque,
Abjection, and the Urban Poor

Animal joins a long line of picaros: canny, scheming social outliers gov-
erned by unruly appetites, potty-mouthed and scatalogically obsessed,
often orphaned outcasts who, drawn from polite society’s vast impover-
ished margins, survive by parasitism and by their wits. The picaro is the
abject from which the body and the body politic cannot part. Stigmatized
as aberrant and fi lthy, the picaro embodies everything the socially remote
privileged classes, with their ornate rhetoric and social etiquette, seek to
contain, repress, and eject. But the picaro keeps resurfacing as a discomfi t-
ing reminder of the limits to the social barriers and the studied amnesia
that elite society strives to uphold.25 Julia Kristeva’s formulation of the abject
thus offers a productive analytic frame for Animal’s People, a picaresque novel
about the dissociative rituals of a neoliberal transnationalism determined to
disown, across time and space, the toxic repercussions innate to its practices,
repercussions that will return to haunt it.26

Sinha’s poisoned picaro embodies—at a somatic and a transnational
level—the conditions under which, in Kristeva’s terms, “the subject fi nds the
impossible within.”27 The unsettling confrontation with the abject entails
facing “those fragile states where man strays on the territories of animal.”28
This confrontation with stray territory results in repeated efforts to cast out
the threatening traces of animalism from the culture. If we associate abjec-
tion with the rupturing of systemic order and sealed identity from within,
then Sinha has created in his picaresque Animal a potent compression of dis-
turbing, porous ambiguity, a fi gure whose leakiness confounds the borders
between the human and the nonhuman as well as the borders between the
national and the foreign. His presence exposes the limits of disownership:
he is an irrepressible, abject reminder of that from which the Kampani—
however far off it may seem—can never fully part.

Since the Spanish Golden Age, the picaresque has posed questions about
the class and gender politics of crime, contrasting the narrator’s peccadilloes
with the weightier crimes that society’s overlords commit and from which
they are structurally exonerated. This passion for interrogating the hypoc-
risies of criminality—above all, the inequitable defi nitions of crime—makes
the picaresque a promising fi t with the priorities of the environmental

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 6 ]

justice movement. Sinha, in repurposing the picaresque, brings into bril-
liant focus the environmental, epidemiological, and economic fallout of the
terrors that transnational neoliberal lawlessness dispenses in cahoots with
corrupt, legally immune local politicians.

The picaresque emerged between 1550 and 1559 in the Spanish Golden
Age as a countergenre, a reminder that, for all the infusion into Spain of
transatlantic imperial wealth, the great majority of Spaniards remained
deeply poor.29 The genre—most famously in Lazarillo de Tormes—was
countergeneric in tone as well, rich in bawdy street argot that clattered, in
subversive counterpoint, against Spanish as imperial language and against
the attendant ascendancy of classical literary forms. The picaresque
thus inserted itself into a historical moment when a chasm was opening
between the exalted, gluttonous classes with their linguistic refi nements
and perfumed pretensions and the indigent masses for whom life was
an hourly scramble for survival. As in our own age of ballooning CEO
golden parachutes soaring above a planet of the slums, the picaro achieves
a particular potency as a marginal literary fi gure, a seldom-heard voice,
who belongs nonetheless to the statistical majority. His or her existence
depends on quick-witted improvisation coupled to expedient parasitism.
As such, the picaro survives, in Michel Serres’s fi ne phrase, as a “tactician
of the quotidian.”30

Within the genre’s comedic arc, the picaro typically pursues a quest
of upward mobility; in Animal’s case that quest becomes an elaborate pun
subverting any ethical correlation between moral and physical erectness.31
He is witheringly dismissive of the artistry with which humans—most
notably those in power—perform spectacles of rectitude. From his van-
tage point on humanity, Homo looks neither sapiens nor erectus, but a mor-
ally debased species whose uprightness is mostly posturing. Animal’s bent
posture, by contrast, embodies a crushing neoliberal, transnational eco-
nomic relationship and also marks him as a literal “lowlife,” a social and
anatomical outlier whose physical form externalizes the slow violence, the
unhurried metastases coursing through the community. His penumbral
human/posthuman identity places a constant strain on the idea of lim-
its (environmental, economic, ethical, and biological).32 In refusing the
tainted designation “human,” Animal remains for most of the novel defi –
antly otherwise. What one witnesses, then, is Sinha adaptively carrying

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 5 7]

forward what Giancarlo Maiorino has termed “the antihumanist core of
the picaresque.”33

Together, the antihumanist and parodic strains that permeate the
picaresque help Sinha ward off three threats to the dynamism of fi ctional
eco-drama: predictability, sentimentality, and a political outrage or self-
righteousness that supplants depth of character. Animal, like most picaros,
is not expressly political; he positions himself at an angle to Khaupfur’s envi-
ronmental justice movement and for much of the novel is more troubled by
his tenacious virginity than by the toxic tenacity of his environment. Yet, as
a product of that environment and as a denizen of the community of the poi-
soned abject, Animal poses profound questions about the limits and value
of the human. He does so, however, not from some concern with abstract
justice but from inside the highly unpredictable business of holding body
and soul together at street level.

Paradoxically, Animal appears as unique but not exceptional: in his sin-
gularity he serves as a synecdoche for the spectrum of mutations to which
Khaufpuris have been subjected over time, ranging from the celebrated
singer with now-ravaged lungs to the chatty Kha-in-a-jar, a double-headed
bottled fetus that envies Animal his external, unbottled freedoms.34 Unmis-
takably hypervisible, Animal is also by turns undetectable, passing beneath
human eye level in a crowd, allowing him to slip porously, in the picaresque
manner, between different social strata.

But there are spatial limits to how far he can venture in his infi ltrations
and exposes. In a masterstroke, Sinha’s deploys Animal’s physical form as
not just a consequence but a condensation of occluded transnational eco-
nomic relations. His picaro is literally outlandish, his twisted body the phys-
ical manifestation of extraterritorial, offshore capitalist practices. The novel
tracks the economics of a transnational regime of contamination by posing
questions about the limits to bodily integrity, in both the individual and the
nation-state. The Kampani’s factory is located yet dislocated, inside India
geographically yet elusively afl oat, outside the reach (or at least the applica-
tion) of Indian law. A novel narrated by a human animal—“a beastly boy”—
bent out of shape by his foreign load simultaneously questions other forms
of mutability, not least the plasticity of ownership, how foreign corporate
practices inside India can be owned (for short-term profi t) and disowned (for
long-term consequences to environmental and human health).35 To return

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 5 8 ]

this dissociative economic logic to a somatic language, we come to see the
Kampani as both incorporated and unincorporated into the national body.
The Kampani is so compendious, so omnipresent in its effects yet so vis-
ibly absent that, at one point, Zafar (leader of Khaufpur’s campaign for jus-
tice) declares the Kampani’s faceless power to be eternal. In that despairing
moment, we’re given a fused nightmare of neoliberal corporate immunity
and corporate immortality.

The picaresque proves uncannily effective at dramatizing another criti-
cal dimension to the environmentalism of the urban poor—their relation-
ship to time. Like the picaro, the environmentally embattled slum dwellers
are hell-bent on immediate survival, improvising from day to day, from
hour to hour. Their temporal element is “now o’clock,” their lives subject to
the fi ckle tyranny of the eternal today.36 Yet collectively, the city’s environ-
mentally affl icted are bound in complex ways to past and future through
the metamorphoses wrought by toxicity, the pursuit of social justice, and
their collective relationship to apocalyptic time. The environmental pica-
resque of Animal’s People pivots on two apocalypses: the horrors of “that
night” when the interminable narrative of poisoning began and the cer-
tainty that over the long haul, as the activist Zafar insists, the poor possess
“the power of zero.”37 Global geopolitics may in the short term be skewed
against them, but time is on their side: the Kampani has everything to
fear from those with nothing to lose. Animal insists as much in the nov-
el’s closing lines: “All things pass, but the poor remain. We are the peo-
ple of the Apokalis. Tomorrow there will be more of us.”38 Animal’s fi nal
words uncannily echo the end of Planet of the Slums, Mike Davis’s powerful
account of the contemporary neoliberal shantytown world from which,
implicitly, the contemporary picaro emerges. “If the empire can deploy
Orwellian technologies of repression,” Davis warns, “its outcasts have the
gods of chaos on their side.”39

Refl ecting on Hurricane Katrina, Michael Eric Dyson writes memora-
bly of “the color of disaster” as integral to the “neoliberal neglect” that has
plagued American politics for over twenty years.40 In keeping with Dyson’s
stance, we can refuse the unsustainable divide between human disasters
(like Bhopal and Chernobyl) and natural ones (like Katrina), dissociating
ourselves, for example, from former president George W. Bush’s insistence
that “the storm didn’t discriminate and neither will the recovery effort.”41

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[ 5 9 ]

Discrimination predates disaster: in failures to maintain protective infra-
structures, failures at pre-emergency hazard mitigation, failures to main-
tain infrastructure, failures to organize evacuation plans for those who
lack private transport, all of which make the poor and racial minorities dis-
proportionately vulnerable to catastrophe. As investigative Indian report-
ers, writing for publications like the Hindustan Times and Statesmen were
quick to reveal, the Union Carbide disaster was preceded by a long history
of structural neglect and a reckless fl outing of elementary safety measures.42

If we project Dyson’s national “color of disaster” onto a transnational
screen, his phrase can be seen—like Animal’s apocalyptic fi nal words—to
point backward to global crimes of environmental racism (that treat cer-
tain communities as more expendable than others) and forward as a global
portent. The poor of the world are the uncontainable color of a future that
cannot be held in check. Yet there is another way to read that future, as
a wager—however idealistic—to those in power to embrace the project of
more equitable risk distribution, within the nation and beyond. The South
African writer Njabulo Ndebele puts this case most forcefully:

We are all familiar with the global sanctity of the white body.

Wherever the white body is violated in the world, severe retribu-

tions follow somehow for the perpetrators if they are non-white,

regardless of the social status of the white body. The white body is

inviolable, and that inviolability is in direct proportion to the vul-

nerability of the black body. This leads me to think that if South

African whiteness is a benefi ciary of the protectiveness assured

by international whiteness, it has an opportunity to write a new

chapter in world history. . . . Putting itself at risk, it will have to

declare that it is home now, sharing in the vulnerability of other

compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will declare that its

dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies.43

Three points are worth underscoring here. First, that international white-
ness provides a second shield for national whiteness, a protective dynamic
that has profound consequences for the way slow violence has unfolded
across the global stage in a neoliberal age. Second, and relatedly, the internal
distance between the inviolable body and the vulnerable body is widened

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 6 0 ]

by being routed through international circuits of power. Third, implicit in
Ndebele’s racial narrative of violation and retribution is the kind of envi-
ronmental narrative that Sinha’s novel tells, whereby a corporate bastion of
white power deploys a battery of distancing strategies (temporal, legalistic,
geographical, scientifi c, and euphemistic) in the longue durée between the ini-
tial catastrophe and the aftermath. Through this battery of attritional, dis-
sociative mechanisms, the transnational corporation strives to wear down
the environmental justice campaigns that seek compensation, remediation,
and restored health and dignity. Under cover of a variety of temporal orders,
the company can hope that public memory and demands for restitution will
slowly seep out of sight, vanishing into the sands of time.44

Yet the open-ended politics of catastrophic procrastination do not oper-
ate in isolation within the corporate realm. What of the roles of the state and
science? If Ndebele exhorts the state to “ jealously and vigorously protect all
bodies within its borders and beyond,” he acknowledges this has seldom
been the case.45 In Khaufpur the Chief Minister and the Minister for Poison
Affairs, their palms well greased with bribes, provide local cover for the
American Kampani while going through the motions of taking seriously the
concerns of exposed locals.

The role of science is more complex. In Khaufpur—as in Bhopal—the
transnational corporation withheld from the affl icted community details
about the chemical composition of the insecticides it was producing at the
site, profoundly weakening remedial prospects by denying those exposed
precise scientifi c information. Small wonder that, when an American doc-
tor arrives to open a free clinic in Khaufpur, local activists mount a boycott,
viewing her as an agent of tendentious Kampani science—science whose
long-term remit is to generate a circular narrative that will confi rm the larger
narrative of corporate self-exculpation or, at the very least, oil the machinery
of doubt. From this skeptical perspective, the scientifi c process, like the legal
one, provides further temporal camoufl age, ostensibly uncovering what hap-
pened while deferring and occluding any decisive, actionable narrative.

Terror Time and Shadow Kingdoms

Khaufpur, translated from the Urdu, means “city of terror.”46 The city’s poor-
est denizens inhabit a different terror time from the terror time projected

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 6 1]

by the Kampani. When the slum-dwellers rise up nonviolently to protest
the Kampani’s inaction, the Kampani, invoking the fallback international
rhetoric of terrorism, demands that the protestors be tried in the very Indian
courts the company itself has been evading. Back in America, the Kampani
engages in corporate antiterrorist training exercises, staging mock abduc-
tions and executions of their employees by Khaufpuri “terrorists.”47 Khauf-
puris, by contrast, face a clear and present danger of an environmental kind:
an immanent and imminent terror, faceless yet physically intimate, perco-
lating through the penumbral time of the aftermath that is also the sus-
pended time of the illimitable in-between.

We all inhabit multiple temporal orders that often coexist in frictional
states, shifting and sliding like tectonic plates. The predominance—and
our awareness of—some temporal orders as opposed to others is shaped
by where and how we live. We need to ask how directly, how forcefully
a given community is impacted by the cycles of sun and moon; by ebbing
and fl owing tides; by shifts in the seasons, stars, and planets; by the arrivals
and departures of migratory life; and by climate change in ways that are
crosshatched with the migratory cycles of transnational capital, electoral
cycles (local, national, and foreign), digital time, and the dictates of sweat-
shop time. Sinha hints at, for example, the unpredictable interface between
digital and seasonal time when Animal discovers the “internest” on a com-
puter.48 We can gloss his malapropism as fusing different ecologies of time:
the “internest” is, after all, where images go to breed.

Animal’s People exposes the uneven timelines and multiple speeds of
environmental terror: the initial toxic event that kills thousands instantly;
the fatal fi re that erupts years later, when the deserted but still-polluted fac-
tory reignites; the contaminants that continue to leach into the communal
bloodstream; and the monsoon season that each year washes abandoned
chemicals into the aquifers, repoisoning wells and producing new cycles
of deferred casualties. Thus the initial airborne terror morphs into a water-
borne terror that acquires its own seasonal rhythms of heightened risk.49

Ordinarily, rural subsistence communities—“ecosystem people”—are
attuned (and vulnerable) to different ecologies of time from those that
impact the lives of the urban poor.50 This is not to suggest that ecosys-
tem people possess some romantic, timeless, organic bond to the pulse of
nature, but rather to acknowledge that their often precarious conditions

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 6 2 ]

of survival depend on different combinations of temporal awareness.
However, both rural and urban communities share a vulnerability to
the vagaries, the haunting uncertainties, of what Ulrich Beck depicts as a
“shadow kingdom”:

Threats from civilization are bringing about a kind of new

“shadow kingdom,” comparable to the realm of the gods and

demons in antiquity, which is hidden behind the visible world

and threatens human life on their Earth. People no longer cor-

respond today with spirits residing in things but fi nd themselves

exposed to “radiation,” ingest “toxic levels,” and are pursued into

their very dreams by the anxiety of a “nuclear holocaust” . . . .

Dangerous, hostile substances lie concealed behind the harm-

less facades. Everything must be viewed with a double gaze, and

can only be correctly understood and judged through this dou-

bling. The world of the visible must be investigated, relativized

with respect to a second reality, only existent in thought and

concealed in the world.51

In Beck’s depiction this imperceptible shadow kingdom is spatially recessed
behind “harmless façades.” But his spatial trope warrants a temporal gloss as
well: beyond the optical façade of immediate peril, what demons lurk in the
penumbral realms of the longue durée? What forces distract or discourage us
from maintaining the double gaze across time? And what forces—imagina-
tive, scientifi c, and activist—can help extend the temporal horizons of our
gaze not just retrospectively but prospectively as well? How, in other words,
do we subject that shadow kingdom to a temporal optic that might allow
us to see—and foresee—the lineaments of slow terror behind the façade of
sudden spectacle?

We need to question here Beck’s assumption that “people no longer cor-
respond today with spirits residing in things,” in other words, that the divine
and demonic shadow kingdom “of antiquity” has been superseded by the
modern shadow kingdom of toxic and radiological hazards. This sequential
narrative of threat does not adequately convey the persistent vitality of the
numinous within modernity. For the majority of our planet’s people (and
this is something Sinha brings to life) the two kingdoms of toxic threat and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 6 3 ]

spiritual threat interpenetrate and blend, creating a hybrid world of techno-
numinous fears.

Sinha and Carson: Leakages and Corporate Evaporations

Animal’s People gives focus to the environmental politics of permeation and
duration. Leakages suffuse the novel: gas leakages and category leakages,
porous national borders and permeable fetal membranes, the living who are
semidead and the dead who are living specters.52 What, the novel asks across
a variety of fronts, are the boundaries of identity? Where do identities part
or merge? How much change must an entity (an individual, a community,
a corporation) undergo before it can assume the name of categorical differ-
ence, drawing a line across time?

On the subject of porous identities, it is worth noting one aspect of the
Union Carbide story that Sinha, for whatever reasons, declined to enfold into
his novel. In 2001, Union Carbide disappeared through that act of corporate
necromancy known as the merger. Dow Chemical bought out Union Car-
bide, and so the name indelibly associated with disaster evaporated, further
confounding the quest in Bhopal for environmental justice, compensation,
remediation, and redress. Dow Chemical deployed this nominal vanishing
act, this corporate shape-shifting, as a rationale for disclaiming responsibil-
ity for a disaster committed by a corporation that no longer exists.53 If with
Chernobyl the environmental fallout outlasted the empire responsible, with
Union Carbide the fallout outlasted the transnational company responsible.
Thus Soviet imperial fracture and American corporate merger both effec-
tively circumvented or off-loaded historical culpability for the continued
slow violence of delayed effects.

The evaporation of Union Carbide exemplifi es the gap between the rela-
tive immobility of environmentally affl icted populations and the mobility
(in time and space) afforded transnational corporations. What the extinct
company leaves behind is ongoing proof of the excellent durability of its
products; as Animal notes sardonically, the Kampani clearly concocted
“wonderful poisons . . . so good it’s impossible to get rid of them, after all
these years they’re still doing their work.”54 The factory may have been aban-
doned, but the invisible poisons remain dynamic, industrious, and alive—
full-time workers around the clock. The far less resilient biota, however,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 6 4 ]

express themselves primarily through the sensuality of absence: “Listen,
how quiet,” Animal observes as he wanders the factory grounds. “No bird
song. No hoppers in the grass. No bee hum. Insects can’t survive here.”55
Sinha’s rhetorical strategy here—his summoning of ecological carnage
through negative presence—echoes “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which
Rachel Carson chose as the epigraph to Silent Spring: “The sedge is wither’d
from the lake, / And no birds sing.” Sinha’s rhetoric calls to mind, too, Car-
son’s use of negative presence in the controversial “Fable for Tomorrow”
that launches Silent Spring, where she evokes the plight of a devastated com-
munity. In a once harmonious American heartland town (dubbed Green
Meadows in an early draft of Silent Spring), “[t]here was a strange stillness.
The birds, for example—where had they gone? . . . The hens brooded, but
no chicks hatched. . . . The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees
droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would
be no fruit.”56

Both Carson and Sinha give the absence wrought by toxicity a sensory
density; in so doing they strike a complex temporal note, through blended
elegy and apocalypse, lamentation and premonition, inducing in us a dou-
ble gaze backward in time to loss and forward to yet unrealized threats.
Through this double gaze they restage environmental time, asserting its
broad parameters against the myopic, fevered immediacy that governs the
society of the catastrophe-as-spectacle.

The blighted community Carson depicts in “A Fable for Tomorrow” did
not exist in its entirety, although all the component disasters Carson fed into
her composite, fi ctionalized portrait had occurred at some point somewhere
in America. By clustering these scattered microdisasters into a single imagi-
nary community, she sought to counter the dissociative thinking encour-
aged by the temporal and spatial dispersion of environmental violence, acts
that in isolation would pass beneath the radar of newsworthiness.

Like Carson, Sinha has clearly grappled with the imaginative dilemmas
posed by the diffusion of slow violence across environmental time. But his
response is differently infl ected, given that all the disasters he summons
to mind had indeed been concentrated in a single community. The prob-
lem he tackled, moreover, was one Carson never addressed directly: how
some affl icted communities are afforded more visibility—and more access
to remediation—than others through the mechanisms of globalization,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 6 5 ]

environmental racism, and class discrimination. This discriminatory distri-
bution of environmental visibility—intranationally and transnationally—
lies at the heart of Sinha’s fi ctional endeavor.

Almost half a century earlier, Carson had protested that the scattershot
victims of “herbicides” and “pesticides” ought to be recognized as victims
of indiscriminate “biocides” instead.57 Sinha develops this idea of biocidal
risk in terms redolent of Carson: one old Indian woman, bent double by the
poisons, upbraids the Kampani lawyer thus: “you told us you were making
medicine for the fi elds. You were making poisons to kill insects, but you
killed us instead. I would like to ask, was there ever much difference, to
you?”58 Yet Sinha departs from Carson in representing “pesticides” as both
indiscriminate and discriminatory: their killing power exceeds their tar-
geted task of eliminating troublesome insects, but they do discriminate in
the unadvertised sense of saddling the local and global poor with the highest
burden of risk. Thus, by implication, the biocidal assault on human life is
unevenly universal.

Extraordinary Events, Ordinary Forgettings

Looking back at Chernobyl, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Bhopal, Petryna
laments how “many persons who have survived these large-scale techno-
logical disasters have been caught in a long-term and vicious bureaucratic
cycle in which they carry the burden of proof of their physical damage while
experiencing the risk of being delegitimated in legal, welfare, and medical
institutional contexts.”59 Such people, the illiterate poor above all, are thrust
into a labyrinth of self-fashioning as they seek to fi t their bodily stories to
the story lines that dangle hope of recognition (possibly, though elusively),
even recompense. In so doing, the poor face the double challenge of invis-
ibility and amnesia: numerically, they may constitute the majority, but they
remain on the margins in terms of visibility and offi cial memory. From an
environmental perspective, this marginality is perpetuated, in part, by what
Davis terms “the dialectic of ordinary disaster,” whereby a calamity is incor-
porated into history and rendered forgettable and ordinary precisely because
the burden of risk falls unequally on the unsheltered poor.60 Such disasters
are readily dismissed from memory and policy planning by framing them
as accidental, random, and unforeseeable acts of God, without regard for

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[ 6 6 ]

the precautionary measures that might have prevented these catastrophes
or have mitigated their effects.

At stake here is the role of neoliberal globalization in exacerbating both
uneven economic development and the uneven development of offi cial
memory. What we witness is a kind of fatal bigotry that operates through
the spatializing of time, by off-loading risk onto “backward” communities
that are barely visible in the corporate media. Contemporary global politics,
then, must be recognized “as a struggle for crude, material dominance, but
also (threaded ever closer into that struggle) as a battle for the control over
appearances.”61 That battle over spectacle becomes especially decisive for
public memory—and for the foresight with which public policy can moti-
vate and execute precautionary measures—when it comes to the attritional
casualties claimed, as at Bhopal, by the forces of slow violence.

We have seen, in recent years, some excellent analytical books about
the plight of the international urban underclass by Davis, Jeremy Seabrook,
and Jan Breman, among others. However, the kind of visibility such books
afford is very different from the visibility offered by a picaresque novel.
For even the most eloquent social scientifi c accounts of the underclass, like
social scientifi c accounts of environmental disaster, veer toward the anony-
mously collective and the statistical. Such accounts thus tend to be in the
same gesture humanizing and dehumanizing, animating and silencing.

The dilemma of how to represent the underclass, the infrahombres,
stands at the heart of the picaresque tradition. Like GraceLand, Chris Abani’s
superb picaresque novel about ingenious desperation in a Lagos shanty-
town, Animal’s People stages a disaggregated irruption of a vivid individual
life. Animal, speaking his life story into the Jarnalis’s tape recorder, is all
charismatic voice: his street-level testimony does not start from the general-
ized hungers of the wretched of the earth, but from the devouring hunger
in an individual belly. If the novel gradually enfolds a wider community—
Animal’s people—it does so by maintaining at its emotional center Animal,
the cracked voiced soloist, who breaks through the gilded imperial veneer
of neoliberalism to announce himself in his disreputable vernacular.62 His
is the antivoice to the new, ornate, chivalric discourse of neoliberal “free
trade” and “development.”

Through Animal’s immersed voice, Sinha is able to return to questions
that have powered the picaresque from its beginnings. What does it mean to

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slow v iolence, neoliber a lism, a nd the en v ironmenta l pica r esque

[ 6 7]

be reduced to living in subhuman, bestial conditions? What chasms divide
and what ties bind the wealthy and the destitute, the human and the animal?
What does it mean, in the fused imperial language of temporal and spatial
dismissal, to be written off as “backward”?63

In Animal’s day-to-day meanderings, the impulse for survival trumps
the dream of collective justice. Yet through his somatized foreign burden—
and through the intrepid, blighted lives around him—Sinha exhumes from
the forces of amnesia not just the memory of a long-ago disaster but the
present and future force of that disaster’s embodied, ongoing percolations.
The infrahombres—those who must eke out an existence amidst such perco-
lations—are, the novel insists, also of this earth. Through his invention of
the environmental picaresque, Sinha summons to the imaginative surface
of the novel the underclass’s underreported lives, redeeming their diverse
quirks and hopes and quotidian terrors from what, almost half a millen-
nium ago, Lazaro recognized as “the sepulcher of oblivion.”64

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2

Fast-forward Fossil

Petro-despotism and the Resource Curse

As I fi ll my tank at the self-service station a bubble of gas swells up
in a black lake buried beneath the Persian Gulf, an emir silently
raises hands hidden in wide white sleeves, and folds them on his
chest, in a skyscraper an Exxon computer is crunching numbers, far
out to sea a cargo fl eet gets the order to change course.

—Italo Calvino, “The Petrol Pump”

We are the sons of the Indians who sold Manhattan. We want to
change the deal.

—Abdallah Tariki, former Director of Petroleum and
Mineral Affairs of Saudi Arabia

If the twentieth century has been declared, by turns, the
American Century and the Century of Oil, it is by now manifest that the
twenty-fi rst century will be known as neither.1 We are heading toward a
multipolar global order that will depend for its survival on belated—and
therefore evermore desperate—responses to uncertain petroleum reserves
and mounting climate change. American hegemony has already peaked
and (whatever the squabbles over the most likely date) peak oil will follow,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 6 9 ]

ending the dreams of unfettered oil-powered growth that have become
inseparable from petroleum’s incendiary geopolitics.

In this interregnum between energy regimes, we are living on bor-
rowed time—borrowed from the past and from the future. “Fossil fuels”
captures in a phrase this double relationship to planetary time: it suggests,
on the one hand, the stratifi ed death compacted over millennia that technol-
ogy has enabled us to resurrect as the force that drives our fl eeting, internal
combustion civilization. On the other hand, “fossil fuels” also conveys an
aura of antiquatedness, of built-in obsolescence inadequate to future needs.
For if the fossil record, as a sedimentary script, has been parsed with a host
of competing religious, political, and economic motives toward times past
and times to come, what remains certain is its fi nitude as a source of usable
energy. What’s equally certain is that the faster we extract and consume our
planet’s compressed hydrocarbon inheritance the greater the likelihood that
our actions will propel us—and other living multitudes—toward an abbre-
viated collective future as fossils in the making.

If “fossil fuels” resonates with a sense of time borrowed against an
exhaustible past and an exhaustible future, the phrase “resource curse” con-
veys a different, but complementary, doubleness. “Resource curse” holds in
taut suspense notions of fortune and misfortune; the phrase also fuses utili-
tarian and numinous perspectives on Earth, suggesting the vulnerability
of the world of solid, useful goods to spiritual force fi elds—the curses and
blessings that can have profoundly material effects. Moreover, “resource
curse” compresses huge, fraught questions about ownership: what does it
mean to be possessed or dispossessed, politically, economically, and spiritu-
ally? What are the repercussions of having mineral belongings that literally
undermine a community or society’s capacity to belong? And what forces
turn belongings—those goods, in a material and an ethical sense—into evil
powers that alienate people from the very elements that have sustained
them, environmentally and culturally, as all that seemed solid melts into
liquid tailings, oil spills, and plumes of toxic air?

The notion of the resource curse hinges on the paradox of plenty,
whereby nation-states blessed with abundant mineral wealth are too often
concomitantly blighted.2 As a rule of thumb, the greater a state’s reliance
on a single mineral resource, the greater the chances that state is undemo-
cratic, militaristic, corruption riddled, and governed without transparency

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 7 0 ]

or accountability. Abundant resources are frequently coupled to rampant
injustice, fragile economic growth, and low rankings in the United Nations
Human Development Index. In strengthening a country’s currency, mineral
discoveries may render other economic sectors, like agriculture and manu-
facturing, less competitive, while the boom-bust cycles of mineral markets
exacerbate social volatility. There are of course exceptions to these tenden-
cies, but in resource-cursed societies, a mineral strike, though less immedi-
ately spectacular than a missile strike, is often more devastating in the long
term, bringing in its wake environmental wreckage, territorial disposses-
sion, political repression, and massacres by state forces doing double duty
as security forces for unanswerable petroleum transnationals or mineral
cartels. In such societies, a highly concentrated revenue stream is readily
diverted away from social and infrastructural investment and into offshore
bank accounts. The ties between rulers and ruled are typically weak: the
despots or oligarchs prefer to depend—for their private wealth, consumer
sprees, extravagant military spending, and power displays—on control-
ling the central resource than on strengthening civic expectations by intro-
ducing taxes, elections, and a diversifi ed (and therefore less controllable)
economy. Under such circumstances, national cohesion and stability may
be jeopardized by exaggerated inequalities. These frequently entail both
vertical inequality (a widening class chasm between super rich and ultra
poor) and horizontal inequality (a geographical gulf between resource-rich
enclaves and the remainder of the country).

That said, the resource curse, when invoked as a free-fl oating cul-
tural explanation bereft of history, can mislead. Australia and Canada are
resource rich but not resource cursed. Is that merely because they are stable,
long-established electoral democracies that have avoided the extreme con-
centrations of power that have blighted monoeconomies like Nigeria, Libya,
and Angola? The historical answer is more complicated than that.

The “curse” is in part a spin-off of an international legal system that com-
promised decolonizing nations’ sovereignty over their natural resources. In
the 1970s, when efforts to create a New Economic Order collapsed, the Euro-
pean powers and the United States denied newly independent states resource
sovereignty by declaring, as Antony Anghie has noted, that such resources
were not national in character but belonged to all humanity, by upholding
old colonial treaties for resource transfer, and by granting multinational

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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 7 1]

corporations equal international legal standing to third-world states.3 From
Saudi Arabia to Zaire, from Indonesia to Iran, the Western powers typically
supported oligarchs, dictators, and military regimes that cooperated with the
skewed terms of resource extraction. The Western powers often machinated
to topple rulers who objected to these skewed terms. Moreover, Western
multinationals typically exerted a disproportionate infl uence over the terms
of extraction with their third world state partners, inhibiting democratic
dispensations from developing while exploiting an environmental, health,
and labor climate far more lax than the legislative controls corporations
were subject to back home. Hence, international law enabled a single multi-
national to cultivate divergent standards of operation in the global North and
South, a double standard that grew out of—and exacerbated—the historical,
structural inequities for which the resource curse has become shorthand.

In the global South, oil culture in particular typically brings few new
jobs to the locals to replace old forms of communal subsistence jeopardized
by fouled water, earth, and air. Multinational oil corporations, seeking a pli-
able workforce, prefer to import laborers from rival communities or distant
lands rather than create jobs for communities most immediately affected
by extraction operations. This practice, in turn, impedes labor unions and
civic organizations from developing—organizations that could mesh the
workplace with the priorities of neighboring communities, whose osten-
sible resource wealth has reduced them (from the perspective of fossil fuel
authoritarians and their partners, the oil majors) to disposable people.

From a literary perspective, the idea of the resource enclave achieves
a special resonance, for it depends on a profound act of imaginative dis-
connection. French foreign policy makers, for example, would sometimes
divide Africa into Afrique utile and Afrique unitile, the gulf between the useful
and the useless bits corresponding largely to those enclaves with exploitable
resources that could be profi tably incorporated into metropolitan capitalist
structures and the unincorporated, disposable remainder.4 The tightly gar-
risoned useful enclaves would be embedded in—yet materially, militarily,
and imaginatively removed from—the destitution that surrounded them.

Such an enclave mindset is inseparable from another form of imagina-
tive dissociation, namely, rent-seeking behavior, attempts to maximize the
often immense chasm between the market value of a resource and the costs
of its extraction. Economic rent effects a rending gap in the social fabric, as

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 7 2 ]

mining transnationals and collaborative local elites treat a nation’s “natu-
ral” bounty as if it were neither of nor for the nation, but exists as a kind of
extraterritorial gravy train. In the global South, these multiple practices of
economic and imaginative disconnection foster apprehensive nation-states
and apprehensive states of mind, in which rulers readily incline toward the
paranoid and the great majority who are excluded from the spoils scramble
for survival.

As these forms of dissociation suggest, to address the resource curse
requires that we confront the uses and abuses of enchantment. The eminent
Polish journalist Ryzsard Kapuscinski captures something of this sentiment
in his Iranian book, The Shah of Shahs, when he observes how “oil creates
the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free, it
expresses the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through a lucky acci-
dent . . . in this sense it is a fairy tale and like all fairy tales a bit of a lie.”5
Jose Ignacio Cabrujas, writing from the other end of the world, exclaims
over how Venezuela’s petroleum state turned into a “magnanimous sorcerer
. . . . Oil is fantastic and induces fantasies. The announcement that Venezu-
ela was an oil country created the illusion of a miracle; it created, in prac-
tice, a culture of miracles” propelling the nation “toward a hallucination.”6
Thus the oil encounter lends itself to populist fairy tales of sudden bounty
that easily sour into volatile disillusionment, as people possessed by outsize
dreams fi nd themselves captive instead to outsize military regimes and the
disenchantments of a ruined environment.

Abdelrahman Munif and the Oil Encounter

For some eighty years, oil has been responsible for more of America’s inter-
national entanglements and anxieties than any other industry. In 2009, the
United States spent $188.5 billion on imported oil ($95 billion of that from
OPEC members alone).7 According to Princeton economic geographer
Roger Stern, in the three decades from 1976 to 1997, the United States spent
a further $7.3 trillion on securing its oil supply from the Middle East.8 Oil
remains a primary source both of America’s strategic vulnerability and of
its reputation as a bully, in the Islamic world and beyond. Our appetite for
fossil fuels has created a long history of unsavory marriages of convenience
with petro-despots, generalissimos, presidents for life, and fomenters of

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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 7 3 ]

terrorism. Given this history—given the outsize characters, bloated dreams,
unscrupulous alliances, double crossings, insurrections, and repressions,
given the soaring and plummeting fortunes, one would have expected that
the titanic drama of the resource curse would by now have generated a sub-
stantial, ambitious literature.

This leaves us facing a conundrum. Why is it, as Amitav Ghosh has
asked, that the oil encounter has failed to generate a literary response com-
parable in range and depth to that produced in earlier times by the spice
trade?9 Moreover, one should note that Big Oil certainly hasn’t produced
a literature equal in range or magnitude to that generated by its fossil fuel
precursor, King Coal, which inspired Emile Zola, George Orwell, Sinclair,
Clancey Segal, and D. H. Lawrence, to name but a few. Given the preemi-
nence of oil in America’s destiny, it is startling that not since Sinclair’s Cali-
fornia saga Oil! appeared in 1927 has any author hazarded writing the great
American oil novel.10

There is, however, one twentieth-century writer who sought, on an
unparalleled scale, to give transnational life to the forbidding subject of oil,
a writer alive to oil’s lubrication of human greed, alive to oil’s bewitchments
and its disenchanted states, both national and psychological.11 Between 1984
and 1989 Abdelrahman Munif penned Cities of Salt, a sprawling quintet of
novels that engages the broad geography and volatile history of the petro-
leum encounter. The encounter he dramatizes entails the special relation-
ship, or rather, the special deal between our planet’s biggest petroleum
players: Saudi Arabia, the leading producer; and the United States, the prin-
cipal consumer. Cities of Salt takes shape around the rise of the hydrocarbon
despots encouraged, armed, and sustained by American corporate and for-
eign policy interests. The companion subject of Cities is the growing repres-
sion and disillusionment of ordinary Bedouins and their intense, if episodic,
insurrectionary response. Munif tracks the psychological and cultural dis-
orientation of Bedouins whose lands and lives the two-headed behemoth
of empire and petro-despotism has trampled. The novels—especially the
fi ne fi rst volume—deserve to be better known and more widely taught in
the United States, not least for their power to illuminate America’s fateful
entanglements with Islam and for the chance they offer us to rethink the
parameters of environmental literature, transnationally and across the fron-
tiers of genre.

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[ 74 ]

The opening volume of Cities of Salt spans the period from 1933 to 1953,
the very era when Aldo Leopold was enunciating his land ethic, advocating
a far-sighted vision of what it means to live responsibly and viably in envi-
ronmental time.12 Leopold’s ethic was circumscribed, in some ways, by the
particularities of America’s Jeffersonian traditions; he did foresee, however,
that to live as an American in the American century was to be a consumer of
historically calamitous proportions. He foresaw, too, how the impact of such
unchecked resource consumption would be felt disproportionately abroad.
In 1932, one year before an American petroleum corporation signed the fi rst
concession agreement in the Persian Gulf, Leopold wrote: “When I submit
these thoughts to a printing press, I am helping to drain a marsh for cows to
graze, and to exterminate the birds of Brazil. When I go birding in my Ford, I
am devastating an oil fi eld, and re-electing an imperialist to get me rubber.”13

Yet Leopold could do no more than limn these issues in ethical outline
from afar. Munif, writing from within the oil encounter’s extractive vor-
tex, could give imaginative dimension to the hydrocarbon force fi elds—the
petroleum-driven promises, seductions, coercions, betrayals, and catastro-
phes—that shaped his region and rippled across the world. Thus his writ-
ings—at once historical and premonitory—offer us a unique entry point
into one of the twentieth century’s defi ning stories: the rise of a transna-
tional petro-modernity that contained, from the outset, the seeds of its own
undoing. What Munif brings to life, in unparalleled detail, is the profound
investment of the foreign and domestic petroleum overlords in quashing
democratic aspiration and resource sovereignty. Munif conjures, moreover,
a huge chorus of disenfranchised voices, some bewildered, some complici-
tous, others intrepid in their dissidence, yet all outmaneuvered by American
and British imperial forces in league with the oil majors and (if sometimes
frictionally so) with the petro-despots too.

Munif felt he had been summoned to his theme by the stars: he was born
on the very day in 1933 when the Persian Gulf ’s fi rst concession agreement
was signed between the monarch of the newly created Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia Abdul Aziz ibn Saud and an American oil corporation, the Califor-
nia Arabian Standard Oil Company. As it transpired, Munif ’s fi nal book (on
Iraqi resistance to imperialism from 1917 to the twenty-fi rst century) would
appear just months after the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, giving his life a
certain symmetry around empire and oil.

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[ 7 5 ]

Although he wrote Cities of Salt before the term “resource curse” had
been coined, Munif has bequeathed us the most expansive novelistic account
of the Persian Gulf ’s early oil confl icts that would bring the resource curse
in train. Cities of Salt tracks how a nascent transnational oil culture created
the foundations for the resource curse, deepening the divide between a nar-
row class that would become astronomically rich and the uprooted, immis-
erated masses (from inside and increasingly from beyond the Persian Gulf ).
Munif ’s novels remind us of the perception by French economist, Jacques
Attali, that ours is a world increasingly divided into rich and poor nomads,
into a wandering elite that travels expansively and a disenfranchised poor
whose movements are propelled by misery in a quest for basic goods and
rights beyond their grasp.14 This rift between the mobile rich and wretched,
disenfranchised nomads is at its most dramatic in the Gulf States, where
such discrepancies foster political volatility among people bound by desper-
ation, oil, Islam, and American and European need.

Munif portrayed his novelistic method as the imaginative pursuit of
“the deep, internal movement of history,” a history indissociably environ-
mental, political, and cultural.15 Arguably, his greatest gift was for linking
oil’s hybrid lives as a commodity to the oil-induced movements of human
populations across oceans and across deserts. Munif himself was perfectly
placed as a witness to displacement, for he was (to adapt Bertolt Brecht’s
self-portrait) a man given to “changing his country as often as his shoes.”16
A child of the Arab diaspora, Munif was born in Jordan to an Iraqi mother
and a Saudi trader who traveled expansively across the region as the race
for oil was transforming it. Munif himself led an improbably peripatetic
existence, residing in Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Yugoslavia, and
France.17 En route he earned a Ph.D. in oil economics from Belgrade Uni-
versity, edited the Baghdad journal Oil and Development, and worked in the
Syrian oil ministry.

As such, he was ideally situated to enter into the fantasies purveyed
by petroleum’s manipulative emissaries while also addressing the impact
of petroleum—through force and fabulation—on Bedouin oral culture. In
Munif ’s writings about the resource curse, spiritual powers are never imma-
terial: he is alive to the active energies of the spectral, whether expressed
through the opaque enchantments of oil as fetishized commodity or
through political resistance inspired by rumors of a shimmering, elusive

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 7 6 ]

desert fi ghter who launches sallies against the foreign dispossessors. Munif
is alert, in other words, to the blurring of corporeal and incorporeal pow-
ers within the coercive-seductive force fi elds of oil imperialism, commodity
desire, and the insurrectionary forces ranged against them both.

Munif ’s involuntary and voluntary movements, his exile and his rov-
ings, were accompanied by a rare range of professional experiences whose
one binding thread was petroleum. He was an oil industry insider who
also knew, from the inside, what it meant to be dispossessed. Saudi Arabia
stripped him of his citizenship; his novels were banned in several Gulf States
and Egypt for their excoriating satires of the peninsula’s oil elite; and in his
displacements, he felt vulnerable to the suffocating political gamesmanship
that pervaded the region. Yet his empathy for the uprooted preceded his
own deracinations: his memoir about his Amman childhood sharply enun-
ciates the impact Palestinian refugees had on his political psyche, as they
were driven from their lands by the nakbah and streamed into his hometown
in the late 1940s, utterly transforming it.

In chronicling his region’s oil-induced environmental and cultural
upheavals, Munif implicitly distinguishes between the nomadic and the
rootless. Nomadic Bedouin culture had been inscribed on the land through
movement; theirs was a belonging-in-motion shaped to an arid world. But
the deracinations of the oil age plummeted them into a rootlessness that
was nomadism’s opposite. Driven from their lands, increasingly urbanized,
repressed and exploited by a corrupt sepoy class in cahoots with American
oil interests, many lower-class Bedouin found themselves culturally humili-
ated and politically estranged.

Writing and Political Agency

To write against the corrupting intimacies between petro-despots and the
oil majors can be a life-threatening enterprise. Ken Saro-Wiwa was exe-
cuted for doing as much; George Aditjondro, the vocal Indonesian intel-
lectual who wrote fearlessly about his nation’s oil-driven authoritarianism,
was forced into exile, as was Munif after the Saudis revoked his citizenship
and issued threats. Moving from country to country, Munif became, in his
words, an “uninvited guest” whose exiled presence could be wielded by the
Saudis (and others hostile to his views) against any state that hosted him.18

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 7 7]

Yet through all those upheavals he refused to temper his outspokenness on
the region’s root corruptions.

“Our crisis,” he once declared, “is a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dic-
tatorship.”19 Cities of Salt was pitched against that trilogy of fused calamities.
In Cities—and across the broad swathe of his writings—Munif exposed the
perfi dies of the petro-despots, the spread of the carceral state, and the costs
borne by those who (from oases to city streets) clamored for resource sov-
ereignty, political answerability, socialism, civil liberties, or participatory
democracy. By shuttling between fi ction and nonfi ction, Munif exposed
the imperial underpinnings of that trilogy of calamities, bearing witness
to the ways American and British petroleum powers—whether in competi-
tion or collaboration, whether backed by the CIA or MI6 or both—cynically
fomented and funded political Islam, propped up petro-despots, helped sub-
vert or assassinate democratically elected leaders, and thwarted street-level
efforts to advance a more equitable spread of regional oil wealth.

Munif maintained an insistent belief that writing could be a tool for
change.20 To that end, he adopted a multigenre assault on both the Persian
Gulf elites and their foreign collaborators. However, unlike most writers
under consideration in this book, Munif ’s faith in literature’s instrumen-
tal value was neither integral to his organizational activism (as with Saro-
Wiwa, Maathai, and Ndebele) nor supplementary to an already established
literary career (as with Roy, Sinha, Carson, and Gordimer). For if Munif
turned to literature belatedly (he was forty before his fi rst novel, Trees and
the Assassination of Marzuq, appeared in 1973), that turn marked a withdrawal
from organizational politics and a reentry into politics through a different
door. Disillusioned with organized resistance, he determined to become
a full-time writer, which he saw as a compensation—albeit in his view an
inadequate one—for the social transformations that he’d once hoped the
region’s radical movements would provide, before they were crushed, cor-
rupted or collapsed through self-immolation.21

From his student days onward, Munif had plunged into a dizzying array
of political organizations, variously and in combination, socialist, demo-
cratic, nationalist, pan-Arabist, and Baathist. But by the late 1960s his faith in
movement politics had been exhausted: repression by despotic forces from
within and subversion by imperial forces from without had resulted in surg-
ing imprisonments, executions, disappearances, torture, and banishments.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 7 8 ]

Above all, it was the Six Day War that propelled Munif to channel his politi-
cal energies in a literary direction. Refl ecting on the impact of that war,
Munif recalled how “the defeat of 1967 pushed [him] toward the novel not
as a means of escape but of confrontation. It had an unforgettable effect: to
see such a vast area as the Arab world—with all its enormous clamour and
slogans—crumble and fall, not just in six days but a mere few hours.”22 In
turning to literature during that aftermath, he sought to redeem the oppo-
sitional capacities of language from such clamorous sloganeering, a task he
undertook through the complementary possibilities offered him by fi ctional
and nonfi ctional forms.

Munif belonged to a post–World War II generation emboldened by
decolonization, inspired by nationalism and socialism, and burdened “with
an immense load of dreams and desires for change. . . . But our dreams
were greater than our resources.”23 Faced with waning possibilities for orga-
nized resistance, Munif envisioned literature as an alternative resource. Per-
haps literature might offer some modest counter to the surreal, unmoored
worlds of despotism afl oat on oil; might offer some anchorage in history,
some space for dreaming and for insurrectionary acts of memory, aspira-
tion, and satirical exposé. Munif became a writer-activist, then, through a
disengagement from rather than an immersion in movement politics.24 In
this diverted realm Munif secured for himself, amidst the precariousness
of exile, some element of imaginative sovereignty and purposeful hope. An
unsettled man, literature became his place of displaced possibility.

He found himself writing into the headwinds of ongoing, region-wide
crises. He responded with essays, polemics, and manifestos on (among other
things) how to reorganize the oil industry.25 He responded, too, with novels,
mostly either allegorical fables steeped in oral tradition or historical epics
that blended in semiallegorical elements. This allegorical propensity—and
his refusal to name a society that provided the setting for any novel, even
when it was recognizably, say, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, or Iran—served a double
purpose. On the one hand, it allowed him political deniability. But perhaps
more signifi cantly, it marked him as a resolutely regional writer in a trans-
national (rather than a Thomas Hardy) sense. Munif insisted that his region’s
commonalities were more striking—and more politically consequential—
than its internal differences. He viewed the region as, among other things,
one vast carceral state: “the political prison exists from the Atlantic to the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 7 9 ]

Gulf,” he declared, a sentiment that found dramatic expression in his most
famous novel, East of the Mediterranean, set in a typically unnamed despotic
state.26 In a similarly regionalist gesture, he observed how “the Bedouin oil
blessing, which at one time was confi ned to the desert, has moved to all
Arab cities and become the force defi ning not only politics but culture, ways
of life, and the human concerns in this region.”27 These remarks give voice
to Munif ’s paired imaginative obsession with imprisonment on the one
hand and movement (upheaval, banishment, exile) on the other: his writ-
ings return again and again to the visitations of involuntary immobility and
involuntary mobility that have bedeviled his region.

By not specifying the locations of his novels Munif sought to limit the
risk that a nation-specifi c critique could be read as exculpating other equally
heinous regimes in the region. His fi ction works, as it were, through inverse
specifi city. By amassing sensory, cultural, geographical, and historical detail
he writes against the forces of amnesia, censorship, and repression, creating
the impression of whole societies that are, nonetheless, never reducible to
themselves. His broad regionalism is underscored by his recurrent commit-
ment to a transnational justice at once cultural and environmental, pow-
erfully established through fi gurative counterpoints between, on the one
hand, oil culture’s invisible maneuverings and material excesses; and on the
other, the transparent, modest, and regenerative life of the grove.

If the oil realm is geologically subterranean, politically opaque, rife with
secret concessions and imperial back room deals, the realm of the grove—
whether olive, date, lemon, orange, or almond—is the realm of provender
and provenance. Munif was especially alert to the impact of the uprooted
grove on human ecology: to trees as bioregional and historical stakeholders,
as palpable markers of contested memory, as standard bearers of sustainable
life and equally of cultural dignity. His own improbably uprooted life, his
profoundly inhabited sense of deracination’s rending, intensifi ed his predi-
lection for humanizing his region’s trees and for arborealizing its people.
That tendency comes to a head in the fi rst volume of Cities of Salt, during
the intense scenes of fi rst contact between American petroleum prospectors
and the people of the oasis, as Munif gives fi ctional form to the events that
would lead to the fi rst American oil company concession in the Persian Gulf,
to the completion in 1950 of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline and, in the novel’s
explosive later pages, to the worker strikes that shook Dhahran in 1953.

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[ 8 0 ]

The Oasis as Resource Frontier

The oasis scenes in Cities of Salt mark the fi rst skirmishes in an imperial
resource war that would bring, not far behind it, the fi rst premonitions of
the resource curse. Like many scenes of fi rst contact, this is a war that isn’t
a war, or at least one that doesn’t announce itself as such; initially, it simply
appears to involve the arrival of bewildering strangers whose advent gives
no inkling of the extensive violence to follow. But we can read the encoun-
ter between the oasis community and these newcomers—three Ameri-
can oil prospectors and their two marsh Arab guides—as an epochal, if as
yet inchoate, contest between a desert culture historically shaped around
water wealth and interlopers following a different wealth script, in which
“resource rich” means oil. Hitherto, water (and its dependent trees) had
been the foundational bounty—connecting past to future, time to space,
place to movement, agriculture to nomadism. In this context, water sus-
tained tradition as what Amiri Baraka once called “the changing same”; it
was water that underlay a culture of continuity-within-fl ux responsive to
ecological vicissitudes, a culture infused with cosmological belonging and
steeped in a history of nomadic cosmopolitanism.28

Over the course of Cities of Salt we witness the Americans (in collusion
with a far-off emir) uproot this water-based culture and supplant it, with-
out explanation or consultation, with a petroleum-fi xated culture.29 This
tectonic shift in resource priorities is accompanied by a profound temporal
rupturing: oasis deep time (inseparably cultural and ecological) becomes
subordinated to petroleum culture’s swaggering sense of an even deeper
time, one premised on an apparently infi nite geological generosity fuel-
ing an apparently infi nite future wealth. The newcomers’ hubris disdains
the idea of limits: the decisive time frame changes from a cyclical, season-
ally renewable culture that prizes water time to a culture dominated by
oil time’s linear narrative, in which concerns regarding sustainability get
crushed by an onrushing developmental ideology, purportedly universal in
its generosity. (“Wait, just be patient, and all of you will be rich!” the Ameri-
cans declare upon arrival.)30 In the background, we have the slow time of
hydrocarbon’s geological accretions and in the foreground, the accelerated
time of petro-modernity’s primitive accumulation.

If primitive accumulation generally combines a history “of force, of dis-
possession, and enclosure,” in the case of petroleum, we confront primitive

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[ 8 1]

accumulation of a special type.31 Fernando Coronil, writing in a Venezu-
elan context, is pertinent here, particularly his incisive thinking about the
distinctive character of “nature-exporting societies.”32 Coronil remarks on
how “the tension between the natural origin of the nation’s fi nite collective
wealth and the private destiny of its social appropriation shaped the contest
between democracy and dictatorship.”33 However, in Saudi Arabia, far more
acutely than in Venezuela, the oppositional forces were never able to mount
a signifi cant democratic challenge because they faced a more daunting set
of collusions—between empire, petro-capitalism, and the House of Saud.
Saudi Arabia, after all, was a society where in 1947 a U.S. ambassador could
boast that America possessed its own “oil colony.”34

If the etymological ties between nature and nation were deployed in the
United States to mythologize the society as “nature’s nation,” in Saudi Arabia
that logic resurfaced in heightened form. Soon after American prospectors
had made their fi rst oil strike in the Persian Gulf, the United States oversaw
the creation and “independence” of Saudi Arabia; and so, through a gesture of
simultaneous decolonization and colonization, an outpost of “nature’s nation”
was engineered into birth. The new nation’s “natural” bounty was promoted
from the outset as imminent wealth for all its newly minted “independent”
citizens, while simultaneously being privatized by imperial need and familial
monopoly. The result was a paradigmatic instance of what Wm. Roger Louis
and Ronald Robinson have aptly called “the imperialism of decolonization.”35

Cities of Salt chronicles the emergence of a nature-exporting, client
nation-state premised on ruined ecologies. The novel’s thinly disguised
Saudi Arabia possesses a natural bounty so vast and monolithic that it
inhibits economic, infrastructural, and civic diversity, encouraging instead
highly stratifi ed social relations, highly concentrated power, and an inter-
national feedback loop of corruption and repression. These inequities are
set in motion by the fi rst oil concessions at the desert oases that, like the
“purchase” of Manhattan from the Native peoples, bore no earthly relation
to the long-term market value of the resource. Thus, in the offi cial narra-
tives, the oasis was typically represented as a remote, “primitive,” worthless
place redeemed by the arrival of American technology that allowed nature’s
benefi cence to fl ower.

It might be productive, then, to approach Cities of Salt as an unoffi cial,
contrarian imaginative history of the oasis as resource frontier. From this
perspective, Munif can be seen to use the technology of the novel—the

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[ 8 2 ]

novel as paperwork—to script petro-capitalism’s contradictions, contradic-
tions papered over by American and Saudi public relations that crafted a
seamless developmental narrative from which oil imperialism and petro-
despotism were both carefully excised. As such, Munif ’s novels take shape
(in form and impulse) as works of disenchantment: they dispel the bureau-
cratic necromancy whereby Saudi Arabia appeared as an autochthonous
nation-state blessed with impeccable natural credentials.

What emerges in Munif ’s denaturing of the petroleum nation-state is
a tension between different geometries of environmental time: at the pre-
petroleum oasis, or wadi, a cyclical set of expectations prevails, one that
acknowledges both scarcity and replenishment, whereas the offi cial, lin-
ear, developmental narrative of the naturally rich nation-state suppresses
notions of fi nitude and stewardship. Thus the twilight of the wadi and the
dawning of the petroleum state mark the fall and rise of incompatible cul-
tures of benediction:

Wadi al-Uyoun was an ordinary place to its inhabitants, and

excited no strong emotions, for they were used to seeing the

palm trees fi lling the wadi and the gushing brooks surging forth

in the winter and early spring, and felt protected by some blessed

power that made their lives easy.36

This known, inhabited ecology of good fortune stands in contrast to the
unknown fortune that has yet to materialize from the rhetoric of oil riches.
When the wadi’s representatives travel to their emir to oppose the American
presence, he reassures them that “there are oceans of blessings under this soil”
and that the foreigners have traveled from “the ends of the earth to help us.”37
We can read this scene as a showdown between different temporal visions as
well as divergent ecologies of scale: a showdown between the wadi, a visible
place of fi nite bounty; and the invisible realms—those “oceans of blessings”
below and “the ends of the earth” beyond—that are reputedly conspiring,
through geological and technological generosity, to put an end to scarcity.

The people of the wadi fi rst experience oil’s blessings as violation; the
Americans, having probed the soil at Wadi-al-Uyoun, vanish then reappear
in “yellow iron hulks.”38 The “unearthly” machines are neither of nor for
this earth:

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 8 3 ]

They descended like ravenous wolves, tearing up the trees and

throwing them to the earth one after another, and leveled all

the orchards between the brook and the fi elds. After destroy-

ing the fi rst grove of trees, the tractors turned to the next with

the same bestial voracity and uprooted them. The trees shook

violently and groaned before falling, cried for help, wailed, pan-

icked, called out in helpless pain and then fell entreatingly to the

ground, as if trying to snuggle into the earth to grow and spring

forth alive again.39

The trees had anchored community and enabled a blend of nomadic and
semiagrarian subsistence. As the machines rip up the roots—and routes—of
the culture, they rip through the temporal fabric of oasis ecology, whereby
life returns to the earth for cyclical retreat and regeneration. Furthermore,
the assaults on the oasis set up a confl ict between the micropolitical culture
of the once sovereign grove and the transnational macropolitics of conces-
sion—in the fullest political, psychological, geological, and environmental
sense of concession.

In the second phase of oil’s benediction, the wadi’s now homeless people
get displaced to a coastal refi nery town, Harran, where they fi nd themselves
housed in furnace-like metal shacks and remade as laborers in a wage econ-
omy under foreign mastery. The worker compound is segregated from the
transplanted American suburban enclave—in a Persian Gulf rendition of
Jim Crow.40 At day’s end, the workers part

like streams coursing down a slope, one broad and one small,

the Americans to their camp and the Arabs to theirs, the Ameri-

cans to their swimming pool, where their racket could be heard

in the nearby barracks behind the barbed wire. When silence

fell the workers guessed the Americans had gone into their air-

conditioned rooms whose thick curtains shut everything our:

sunlight, dust, fl ies, and Arabs.41

Thus the undifferentiated oil blessing becomes institutionalized as class dis-
tinction and racial segregation: nature’s unbounded bounty becomes incre-
mentally bounded, privatized, partitioned. On the poor side of the wire,

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[ 8 4 ]

that bounty is reduced to the noises of luxury rising from the far side of the
barricade and to the inner noise of yearning.

Inarguably, a romantic strain suffuses Munif ’s elegiac depictions of
the pre-petroleum oasis—as harmonious, almost paradisal, compared to
the divided, divisive world that would ensue.42 Munif falls back on tropes
familiar from other postcolonial or neocolonial literatures to project an
atmosphere of conjoined ecological integrity and cultural authenticity.
Certainly, if in an American context, Shepard Krech has argued that it is
historically inaccurate and politically dubious to propagate the myth of the
Ecological Indian, one could make a similar case for the dangers of a reduc-
tively mythologized Ecological Bedouin.43 In fairness, Munif does temper
his Edenic oasis authenticity by underscoring the droughts, famines, and
calamities that have historically beset the place. It is not as if the wadi is a
stranger to violence; rather that petro-capitalism’s arrival introduces a vio-
lence of unprecedented magnitude and irreversible consequences.44

If Ken Saro-Wiwa sometimes sought to defend Ogoni rights by mobiliz-
ing a dubious discourse of impermeable cultural authenticity, so too Munif ’s
romance with authenticity has some problematic fallout. We witness this,
for example, when the textured sympathy he extends to the wadi’s cosmo-
politan nomads is not extended to the cosmopolitan foreign workers who
arrive from Asia and from across the Middle East:

Once Harran had been a city of fi shermen and travelers coming

home, but now it belonged to no one; its people were feature-

less, of all varieties and yet strangely unvaried. They were all

of humanity and yet no one at all, an assemblage of languages,

accents, colors and religions.45

At moments like this, foreignness per se—whether embodied by Ameri-
can petroleum overlords or by the Yemeni, Sri Lankan, Egyptian, Ban-
gladeshi, and Indian immigrant underclass—gets collapsed into the
fi guration of loss.

If the elegiac oasis scenes depend on familiar, troubling postcolo-
nial tropes, in Munif ’s case those scenes assume an autobiographically
infl ected melancholy. As a child, he traveled widely with his family of
small-time traders; their wanderings traversed national divides before the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 8 5 ]

region’s nation-states existed. Munif recalls in interview how “we brought
fl our from Amman to Saudi Arabia and, at the same time, brought salt and
dates from Saudi Arabia back to Jordan. This was the specifi c kind of trade
that I did in my youth.”46 During this period, encountering an oasis would
have been emotionally momentous for the boy. So Munif had profound
familial reasons for nostalgia and rage when he witnessed this tradition
of traversal traduced (or at least unrecognizably transformed) by petro-
capitalism’s dictates.

An abrupt transition from an economy dispersed around nodal oases to
a centralized, client nation-state presided over by an oil corporation trans-
forms cultures of exchange—of stories as well as goods. Exchange defi nes
the oasis almost as much as water: an oasis is not an enclave, it is a place
where (to adapt James Clifford’s terms) rootedness is routed through the
constancy of movement.47 An oasis is a place of passage that blends the
agrarian and the nomadic, an ecosystem as way station and thoroughfare.
Indeed, without the Bedouin caravans and the fl ux of nonhuman migrant
living forms as well, the wadi would soon wither. So the arrival of visitors at
Wadi al-Uyoun is scarcely an isolated event; nor is the wadi a stranger, even,
to the visitations of imperialism. Locals recall how during Ottoman times,
Jazi al-Hathal and his forces would ambush Turkish invaders who had seized
the wadi for themselves, eventually forcing them to withdraw.48

What is perplexing about the Americans is the way they exempt them-
selves from the cultures of exchange that animate the oasis. They arrive
with equipment, but no goods to trade and no stories. Possessed of a bewil-
dering incuriosity, they reserve their most intense investigations for the
earth below, not the surface people; bewitched by the unseen geology, the
Americans remain indifferent to the eco-cultural history. Their presence
along the margins of the oasis is acquisitive not inquisitive; the newcomers
stand inscrutably outside the wadi’s dense culture of narrative and commer-
cial exchange. If Munif ’s writing about the oasis takes on tones of anticipa-
tory elegy (for an authenticity simplifi ed and heightened in remembrance),
he nonetheless conveys the cosmopolitan complexity of oasis culture before
it was ecologically, culturally, economically, and psychologically unsettled
by an instrumental rationality that saw only fossil fuels and relic people,
impedimentary Bedouin who, in the name of civilization, modernity, and
profi t had to be moved and forcibly remade.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 8 6 ]

Provincializing America:
Wilderness and the Frontiers of Genre

In 1988, when Peter Theroux’s English translation of the fi rst volume of
Cities of Salt appeared, the most prominent American response came from
John Updike, who reviewed it for the New Yorker.49 Updike disliked the novel
intensely, for political and formal reasons. The grounds for his distaste are
worth examining because they open up large questions about the frontiers
of genre in relation to transnational frontier literatures. What would it
mean to disturb the conventions of U.S. frontier and wilderness literature
through what Anne McClintock has called America’s “offshore histories”?50
To what extent, in engaging a history as vast, as multifarious, as that of the
resource curse, is the novel itself an adaptable resource? How, moreover,
do the geological, geopolitical, and technological translations of an oral
culture’s vernacular landscapes into petro-capitalism’s offi cial landscapes
impact the refraction of oral community through the written technology
of the novel? And fi nally, in the canons of environmental literature, what
can we learn from novels that simultaneously globalize and provincialize
America, envisioning America from abroad, from the outside in, thereby
reconfi guring America’s weight in the world?

Updike poses none of these questions, yet the angle of his approach
allows us to engage them productively. He bristles at the novel’s stance
toward America: Cities of Salt is suffused with a hostility that shows, he
argues, that “the maledictory rhetoric of the Ayatollah Khomeini is noth-
ing new.”51 But Updike’s more elaborate quarrel concerns Munif ’s formal
incompetence. Acknowledging the epic potential of the oil theme, Updike
laments that this Arab author is “insuffi ciently Westernized to produce a
narrative that feels much like what we call a novel.”52 Here the bogeymen
of authenticity and progress narratives both rear their heads again: Updike’s
proprietary “we” casts Munif as an uncomprehending outsider, peripheral
to the central narrative of the novel’s development. This Arab is a neophyte;
he may get there, but not yet.

The markers of this foreigner’s insuffi ciency, Updike argues, are two-
fold: he fails at character and he fails at voice. Above all, the novel doesn’t
work because Munif botches character: “no single fi gure acquires enough
reality to attract our sympathetic interest. . . . There is none of that sense

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 8 7]

of individual moral adventure . . . which, since Don Quixote and Robinson
Crusoe, has distinguished the novel from the fable and the chronicle; Cities of
Salt is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate.”53 The effect, Updike
concludes sniffi ly, is simply “sociological.”54

Updike thus seeks to give his generic complaint a genealogical author-
ity; Munif, whether out of ignorance or disrespect, has failed to pay hom-
age to the master genealogy. (There is something superbly apposite about
Updike’s bewildered response to this Arab interloper’s unfathomable novel
about Arab bewilderment at the unfathomable ways of American interlop-
ers.) Yes, Munif breaks with the dominant traditions of the European and
American novel, but his iconoclasm is not wholly eccentric: he is scarcely
alone in working with a crowded canvas and with themes of collective
transformation. His approach has much in common with Upton Sinclair’s
hugely populous epic, Oil!, which certainly had no use for Robinson Crusoe
as a viable forebear. Sinclair, like Munif, was imaginatively fi red by social
convulsions that occur at high speed and on a vast scale: both oil frontier
writers were fascinated by the land heists; the snake oil artists; the naïfs
and faux-naïfs; the corporate ruthlessness; the economic and imaginative
speculation; the surge in wealth and poverty; and the emergence, manipula-
tion, and insurrections of an extraction industry working class. Both writers
were fascinated, moreover, by technologies of power, technologies that, in
the explosive mix of hope and servitude they deliver, are tinged with an
atmosphere of apocalypse. Above all, Munif and Sinclair bear imaginative
witness to the collisions (and collusions) between old religious cosmologies
and new ones, between the preachers and the preachers of profi t, between
damnation or paradise in the afterlife and the satanic or redemptive possi-
bilities created by an unearthly oil-rush.

The novelistic strategies that Munif favors are also redolent of those that
shape collective fi ctions of modernization like Emile Zola’s Germinal (Cit-
ies’ great hydrocarbon forebear) and Ousmane Sembene’s Les bouts de bois
de Dieu (God’s Bits of Wood). Munif, Zola, and Sembene are fascinated by
the germination of revolt, the seeding of collective dissent—whether among
coal miners in 1860s northern France, railroad workers in 1940s French West
Africa, or Trans-Arabian Pipeline workers in 1940s Saudi Arabia. To this end,
all three writers spurn an individual or familial focus, opting instead for a
collective approach to character and form as they track across the sprawling

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 8 8 ]

canvases of societies in violent fl ux working class, peasant, and nomadic
responses to injustices wrought by the onset of industrial modernity. As
such, in recasting historical worker uprisings all three writers also remodel
the conventions of the novel, treating orality as an imaginative resource
and individual character as secondary to collective metamorphoses. The
resultant novels are all positioned at some dramatic interface between capi-
talism’s primitive accumulations, an assailed environment, and an insurrec-
tionary labor movement.

One can be drawn to the ambition of such novels or not; the fact is,
they exist and many readers have been moved by them. Updike’s genea-
logical allegiances—and his affective preferences—are quite different:
whatever else Updike’s novels contain, they eschew multitudes. His native
terrain is the sparsely populated crabgrass frontier, where tumult takes the
guise of (often almost inaudible) disturbances that rumble through sub-
urbia. Updike’s regionalism is internal to the nation and his imagination
contoured to a particular strip and social stratum of America’s northeast
corridor, whereas Munif is a transnational regionalist whose imagination
roams from Morocco to Iran. Munif ’s fascination with epic, tectonic con-
vulsions is at the furthest remove from the assumed solidity—emotionally
deep but geographically narrow—that Updike cites as his own creative
foundation: “The street, the house where I had lived [in Shillington, PA],
seemed blunt, modest in scale, simple; this deceptive simplicity composed
the inhabitants’ precious, mystical secret, the conviction of whose existence
I had parlayed into a career, a message to sustain a writer book after book.”55

Munif knew no such house. Imaginatively, he was housed and fed by
homelessness; he never possessed a categorical nationality or a conclusive
homeland. He understood what it meant to live and travel as a problem.
He bore witness in his writings to upheaval after upheaval—the nakbah
that drove Palestinian refugees into Jordan, the Nasserite revolution, the
Suez Crisis, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, the Lebanese civil war, Sabra and
Shatila, the Iranian revolution, the intafadah, the Iran-Iraq War, the Persian
Gulf War, and the 2003 Iraq War shortly before his death. He felt drawn at
a monumental and a micropolitical level to deracination as a theme: to soci-
eties and subjectivities rapidly undone and remade, not least at the ruined
oasis and in the company town through petro-capitalism’s dominion. His
profound empathy for uprooted ecologies and communities carried over

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 8 9 ]

into his empathy for the refi nery town’s bewildered workers, betrayed by
the oil blessing, workers whose experience of subsistence time had become
shrunken and precarious:

No one knew if they would remain alive or if tomorrow they

would fi nd food. True the company paid them, but what they

received today was spent on the following day. Prices kept rising

from day to day and money was accumulating in a few hands. As

for the promises of houses and a comfortable life which Ibn al-

Rashid had made them years ago as he herded them from ‘Ajara

and other places, they had vanished even before Ibn al-Rashid

himself. And as for the promises of the personnel offi ce in the

company to build houses for the workers to enable them to bring

their families over and return home in the evening to wife and

children, years had passed without a single house being built.56

This is not to suggest that Munif had been unhoused by history in as pro-
found a sense as his fi ctional refi nery town workers. Yet he was suffi ciently
intimate with statelessness; with censorship; with being threatened, ban-
ished, or shunted about by regimes inimical to his voice to have, as his place
of imaginative departure, a sense that place itself is fragile, irredeemably
provisional, always vulnerable to history’s storms.57 That certain knowledge
of uncertainty permeated the way he imagined the environment, social
ecologies, and the novel as a form.

When Updike bemoans Munif ’s failure to deliver the obligatory “indi-
vidual moral adventure,” one senses beneath the surface of that judgment a
set of assumptions not just about what a proper novel should look like but,
more specifi cally, about what the frontier novel should look like a la Amer-
icaine, replete with individualistic male moral adventurers (or homosocial
twosomes) riding westward across a panoramic wilderness of boundless
threat and boundless promise. To provincialize such sentimental interpre-
tations of the frontier novel entails that we address the allied challenge of
provincializing wilderness literature. It feels apposite that the fi rst volume
of Munif ’s quintet, a work enlivened by scenes of cross-cultural misread-
ings, should itself be known in English through an act of mistranslation—
or rather, by an inability to translate the untranslatable. Peter Theroux’s

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 9 0 ]

English version assumes the charismatic title of the quintet as a whole—Cit-
ies of Salt—rather than attempting to fi nd an adequate rendition of Munif ’s
title, ‘al-Tih. When this discrepancy is mentioned at all, ‘al-Tih is briskly
translated as “the wilderness.” But the Arabic phrase suggests something
more resonant, more dynamic than that: ‘al-Tih refers not merely to wil-
derness as place, but to wilderness as an existential human condition, the
state of being lost in the wilderness.58 This human lostness, this wilderness
bewilderment is, I would suggest, vital to the expansive reach and reverber-
ant power of Munif ’s novel. 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?

Arabic literature boasts an immense tradition of wilderness litera-
ture in which the desert fi gures variously as a place of obliteration, threat,
derangement, prophecy, and purifying promise. Yet the narrative arc of ‘al-
Tih—from wadi to refi nery town—disturbs any straightforward opposition
between oasis civilization and desert barbarism. The most threatening des-
ert marauders, the barbarians out there, are by implication imperialism’s
primitive accumulators. The full force of the novel’s titular bewilderment
is felt when the Bedouin characters are thrust into the high-speed, unin-
telligible chaos of the company town—the urban wilderness that is petro-
modernity’s cultural creation.

By now, a considerable critical literature has accrued in an American
context around the constructedness of wilderness—the fencings, the fram-
ings, the human evictions and erasures—in short, the cultural heavy lift-
ing that has gone into evacuating cultural history from the concept and
experience of wilderness. Munif ’s ‘al-Tih offers an innovative angle on
the enterprise of American wilderness creation by erasure, not in Alaska
or Wyoming, but way offshore in the Persian Gulf. What we witness are
nomadic Bedouins rapidly remade as settled construction workers and
tasked with constructing an urban wilderness that becomes the very condi-
tion of their dispossession and historic invisibility. ‘Al-Tih thereby creatively
reframes some profound questions, especially this: how can the wilderness
novel help us reconceive the dynamic between imperial resource frontiers
and the frontiers of genre?

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 9 1]

One productive resource for addressing such questions is Robert
Vitalis’s richly archived history on U.S.-Saudi relations, America’s Kingdom:
Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. Although Vitalis does not engage the
novel as a genre, he is profoundly engaged, as his subtitle announces, by
frontier mythologies. Vitalis uses AR AMCO archives and private corre-
spondence to dispel the myths of American exceptionalism promulgated
by the oil consortium’s richly funded propaganda machine. The consor-
tium habitually contrasted enlightened American practices in the Middle
East with those of the benighted British, using the language of partner-
ship, mutual respect, benign incorporation, development, and nation
building to advance the story line that U.S. expansion into the Persian
Gulf was anticolonial in spirit and thereby consistent with a long, hon-
orable tradition of sensitive cross-cultural uplift that animated American
exceptionalism. Yet as Vitalis succinctly puts it: “America can only be seen
as avatar of a more humane twentieth-century abroad against the atavism
of European empire by leaving out the unbroken legacy of conquest and
subjugation at home.”59

Vitalis insists that the American West and the Saudi East Coast be
read as conjoined frontiers held together by recycled tropes, myths, and
political practices adaptively redeployed from the subjugation of Native
American tribes to the creation, through coercive treaties and broken
promises, of a “sovereign” Saudi nation. By exploring the company’s pri-
vate (and sometimes inadvertently public) utterances, Vitalis reveals how
the rhetoric used to vindicate the internal colonization of Native peoples in
the American West was reengineered and projected outward to justify an
American imperialism that, while waving the banner of enlightened anti-
colonialism, was securing for itself an oil colony on the Persian Gulf ’s east-
ern shores. Many of the same personnel—Oklahoma and Texas oilmen,
some doubling as the kind of CIA operatives who machinate in Munif ’s
The Trench—adapted the practices of Western mining camps to the oil
camps they established in the Persian Gulf. These practices included Jim
Crow segregation; racialized pay structures; violent assaults on would be
unionizers and civil rights campaigners; and what one oilman termed,
in private correspondence, the cultivation of “a Texas herrenvolk atmo-
sphere.”60 In trying to codify their relations to the Arabs and their lands, the
oilmen repeatedly analogized to the American “encounter” with Indians

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 2 ]

back West. Moreover, in order to legitimate their U.S.-dependent petro-
oligarchy, the Saudi elite in turn would learn to reinvent their history in
terms assimilable to U.S. narratives of benign nation-building, develop-
mental ascent, and glorious progress. (Without, of course, any reference
to democracy.) The fl ag, the national anthem-tooting brass bands, the
national costumery were all marshaled for parades of self-determination.
AR AMCO public relations man Patrick Flynn, reminiscing about Arab-
American relations during the opening decades of the oil encounter, gets
positively dewy eyed:

The early American oilmen coming to Saudi Arabia were

extraordinary pioneers. They combined the can-do ingenuity

of dedicated Americans with a great affection for the people

and their customs. . . . Living with the Bedouins, sharing the

hardships of life with the people in the desert and in town, they

gained the respect and admiration of the Arabs. . . . The early

Americans, it has to be understood, loved the Saudi Arabian

people. They loved the country and spent their lives there in

dedicated labor. There was no salary that could inspire such an

outpouring and sacrifi ce, only love and affection.61

With that said, Franklin Roosevelt could still blithely declare that he
“could do anything that needed to be done with Ibn Saud with a few mil-
lion dollars.”62

Against such a backdrop we are better positioned to revisit Updike’s
complaint that Munif was too ignorant of novelistic conventions and insuf-
fi ciently Westernized to convert his material into a memorable pioneering
adventure. Might Cities of Salt represent less a missed opportunity than a
canny effort to push back, imaginatively and politically, against the frontier
novel as heroically individualized pioneer romance? Instead of crafting an
adventurer who faces down some Persian Gulf version of the wilderness
and Native Americans, Munif summoned to life a radically different kind of
historical panorama, a violent confl ict on a communal scale, as the uprooted
Bedouin fought for ecological subsistence, cultural dignity, and scraps of
power against an advancing petro-capitalist imperialism in league with an
emergent oligarchic client state.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 3 ]

Orality, Geology, and Writing:
The Technologies of Encounter

The narrative voice of Cities (disdained by Updike as that of “a campfi re
explainer”) enables Munif to recast genre by blending elements drawn
from oral fabulation into the epic historical novel.63 Cities is not a sustained
work of what Jennifer Wenzel (with reference to Nigerian literature) calls
petro-magic-realism.64 Yet if the quintet contains nothing as fully phan-
tasmagoric as, say, “What the Tapster Saw,” Ben Okri’s story about Niger
Delta petro-modernity, Cities is peppered with scenes of cross-cultural
mistranslation where the inexplicable, the hallucinatory, and the realistic
converge. These nodal, often humorous scenes of apparent magic coalesce
around technological encounters, as Munif simulates, from a Bedouin per-
spective, the complex emotions triggered by the arrival of a procession of
technologies from beyond all possible belief: the radio, the air conditioner,
the generator, the telephone, the thermos, and the automobile. The mixed
sentiments the Bedouins feel on encountering these signs taken for won-
ders—the incredulity, the terror, the yearning—are intensifi ed by the fact
that only the Americans and the emir can own such things. The marvels
exist but are unavailable; in their enchantments, their bewitchings, they
reshape the dynamics of power, labor, and desire, becoming by implication
condensations of petro-capitalism’s widening chasm between the haves
and the never-will-haves.

This otherworlding of American technological practices reaches its apo-
gee in a scene where Munif conveys how geological and spiritual substrates
interpenetrate:

The diabolical Americans, who had come looking for water, why

did they continually dig into the earth, never stopping but never

taking anything out? The water from the wadi, from Sabha and

from the many wells they dug was pumped back into a hole in

the ground—why wasn’t it given to people? Did the ground hold

such ghastly hordes of thirsty jinn, whose screams day and night

could be heard only by the foreigners, who had come to quench

their thirst? Were the jinn burning in the depths of the earth,

and were the Americans pumping the water down to extinguish

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 4 ]

the fl ames? Was there another world underground, with gar-

dens, trees and men, all clamoring for water?65

This scene of mistranslation doubles as a scene of make-believe. Flum-
moxed by the foreigners’ failure to respect water’s insuperable value, the
oasis dwellers read the ceaseless pumping as a possibly merciful act that
quenches invisible, insatiable spiritual need. Incredible technological ritual
is thereby folded back into the circle of belief. The locals explain away eco-
logical insanity and ethical insensitivity—the Americans’ unproductive
pumping fetish and their inhumane profl igacy—by speculating that the
foreigners are attuned not to water but to some alternate universe below.
Only the Americans can hear, as it were, the clamorous substrate, the notes
from underground. This scene offers up, then, mistranslation as prescience:
before the locals are let in on the underlying oil script, their speculations
establish an ominous aura of geological-demonic suffering that foreshad-
ows the traducing of the oasis, when the thirsty cries of gardens, trees and
humans—an entire life world—will become inaudible, buried beneath
petro-capitalism’s crescendo din.

The Americans themselves are engaged in elaborate acts of translation.
The fi rst technology that signifi es their arrival is the technology of writ-
ing, which becomes integral to their incremental appropriation of the wadi
and becomes one of their distinguishing rituals.66 Each day the Americans
wander the area, staring at, probing, and measuring the earth; at dusk, they
retreat to their tents and stare with equal intent at paper, writing furiously.
They bring in boxes of sand and write inscrutable things on them. From the
outset, the wadi’s denizens perceive this peculiar crepuscular ritual as sin-
ister, most likely a kind of witchcraft.67 What are they writing? For whom?
What does it signify? Why does it happen when the light fades?

We can read these scenes as intimating the twilight of the oasis itself:
the writing at day’s end is covertly violent, masking its nature and intent,
an act that sets in motion an escalating series of overtly violent acts. The
power that a geological survey embodies may, of course, be used for posi-
tive or destructive ends. But here the implication is that in being written up,
the place (and all the life forms that depend on it) is being written off. The
prospectors’ writing may be petro-capitalism’s fi rst act of protoviolence, but
it does not constitute a fi rst mapping of the wadi; rather we can read their

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 9 5 ]

industrious writing as superimposing an “offi cial landscape” onto a “ver-
nacular landscape.”68 And thus the Americans will soon designate three oil
camps outside Harran H1, H2, and H3: the stark, affectless numerical count-
ing, posing as rationality, discounts and overwrites the existing place names
and the histories that animate them.69

If in his own life Munif turned to writing as a technology of resistance,
in Cities he dramatizes a less honorable tradition of writing as imperial
technology of camoufl aged intent—particularly as wielded against pre-
dominantly illiterate ecosystem peoples. One notes, more broadly, that
this dimension to the politics of writing—writing as scripted oblitera-
tion—remains pivotal to the struggles that animate environmental justice
movements around the world; central, too, to the author-activists who
have written back against the tendency to inscribe whole socioecologi-
cal communities as superfl uous, as primitive obstacles to development, or
as nonexistent. This pattern of writing off—and writing back—extends
to realms far beyond Munif ’s novels or the Persian Gulf. First the writer-
geologists arrive, then the bulldozers and earthmovers as, step by step, the
promise of wealth morphs into a heavily policed, militarized, imperially
entangled, resource-cursed authoritarian state.

The wadi’s uprooted Bedouin soon fi nd themselves at the violent end
of another institutional novelty: a police force, instructed to beat to death if
necessary anyone who refuses to abandon their oil-rich oases. Next, the peo-
ple are moved to the coastal refi nery town, their camels are taken away, and
a prison is created in which nomads can be jailed for, among other things,
the ironic crime of vagrancy. In the sequel to Cities, The Trench, Munif tracks
the sophisticated repressive technologies put in place to defend the col-
laborative interests of indigenous oil sheiks and the foreign oil barons. By
now, with help from the CIA, the paranoid, profl igate ruler of America’s
newly “postcolonial” oil colony has set up a surveillance culture, which he
boasts, “can hear ants crawling in the dark.”70 If the fi rst two volumes of Cit-
ies describe an arc—from the coming of the writer-geologists, through the
razing of the oasis, to the internal migrations to the company boomtown,
to the petro-despotic carceral state—that arc should be understood as the
passage from survey to surveillance.

Among the procession of repressive technologies deployed to secure the
surveillance society, writing returns to play a second role in the remaking of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 6 ]

state and subjectivity. At the oasis, the Americans had asked few questions;
what fascinated them—what demanded writing up—was the earth below,
not the people above. But the Bedouins relocated to the urban wilderness of
the company town fi nd that the Americans have now turned into big-time
questioners: after long interrogations each worker is inscribed into the sys-
tem, shadowed by a paper trail identity. The bewitchments of writing now
include the signature and the identity card: writing has become fundamen-
tal to petro-modernity’s control of labor and to the administration of differ-
ence enforced by a surveillance-cum-carceral culture.

These circumstances in which, far from being a mightier alternative to
the sword, the pen becomes a sword supplement, are consistent with dis-
sident Israeli architect Eyal Weizman’s observation that territorial domina-
tion starts not with bulldozers and tanks but with the notes and sketches
amassed by architects and by town planners. Weizman portrays these writ-
ten plans as a fi rst move toward a “politics of verticality” whereby, as John
Berger notes, “the defeated even when ‘at home’ are being literally over-
seen and undermined.”71 This formulation is particularly resonant when
applied to the resource curse: Munif ’s fi rst volume portrays a community
profoundly undermined in the most literal sense, and his second portrays
a displaced, urbanizing community that becomes brutally overseen. This
undermined-and-overseen dyad recurs across resource-cursed communi-
ties, in the Middle East and far beyond.

The Future Eaters and the Fuel-Fed Fire

When Europeans began to colonize Australia, some aborigines dubbed these
unfathomable strangers “the future eaters”: the newcomers consumed with-
out replacing, devouring the future at a speed bereft of foresight, hollowing
out time by living as if the desert were a place of infi nite, untended provi-
sion.72 This image of resource depletion as self-devouring cultural practice
resonates with Munif ’s depiction of that other, far-off fi rst desert encounter
between Bedouins and American oil prospectors: there and indeed across
the span of his work, Munif writes against the cycles of heedless avarice that
imaginatively and materially erode older ecologies of time. Again and again,
he returns to interweave the themes of shortsighted political repression and
environmental temporal compression.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 7]

The future eating that accelerated during the “American” century was
unevenly spread between centers of consumption and extraction, an uneven-
ness that intensifi ed inequities, fomented violence, and solidifi ed structural
repressions. Early in that century, Upton Sinclair, writing from California
(an extraction frontier already mutating into a consumption epicenter) con-
cluded his great hydrocarbon epic with an apocalyptic eruption over the
costs exacted by “visions of unearned wealth.”73 Such visions were widening
the breach between America’s oil-impoverished classes and the nation’s oil-
enriched: Sinclair cast petroleum as a variety of religious experience that,
in rending the earth, rent communities asunder. In so doing, he anticipated
on an internal (though never wholly internal) American frontier a divisive
dynamic that would soon replicate and mutate internationally, assuming its
most exaggerated and politically costly forms in the Middle East.

Yet productive as it is to read Sinclair’s Oil! and Munif ’s Cities of Salt
in epic tandem, what passed for development in those two societies could
scarcely have been more remote in their social outcomes. By the mid-1980s,
when Munif was completing Cities of Salt, California boasted the world’s
sixth-largest economy; whatever imperial and corporate ties still bound
it to the Gulf States, economically diverse California was structurally
shielded from the resource curse. However, at that stage, after almost fi fty
years of oil extraction, Saudi Arabia, which ranked twenty-fi rst in GDP,
still ranked only sixty-fourth on the United Nations Human Development
Index (a combined measure of democratic, educational, and health achieve-
ment and income distribution). That gap of forty-three places between
Saudi Arabia’s GDP and its Human Development Index was exceeded only
by three other nation-states, all so-called oil rich: Oman, United Arab Emir-
ates, and Gabon.74

We can thus read Cities of Salt as an epic expose of the fi ctions of sov-
ereignty and development in societies squeezed between petroleum over-
lords above and the desirable subsoil below. In interview, however, Munif
is at pains to point out that it is not modernity per se that he laments but
rather the particular mangled form that it assumed in the Arabian pen-
insula. What he deplores is perhaps best captured by Michael Watts who
(refl ecting on the Niger delta) writes of petro-capitalism’s “geography of
intolerance.”75 That geography becomes, in Munif ’s work, inseparable
from petro-capitalism’s omnivorous appetite for time. In his fi ction and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 9 8 ]

nonfi ction alike, Munif expresses a deep perturbation at (in both senses of
the phrase) futureless states.

Having lived in fi ve Middle Eastern countries, and having steeped
himself in oil history for novels set in the Gulf States and Iran, Munif
had a bird’s-eye view of the ways in which America’s cold-war strategiz-
ing converged with American support for tyrannies that helped secure
stable access to petroleum. He foresaw how American policies—ranging
from connivance through complicity to direct threats, assassinations,
and the deliberate fomenting of unrest—increased the probability that
uncontrollable blowback would ensue. Munif voiced outrage at the way,
during the cold war’s fi nal decade, “the people behind fundamentalism’s
current hard line were recruited as youths, then nurtured in Afghanistan,
and ultimately sent on to Bosnia, all with the enthusiastic support of the
United States and Saudi Arabia.”76 The jihad was not some atavistic, medi-
eval eruption, but was in large measure the child of modernity in the form
of the Soviet-U.S. rivalry, of which control over petroleum reserves was a
critical dimension.

Munif once remarked that the double standards of Washington’s cold
warriors left him nauseated: “They talked of democracy and human
rights in the USSR, Eastern Europe and Cuba, but when they reached
the Mediterranean coasts, they forgot about democracy. All they thought
about was oil.”77 Five years before 9/11, when a bomb blast killed nine-
teen American servicemen stationed in Saudi Arabia at Dhahran (the
basis for Munif ’s fi ctional Harran), Munif deplored the attack. He also
sought to understand it, warning that America needed “to treat the causes
of despair, not merely the symptoms. The United States, obsessed with
oil fever and the need to control the oil states, has gone much too far in
protecting regimes and individuals unworthy of protection.”78 Unless the
United States backed those Muslims who sought to bring economic hope
to the disaffected, unless it adopted a more even-handed approach to the
Israeli-Palestinian confl ict, and unless it closed the military bases in Saudi
Arabia that Muslims viewed as symbols of a collective humiliation, Munif
feared worse was to come: more violent hijackings of Islam with even
more catastrophic consequences.

In essays and opinion pieces, Munif fl eshed out as argument the short-
sighted cross-cultural dynamics he had brought to life as fi ction in Cities of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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fast-forwa r d fossil

[ 9 9 ]

Salt. He insisted that America’s obsession with creating client regimes, not
equal partners, would exacerbate the region’s instability, noting how the
client-patron relationship “creates a psychological barrier between [the two
sides], and makes it impossible for either to know what is going on in the
minds and hearts of the other.”79 Munif ’s concern with the long-term, desta-
bilizing effects of the resultant cross-cultural opacity permeates Cities of Salt.
More than a decade after he began that vast work, he felt greater apprehen-
sion than ever toward the future: “I speak as a novelist who follows events,
and tries to understand them. . . . In my book Cities of Salt, I wrote about the
dangerous relationship between America and the countries of the Arabian
Peninsula. Now it appears that what I imagined and expected—that the salt
would dissolve in water—has begun.”80

In The Trench Munif turned to the Qur’an to ring the changes on his
imagery of an apocalypse brought on by a self-immolating avarice. That
volume’s title, Sabry Hafez observes, “alludes to the Qur’anic verse in which
the infi del ruler of Mecca casts believers into a pit of fi re: ‘Self-destroyed
were the owners of the trench, of the fuel-fed fi re, when they sat by it, and
were themselves the witnesses of what they did’ (LXXXV, 4–7).”81 This new
religion, which incinerates all before it, is the creed of petro-despotism,
marked by uncontrollable rapacity, corruption, brutality, and hypocrisy.
The motif of the fuel-fed fi re can thus be read as linking conspicuous con-
sumption with its invisible twin, the inconspicuous consumption of irre-
placeable oil time as, without hindsight or foresight, the petro-despotic
state plunges headlong into the pit of collective self-destruction.

Munif was angered by the lost ground of the Gulf States—the geo-
logical, historical, and political lost ground. He was well aware that the
energy wars are time wars as well; the temporal debt that the Gulf States
had incurred pained him—how they had frittered away their resource
wealth, betraying both past and future generations. His own exile—his
inhabited impermanence—surely quickened his responsiveness to the
soaring and plummeting of historical fortunes, to the unstable, fl eeting
riches of the petroleum age, an age whose bounty he saw squandered by
a failure to provide—at a national, regional, and planetary level—for its
own provisionality.

The offi cial, sanitized histories disseminated by the Persian Gulf ’s rul-
ers and their imperial oil partners were rife with bromides and selective

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 0 0 ]

amnesia. Both parties made a big public relations push to distance them-
selves from any suggestion of imperialism. The most peculiar instance of
this push is Wallace Stegner’s Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, commis-
sioned by the Arabian American Oil Company in 1955 as part of an effort
to counter Nasserite denunciations of the House of Saud for capitulating to
imperialism and betraying pan-Arabism. Stegner’s book, after a sixteen-year
delay, was eventually published in the company magazine, Aramco World,
in fourteen installments.82 Stegner, in the unfamiliar position of writer-for-
hire, nonetheless blithely reads Aramco’s history in Saudi Arabia as a mostly
benign extension of America’s own mostly benign frontier development, an
extension marked by a “spirit of goodwill and generosity toward the Saudi
Arabs as people.”83 At pains to distance his paymasters from any intimation
of imperial malpractice, Stegner underscores the company’s “frequent altru-
ism,” its concern with “the total well-being of its employees, both American
and Arab,” and how, unlike the British, the Americans refused to retreat into
“aloof enclaves.”84

Munif ’s interpretation of this history is closer to that of the “hostile
propagandists” whom Stegner accused of maligning the well-intentioned,
uplifting role that American companies had played in the region.85 Munif
profoundly mistrusted the whitewashed corporate and petro-despotic grand
narratives of progress: as a postcolonial novelist writing in imperial times,
he recognized, at least implicitly, that failures in the forms of memory are
inseparable from failures of political foresight. Looking back on the myopic
cities of the Arabian Penisula, he viewed them as relics-in-the-making, as
fossils from a fl eeting past. “The tragedy,” he declared,

is not in our having the oil, but in the way we use the wealth it

has created and in the future awaiting us after it has run out.

Trees were cut down, people uprooted from their land, the earth

dug up and oil fi nally pumped out only to turn people into a

crowd of open mouths waiting for charity or a crowd or arms

fi ghting over a piece of bread and building an illusory future. In

developed countries like Britain or Norway, the oil ‘whim’ . . .

brings a new strength to the community, but in underdeveloped

countries . . . oil becomes a damnation: a ceiling that screens

the future from view. In twenty or thirty years’ time we shall

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[1 0 1]

discover that oil has been a real tragedy for the Arabs, and these

giant cities built in the desert will fi nd no one to live in them and

their hundreds of thousands of inhabitants will have to begin

again their quest for the unknown. Oil could have been a road to

the future . . . but what actually happened is nothing like that. As

a result we shall again have to face a sense of loss and estrange-

ment, this time in complete poverty.86

Munif ’s vision of imminent catastrophe viewed retrospectively as ruin
makes him read, at times, like a Benjaminian Angel of Progress for the
Petroleum Century: blown backwards into a post-oil future he watches the
debris of progress pile up before his eyes.

Munif ranks as one of the most mercilessly visionary writers to have
engaged imaginatively with the politics of sustainability in its local,
regional, transnational and transhistorical dimensions. His obsession with
time’s tyrannies is more than metaphoric: his work returns, again and
again, to the deathly dance between regional petro-despots and imperial
petro-capitalists, both quickstepping with eyes determinedly averted from
the sorrows of resource fi nitude. If Munif stands out as an epic chronicler
of epic excess, beneath his satires runs an anxiety and a rage at the cul-
tures of petro-amnesia that have erected cities of salt on a vast but delusory
wealth, equally shallow in its social distribution and in its vision of inhabit-
able time. For although Cities of Salt spans well over a century, Munif is at
heart a chronicler of violent temporal compression. The quintet follows
the short road—but the great distance—traversed by Bedouin society as
the engines of petro-capitalism propel it at speed through a wilderness of
inequity toward a post-petroleum frontier that beggars the imagination.

“Cities of Salt,” Munif once explained, “means cities that offer no sus-
tainable existence. When the waters come in, the fi rst waves will dissolve
the salt and reduce these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you
know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the down-
fall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood they won’t
survive.”87 Munif directs his anger at the Arab States’ failure to shore
up their future by diversifying their economies; by investing petroleum
revenues in infrastructure; and critically, by cultivating a social demo-
cratic ethos, replete with a dynamic, resourceful civil society that would

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[1 0 2 ]

better prepare them for an oil-less tomorrow.88 Yet his choice of apoca-
lyptic idiom—“when the waters come in”—befi ts an age that is facing
those twinned calamities of squandered time: oil’s receding tides and the
advancing tides of climate change, sped on by our brief, rapacious age of
hydrocarbon extraction and combustion.

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3

Pipedreams

Ken Saro-Wiwa, Environmental Justice,
and Micro-minority Rights

Shell operations still impossible unless ruthless military operations
are undertaken for smooth economic activities to commence.

—Nigerian government memo, December 5, 1994

Pity the land that needs heroes.

—Bertolt Brecht

Ken Saro-Wiwa squints at us from the cover of his Nige-
rian detention diary, the posthumous A Month and a Day.1 His moustache
looks precise and trim; his eyes are alight; a gash scrawls across his temple.
But it is his pipe that governs the picture. It is an intellectual’s accessory, a
good pipe to suck and clench, to spew from and lecture with. Saro-Wiwa
had expected tobacco to kill him: “I know that I am a mortuary candidate.
But I intend to head for the mortuary with my pipe smoking.”2 In the end, it
was the other pipes that got him, the Shell and Chevron pipes that poured
poison into the land, streams, and bodies of Saro-Wiwa’s Ogoni people,
provoking him to take up the life of protest that was to be his triumph and
his undoing.

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[1 0 4 ]

Saro-Wiwa believed to the last that his writing would return to haunt
his tormentors. Shortly before his execution in the Nigerian coastal city of
Port Harcourt on trumped-up charges of murder, he declared: “The men
who ordained and supervised this show of shame, this tragic charade,
are frightened by the word, the power of ideas, the power of the pen. . . .
They are so scared of the word that they do not read. And that will be their
funeral.”3 Saro-Wiwa’s conviction that the pen is mightier than the goon
squad may well sound, to European and North American ears, like an echo
from another age. But across much of Africa the certainty persists that writ-
ing can make things happen.

Figure 3 Cartoon protesting Ken Saro-Wiwa’s execution. Reproduced by permis-
sion of the artist, JR Swanson; and Chris Carlsson, via Processed World magazine.

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

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pipedr ea ms

[1 0 5 ]

In one of his fi nal letters from detention, Saro-Wiwa assured his friend,
the novelist William Boyd: “There’s no doubt that my idea will succeed in
time, but I’ll have to bear the pain of the moment. . . . the most important
thing for me is that I’ve used my talents as a writer to enable the Ogoni
people to confront their tormentors. I was not able to do it as a politician or
a businessman. My writing did it. . . . I think I have the moral victory.”4 Else-
where, he prayed that his work would have as visceral an impact as Andre
Gide’s 1927 journal, Voyage au Congo, which prompted an outcry against Bel-
gian atrocities, helping secure their cessation.5 Saro-Wiwa saw himself as
part of that testimonial tradition, a witness to what he called the “recoloni-
zation” of Ogoniland by the joint forces of the oil companies and the Aba-
cha regime.6 Together the corporations and the regime had transformed the
Niger Delta into a Bermuda triangle for human rights.

Saro-Wiwa wrote as a member of what I would call a micro-minority:
he was one of 500,000 Ogoni in a nation of some 140 million, composed of
nearly 300 ethnic groups. He produced tireless testaments to the devasta-
tion of his culture by the oil-driven avarice of vast forces beyond its control.
He recognized, however, that the justice of a cause—particularly an Afri-
can cause—is no reason to believe that it will gain the international atten-
tion it merits. As a writer and campaigner, he saw the strategic necessity of
analogizing, of turning what he called the “deadly ecological war against
the Ogoni” into a struggle emblematic of our times.7 His prolifi c writings
thus lay the ground for a broader estimation of the global cost, above all to
micro-minorities, of the ongoing romance between unanswerable corpora-
tions and unspeakable regimes.

Micro-Minorities and the Delta of Death

The problem of competitive ethnicity is widespread in Africa, but it is par-
ticularly acute in Nigeria. The roots of the problem derive from the Brit-
ish invention of Nigeria in 1914. The British historian Lord Malcolm Hailey
once described Nigeria as “the most artifi cial of the many administrative
units created in the course of European occupation of Africa.”8 When
Nigeria gained independence in 1960, it kept its improbable borders with
the result that almost 300 ethnic groups were clustered under the umbrella
of one nation-state. For most of the fi ve decades since independence, this

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[1 0 6 ]

formidably diverse society has suffered under military rule. Unelected offi –
cials from the three largest ethnic groups—the Yoruba, the Igbo, and the
Hausa-Fulani—have totally dominated national politics.

For Nigeria, 1958 had the makings of an auspicious year. Independence
was on the horizon; Chinua Achebe’s classic novel Things Fall Apart appeared,
auguring great things—since realized—for the nation’s literary future; and
on February 17, 1958, the fi rst tanker bearing Nigerian crude for export
departed from Port Harcourt, destined for the Shell refi nery at the mouth
of the Thames.9 What could and should have been for the Niger Delta’s oil
minorities the beginnings of great promise augured instead a poisonous
future. Who could have dreamed in 1958 that four decades and $600 billion
of oil revenues later, some 90 million Nigerians would be surviving on less
than a dollar a day? And that Nigeria would rank below Haiti and Congo on
the United Nations Human Development Index, a composite gauge of life
expectancy, education, and income?10 Even those fi gures don’t capture the
plight of the Ogoni and the delta’s forty other oil micro-minorities: their
environment has become so despoiled that supplementing that daily dollar
with untainted crops and fi sh has become untenable.

The Ogoni constitute approximately 0.4 percent of the Nigerian popula-
tion. Thus, like the other micro-minorities who dwell in this delta the size of
England, the Ogoni lack the political leverage and constitutional protections
to lay claim to the wealth that has been stripped from their land. Nigeria’s
independence initially promised a measure of economic justice for micro-
minorities: the 1960 constitution required that the government return 50
percent of any mining revenues to the region of extraction.11 But instead of
the 50 percent constitutionally due to them, the Ogoni have been awarded a
mere 1.5 percent, and in effect not even that.12

As a rule of thumb, the greater a nation’s reliance on a single prod-
uct for its economic survival, the higher the chances that that society is
riddled with corruption and affl icted by profoundly skewed income dis-
tribution. Nigeria’s dependence on oil is absolute: it constitutes 96 per-
cent of Nigeria’s export revenue and generates 80 percent of government
income.13 Thus Nigerian oil (of which the United States buys 40 percent)
has readily become a precondition of and a byword for militarization. The
petro-state has given rise, moreover, to a society in which 85 percent of
oil wealth goes to a mere 1 percent of the populace, almost none of whom

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 0 7]

belong to the micro-minorities who inhabit, ingest, and inhale the eco-
logical devastation.

Shell is by far the largest foreign stakeholder in the Nigerian econ-
omy, owning 47 percent of the oil industry. Its joint venture partner in
the petroleum business during Nigeria’s most draconian years was the
Abacha regime. Yet Shell representatives have repeatedly declared that
they exercise no infl uence over Nigeria’s rulers; Europe’s largest oil cor-
poration has thereby ducked behind the brutalities of its militaristic fi nan-
cial partners. Such an arrangement means that Shell and other foreign
oil corporations can maintain their desired technological presence while,
under cover of deference for national sovereignty, they continue to act as
ethical absentees.

This arrangement has also enabled Shell to ignore appeals by the Ogoni,
the Ijaw, the Ikwerre and other neighboring micro-minorities for a share of
oil revenues, a measure of environmental self-determination, and economic
redress for their devastated environment. For Shell, Chevron, and the other
oil majors operating in the delta, these are internal, Nigerian matters that
belong to a sovereign realm inaccessible to corporate infl uence. But the
record suggests otherwise: Chevron, for example, has acknowledged trans-
porting Nigerian forces to quell uprisings in the oil camps of Rivers State.14
Shell has imported arms for the Nigerian police, paid retainers to Nigerian
military personnel, and made boats and helicopters available to them in
assaults against protestors.15 This is all integral to what one former Shell
scientist has dubbed “the militarization of commerce”—an apt designation,
if ever there was one, of resource extraction procedures under neoliberal-
ism across the global South.16

By the time Saro-Wiwa was executed, the Nigerian military and Mobile
Police force had killed 2,000 Ogoni through direct murder and the burning
of villages.17 Ogoni air had been fouled by the fl aring of natural gas, their
croplands scarred by oil spills, their drinking and fi shing waters poisoned.
Although Shell was driven out of Ogoniland in 1993, it simply moved on to
other parts of Nigeria’s once lush delta of death. Meanwhile, the Shell legacy
continues to seep into the environment and bodies of the local farming com-
munity that, unlike the international corporation, has nowhere else to go.

One witness described the aftermath of an oilfi eld explosion near the
Ogoni village of Dere as

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[1 0 8 ]

an ocean of crude oil moving swiftly like a great river in fl ood,

successfully swallowing up anything that comes its way. Cas-

sava farms, yams, palms, streams, and animals for miles on

end. There is no pipeborne water and yet the streams, the only

source of drinking water are coated with oil. You cannot collect

a bucket of rain water for the roofs, trees and grass are all cov-

ered with oil. . . . Men and women forced by hunger have to dive

deep in oil to uproot already rotten yams and cassava.18

In the words of a second witness: “We can no longer breathe natural oxygen;
rather we inhale lethal and ghastly gases. Our water can no longer be drunk
unless one wants to test the effect of crude oil on the body.”19 The fl aring of
vast volumes of gas meant that villagers spent their nights beneath an arti-
fi cial sun: “The people were used to having 12 hours of day and 12 hours of
night. But now their position is worse than that of the Eskimos in the North
Pole. For while nature gave the Eskimos six months of daylight followed by
six months of night, Shell-BP has given the Dere people about ten years of
continuous daylight.”20 Subsistence farming and fi shing are the mainstays
of these delta communities, yet they have received no compensation for the
devastation of resources on which they utterly depend.

The half million Ogoni retain nominal ownership of most of their
densely populated territory. But since oil extraction began over sixty years
ago, they have suffered massive subterranean dispossession. Shell, Chevron,
and successive Nigerian regimes have siphoned $30 billion worth of oil from
beneath Ogoni earth.21 Yet the locals still fi nd themselves lacking a hospital,
electricity, piped water, basic roads, housing, and schools. The community
has found itself, in the fullest sense of the word, utterly undermined.

Neocolonialism and Instrumental Aesthetics

Faced with the neocolonial politics of mineral rights in the Niger Delta,
Saro-Wiwa continued to believe that written testimony, backed by activ-
ism, could make a difference. Like many African authors before him, he
recognized that in a society with frail democratic forces and a thin intel-
lectual elite, interventionist writing required versatility and cunning.22 His
life as a public intellectual was distinguished by his astute sense of strategy.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 0 9 ]

Saro-Wiwa was alert to shifts in audience and occasion, locally and interna-
tionally; he would adjust his register and focus accordingly. He produced
over twenty books across an ambitious spread of genres: novels, plays, short
stories, children’s tales, poetry, histories, political tracts, diaries, satires, and
newspaper columns. Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English, a witty and wrench-
ing book about life in the Nigerian Civil War, is an iconoclastic work in
patois, daring and brimful of fi ne writing.23 But across Anglophone West
Africa, Saro-Wiwa achieved his greatest renown as the creator of the TV
comedy hit Basi and Company: 30 million Nigerians tuned into it during
prime time on Wednesdays. Saro-Wiwa wrote 150 episodes of Basi, a robust
satire with a moralistic edge.24 The series satirizes the street scammers and
wide-boys who are such a feature of the Lagos life Saro-Wiwa loved and
loathed. (“Living in Lagos,” Saro-Wiwa wrote, “is an invention in itself and
no one, I repeat, no one who lives in it can fail to be touched by its phoni-
ness.”)25 But after the death of one of his sons in 1992, Saro-Wiwa cut back
on his TV and literary activities. He single-mindedly devoted himself to the
Ogoni cause, becoming the chronicler of his people’s genocide and, fi nally,
a death-row diarist.

Saro-Wiwa’s generic versatility, his belief in an instrumental aesthetics,
and his obsession with land rights place him in an established tradition of
African writing.26 Yet there the similarities end. For in East and Southern
Africa, such tendencies have been routinely associated with writers whose
anticolonialism—or anti-neocolonialism—has been inseparable from their
socialism.27 One thinks, for instance, of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Barrel of the Pen
and Mafi ka Gwala’s essay “Writing as a Cultural Weapon” (which became
the credo for a generation of South African writers).28 Saro-Wiwa, by con-
trast, cultivated a deeply international sensibility while standing outside any
lineage of African socialism. He was the fi rst African writer to articulate the
literature of commitment in expressly environmental terms: “[T]he envi-
ronment is man’s fi rst right,” he wrote in a letter smuggled from a Nigerian
jail.29 Yet as a successful owner of a small business—successful enough to
send a son to Eton—he was never anticapitalist per se. He did, however, fi nd
himself painfully well placed to protest one of the signal developments of
the 1980s and 1990s: the consolidation and increasingly unregulated mobil-
ity of transnational corporations. Five hundred corporations, Shell among
them, now control 70 percent of global trade.30

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[1 1 0 ]

As a micro-minority intellectual in an impoverished African country,
Saro-Wiwa viewed deregulation as a synonym for corporate lawlessness of
the kind that had ruined Ogoniland. But it is a testament to Saro-Wiwa’s
savvy sense of strategy that his political protests went well beyond the dev-
astation of his homeland. While passionately centered in that cause, he came
to situate it in a wider, global frame. He began to criticize corrosive inter-
national tendencies: above all, how in third-world countries weakened by
structural adjustment, unregulated transnational fi rms and the national sol-
diery are at liberty to vandalize the weakest minority communities.

Saro-Wiwa appreciated the improbability of converting an injustice
against a small African people into an international cause. His strategic
response was to scour the wider political milieu for possible points of con-
nection. In the preface to Genocide in Nigeria (1992), for instance, he takes
heart from three contemporary developments: “[T]he end of the Cold War,
the increasing attention being paid to the global environment, and the insis-
tence of the European Community that minority rights be respected, albeit
in the successor states to the Soviet Union and in Yugoslavia.” But, he wor-
ried, “It remains to be seen whether Europe and America will apply to Nige-
ria the same standards which they have applied to Eastern Europe.” His
doubts have proved well founded.31

Unconventional War by Ecological Means

A Month and a Day includes a record of Saro-Wiwa’s imaginative efforts
to capitalize on these new forms of international attention. Initially, both
human rights groups and ecological groups proved equally unreceptive to
the Ogoni cause. An African intellectual claiming ethnocide by environ-
mental means? Saro-Wiwa seemed, at fi rst, eccentric and unplaceable. At
Boyd’s prompting, he decided to contact Greenpeace. They replied, quite
simply, that they did not work in Africa.32 Amnesty International, for their
part, said they could only take up the Ogoni cause if the military was killing
people or detaining them without trial, a process that had yet to begin. Saro-
Wiwa responded with frustration: “The Ogoni people were being killed all
right, but in an unconventional way.”33 As he later elaborated:

The Ogoni country has been completely destroyed by the

search for oil. . . . Oil blow-outs, spillages, oil slick and general

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[1 1 1]

pollution accompany the search for oil. . . . Oil companies have

fl ared gas in Nigeria for the past thirty-three years causing acid

rain. . . . What used to be the bread basket of the delta has now

become totally infertile. All one sees and feels around is death.

Environmental degradation has been a lethal weapon in the

war against the indigenous Ogoni people.34

Appeals to minority and environmental rights both gained ground in
the 1990s, but there was little precedent in Africa for their simultaneous
invocation. Despite the early unresponsiveness of Greenpeace, Amnesty
International, Friends of the Earth, and Survival International, Saro-Wiwa
persisted in arguing that the Ogoni were victims of an “unconventional
war” being prosecuted by ecological means. Undeterred, he sought to edu-
cate himself further through travel. An odyssey through the rupturing
Soviet Union confi rmed his sense of a growing international context for
the articulation of minority claims. A visit to Colorado gave him access to
an environmental group that had successfully salvaged a wilderness from
corporate and governmental assaults.35 These experiences persuaded Saro-
Wiwa that his incipient Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People
(MOSOP) would be well served by linking minority rights to environ-
mental rights. Through a young Dutch lawyer, Michael van Walt van der
Praag, long active in the Tibetan cause, Saro-Wiwa made contact with the
Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organizations.36 This gave him access
to the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, which
he addressed in Geneva in 1992. (That same year, another Ogoni leader,
Chief Dr. H. Dappa-Biriye, spoke at the Rio Earth Summit on behalf of the
delta peoples.) Saro-Wiwa discovered that “in virtually every nation-state
there are several ‘Ogonis’—despairing and disappearing peoples suffering
the yoke of political marginalization, economic strangulation or environ-
mental degradation, or a combination of these.”37 The parallel tracks of
Saro-Wiwa’s self-education had fi nally converged. From 1992 onward, the
combined appeal to minority and environmental rights became fundamen-
tal to the MOSOP campaign. Human rights and ecological groups that had
once found the Ogoni campaign enigmatic now became its most adamant
international supporters. Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Amnesty Inter-
national, Human Rights Watch/Africa, International Pen, Abroad, and the
Body Shop all rallied to the cause.

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[1 1 2 ]

These developments gave Saro-Wiwa’s campaign a resonance it had pre-
viously lacked and challenged stereotypes about environmental activists:
that they are inevitably white, young, middle-class Europeans or Americans
who can afford to hug trees because they have been spared more desperate
battles. Saro-Wiwa’s campaign for environmental self-determination may
well prove historically critical to the development of a broader image of eco-
logical activism. Just as we witnessed how the sometimes rarefi ed concerns
of middle-class white feminists in the 1970s gave way in ensuing decades to
a more internationally diverse array of feminisms, locally led and locally
defi ned, so too we are now seeing indigenous environmentalisms prolifer-
ate under pressure of local necessity. As the spectrum of what counts as
environmental activism expands, it becomes harder to dismiss it as a senti-
mental or imperial discourse tied to European or North American interests.
Nor does the case for this diversifi cation rest, any longer, solely on Amazo-
nian or Indian examples.

Saro-Wiwa understood that environmentalism needs to be reimagined
through the experiences of the minorities who are barely visible on the global
economic periphery, where transnationals in the extraction business—be it
oil, mining, or timber—operate with maximum impunity. Environmental
justice became for him an invaluable concept through which to focus the
battle between subnational micro-ethnicities and transnational macroeco-
nomic powers. As an Ogoni, suffering what he called Nigeria’s “monstrous
domestic colonialism,” Saro-Wiwa was in no position to trust the nation-
state as the unit of collective economic good.38 Instead, he advocated a mea-
sure of ethnic federalism in which environmental self-determination would
be acknowledged as indispensable to cultural survival.After the “ judicial
murder” of Saro-Wiwa and the eight other accused, public outrage tended
to divide into those who primarily condemned the Abacha regime and those
who condemned Shell.39 For Saro-Wiwa, however, the blame was indivisible.
He consistently represented the Ogoni as casualties of joint occupying pow-
ers: the transnational oil corporations and a brutal, extortionate Nigerian
regime. Shell, meanwhile, sought to put a positive gloss on this relationship,
with public relations primers like “Nigeria and Shell: Partners in Progress.”40
But the regressive character of the relationship is more accurately portrayed
by a leaked Nigerian government memo addressing protests in Ogoniland.
Dated December 5, 1994, it reads: “Shell operations still impossible unless

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[1 1 3 ]

ruthless military operations are undertaken for smooth economic activities
to commence.”41

This ruthless smoothing of Ogoniland was embarked on in a spirit of
racism and ethnic hatred. Again, Saro-Wiwa resisted the temptation to
reduce his people’s suffering to either term.42 Shell’s racism is manifest:
in Africa, the company waives onshore drilling standards that it routinely
upholds elsewhere. Indeed, 40 percent of all Shell oil spills worldwide have
occurred in Nigeria.43 When operating in the Northern hemisphere—in
the Shetlands, for instance—Shell pays lucrative rents to local councils; in
the Niger Delta, village authorities receive no comparable compensation.44
A 1995 World Bank report noted that 76 percent of the natural gas result-
ing from petroleum production in Nigeria was fl ared (at temperatures of
14,000 degrees Celsius), while in Britain only 4.3 percent and in the United
States a mere 0.6 percent was fl ared. This toxic practice foreshortened the
life expectancy of the delta peoples. Children, moreover, who had no access
to electricity to read or learn by also had no experience of night, as they
lived 24/7 beneath the blazing false sun of interminable fl ares, as if in some
seasonless equatorial rendition of an Arctic summer.45 In the mid-90s, when
fl aring from Nigeria’s oil fi elds was pumping 12 million tons of methane
and 35 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually, it was
argued by some that this was the single greatest contributor worldwide to
climate change.46 (In this one regard at least, the oil corporations did not
discriminate.) Given this backdrop, the irony was not lost on the Ogoni that
Shell was winning awards in Europe for environmentally sensitive con-
duct—north-south greenwashing, par excellence.47

But Shell’s racial double standard would have been inoperable without
brutal backing from a Nigerian regime whose record on minority rights
verged on the ethnocidal. General Abacha’s dreaded Mobile Police force—
which Nigerians dubbed the “Kill and Go Mob”—responded violently to
peaceful protests by the Ogoni and their delta neighbors. After an anti-Shell
rally in January 1993 drew several hundred thousand Ogoni, the police
razed twenty-seven villages. Two thousand Ogoni were killed and 80,000
displaced.48 Saro-Wiwa has likened the fate of the Ogoni during the oil rush
to their fate during the Nigerian Civil War of 1967, when a confl ict erupted
between the nation’s dominant ethnicities.49 This battle over oil territory left
the Ogoni fl attened “like grass in the fi ght of the elephants.”50 Ten percent of

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[1 1 4 ]

all Ogoni died in a war that was not of their making, a calamity that drove
home for Saro-Wiwa the distinction between minority and extreme minor-
ity status.51 A micro-minority was powerless to infl uence national events,
particularly in a society run on principles of kleptocratic militarism. The
wealth that fl owed beneath Ogoniland was wealth in name only: histori-
cally, it brought poverty, injustice, and death, as outsiders stampeded for
oil. A quarter century after the civil war, Saro-Wiwa’s despair about Nigeria
continued to deepen because the nation’s rulers had “the hearts of stone and
the brains of millipedes; because Shell is a multinational company with the
ability to crush whomever it wishes; and because the petroleum resources
of the Ogoni serve everyone’s greed.”52

The International Response

The fact that the Ogoni have been casualties of racism and ethnic hatred
may help, in a peculiar way, to explain the low-key American response to
the executions. The outcry in Britain, South Africa, and France was far more
vocal and sustained. In the British case, this is understandable: Shell is an
Anglo-Dutch conglomerate, and British coverage of Africa has traditionally
been stronger than America’s because of the colonial ties. (For similar rea-
sons, the reverse is true of Latin American news.) But there was more to the
American media’s relative indifference to the executions than that. In U.S.
political discourse, racial oppression and minority discrimination typically
function as identical terms. This makes it diffi cult for liberal or minority
Americans to condemn in a single breath an African regime for oppress-
ing its own minorities and a European corporation for racism against Afri-
cans. Randall Robinson, director of TransAfrica, the African-American
foreign-policy lobbyists, met with a ruptured response to his appeal for U.S.
sanctions against Nigeria similar to those imposed on South Africa. Many
African-American leaders, among them, Louis Farrakhan—who visited
Lagos and gave the Abacha regime his blessing—argued that it was divisive
to campaign against any African government.53

But Saro-Wiwa never enjoyed the luxury of such long-distance compunc-
tions. He insisted that the Ogoni were joint casualties of a brutal European
racism and an equally brutal African ethnocentrism. He never hesitated to
make such controversial connections. As he wrote in his prison diary,

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[1 1 5 ]

skin colour is not strong enough to stop the oppression of one

group by another. Sometimes it reinforces oppression because it

makes it less obvious. White people oppressing blacks in South

Africa draws instant condemnation because it is seen to be rac-

ism. But black upon black oppression merely makes people

shrug and say, “Well, it’s their business, isn’t it?”54

Saro-Wiwa repeatedly called for international measures—like those that had
helped end apartheid—against a Nigerian regime that he deemed equally
heinous.55 The two countries rank as the powerhouses of the continent:
South Africa boasts Africa’s largest economy and Nigeria the second largest,
as well as being the continent’s most populous nation. At the time of Saro-
Wiwa’s appeal for international intervention, the image of these two giants
had undergone a sharp reversal. For over thirty years, Nigeria had stood as
Africa’s leader in the antiapartheid campaign. But just as South Africa, under
Mandela’s leadership, was fi nally moving beyond apartheid, so Nigeria was
sinking to its antidemocratic nadir.56

By the time the fi fty-two Commonwealth nations met in Auckland, New
Zealand, in November 1995, South Africa and Nigeria’s standing had largely
been reversed. South Africa was present at a Commonwealth gathering for
the fi rst time in thirty-fi ve years. And triumphantly so, in the magisterial
form of Nelson Mandela. Previously the ritual object of Commonwealth
condemnations, South Africa was now, by virtue of Mandela’s moral gravi-
tas, the de facto commonwealth leader. Nigeria, by contrast, had become a
potential new pariah. The Commonwealth, the United States, and the Euro-
pean Union were all goading Mandela to take the lead in Africa. Nigeria was
to be his fi rst major foreign policy test.

On arriving at the summit, Mandela voiced his opposition to isolat-
ing Nigeria, advocating quiet negotiations instead.57 The Nigerian regime
responded, almost immediately, by hanging Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight.
Mandela instantly became the target of outrage. Wole Soyinka charged him
with appeasement, likening his “quiet diplomacy” toward the Nigerian
junta to Reagan and Thatcher’s notorious policy of “constructive engage-
ment” toward the apartheid regime.58 Professor Kole Omotoso, one of the
swelling ranks of Nigerian exiles who had found refuge in South Africa,
agreed: “Those who know my country know how irrational and illogical

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[1 1 6 ]

the military regime is. There wasn’t a chance that it would respond to what
Mandela called ‘softly-softly.’”59 Saro-Wiwa’s lawyer protested angrily to
Mandela, “Were quiet diplomacy pursued in South Africa . . . I doubt you
would be alive today.”60

Mandela’s tragic misreading of the Abacha regime and the threat to
Saro-Wiwa can best be understood in terms the ANC’s historical sentimen-
tality toward Nigeria. Many of South Africa’s new political and cultural elite
had found refuge in Nigeria in the 1960s, when it was emerging as a bul-
wark against apartheid and colonialism. Those exiles included eminents like
the academic and writer, Ezekiel Mphahlele, and the South African deputy
president, Thabo Mbeki. It is no coincidence that Mbeki became South Afri-
ca’s chief negotiator in the country’s “softly-softly” response to the Abacha
coup. He seemed to confuse South Africa’s historic debt (and his own per-
sonal one) to the Nigerian people with a debt to Nigeria’s rulers, even when
they had deposed an elected government and enjoyed no popular mandate
whatsoever. At the Commonwealth summit, Nigerian human rights activist
Innocent Chukwuma stressed the wrongheadedness of this confusion. Call-
ing for an international ban on Nigerian oil, Chukwuma pointed out, “The
proceeds from oil revenue are going into private accounts. They don’t even
get to the people.”61 In 1994 alone, $12 billion worth of oil went missing from
government accounts.62

The South African failure to provide international leadership against
Abacha also needs to be understood in terms of the ANC’s “fetish for com-
promise.”63 This fi xation had enabled Mandela to maneuver the ANC into
power and to avert the civil war that just before the South African elections
had begun to look menacingly imminent. But he misjudged the Nigerian
political climate: Abacha was more ruthless than De Klerk, and Nigeria
lacked the dense matrix of civic bodies, trade unions, and other democratic
organizations that exerted pressure on the apartheid regime while Mandela
negotiated a compromise.64

If Saro-Wiwa’s execution triggered a national political scandal for Man-
dela’s government, it also quickened the fl ow of Nigerian exiles and refugees
into South Africa. These included intellectuals, journalists, and democratic
activists. In perhaps the surest sign of the about-face in Nigerian-South
African relations, Johannesburg became a prominent outpost of the Lagos-
based Democratic Alternative, of the Saro-Wiwa support campaign, and of

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[1 1 7]

the international boycott of Shell. Where ANC activists had once plotted
against apartheid in Lagos and Kano, thirty years later, Nigerian democrats
were mobilizing in Johannesburg for the overthrow of the Abacha regime.
Thus the Ogoni “ judicial murders” brought into focus the critical vulner-
ability of Africa’s micro-minorities, as well as the shifting prospects for
democracy on the continent.

Micro-Minorities and the Resource Curse

Some years back, the Philippine government placed an ad in Fortune maga-
zine that read: “To attract companies like yours, we have felled mountains,
razed jungles, fi lled swamps, moved rivers, relocated towns . . . all to make
it easier for you and your business to do business here.”65 The Philippines is
just one of a succession of poor nations to have wooed transnationals in a
manner indissociably catastrophic for the environment and micro-minor-
ities. This process has been most acutely damaging in the equatorial belt
that girdles the earth’s midriff from Ecuador, Bolivia and Brazil; through
Surinam and Guyana; on through Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African
Republic, Gabon, and Congo; to the Philippines, Malaysian Borneo, Indo-
nesia, and New Guinea. This belt contains a unique concentration of eth-
nic minorities for simple ecological reasons. Rich equatorial ecosystems
encouraged the development of a higher concentration of self-suffi cient cul-
tural groups than was possible in less fertile regions. Today most of these
ethnic groups exist as micro-minorities in undemocratic, often destitute
nation-states that register in the global economy principally as sites for the
unregulated extraction of oil, minerals, and timber. It is thus no coincidence
that indigenous environmentalism has burgeoned most dramatically in this
zone, as micro-minorities battle for the survival of their land-dependent sub-
sistence cultures.

The plunder and terror suffered by the Ogoni have been mirrored in
other mineral-rich equatorial regions, West Papua, Ecuador, and Peru
among them. West Papua has an even higher concentration of minori-
ties than the Niger Delta. And, like the delta peoples, West Papuans have
the curse of wealth—some of the world’s richest deposits of copper and
gold—seaming beneath their land. They face a similar alliance between an
occupying military power and an unscrupulous transnational corporation.

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[1 1 8 ]

The same Indonesian regime responsible for the third worst genocide of
the twentieth century, in East Timor, colonized West Papua with a brutal-
ity that killed 43,000 indigenous people. Their accomplice in that endeavor
was the Louisiana-based mining transnational Freeport McMoran. After
the arrival of Freeport in 1967, the indigenous people endured detention
without trial, torture, forced resettlement, disappearances, the plunder of
their mineral wealth, and the uncompensated degradation of their environ-
ment.66 Freeport’s private security offi cers and the Indonesian military on
occasion combined to shoot and kill unarmed indigenous protesters. In an
alliance even more devastating than that between the Abacha regime and
Shell, the Indonesian regime and Freeport pursued ethnocide as a condition
of mandatory development. James Moffett, Freeport McMoran’s chairman,
himself seemed confused as to whether such “progress” was a life-giving or
death-dealing business. In Moffett’s proud words, “Freeport is thrusting a
spear of development into the heart of West Papua.”67 In this deadly battle,
the micro-minorities fought back in a language that melded new modes of
environmental defi ance with a more traditional reverence for the land. As
one Amungme leader put it, “Freeport is digging out our mother’s brain.
That is why we are resisting.”68

Some of these acts of environmental defi ance have begun to take effect:
for example, in the oil-rich Oriente Region of Ecuador, where Texaco dev-
astated Indian territory in a manner similar to Shell’s despoliation of Ogo-
niland. Oriente drinking water, fi shing grounds, soil, and crops have all
been polluted. According to the Rainforest Action Network, Texaco spilled
17 million gallons of crude oil in the Oriente, leaving a toxic legacy that has
caused, as in Ogoniland, chronic health problems for the residents.69 Here
again, the seepage of oil-contaminated waste resulted from the jettisoning
of procedures that are standard for onshore drilling in the Northern hemi-
sphere. The appeal of the Oriente and Ogoniland is precisely the prospect of
profi ts without interference or limits. As one petroleum geologist working in
the Oriente put it: “I want to stamp on the ground hard enough to make that
oil come out. I want to skip legalities, permits, red tape, and other obstacles.
I want to go immediately and straight to what matters: getting that oil.”70

Ecuador’s Acción Ecológica led a successful national boycott of Texaco
and has helped drive the corporation from the region. In addition, a coali-
tion of indigenous federations, mestizos, grassroots environmentalists, and

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[1 1 9 ]

human rights groups pursued an innovative avenue of redress, fi ling a $1.5
billion class action suit in New York against Texaco. The suit earned the sup-
port of Ecuador’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities, the country’s
largest Indian organization. Following the Ecuadorian example, a group
of Ogoni villagers decided to sue Shell for $4 million for spillages that had
robbed them of their livelihood.

Joseph Conrad and Colonial Buccaneering Redux

The ravaging of West New Guinea, the Oriente, and Ogoniland testifi es
to the growing inequity between subnational minorities and transnation-
als that have enjoyed enhanced mobility and experienced diminishing con-
trols since neoliberalism’s ascent in the 1980s. Third-world governments are
often joint partners in the regional plunder or worse than useless at regulat-
ing transnationals that are more powerful than the states themselves. One
result has been a reversion to concessionary economics in which forested or
mineral-rich areas are sold for a song. It is in this context that Saro-Wiwa’s
talk of recolonization and his invocation of Andre Gide’s Congo journal begin
to sound eerily apposite. When Shell can pump out $30 billion worth of oil
and the trade-off for the locals is disease, dispossession, military occupation,
massacres, and an end to self-sustaining fi shing and agriculture, the process
seems more redolent of late nineteenth-century colonial buccaneering than
it does of twenty-fi rst century international economics. But if the idea of
the nation-state continues to lose any vestige of popular appeal through a
failure to deliver local benefi ts, and if rulers lack the will or the resources to
command a national polity, the continent’s poorest countries will continue
to fall prey to a twenty-fi rst-century version of nineteenth-century conces-
sionary economics, unhampered by regulations or redress. The nation-state
will become ever more marginal to deals negotiated between local chiefs
and transnationals, an imbalance in bargaining power if ever there was one.
A German diplomat recently foresaw as much: “In the twenty-fi rst century
German ambassadors and CEOs heading for Africa may again be authorized
to sign treaties of cooperation with whatever coastal kings or leaders are
able to assert some sort of control over the interior.”71

Under such circumstances, the kleptocrats and soldiery in the nominal
capital will still demand their palm greasing, while locally, the chiefs request

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[1 2 0 ]

their crude version of the same. Such practices are already widespread. Dur-
ing Abacha’s rule, for example, a group of foreign explorers arrived by ship
at the head of a marshy river near the Niger Delta village of Sangama. They
sought to establish a station there. After lengthy bartering with a local chief,
they settled on his cut: he would receive £1,000 sterling, twelve bottles of
cognac, and twelve bottles of gin. But as the foreigners pushed deeper into
the hinterland, they found villagers blocking their river route with a bar-
ricade of palm fronds and canoes. The explorers’ leader felt bewildered and
betrayed. He reported, “There were about a hundred people ahead of us. If
we’d pressed ahead we would have risked killing them. So we took a boat
and went back to get Chief Jumbo.”72

More bargaining, more demands. Another £300 changed hands, a further
bottle of gin, an agreement to repair a building. The chief sacrifi ced a goat
to the water gods; the barricade was lifted; the foreigners passed through. If
they weren’t pulling an oil rig in tow, this could be have been an entry from
Gide’s Congo journal or the opening scene of a lost Conrad novel.

Over a century has passed since Conrad immortalized in fi ction the
unregulated plunder that he witnessed in the Congo. In a gesture of imagi-
native cynicism, he christened the worst of these plunderers the Eldorado
Expedition. They were “sordid buccaneers: reckless without hardihood. . . .
To tear treasures out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no
more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into
a safe.”73 Over great swathes of Africa and much of the global South, Eldo-
rado Expeditions are rising from the dead. They are still the self-declared
standard-bearers of progress and are still tearing at the bowels of the earth.
Today one fi nds in their motley ranks a mix of international and indigenous
colonialists. Not least in Nigeria of which Saro-Wiwa once remarked in exas-
peration, “there is no such country. There is only organized brigandage.”74

We have witnessed in the past two decades the accelerated extraction
of African minerals, oil, and timber in many of the continent’s least stable
nations: Liberia, Gabon, Congo, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Mali,
Niger, Chad, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, and Angola among them. (South
African mining corporations, buoyed by their postapartheid legitimacy,
have come to compete in this terrain against European, American, Aus-
tralian, Canadian, Chinese, and Brazilian outfi ts.) However, in most of
these shaky African nations, concessionary economics, kleptocratic rule,

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[1 2 1]

structural adjustment, and corporate deregulation mean that irreplaceable
minerals and forests are being lost for little national gain and at consider-
able local ruin. We are seeing a repartitioning of Africa into what French
colonialists used to call l’Afrique utile and l’Afrique inutile: this time “capital
‘hops’ over ‘unusable Africa,’ alighting only in mineral-rich enclaves that are
starkly disconnected from their national societies.”75 It is in this climate that
Saro-Wiwa’s campaign against the destruction of micro-minorities through
the devastation of their environment has proven to be a harbinger of a much
broader discontent. He seemed to intuit as much at his tribunal, as he looked
back on his life with an otherworldly eye: “I will tell you this, I may be dead,
but my ideas will surely not die.”76

The Gospel cadences to Saro-Wiwa’s prophecy are consistent with the
Passion play the Nigerian junta inadvertently helped create. Saro-Wiwa was
no messiah. He was a courageous man who stood outside the conventions
of corruption but who could also be testy, infl exible, self-aggrandizing, and
subject to overweening ambition. The junta took this very mortal and inter-
nationally obscure activist, gave him a stage trial, and turned him through
execution into a martyr. They thus amplifi ed his cause and—as happens
with martyrs—simplifi ed it in his favor. (“Living people grow old but mar-
tyrs grow younger,” the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti once observed.)77
Saro-Wiwa instantly became larger and longer than life. The word fl ashed
around Lagos and Port Harcourt that he had refused to die, that it had taken
fi ve hangings to kill him. As a fi nal precaution against his posthumous
revenge, the regime stationed armed guards at the cemetery. They had orders
to shoot anyone seen approaching the grave to pay homage or claim relics.

Saro-Wiwa understood far better than his adversaries that you can’t cru-
cify ideas, that there are some things which cannot be resolved by a show of
force. Abacha and his sidekicks were exasperated by the unruliness of lan-
guage, by its refusal to submit to military control. In countries like Nigeria
where offi cial brutality and paranoia feed off each other, unoffi cial writing
begins to assume the status of latent insult. Thus journalists, writers, and
intellectuals are singled out for harassment, detention, torture, and execu-
tion often as much for what they represent as for anything they say. But
Africa’s muscle men who seek to shackle language and criminalize imagin-
ings only fl atter writers with their fears. While Abacha was naïve enough
to believe that murdering Saro-Wiwa would silence him, another African

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[1 2 2 ]

autocrat, Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, was simultaneously seeking to
stamp out subversive fantasy. He had a journalist arrested for “the crime of
imagining the death of the president.”78 This was surely the high-water mark
for the dictatorial tendency to equate fantasy with political treason.

Abacha clearly had no conception of the cost of creating a martyred
writer, an image with considerable pulling power in the media—doubly so
after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. The threat of censorship typically
raises the hackles of journalists and writers because they are profession-
ally invested in freedom of speech. From this viewpoint, the execution of
a writer on false charges is more than just another human injustice; it also
becomes, as Harold Pinter observed, “the most brutal form of censorship.”79
It was predictable, therefore, that the image of Saro-Wiwa as writer-martyr
would provoke intense journalistic outrage as well as the most vocal liter-
ary protest since the Rushdie affair. Pinter, Soyinka, Boyd, Chinua Achebe,
Ben Okri, Fay Weldon, and Arthur Miller were just a few of the writers
who spoke out publicly against Abacha and Shell.80 So in death Saro-Wiwa
extended—surely, beyond his imaginings—the remarkable coalition of
international interests he had begun to forge while alive, an alliance that
brought together environmentalists, minority rights advocates, antiracists,
opponents of corporate deregulation, and defenders of free speech. Whether
his principles ultimately prevail will depend as much on the future of this
coalition as on the timeliness of the ideas themselves. Otherwise, the pipe-
puffi ng activist, with his tenacious faith in democracy, nonviolence, and
the power of the pen, will lose yet further ground to the fi gure (in Michael
Watts’s image) of “the masked militant armed with the ubiquitous Kalosh-
nikov, the typewriter of the illiterate.”81

Forms of Inheritance, the Inheritance of Loss

At Saro-Wiwa’s funeral, his eldest son, Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., followed his
father’s express instructions, placing two copies of Ken Sr.’s books in the
coffi n alongside his favorite pipe. As the coffi n was lowered into the tomb,
the attendant crowd surged forward and, for a moment, Saro-Wiwa Jr. felt
certain he would be swept into his father’s grave. The incident speaks pow-
erfully to the son’s lifelong fear of the all-devouring cause, the cause that
had swallowed his father and threatened to swallow the next generation

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as well. More broadly, the incident speaks to the risks and quandaries that
attend the martyr-focused cause as a political fi gurehead’s pragmatic leader-
ship enters the realm of mythic potency through the manner of his death.
The immortal corpse, the one true body of the cause, can become a power-
ful political asset but also stand dauntingly in the path of those who wish to
take the struggle forward in new ways, for new times. Rival claimants—all
anonymous by comparison—will clash, sometimes violently, over who has
the right, by birth or principle, to take up the hero’s mantle. For those who
follow, after martyrdom, what next?

This question looms over the life and writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., his
father’s anointed but initially reluctant legatee. Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s memoir, In
the Shadow of a Saint, which closes with that image of the son teetering above
his father’s gaping grave, stages a searching engagement with the forms of
inheritance.82 This often-anguished, internally riven book allows us to open
up vexing questions, at once political and aesthetic, about activist nonfi c-
tion: questions about individual creativity and movement answerability,
about originality and reiteration, about self-revelation and self-concealment.
Read in tandem, A Month and a Day and In the Shadow of a Saint offer contrast-
ing routes into the maze of nonfi ction forms that activist-writers can draw
on in pursuit of their political and literary ends.

A Month and a Day is an unruly, polyvocal work, a nonfi ctional collage,
in which Saro-Wiwa tacks back and forth among a raft of genres: diary,
memoir, journal, manifesto, advocacy journalism, ethnography, and satire,
throwing in for good measure some transcribed speeches and a bill of rights.
The book’s disorderly syncretism is partly circumstantial: most of it was
spliced together under the stresses of Saro-Wiwa’s confi nement in a Port
Harcourt prison. Yet one senses in the irreverent, breathless bricolage some-
thing tactical as well, the propulsive urgency of colliding forms as Saro-
Wiwa strives to fi t into a single book an ill-fi tting set of causes by binding
together, in unprecedented ways, an African commitment to environmental
and human rights, to micro-minority justice, and to exposing the slow vio-
lence of what he judges to be attritional ecological genocide. The result is a
book without a clear narrative itinerary or stable voice, structurally diffuse
yet inventively affi liative and unwavering in its political energy.

Despite the word “diary” in the subtitle, A Month and a Day is at best a
fi tfully personal book; the private Saro-Wiwa disappears for long stretches,

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[1 2 4 ]

and when he reappears he does so primarily as an outsize public persona in
a way that renders him opaque. We can read his son’s memoir, in part, as a
questing, ambiguous protest against his father’s vanishing acts—as a par-
ent and as a writer. Saro-Wiwa Jr. uses the memoir’s intimate potential to
push back against a certain self-aggrandizing impersonality that comes with
the heroizing territory of the cause. As he wrestles with his political and
familial inheritance, Saro-Wiwa Jr. strives to humanize his remote, complex
father—to put mortal fl esh on his immortality—without diminishing what
he stood for. This requires a layered exhumation, as the son seeks to unearth
the father whom he’d lost in life to a higher cause and then lost a second
time to “ judicial murder” and then a third time, after death, to sainthood. In
exhuming his father Saro-Wiwa Jr. must also exhume himself from beneath
the weight of the familial, inherited cause so that ultimately he can embrace
the commitments that his father had chosen for him, but on his own terms.
That embrace is fraught with ambivalence at fi rst because, while growing
up, his chief competitor for his father’s scarce time and affection was that
most voracious rival sibling, the Ogoni cause itself.

Saro-Wiwa Jr.’s decision to become an écriture engagée himself com-
pounded his predicament. What he had long feared was the already-scripted
life, in which he was destined from birth to be his insurrectionary father’s
compliant shadow act, a fear intensifi ed by his father’s afterlife as the mar-
tyred essence of the noble, untouchable cause. “I grew up in a political house,
and it had turned me off politics. When many of my friends were looking
for a political cause because they were tired of living uncomplicated lives,
I just wanted an uncomplicated life because I was tired of living a political
cause.”83 It was his father’s detention that propelled the son—who had spent
most of his life in England and Canada—into politics and political writing.

Saro-Wiwa Jr. walks a line between intransigence and deference as he
creates a testament that is, in a double sense, a resistance memoir: he revolts
against the emotional costs imposed on a household where political revolt
was the iron-fi sted orthodoxy, while also carrying forward the cause that
shaped his father’s life and sealed his fate. If it is originality that he prizes as a
writer, Saro-Wiwa Jr. the activist must fi rst defer such ambitions, as he reca-
pitulates the arc of his father’s—and his people’s—grievances, citing amply
from his father’s work. But the memoir takes a decidedly individual turn as
he travels to meet the children of mythic freedom fi ghters—some martyred,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 2 5 ]

some still monumentally alive—like Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, and Aung
San Suu Kyi. He shares, with the small band of saints’ children, the strange
struggle to reconcile a parent’s ethical stature as the hallowed face of justice
with the absences, the aloofness, the familial dysfunction, and to fi nd in all
of that some measure of resistant loyalty. In looping back to embrace his
father’s commitment to environmental justice and micro-minority rights,
Saro-Wiwa Jr. draws strength from literary precedent as well: while cam-
paigning for his father’s release, he carries with him Nadine Gordimer’s
great novel, Burger’s Daughter, which charts the quest, by an antiapartheid
hero’s daughter, to fi nd a way of circumventing the abstracted icon of her
father while pursuing her own half-chosen, half-inherited commitment to
the justice of his cause.84

In his pursuit of environmental justice, Saro-Wiwa Jr. sought to do an
end run around the dysfunctional Nigerian state. He took up the cause as
writer and speaker on the international human rights circuit but also, criti-
cally, as a lead plaintiff in a fourteen-year-long case against Shell for com-
plicity in his father’s execution and for paying soldiers who had committed
human rights abuses in Ogoniland. On June 9, 2009, days before the trial
was due to begin in New York, Shell settled out of court, agreeing to pay
$15.5 million, mostly into a trust fund for the Ogoni people.85 The plaintiffs
had fi led under the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, which the Supreme Court
ruled in 2004 could be used to try in American courts foreigners accused
of crimes against humanity overseas. There is a satisfying symmetry to
learning that the Alien Tort Claims Act was originally introduced in the
eighteenth century to combat piracy, given the piratical practices of the
Shell-Abacha partnership under a system that Saro-Wiwa once condemned
as “organized brigandage.”86

Saro-Wiwa Jr. saw the settlement as a victory that he believed would
have pleased his father: “[F]rom a legal perspective, this historic case means
that corporations will have to be much more careful.”87 However, the legacy
of the case may be more complicated than that. Most large corporations
sued under the Alien Tort Claims Act have, like Shell (and like the oil giant
Unocal, charged with using slave labor to build a pipeline across Burma in
the 1990s) settled out of court, leaving no clear trail of legal precedent. More-
over, when MOSOP activists ejected Shell from Ogoniland in the 1990s, the
company left without conducting any cleanup and continued to operate

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 2 6 ]

with environmental impunity in the wider, increasingly volatile delta area.
The costs of environmental reparation for the slow violence that has perme-
ated the delta and its inhabitants are incalculable: the World Wildlife Fund
has put out a fi gure of $6 billion, but really there’s no telling.88

Before the settlement, Ledum Mittee, who assumed the leadership of
Saro-Wiwa’s MOSOP movement, insisted that the Ogonis were still wait-
ing for an apology from Shell: “[T]hey should be able to look us in the face
and say ‘We’re sorry for what we have caused you to go through as a result
of all these years.’ It’s quite important to us.”89 Likewise, Tompolo, leader
of MEND (the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta) —the
largest, most ethnically diverse of the increasingly diffuse and increasingly
militant groups that have proliferated in MOSOP’s wake—demanded, in
addition to greater resource control, at the very least an apology from Shell
and the Nigerian military.90 Yet in settling the court case, Shell denied any
wrongdoing, deeming with outrageous condescension the out-of-court set-
tlement for $15.5 million “a humanitarian gesture.”91

Many of the delta’s oil minorities, exiled from their subsistence cultures
by ruined land, by dead-fi sh waterways, by government attacks and by mul-
tiplying uncontrollable militant groups, have gravitated toward the city of
Port Harcourt. There, write Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas,

hunger leads to anger, and the crushing poverty and marginal-

ization of communities, in contrast to the oil resources that are

rightly theirs, provide the trigger. A war of all against all ensues:

youths against elders, whom they accuse of selling out to Shell;

community against community in competition for scarce Shell

contract work; and communities against Shell and the federal

government, who deny that their actions have driven the Nige-

rian people into a dark, impossible corner.92

Twenty years ago, Saro-Wiwa foresaw this dire turn in an essay called
“The Coming War in the Delta.” “The Delta people,” he warned, “must
be allowed to join in the lucrative sale of crude oil . . . only in this way can
the cataclysm that is building up in the Delta be avoided. Is anyone listen-
ing? ”93 In the aftermath of his “ judicial murder” the wider world listened
for a time, but one wonders who exactly is listening anymore. Apart, that

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[1 2 7]

is, from the Mongolian leader who, when oil was recently discovered in
his territory, declared, “[W] e do not want to become another Nigeria.”94
Fresh oil strikes in Ghana and Uganda have prompted similar responses:
exhilaration tempered by fears of letting loose unanswerable, unspeakable
forces that rip through the socioenvironmental fabric, leaving behind a
Niger Delta redux.95

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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4

Slow Violence, Gender, and the
Environmentalism of the Poor

Ah, what an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime /
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

—Bertolt Brecht, “An die Nachgeborenen” (To posterity)

Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, cofounded by Wangari
Maathai, serves as an animating instance of environmental activism among
poor communities who have mobilized against slow violence, in this case,
the gradual violence of deforestation and soil erosion. At the heart of the
movement’s activism stand these urgent questions: What does it mean to
be at risk? What does it mean to be secure? In an era when sustainability
has become a buzzword, what are the preconditions for what I would call
“sustainable security”? And in seeking to advance that elusive goal, how can
Maathai as a writer-activist working in conjunction with environmentally
motivated women from poor communities, most effectively acknowledge,
represent, and counter the violence of delayed effects?

Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed, offers us an entry point into the complex,
shifting collective strategies that the Green Belt Movement (GBM) devised
to oppose foreshortened defi nitions of environmental and human security.
What emerges from the GBM’s’s ascent is an alternative narrative of national

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 2 9 ]

security, one that would challenge the militaristic, male version embodied
and imposed by Kenya’s President Daniel arap Moi during his twenty-four
years of authoritarian rule from 1978 to 2002. The Green Belt Movement’s
rival narrative of national security sought to foreground the longer time-
line of slow violence, both in exposing environmental degradation and in
advancing environmental recovery. At the same time, Unbowed provides us
with an entry point into some challenging questions about the movement
memoir as an imaginative form, not least the relationship between singular
autobiography and the collective history of a social movement.

The Green Belt Movement had modest beginnings. On Earth Day in
1977, Maathai and a small cohort of likeminded women planted seven trees
to commemorate Kenyan women who had been environmental activists.1
By the time Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the move-
ment had created 6,000 local tree nurseries and employed 100,000 women to
plant 30 million trees, mostly in Kenya, but in a dozen other African coun-
tries as well.2 The movement’s achievements have been both material—pro-
viding employment while helping anchor soil, generate shade and fi rewood,
and replenish watersheds—and symbolic, by inspiring other reforestation
movements across the globe. As such, the Green Belt Movement has sym-
bolized and enacted the conviction that (as Lester Brown has stressed in
another context) “a strategy for eradicating poverty will not succeed if an
economy’s environmental support systems are collapsing.”3

Early on, Maathai alighted on the idea of tree planting as the movement’s
core activity, one that over time would achieve a brilliant symbolic economy,
becoming an iconic act of civil disobedience as the women’s efforts to help
arrest soil erosion segued into a struggle against illicit deforestation perpe-
trated by Kenya’s draconian regime. Neither soil erosion nor deforestation
posed a sudden threat, but both were persistently and pervasively injurious
to Kenya’s long-term human and environmental prospects. The symbolic
focus of mass tree plantings helped foster a broad alliance around issues
of sustainable security, a set of issues crucial not just to an era of Kenyan
authoritarianism, but to the very different context of post-9/11 America as
well, where militaristic ideologies of security have disproportionately and
destructively dominated public policy and debate.

The risk of ignoring the intertwined issues of slow violence and sus-
tainable security was evident in many American responses to the March

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 3 0 ]

2003 invasion of Iraq, which was widely represented as a clean strategic and
moral departure from the ugly spillages of total warfare. Even many liberal
commentators adhered to this view. Hendrik Hertzberg, writing in the New
Yorker, declared that

[w]hatever else can be said about the war against the Iraqi dic-

tatorship that began on March 19th, it cannot be said that the

Anglo-American invaders have pursued anything remotely

resembling a policy of killing civilians deliberately. And, so far,

they have gone to great tactical and technological lengths to

avoid doing it inadvertently. . . . What we do not yet know is

whether a different intention, backed by technologies of preci-

sion, will produce a different political result.4

This war, Hertzberg continued, was not the kind that “expanded the battle-
fi eld to encompass whole societies.”5 Like most American media commenta-
tors at the confl ict’s outset, Hertzberg bought into the idea that so-called
smart bombs exhibit a morally superior intelligence.6 Yet, depending on the
ordnance and strategies deployed, a quick “smart” war may morph into a
long-term killer, leaving behind landscapes of dragging death. Precision
warfare that has receded into memory often continues, through its active
residues, to maim and slaughter imprecisely for generations.

The battlefi eld that unobtrusively threatens to encompass whole societ-
ies is of direct pertinence to the conditions that gave rise to Kenya’s Green
Belt Movement. The movement emerged in response to what one might call
the violence of staggered effects in relation to ecologies of scale. From the
perspective of rural Kenyan women whose local livelihood has been threat-
ened by soil erosion’s slow march, what does it mean to be secure in space
and time? As Maathai notes,

during the rainy season, thousands of tons of topsoil are eroded

from Kenya’s countryside by rivers and washed into the ocean

and lakes. Additionally, soil is lost through wind erosion in areas

where the land is devoid of vegetative cover. Losing topsoil

should be considered analogous to losing territory to an invad-

ing enemy. And indeed, if any country were so threatened, it

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 3 1]

would mobilize all available resources, including a heavily

armed military, to protect the priceless land. Unfortunately, the

loss of soil through these elements has yet to be perceived with

such urgency.7

What is productive about Maathai’s reformulation of security here is her
insistence that threats to national territorial integrity—that most deep-
seated rationale for war—be expanded to include threats to the nation’s
integrity from environmental assaults. To reframe violence in this way is to
intervene in the discourse of national defense and, hence, in the psychology
of war. Under Kenya’s authoritarian regime, the prevailing response to soil
erosion was a mix of denial and resignation; the damage, the loss of land,
went unsourced and hence required no concerted mobilization of national
resources. The violence occurred in the passive voice, despite the regime’s
monumental resource mismanagement.

Maathai’s line of reasoning here can be connected to activist writings
from elsewhere in the global South, most strikingly to Vandana Shiva’s advo-
cacy for soil security as a form of environmental justice.8 Shiva’s arguments
are infl ected with the distinctive history in India of the Green Revolution,
peasant resistance to industrial agriculture, and the battle against transna-
tional corporate plant patenting, but her insistence on broadening our con-
ception of security is consistent with the stance that underlies Maathai’s soil
and tree politics.

Soil erosion results in part, of course, from global forms of violence—
especially human-induced climate change, to which rural Kenyan women
contribute little and can do very little to avert. But the desert’s steady sei-
zure of once viable, fertile land also stems from local forms of slow vio-
lence—deforestation and the denuding of vegetation—and it was at those
junctures that the Green Belt women found a way to exert their collective
agency. As the drivers of the nation’s subsistence agriculture, women inhab-
ited most directly the fallout from an environmental violence that is low in
immediate drama but high in long-term consequences.

Resource bottlenecks are diffi cult to dramatize and, defi cient in explo-
sive spectacle, typically garner little media attention. Yet the bottlenecks
that result from soil erosion and deforestation can fuel confl icts for decades,
directly and indirectly costing untold lives. Certainly, if we take our cues

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 3 2 ]

from the media, it is easy to forget that, in the words of the American
agronomist Wes Jackson, “soil is as much a nonrenewable resource as oil.”9
International and intranational contests over this fi nite resource can desta-
bilize whole regions. Soil security ought to be inextricable from national
security policy, not least in a society like Kenya, which has lost 98 percent
of its anchoring, cleansing, and cooling forest cover since the arrival of Brit-
ish colonialists in the late nineteenth century.10 Together transnational,
national, and local forces—climate change, an authoritarian regime’s
ruthless forest destruction, and rural desperation—fueled the assault on
human and environmental security that the Green Belt Movement recog-
nized as inextricably entangled. That threat had its roots in a colonial his-
tory of developmental deforestation, most memorably evoked in Ngugi wa
Thiong’o’s epic novel Petals of Blood, where an elder remarks how “the land
was covered with forests. The trees called rain. They also cast a shadow on
the land. But the forest was eaten by the railway. You remember they used
to come for wood as far as here—to feed the iron thing. Aah, they only
knew how to eat, how to take away everything.”11 Despite Ngugi’s forceful
critique of colonial and neocolonial land politics, his novels tend—as Laura
Wright notes—to fall back on an essentialist feminizing of the soil, replete
with oppositions between a precolonial virginal purity and neocolonialism
as prostitution.12 One of the key challenges facing Maathai, as a writer and
activist, was how to dramatize the gendered dynamics of Kenyan land poli-
tics without submitting to the sentimental essentialism that mars Ngugi’s
novels. To understand the angle of her approach requires that we engage the
metaphoric underpinnings of the GBM’s gender and civic politics.

The Theatre of the Tree

The Green Belt Movement’s achievements in engaging the violence of
deforestation and soil erosion fl owed from three critical strategies. First,
tree planting served not only as a practical response to an attritional envi-
ronmental calamity but to create, in addition, a symbolic hub for political
resistance and for media coverage of an otherwise amorphous issue. Second,
the movement was able to articulate the discourse of violent land loss to a
deeper narrative of territorial theft, as perpetrated fi rst by British colonial-
ists and later by their neocolonial legatees. Third, the Green Belt Movement

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 3 3 ]

made strategic use of what one might call intersectional environmentalism,
broadening their base and credibility by aligning themselves with—and
stimulating—other civil rights campaigns that were not expressly environ-
mental, like the campaigns for women’s rights, for the release of political
prisoners, and for greater political transparency.13

The choice of tree planting as the Green Belt Movement’s defi ning act
proved politically astute. Here was a simple, pragmatic, yet powerfully
fi gurative act that connected with many women’s quotidian lives as tillers
of the soil. Soil erosion and deforestation are corrosive, compound threats
that damage vital watersheds, exacerbate the silting and desiccation of riv-
ers, erode topsoil, engender fi rewood and food shortages, and ultimately
contribute to malnutrition. Maathai and her allies succeeded in using these
compound threats to forge a compound alliance among authoritarianism’s
discounted casualties, especially marginalized women, citizens whose envi-
ronmental concerns were indissociable from their concerns over food secu-
rity and political accountability.

At political fl ashpoints during the 1980s and 1990s, these convergent
concerns made the Green Belt Movement a powerful player in a broad-
based civil rights coalition that gave thousands of Kenyans a revived sense
of civic agency and national possibility. The movement probed and wid-
ened the fi ssures within the state’s authoritarian structures, clamoring for
answerability within what Ato Quayson, in another context, calls “the cul-
ture of impunity.”14

The theatre of the tree afforded the social movement a rich symbolic
vocabulary that helped extend its civic reach. Maathai recast the simple
gesture of digging a hole and putting a sapling in it as a way of “planting
the seeds of peace.”15 To plant trees was to metaphorically cultivate demo-
cratic change; with a slight vegetative tweak, the gesture could breathe new
life into the dead metaphor of grassroots democracy. Within the campaign
against one-party rule, activists could establish a ready symbolic connection
between environmental erosion and the erosion of civil rights. At the heart
of this symbolic nexus was a contest over defi nitions of growth: each tree
planted by the Green Belt Movement stood as a tangible, biological image
of steady, sustainable growth, a dramatic counterimage to the ruling elite’s
kleptocratic image of “growth,” a euphemism for their high-speed piratical
plunder of the nation’s coffers and fi nite natural resources. Relevant here

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[1 3 4 ]

is William Finnegan’s observation, in a broader international context, that
“even economic growth, which is regarded nearly universally as an overall
social good, is not necessarily so. There is growth so unequal that it height-
ens social confl ict and increases repression. There is growth so environ-
mentally destructive that it detracts, in sum, from a community’s quality
of life.”16 Certainly, there is something perverse about an economic order in
which the unsustainable, ill-managed plunder of resources is calculated as
productive growth rather than a loss of GNP.

Within the metaphoric groves of “growth,” we have witnessed a huge
spectrum of literary tree politics. Bertolt Brecht, from his Danish exile in 1939
most memorably lamented the dark times he lived in, times of “terrible tid-
ings”: “Ah, what an age it is / When to speak of trees is almost a crime / For
it is a kind of silence about injustice!”17 The poem that bears those words—
“An die Nachgeborenen” (To posterity or To the unborn) —has sometimes
been invoked by those who wish to distinguish the hard, clear clarion call
of radical politics from the soft claims of environmentalism. Yet Brecht was
clearly writing into a particular cultural moment—into an ascendant fas-
cism, a powerful strain of blood-and-soil German romanticism implicated in
Nazism’s ascent. As Kenya’s Green Belt Movement testifi es, there are other
eras when, for the sake of the unborn, we need to talk about trees with
unremitting urgency; indeed, when to be silent about trees is to become
complicit in an injustice to posterity.

To plant trees is to work toward cultivating change, in the fullest
sense of that phrase. In an era of widening social inequity and unshared
growth, the replenished forest can offer an egalitarian, participatory image
of growth—growth as sustainable over the long haul.18 The Moi regime
vilifi ed Maathai as an enemy of growth, development, and progress, all dis-
courses the ruling cabal had used to mask its high-speed plunder. Saplings
in hand, the Green Belt Movement returned the blighted trope of growth
to its vital, biological roots.

To plant a tree is an act of intergenerational optimism, a selfl ess act at
once practical and utopian, an investment in a communal future the planter
will not see; to plant a tree is to offer shade to unborn strangers. To act in
this manner was to secede ethically from Kenya’s top-down culture of ruth-
less short-term self-interest. (Kenyan intellectuals used to quip that under
Moi l’etat c’est Moi.)19 A social movement devoted to tree planting, in addition

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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to regenerating embattled forests, thus also helped regenerate an endan-
gered vision of civic time. Against the backdrop of Kenya’s winner-takes-all-
and-takes-it-now kleptocracy, the movement affi rmed a radically subversive
ethic—an ethic of selfl essness—allied to an equally subversive timeframe,
the longue durée of patient growth for sustainable collective gain.

By 1998, the Moi regime had come to treat tree planting as an incendi-
ary, seditious act of civil disobedience. That year, the showdown between
the Green Belt Movement and state power came to a head over the 2,500-
acre Karura Forest. Word spread that the regime was felling swathes of the
public forest, a green lung for Nairobi and a critical catchment area for four
rivers.20 The cleared, appropriated land was being sold on the cheap to cabi-
net ministers and other presidential cronies who planned to build luxury
developments on it —golf courses, hotels, and gated communities. Maathai
and her followers, armed with nothing but oak saplings, with which they
sought to begin replanting the plundered forest, were set upon by guards
and goons wielding pangas, clubs, and whips. Maathai had her head blood-
ied by a panga; protestors were arrested and imprisoned.

The theatre of the tree has accrued a host of potent valences at different
points in human history: both the planting and the felling of forests have
become highly charged political acts. In the England that the Puritans fl ed,
for example, trees were markers of aristocratic privilege; hence on numer-
ous occasions, insurrectionists chopped or burned down those exclusionary
groves. After the Restoration, notes Michael Pollan, “replanting trees was
regarded as a fi tting way for a gentleman to demonstrate his loyalty to the
monarchy, and several million hardwoods were planted between 1660 and
1800.”21 By contrast, early American colonists typically viewed tree felling
as an act of progress that could double as a way of improving the land and
laying claiming to it.

Since the early 1970s, a strong but varied transnational tradition of civil
disobedience has gathered force around the fate of the forest. In March
1973, a band of hill peasants in the isolated Himalayan village of Mandal
devised the strategy of tree hugging to thwart loggers who had come to
fell hornbeam trees in a state forest on which the peasants depended for
their livelihood. This was the beginning of a succession of such protests that
launched India’s Chipko movement. Three years later, in the Brazilian Ama-
zon, Francisco Chico Mendes led a series of standoffs by rubber tappers and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[1 3 6 ]

their allies who sought to arrest uncontrolled felling and burning by rancher
colonists.22 In Thailand, a Buddhist monk was jailed when he sought to safe-
guard trees by ordaining them, while Julia Butterfl y Hill achieved celebrity
visibility during her two-year tree sit to protest the clear-cutting of endan-
gered California redwoods.

What distinguished the Green Belt Movement, like the Chipko move-
ment before it, was the way that activists protesting deforestation went
beyond what would become standard strategies of environmental civil dis-
obedience in the global North (sit-ins, tree hugging, or chaining oneself to a
tree). For the Kenyan and Indian protestors, active reforestation became the
primary symbolic vehicle for their civil disobedience. Under an undemo-
cratic dispensation, the threatened forest can be converted into a particu-
larly dramatic theatre for reviving civic agency because it throws into relief
incompatible visions of public land. To Kenya’s authoritarian president, the
forest was state owned, and because he and his cronies treated the nation as
identical to the state, he felt at license to fell national forests and sell off the
nation’s public land. To the activists, by contrast, the forest was not a private
presidential fi efdom, but commonage, the indivisible property of the people.
The regime’s contemptuous looting of Karura Forest was thus read as symp-
tomatic of a wider contempt for the rights of the poor.

The Green Belt Movement’s campaign to replant Karura assumed a
potency that reverberated beyond the fate of one particular forest; their
efforts served as a dramatic initiative to repossess, for the polity, not just
plundered public land and resources, but plundered political agency. Out-
rage over the Karura assaults soon swelled to students and other disaffected
groups in Nairobi, until the regime was forced to suspend its attacks on both
the women and the trees. In this way, the theatre of the tree fortifi ed the
bond between a beleaguered environment and a beleaguered polity.23

For those who perpetrate slow violence, their greatest ally is the pro-
tracted, convoluted vapor trail of blame. If slow violence typically occurs in
the passive voice—without clearly articulated agency—the attritional defor-
estation of Karura and other public lands offered a clearer case of decisive
accountability than, say, soil erosion. The Green Belt Movement’s theatre of
the tree inverted the syntax of violence by naming the agents of destruction.
Through the drama of the axed tree and the planted sapling, Maathai and
her allies staged a showdown between the forces of incremental violence

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 3 7]

and the forces of incremental peace; in so doing they gave a symbolic and
dramatic shape to public discontent over the offi cial culture of plunder. Ulti-
mately, Maathai saw in the culture of tree planting a way of interrupting the
cycle of poverty, a cycle whereby, as she put it, “poverty is both a cause and
a symptom of environmental degradation.”24

Colonialism, Mau Mau, and the
Forest in National Memory

In using the theatre of the forest to reanimate political debate around ideas
of sustainable growth, grassroots democracy, erosion of rights, and the
seeds of change, Maathai and her resource rebels also tapped into a robust
national memory of popular resistance to colonialism—above all, resistance
to the unjust seizure of land.25 Maathai’s memoir doesn’t engage this ques-
tion of anticolonial memory directly, but it is surely pertinent to the politi-
cal traction that her movement attained given the particular place of the
forest in Kenya’s national symbolic archive of resistance. The confrontation,
during Moi’s neocolonial rule, between the forces of deforestation and the
forces of reforestation was played out against the historic backdrop of the
forest as a redoubt of anticolonialism, a heroic place that, during the Mau
Mau uprising from 1952 to 1958, achieved a mythic potency among both the
British colonialists and those Kenyans—primarily Kikuyu—who fought for
freedom and the restitution of their land.26

In the dominant colonial literature about Mau Mau (political tracts,
memoirs, and fi ction), the forest appears as a place beyond reach of civili-
zation, a place of atavistic savagery where “terrorists” banded together to
perform degenerate rites of barbarism.27 For those Kenyans who sought
an end to their colonial subjugation, the forest represented something else
entirely: it was a place of cultural regeneration and political refusal, a prov-
ing ground where resistance fi ghters pledged oaths of unity, above all, an
oath to reclaim, by force if necessary, their people’s stolen land.

The forest thus became the geographical and symbolic nexus of a peas-
ant insurrection, as a host of Kenyan writers, Meja Mwangi, Wachira,
Mangua, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o among them, have all testifi ed.28 From
an environmental perspective, A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi’s novel of the Mau
Mau uprising, is particularly suggestive. As Byron Caminero-Santangelo

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[1 3 8 ]

observes, most of the novel’s British characters work at the Githima For-
estry and Agricultural Research Station, an institution whose offi cial aims
are to advance agriculture and conservation, but which was founded “as
part of a new colonial development plan.”29 The novel unfolds in part, then,
as a clash between rival cultures of nature: between nature as instrument of
colonial control (under the guise of development) and nature as a sustaining
animist force, an anticolonial ally of Mau Mau forest fi ghters pledging oaths
of liberation.30

The gender politics of all this are complex and compelling. In the
1950s, the forest served as a bastion not just of anticolonialism but of war-
rior masculinity. Thirty years later, it was nonviolent women, armed only
with oak saplings and a commitment to civil disobedience, who embod-
ied the political resistance to neocolonialism. So the showdown at Karura
reprised the anticolonial history of forest resistance in a different key: now
the core fi ghters—Maathai’s “foresters without diplomas”—were female
and unarmed.31 Does this double rescripting of resistance help explain the
particularly vicious backlash against the women from Kenya’s male politi-
cal establishment?

Intersectional Environmentalism,
Gender, and Conservation

The colonial backdrop to the achievements of the Green Belt Movement
surfaces not just through the memory of Mau Mau forest fi ghters but also
through the contrast between colonial conservation and what one might
call intersectional environmentalism. Maathai was never a single-issue
environmentalist: she sought, from the outset, to integrate and advance the
causes of environmental, women’s, and human rights by engendering stron-
ger civic institutions. The Green Belt Movement emerged in the late 1970s
under the auspices of the women’s movement: it was through Maathai’s
involvement in the Kenya Association of University of Women that she was
fi rst invited to join a local Environment Liaison Centre and from there was
approached by representatives from the United Nations Environmental Pro-
gramme, which led in turn to ever-widening circles of international access.32

Maathai’s intersectional approach to environmental justice contrasted
starkly with the dominant colonial tradition of conservation, which had

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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focused on charismatic megafauna.33 That sharply masculinist tradition—in
Kenya and, more broadly, in East and Southern Africa—was associated with
forced removal, with colonial appropriation of land, and with an antihuman
ecology. That tradition remains part of Kenya’s economic legacy, a legacy
associated not just with human displacement but with local exclusion from
elite cultures of leisure. In ecological as in human terms, Maathai’s angle
of approach was not top down: instead of focusing on the dramatic end of
the biotic chain—the elephants, rhinos, lions, and leopards that have preoc-
cupied colonial hunters, conservationists, and foreign tourists—she drew
attention to a more mundane and pervasive issue: the impact of accumula-
tive resource mismanagement on biodiversity, soil quality, food security,
and the life prospects of rural women and their families.

As Fiona Mackenzie’s research reveals, the grounds for such resource
mismanagement were laid during the colonial era when conservationist
and agricultural discourses of “betterment” were often deployed in the ser-
vice of appropriating African lands. Focusing on colonial narratives about
the environment and agriculture in the Kikuyu reserves between 1920 and
1945, Mackenzie traces the effects of the colonial bureaucracy’s authoritarian
paternalism, of what James C. Scott calls “the imperial pretensions of agro-
nomic science.”34 Not least among these deleterious effects was “the recast-
ing of the gender of the Kikuyu farmer . . . through a colonial discourse of
betterment that was integrally linked to the reconstruction of agricultural
knowledge.”35 Thus—and this has profound consequences for the priorities
of the Green Belt Movement—colonial authorities failed to acknowledge
women as primary cultivators. This refusal had the effect of diminishing
the deeply grounded, adaptable knowledge (both ecological and agricul-
tural) that women had amassed.

Maathai’s refusal to subordinate the interwoven questions of environ-
mental and social justice to the priorities of either spectacular conservation
or industrial agriculture has proven crucial to the long-term adaptability
of the GBM, allowing the movement to regenerate itself by improvising
alliances with other initiatives for sustainable security and democratic
transformation. Although it was the theatre of tree planting that initially
garnered Maathai and her allies media attention and international support,
they expanded the circles of their activism, mobilizing for campaigns that
ranged from the release of Kenya’s political prisoners to debt forgiveness for

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[1 4 0 ]

impoverished nations. The Green Belt Movement’s intersectional strategy
helped integrate issues of attritional environmental violence into a broad
movement for political answerability that, in turn, helped lead to demo-
cratic elections in Kenya in 2002.

The positioning of the GBM at the crossroads between environmental
rights and women’s rights makes historic sense. Women in Kenya have born
the brunt of successive waves of dispossession, dating back to the late nine-
teenth century, when the British colonialists shifted the structures of land
ownership to women’s detriment. Previously, land had belonged inalienably
to the extended family or clan; with the introduction of colonial taxation
that same land became deeded to a male deemed to be head of the house-
hold. As taxation forced more and more Kenyans into a wage economy, and
as (fi rst under colonialism and later under neocolonial structural adjust-
ment) cash crops like tea, coffee, and sugar cane shrank the arable land avail-
able for food production, women became disproportionately marginalized
from economic power. In the resultant cash economy, men typically owned
the bank accounts.36

Rural women suffered the perfect storm of dispossession: colonial land
theft; the individualizing and masculinizing of property; and the experi-
ence of continuing to be the primary tillers of the land under increasingly
inclement circumstances, including soil erosion and the stripping of the
forests. As forests and watersheds became degraded, it was the women
who had to walk the extra miles to fetch water and fi rewood; it was the
women who had to plough and plant in once rich but now denuded land
where, without the anchorage of trees, topsoil was washed and blown away.
In this context, the political convergence of the campaigns for environ-
mental and women’s rights in Kenya made experiential sense: women
inhabited the betrayals of successive narratives of development that had
brutally excluded them. The links between attritional environmental vio-
lence, poverty, and malnutrition was a logic they lived. So when the Moi
regime laid claim to Karura Forest and Uhuru Park for private “develop-
ment” schemes, Maathai was able to mobilize women who had historically
been at the raw end of plunder that benefi ted minute male elites, be they
colonial or neocolonial in character.

It is a measure of the threat that this intersectional environmental-
ism posed that in 1985 the regime demanded (ultimately without success)

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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that the women’s movement and the green movement disengage from one
another.37 What the regime foresaw was that these women tending saplings
in their rural nurseries were seeding a civil rights movement that could help
propel a broader campaign for an end to direct and indirect violence in the
name of greater political answerability.

The repeated showdowns between the GBM-led civil rights movement
and Kenya’s authoritarian regime offer a salient reminder that, for all the
elaborate, often invaluable theorizing about cosmopolitanism and global-
ization, the nation-state remains a potent actor, in societies as diverse as
Kenya, Venezuela, Indonesia, China, and India. Yet in much contempo-
rary environmental thinking in the humanities, the nation-state is either
overlooked entirely or treated as a quaint anachronism. The struggles and
successes of the GBM clearly cannot be understood outside the particular
dynamics of Kenya’s national authoritarianism. That said, they also can-
not be viewed solely within a national frame: local and global geopolitics
contributed in complex, often unpredictable ways. For if the forces arrayed
against the movement were primarily from the ruling national elite, the
resources Maathai drew on combined a national memory bank of anti-
colonial resistance, meticulously local forms of organization and cultural
knowledge, and expansively transnational alliances. On the one hand, the
Green Belt Movement recognized that, to operate in a country where sixty-
two languages are spoken, it was essential to work with teams of women
fl uent in the local tongue, conversant with local power dynamics, and pos-
sessing local environmental knowledge. On the other hand, the movement
gained indispensable traction through support from the United Nations and
Scandinavian funders.

The United States played a complex role, as it would in the rise of Ken
Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. If one of Saro-
Wiwa’s primary adversaries was American petro-giant Gulf Chevron, oper-
ating collaboratively with Nigerian authoritarianism, in Kenya (a detail
Maathai omits from her memoir) the American government refused to
turn the screws on President Moi because they perceived him as a friendly
authoritarian and valuable ally close to the volatile Horn of Africa. That
said, both Maathai and Saro-Wiwa traveled to the United States and drew
inspiration from the civil rights and environmental campaigns they wit-
nessed there. That inspiration was profoundly personal but it was also—and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 4 2 ]

crucially—rhetorical, granting each a vocabulary that helped them achieve
an international resonance for what might otherwise have remained obscure
campaigns for environmental justice for their nation’s or region’s poor.

In 1960 Maathai became one of 600 Kenyans airlifted to the United States
under the Kennedy program. (When she published her memoir she couldn’t
have foreseen how consequential that 1960 program would be: accompanying
her on that airlift was a young Kenyan named Barack Obama on scholarship
to the University of Hawaii.) As a benefi ciary of the Kennedy airlift, Maathai
got to study at a small college in Kansas; she proceeded for her graduate work
to the University of Pittsburgh and, while there, was energized by listening
to Martin Luther King at the height of his powers, an experience that contrib-
uted to her intersectional attitude to movement politics, whereby she would
envisage environmentalism as one wing of a broader civil rights campaign.
A few years after returning to Kenya, she and her early collaborators chose
Earth Day to launch the GBM. She thus drew inspiration from her exposure
to the civil rights movement and from a decisive event in the organizational
history of the American environmental movement, while simultaneously
adapting to Kenyan circumstances both of those animating precedents. In
both instances, moreover, a movement’s ascent was intimately connected,
in sometimes complicating ways, with an iconic fi gurehead, be it Martin
Luther King or Gaylord Nelson. What Maathai could not have foreseen was
the way the relationship between her iconic visibility and anonymous collec-
tive action would compound her vulnerability to attack.

Collective Activism and Genres of the Self

Maathai’s account of her sojourn in the United States is shaped by a series
of conventions, as the chapter title, “American Dream,” suggests. Those
conventional pressures surface most forcefully in Unbowed in the domain of
genre: if her fi rst book, a little-noticed manual on the Green Belt Movement,
had a collective center, by the second book, a memoir commissioned by an
American publisher in response to her Nobel Prize, she clearly felt greater
pressure to recast that collective history as a personal journey with a singu-
lar autobiographical self as its gravitational center.

Maathai was one of seven women who founded the Green Belt Move-
ment, yet in Unbowed the other women never achieve any defi nition as

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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characters. I observe this less as a criticism than as a way of signaling the
intractable dilemmas that attend the movement memoir.38 To underscore
this point: after Nelson Mandela emerged from prison, Little, Brown and
Company paid him a high six-fi gure advance for his autobiography. On
becoming president, he predictably fell behind with his writing, so his pub-
lisher dispatched an American ghostwriter to help speed things along. The
ghostwriter discovered, to the publisher’s consternation, that Mandela’s
autobiography had advanced with only a smattering of “I’s”; his preferred,
default personal pronoun was “we” as in “we, the ANC.” The ghostwriter
was tasked with disaggregating that movement “we” and channeling it into
an “I” story that American readers and Oprah viewers would recognize and
respond to. For Maathai, as for Mandela, the single-authored movement
memoir raises profound representational dilemmas intricately entangled
with transnational power imbalances in the publishing industry—entan-
gled, too, with the genre expectations of projected readers, who reside
mostly in the global North. Maathai’s 2004 Nobel Peace Prize—and with it,
the publishers’ investment in a celebrity memoir—intensifi ed the pressure
on the writer to recast a collective struggle in largely personal terms. Under
such circumstances, to testify is to confi rm certain genre expectations and
thereby to shape the way political movements, not least environmental jus-
tice movements, are narrated and remembered.

Although Unbowed is subtitled “A Memoir,” that someone odd designa-
tion seems symptomatic of the mood of American publishing in the early
21

st century, when “memoir” was a hipper, more saleable category than the
fusty-sounding “autobiography” to which Unbowed more properly belongs.
The memoirs that boosted the genre’s visibility, sales, and cultural cachet—
Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Frank McCourt’s
Angela’s Ashes, Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It,
Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors, and James Frey’s A Million Little
Pieces—typically focused on a specifi c trauma (addiction, incest, bulimia)
and had a narrow social frame, centered on familial dysfunction. They were
written by unknown fi gures and read largely for their intimate, sometimes
scandalously, confessional tone. By contrast, Unbowed unfolds across a vast
social canvas, is focused on a dysfunctional nation-state rather than a dys-
functional individual or family, and is authored by a woman of international
renown. If this is a “misery memoir” then the primary source of that misery

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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is a patriarchal, authoritarian nation-state and the solution is not some per-
sonal twelve-step plan but collective dissidence which, in the writing, gets
routed through an iconic individual life.

By contemporary American memoir standards, Unbowed is wholesome,
quite private, even withholding. As such the book has more in common
with the older autobiographical tradition of, say, Ben Franklin, where the
focus is on the grand sweep of a lifetime’s accomplishments. Maathai is less
prone to self-hagiography than Franklin, but she is similarly inclined toward
extracting lessons, even parables, from experiences: that hard work pays off;
that, in her words, she needed “to pull myself up by my bootstraps;” how the
values instilled in her as a child stood her in good stead; how morality and
optimism will see off adversity. In contrast to most contemporary Ameri-
can memoirists, Maathai represents her childhood and family as profoundly
functional to the point of being idealized. Pitched somewhere between The
Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin and Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Free-
dom (with an environmental, feminist twist), Maathai’s narrative is didactic
and solution-oriented. In her complex balancing act between self-effacement
and heroic self-fashioning, she has to translate, at every turn, her self hood
into forms amenable to her largely American audience.

Environmental Agency and Ungovernable
Women: Carson and Maathai

Wangari Maathai and Rachel Carson each sought, in their different cultural
milieus, to shift the parameters of what is commonly perceived as violence.
They devoted themselves to questioning shibboleths about development and
progress, to making visible the overlooked casualties of accumulative envi-
ronmental injury, and to mobilizing public sentiment—especially among
women—against the institutionalized deceptions and profi table complici-
ties of a male power elite. Both writer-activists questioned the orthodox,
militarized vision of security as suffi cient to cope with the domino effects of
exponential environmental risk, not least the intergenerational risk to food
security.39 Indeed, both saw the militarization of their societies—cold-war
America of the late 1950s and early 1960s and Moi’s tyrannized Kenya of
the 1980s and 1990s—as exacerbating the environmental degradation that
threatened long-term stability (locally, nationally, and transnationally).

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 4 5 ]

Retrospectively, it is easy to focus on the achievements of these two tow-
ering fi gures: the social movements they helped build, the changes in leg-
islation and public perception they helped catalyze, Maathai’s Nobel Peace
Prize, the selection of Silent Spring as the most infl uential work of nonfi ction
of the twentieth century. Yet it is important to acknowledge the embattled
marginalization and vilifi cation both women had to endure at great per-
sonal cost in order to ensure that their unorthodox visions of environmental
violence and its repercussions gained political traction. Their marginality
was wounding but emboldening, the engine of their originality.

Carson and Maathai were multiply extra-institutional: as female scien-
tists (anomalies for their time and place); as scientists working outside the
structures and strictures of the university; and as unmarried women. On all
fronts, they had to weather ad feminam assaults from male establishments
whose orthodoxies were threatened by their autonomy.

Although Carson had a master’s degree in biology, fi nancial pressures
and the pressures of caring for dependent relatives had prevented her from
pursuing a Ph.D. Her background was in public science writing; she had no
university affi liation, at a time, one should add, when only one percent of
tenured scientists in America were women.40 But by the time she came to
embark on Silent Spring, her best-selling books on the sea had given her some
fi nancial autonomy. Carson’s institutional and economic independence
freed her to set her own research agenda, to engage in unearthing, synthe-
sizing and promoting environmental research that had been suppressed or
sidelined by the funding priorities of the major research institutions, whose
agendas she recognized as compromised by the entangled special interests
of agribusiness, the chemical and arms industries, and by the headlong rush
to profi table product development.

Carson’s detractors questioned her professional authority, her patrio-
tism, her ability to be unemotional, and the integrity of her scientifi c com-
mitment to intergenerational genetic issues, given that she was a “spinster.”
“Why is a spinster with no children so concerned about genetics? She is
probably a Communist,” a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture intoned.41

Hostile reviewers dismissed Carson’s arguments as “hysterically over-
emphatic” and as “more emotional than accurate.”42 The general counsel
for Velsicol, a Chicago chemical company, accused Carson of being under
the sway of “sinister infl uences” whose purpose was “to reduce the use of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 4 6 ]

agricultural chemicals in this country and the countries of western Europe,
so that our supply of food will be reduced to east-curtain parity.”43 Other
commentators deduced that “Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfi sh-
ness of insecticide manufacturers probably refl ects her Communist sym-
pathies.”44 Carson’s nemesis, the chemical industry spokesman Dr. Robert
White-Stevens (who gave twenty-eight speeches against Silent Spring in a
single year) opined that “if man were to faithfully follow the teachings of
Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages.”45 In the ultimate vilifi ca-
tion of Carson as embodying a model of irrational female treachery, a critic
in Aerosol Age concluded that “Miss Carson missed her calling. She might
have used her talents in telling war propaganda of the type made famous by
Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally.”46

Twenty-fi ve years on and Maathai’s opponents were brandishing even
more outrageous ad feminam threats and insinuations against an autono-
mous female scientist who threatened the political and environmental
status quo. Maathai was not a “spinster,” but she was a divorcée, a label
her opponents wielded against her relentlessly. Like Carson, she was rep-
resented as overly emotional and unhinged, an unnatural woman, uncon-
trollable, unattached, without a husband to rein her in and keep her (and
her ideas) respectable. If the chemical-agricultural establishment sought to
dismiss Carson, who lacked a Ph.D., as unqualifi ed to speak, Kenya’s power
elite tried to discredit Maathai—the fi rst woman in East or Central Africa
to receive a doctorate in any scientifi c fi eld—as suspiciously overqualifi ed,
as a woman who had to be brought down because she was overreaching.47
When she led the protests against government plans for the private “devel-
opment” of Uhuru Park, one parliamentarian declared, “I don’t see why we
should listen to a bunch of divorced women.” Another politician portrayed
her as a “madwoman”; a third threatened to “circumcise” her if she ever set
foot in his district.48

As a highly educated woman scientist, an advocate of women’s rights, and
a proponent of environmentalism for the poor, Maathai was vulnerable, on
multiple fronts, to charges of inauthenticity and, like Carson, of unpatriotic
behavior. A Kenyan cabinet minister railed against Maathai as “an ignorant
and ill-tempered puppet of foreign masters.”49 Another criticized her for “not
being enough of an African woman,” of being “a white woman in black skin.”50
Such critics typically adhered to a gender-specifi c nativism: as Maathai notes,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 4 7]

Kenyan men freely adopted Western languages, Western dress, and the tech-
nological trappings of modernity, while expecting women to be the markers
and bearers of “tradition.”51 President Moi (who imprisoned Maathai several
times) chastised her for being “disobedient”; if she were “a proper woman in
the African tradition— [she] should respect men and be quiet.”52

As Kwame Anthony Appiah has observed, the charge of inauthenticity is
an inherently unstable one:

Nativists may appeal to identities that are both wider and nar-

rower than the nation: to ‘tribes’ and towns, below the nation-

state; to Africa, above. And, I believe, we shall have the best

chance of re-directing nativism’s power if we challenge not the

rhetoric of the tribe, the nation, or the continent, but the topol-

ogy that it presupposes, the opposition it asserts.53

This is certainly borne out in Maathai’s case: she fell foul of proliferating
“uns”—un-African, un-Kenyan, un-Kikuyu, unpatriotic, ungovernable,
unmarried, unbecoming of a woman. But through her intersectional envi-
ronmentalism she sought to circumvent the binaries of authentication. One
strategy she used to sidestep such oppositional topologies was to seek out
local environmental practices that were consistent with but not necessarily
reducible to notions like biodiversity, the commons, and ecological stew-
ardship. So, for example, Maathai recounts the Kikuyu injunction against
cutting down fi g trees which, with their widespread root systems and broad
canopies help anchor sandbanks and shade vulnerable streambeds.54 That
injunction, passed down to her in childhood by her grandmother, serves in
her narrative to foreshadow the green values that, on returning from Amer-
ica, she rescripts in the discourse of environmental science. As a “been-to”
(a returnee from the West) and a go-between, Maathai ends up tacking
back and forth strategically between nativist declarations (“I’m a child of
my native soil”) and invocations of a cosmopolitan science.55 By positioning
herself as a transnational patriot with deep local roots, and by assiduously
striving to reconcile her commitment to Kenya and to planetary values,
Maathai seeks to defl ect charges of treachery. So, too, she is careful not to
articulate her views on women and tradition through a universalized femi-
nism, but by invoking counter-currents within Kikuyu cultural practices.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 4 8 ]

In these ways, we witness Maathai actively trying to defuse the accusation
that her behavior is unwomanly and that her purported triple betrayal (of
her gender, her culture, and her nation) is indissociable from her role as a
Westernized agent of “green imperialism.”

The vehement attacks on Maathai and Carson are a measure both of insti-
tutionalized misogyny and of how much is at stake (politically, economically,
and professionally) in keeping the insidious dynamics and repercussions of
slow violence concealed from view. While personally vulnerable, Maathai
and Carson were threatening because they stood outside powerful systems
of scientifi c patronage, academic intimidation, and silencing kickbacks.
Their cultural contexts differed widely, but their extrainstitutional positions
allowed them the scientifi c autonomy and political integrity to speak out
against attritional environmental violence and help mobilize against it.

Quotidian Terrors

If Maathai’s nativist detractors sought to discredit her as an enemy of
national development, , when awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize she faced,
a different style of criticism from abroad. Carl I. Hagen, leader of Norway’s
Progress Party, typifi ed this line of aggressive disbelief: “It’s odd,” Hagen
observed “that the [Nobel] committee has completely overlooked the unrest
that the world is living with daily, and given the prize to an environmental
activist.”56 The implications of Hagen’s position are clear: nineteen months
into the Iraq War and, amidst the war in Afghanistan, the wider “war on ter-
ror,” and tumult in the Middle East, Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere, to honor
an environmentalist for planting trees was to trivialize confl ict resolution
and to turn one’s back on the most urgent issues of the hour.

Maathai, however, sought to recast the question of urgency in a differ-
ent time frame, one that challenged the dominant associations of two of the
early twenty-fi rst century’s most explosive words: “preemptive” and “ter-
ror.” The Green Belt Movement focused not on conventional ex post facto
confl ict resolution but on confl ict preemption through nonmilitary means.
As Maathai insisted, “many wars are fought over natural resources. In man-
aging our resources and in sustainable development we plant the seeds of
peace.”57 This approach has discursive, strategic, and legislative ramifi ca-
tions for the “global war on terror.” Most of our planet’s people face more

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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slow v iolence, gender, a nd the en v ironmenta lism of the poor

[1 4 9 ]

immediate terrors than a terrorist attack: creeping deserts that reduce farms
to sand; the incremental assaults of climate change compounded by defores-
tation; not knowing where tonight’s meal will come from; unsafe drinking
water; having to walk fi ve or ten miles to collect fi rewood to keep one’s chil-
dren warm and fed. Such quotidian terrors haunt the lives of hundreds of
millions immiserated, abandoned, and humiliated by authoritarian rule and
by a purportedly postcolonial new-world order. Under such circumstances,
slow violence (often coupled with direct repression) can ignite tensions, cre-
ating fl ashpoints of desperation and explosive rage.58

“Local disasters,” writes Wai Chee Dimock, “are the almost predictable
side effects of global geopolitics. They are part of a larger distributive pat-
tern—a pattern of unequal protection that Ulrich Beck calls the global ‘risk
society’—with the risk falling on the least privileged, and being maximized
at just those points where the resources have been most depleted.”59 Dimock
is refl ecting here on the impact on the poor of the prelude to and the after-
math of Hurricane Katrina, yet her words apply with equal force to contem-
porary Kenya and many other societies in the global South, where structures
of slow violence sustain tinderbox conditions that cynical political elites can
readily ignite at great cost to a society’s systemically disenfranchised.

Perhaps to Hagen and others like him, tree planting is confl ict resolution
lite; it lacks a dramatic, decisive, newsworthy military focus. But Maathai,
by insisting that resource bottlenecks impact sustainable security at local,
national, and global levels, and by insisting that the environmentalism of
the poor is inseparable from distributive justice, has done more than forge
a broad political alliance against Kenyan authoritarian rule. Through her
testimony and through her movement’s collective example, she has sought
to reframe confl ict resolution for an age when instant cinematic catastro-
phe has tended to overshadow violence that is calamitous in more insidious
ways. This, then, is Wangari Maathai’s contribution to the ‘“war on terror”:
building a movement committed, in her words, to “reintroducing a sense of
security among ordinary people so they do not feel so marginalized and so
terrorized by the state.”60

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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5

Unimagined Communities

Megadams, Monumental Modernity, and Developmental Refugees

The highest expression of dignity can be summed up in the single
word “No!”

—Dai Qing, “China: Rivers and Dams,”
Goldman Environmental Prize speech

If the idea of the modern nation-state is sustained by pro-
ducing imagined communities, it also involves actively producing unimag-
ined communities. I refer here not to those communities that lie beyond the
national boundaries but rather to those unimagined communities internal
to the space of the nation-state, communities whose vigorously unimagined
condition becomes indispensable to maintaining a highly selective discourse
of national development. Narratives of national development are partial nar-
ratives that depend on energetically inculcated habits of imaginative limit,
habits that hide from view communities that inconvenience or disturb the
implied trajectory of unitary national ascent. Assaults on a nation’s envi-
ronmental resources frequently entail not just the physical displacement
of local communities, but their imaginative displacement as well, indeed
on the prior rhetorical and visual evacuation of those communities from
the idea of the developing nation-state. This imaginative work of expulsion

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 5 1]

typically predates the arrival of the police, the dogs, the lorries, the bulldoz-
ers, and the engineers. Thus the direct violence of physical eviction becomes
coupled to an indirect bureaucratic and media violence that creates and sus-
tains the conditions for administered invisibility. The result is what I have
called spatial amnesia, as communities, under the banner of development,
are physically unsettled and imaginatively removed, evacuated from place
and time and thus uncoupled from the idea of both a national future and a
national memory.

We witnessed a classic instance of this process with the invention, under
apartheid, of what were called “surplus people.” Largely women and chil-
dren, these “surplus people” were deemed superfl uous to the labor mar-
ket and to the idea of national development and were forcibly removed or
barred from cities.1 Trucked to remote rural areas—the so-called “dump-
ing grounds”—they were “resettled” in overcrowded conditions, with no
viable means of sustenance. The consequences—human and environmen-
tal—were disastrous. Crucially, the dynamics of forced removal depended
both on direct police violence and on the administration of an imaginative
violence whereby certain communities were designated indispensable to the
nation and others designated expendable and driven—literally trucked—out
of sight. This invention of surplus people through the conjoined processes of
imaginative expulsion and forced removal was far from unique to apartheid
South Africa. Indeed, the production of ghosted communities who haunt the
visible nation has been essential for maintaining the dominant narratives of
national development, a process that has intensifi ed during the era of neo-
liberal globalization. The intertwined processes of imaginative and physical
eviction have assumed a particularly dramatic force around the construction
of megadams, those iconic structures of monumental modernity that serve
to concretize the idea that developing nations are “catching up,” as evidenced
by spectacular, televisable, soaring feats of world-class engineering.

When it comes to narratives of resource development—whether of
water, oil and gas, minerals, or forests—the people recast as “surplus” are
most often rural, or at least people sent ricocheting between rural and urban
desperation. Often they are ecosystem people, dependent for their survival
on the seasonal cycles of adjoining ecosystems and therefore often living in
circumstances of necessarily adaptable mobility. In many instances, their
relationship to the land is historically deep but legally informal. Thus their

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 5 2 ]

imaginative expulsion from narratives of national development is facilitated
by the frequent lack of offi cial title deeds to the ecosystems that have sus-
tained them for centuries or, in some cases, millennia.

In considering the unimagined communities cast into shadow by the
looming imaginative edifi ce that is the megadam, we may usefully append
to the idea of surplus people two other notions: “developmental refugees”
and “uninhabitants.” The anthropologist Thayer Scudder coined the term
“developmental refugees” to convey the calamitous fallout of megadams
(largely World Bank funded) that he had charted for decades in the global
South.2 Scudder estimated the number of people displaced by such dams at
somewhere between 30 million to 60 million.3 Almost without exception
such displacements have resulted in declining key barometers of quality of
life: nutrition, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, and environmental
viability. Even the World Bank itself determined in a 1994 study that of 192
dam resettlement projects it had funded, only one had involved adequate
compensation and rehabilitation for those resettled.4

The “developmental refugee” is a poignantly paradoxical fi gure. Devel-
opment implies positive growth, ascent toward a desirable end; refugee
implies fl ight from a grave threat—in this case, the threat of development-
infl icted destitution or even, when it comes to megadams, of drowning. In
horizontal terms, the notion of the developmental refugee holds in tension
an offi cial, centripetal logic of national development on the one hand and
on the other, a terrifying, centrifugal narrative of displacement, disposses-
sion, and exodus. In vertical terms, the megadam as icon of national ascent
becomes coupled to the descending prospects of communities that have
become ecologically unmoored, cut off from a drowned commons that,
however modestly or precariously, had proffered a diverse diet, a livelihood,
and a sustained temporal identity of continuity within change. In the wake
of the megadam such communities are, in the most literal sense, inundated
by development.

The idea of “developmental refugees” overlaps with another paradoxi-
cal notion, that of the “uninhabitant.” The term surfaces in an interview
Rebecca Solnit conducted for her superb essay on the Nevada Test Site (in
Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West).5 The
essay stands as a powerful attempt to counter the cold-war reinvention
of the Nevada Desert as an empty, isolated space, sealed against culture

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 5 3 ]

and memory. Solnit repopulates the emptiness by bringing into focus the
people who had been turned into ghosted casualties of a federal project of
imaginative self-enclosure that concealed them from view: the downwind-
ers and the Western Shoshone on whose territory the nuclear tests were
conducted, as well as their Soviet counterparts, the nomads of the Kazakh-
stan Desert/Semi-Palatinsk, people whose lands, culture, and rights Soviet
explosions decimated during the violently contrapuntal rivalry from cold-
war nuclear “development.” Savage Dreams offers a transnational bridge
between those two desert spaces, both spaces of amnesia predicated on
imaginative evacuations.6

There is an especially telling incident in Solnit’s nuclear journey that
becomes central to the question with which this chapter began: what is
the relationship between an actively imagined national community and
actively unimagined communities on which the idea of national develop-
ment depends? While traveling through southern Utah, 150 miles east of the
Nevada Test Site, Solnit encounters a downwinder, Janet Gordon, who has
lost many family and friends prematurely from cancer. The area Gordon
and her family inhabited was largely Native land. Yet in the build-up to the
nuclear explosions, this land was offi cially declared “a virtually uninhabited
area.” “We became,” Gordon observes in a mordantly resonant phrase, “vir-
tual uninhabitants.”7

Gordon’s phrase is readily adaptable to the imaginative force fi eld of the
megadam, for it holds in equipoise ideas of presence and absence—absence
not as originary but as imposed through a war against presence, as inhabit-
ants drop off offi cial maps and plummet into zones of invisibility. People
like the Nevada Test Site’s Western Shoshone were evacuated not just from
their lands but from public awareness—two intimately entangled processes
of forced removal.8 Other residents of the area, like the Gordons, were not
physically removed but had their status downgraded from inhabitants to
virtual uninhabitants: they were and were not there, existing in a kind of
vaporized dwelling.

This violent conversion of inhabitant into uninhabitant has been a
recurrent trauma amidst the spread of gargantuan dams across the so-
called developing world. People viewed as irrational impediments to
“progress” have been statistically—and sometimes fatally—disappeared.
The story behind Guatemala’s Chixoy Dam forcefully illustrates this. To

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 5 4 ]

quell opposition to the dam and to speed up the clearing of the submer-
gence zone, in March 1980 Guatemalan paramilitary units conducted a
series of massacres, slaughtering 378 Maya Achi Indians. The brutality took
a bloody, local form, but the decisive players were the invisible, bloodless
transnational collaborators with the Guatemalan dictatorship: the World
Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank who buttressed the dam
with their loans. Their endeavors, in turn, were made possible by a con-
sortium from American, Swiss, and German engineering consultants who
declared in their feasibility report that “in the tract of the study . . . there
is almost no population.”9 Thus, with the stroke of a pen, 3,400 “Project-
Affected People”—including many who would soon be murdered for devel-
opment—became virtual uninhabitants.10

Megadams and the Countersublime

Given America’s historic role as megadam pioneer, it is perhaps predictable
that so many of the twentieth century’s most vocal literary opponents of
hydraulic hubris—John Muir, Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and David
Brower—would be concentrated in the United States. All these writers,
signifi cantly, lived in the lightly populated American West and all were
associated primarily with a wilderness ethic. But in the twentieth century’s
fi nal year, a quite different strain of literary opposition to gargantuan dams
rose to prominence with the publication of Arundhati Roy’s “The Greater
Common Good,” the fi rst in a volley of polemics she launched against the
serial damming of India’s Narmada River. Some 3,000 dams were slated for
the river and its tributaries, including thirty megadams; most notorious
was the mammoth Sardar Sarovar Dam, which became a symbolic focus
for activists from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Move-
ment), led by Medha Patkar, a cause that Roy’s voice helped amplify nation-
ally and internationally.

The historical timing, geopolitical circumstances, and rhetorical strate-
gies of Roy’s classic essay set it apart in signifi cant ways from the dominant
strains of American anti-megadam literature. First, “The Greater Common
Good” is a post–cold war essay whose backdrop is the hegemonic rise of
neoliberal globalization, dominated by a single superpower in cahoots with
the G8, and the corresponding ascent of an antiglobalization movement.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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(“The Greater Common Good” appeared in 1999, the year of the Seattle
WTO protests.) A second major difference between Roy’s invective and
most American anti-dam writing derives from a historical and geographi-
cal shift in the global big dam industry. By 1999, India had become the
world’s third most prolifi c dam builder. Roy sought to expose the collusions
between a fascist strain of Hindu nationalism at home and neoliberal global-
izers, notably the megadam boosters at the World Bank and in the Western-
based dam industry that, one notes, like the tobacco industry was shifting its
exploitative center of gravity to the global South, where huge profi ts could
be accumulated in conditions where health, safety, and environmental regu-
lations were absent, lax, or poorly enforced.

The third, critical difference is this: the giant dams Roy opposed were
located in rural areas densely populated with subsistence farmers, areas
quite unlike the thinly peopled hinterland of the American West. Roy’s rhe-
torical strategies are thus remote from those associated with the traditions
of the wilderness ethic. Instead, her approach borrows from and advances
the rhetoric of an international environmental justice movement that did
not exist in any comparable form during the years when Edward Abbey,
much less John Muir, was writing.

We can ground these differences by contrasting the strategies and cir-
cumstances of the Save the Narmada movement (and Roy’s writerly role
within it) to those that characterized the mid-1960s movement—in which
both Abbey and Brower were prominent—opposing Glen Canyon and other
Colorado megadams. The driving spirit behind the loose alliance of mon-
key wrenchers and desert rats in the American West was anarchist; their
strategic vocabulary was drawn from the wilderness sublime, a discourse
that enfolded elements of eulogy and elegy. The wilderness sublime became
inseparable from a contest over the rhetoric of the monumental: a clash
between transcendent engineering and a transcendent geology invested
with awe and grandeur. For Brower, “the most beautiful place in all the
region of Glen Canyon was a cavernous space, under the vaulting rock walls,
that had been named the Cathedral in the Desert.”11 Brower, like Abbey,
became a public relations maestro in the vernacular of the countersublime:
“Lake Powell is a drag strip for power boats . . . The magic of Glen Canon is
dead. Putting water in the Cathedral in the Desert was like urinating in the
crypt of St. Peter’s.”12 An anti-dam coalition placed an advertisement in the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 5 6 ]

New York Times that asked, “Should we fl ood the Sistine Chapel so tourists
can get nearer the ceiling?”13

Such strategies depended on a Manichean, trans-Atlantic split between
a cultural and a natural sublime, whereby Europe’s soaring, hallowed archi-
tecture became shorthand for Culture and the American West’s soaring, geo-
logical edifi ces shorthand for Nature or, more specifi cally, Nature’s Nation.
Thirty years on, in the Narmada Valley, such polarities were unfeasible for
political, historical, and topographical reasons. At stake in the Narmada
were literal temples not metaphoric ones, temples to be drowned, alongside
the villages they had served for centuries, by the monsoon waters that rose
higher each year with the ever-rising dam walls. When Roy writes that the
Narmada dams were causing the “submerging of culture,” she refers to the
inundation of densely populated village cultures inextricable from fl ood-
plain ecosystems in “the only valley in India, according to archaeologists,
that contains an uninterrupted record of human occupation from the Stone
Age.”14 This is a far cry from the inundation of symbolic temples of nature
whose paradigmatic witness is an antisocial, often misanthropic man roam-
ing a wilderness in resplendent solitude.

The aesthetic contrasts embedded in all this are deeply informed
by divergent economic structures. The contest over the Colorado dams
remained internal to the United States: the economics of the megadams was
federally managed and nationally contained. By contrast, the damming of
the Narmada Valley—as is typical in the global South, from Panama, Guatel-
mala, and Belize to Cameroon, Cambodia, and Krygystan—was dependent
on transnational funding structures of neoliberal globalization. Hence the
Sardar Sarovar became an iconic battle with ramifi cations far beyond India.
This is where Roy, for all her contentiousness within India, became an indis-
pensable translator for international audiences of the wider implications the
Narmada Valley struggle had for environmental justice movements else-
where. She assumed this role by exposing the global machinery of the big
dam industry, the paradigmatic plight of downstream tribals, the ecological
costs and the connection of all of these elements to a hegemonic neoliberal
global order.

If, as I am suggesting, big dams themselves are (beyond any possible
utility) a kind of national performance art, it was the genius of Abbey and
his gonzo anarchists to recognize the dam wall as a blank staging ground

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 5 7]

for outsize guerilla theatre that could be projected into the homes of the
fi rst television nation. Abbey viscerally understood the high-stakes politics
of spectacle and counterspectacle. The massive dam face represented the
monumentalism of national modernity, but it could also represent—espe-
cially amidst 1960s cold-war paranoia—the monumentalism of the apoca-
lypse. Onto the blank canvas of the televised dam wall could be projected a
nation’s outsize hopes, but also its outsize fears. Long before one could Pho-
toshop nuclear explosions into the landscape, Abbey and his fellow gonzos
unfurled a 300-foot sheet of black polyurethane down the face of Glen Can-
yon wall. This plausible crack, picked up with alarm by television stations,
linked the elegiac anger of anti-dam anarchists to an apocalyptic visual
rhetoric. If the death of Glen Canyon became a leitmotif in Abbey’s writing,
perhaps for legal reasons, his activist response is generically divided, vacil-
lating between nonviolent anti-dam activism in his nonfi ction and violence
in his fi ction. The closest he comes in his nonfi ction to advocating direct
anti-dam violence—what one might euphemistically call the informal
decommissioning of Glen Canyon Dam—occurs in Desert Solitaire, where
he fantasizes about “the loveliest explosion ever seen by man, reducing the
great dam to a heap of rubble in the path of the river. The splendid new
rapids thus created we will name Floyd E. Dominy Falls.”15 However, in
his most celebrated novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey moves beyond
both fantasy and gonzo theatre and has his eco-anarchists push the lever
that detonates the wall.

The Politics of Visibility, the Politics of Scale

Two epochal Indian environmental events occasioned Roy’s decision to
redirect her creative energies from fi ction toward the polemical, interven-
tionist essay. The desert nuclear tests the BJP government conducted in
May 1998 (and to which Pakistan responded in kind) were followed in Feb-
ruary 1999 by an apparently unrelated development: after a four-year legal
stay, the Supreme Court of India gave the go ahead to resume construc-
tion on the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. With two small
essays on two outsize subjects—the megaweapon and the megadam—Roy
launched her second career as an international writer-activist, whose cen-
tral preoccupations are the politics of visibility, distance, and scale. What

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[1 5 8 ]

she alighted on, in these pre-9/11 essays, was the way a populist visual
rhetoric of nationalism—a visual rhetoric one might describe as fusing the
technological sublime with the sacralizing of spectacle—expressed and
helped enable a fascist turn in India. That turn diminished the rights of the
citizenry, widened the gap between haves and have-nots, and quickened
the centralizing of economic power and privilege. Roy’s instincts for this
dynamic foreshadowed what would become one of her signature, expan-
sive themes over the next decade: during the post-9/11 “war on terror,” she
would rail in essay after essay against how a hubristic global, neo-liberal
order was widening the gulf, inside the nation and beyond, between devel-
opment’s benefi ciaries and its casualties. To borrow Gadgil and Guha’s
useful opposition, the gulf was widening, in particular, between India’s
omnivores and its ecosystem people.

By pairing her essays on India’s nuclear tests and the Narmada Val-
ley dams, Roy sought—controversially—to bring big dam building into
the domain of violence. Through these essays, Roy gives focus to a larger
drama: the way India’s outsize, self-assertive modernity depends on render-
ing invisible stories of national exclusion. As such, her interrogation of what
counts as modernity becomes inseparable from her tenacious attentiveness
to the conjoined politics of scale and the politics of invisibility.

Together, Roy’s paired essays on the bomb and the megadam pose one
central question: at the turn of the millennium, what did it mean to be a
major modern nation? Or rather, what did it mean, as a nation, to display
modernity? The detonation of a “Hindu” bomb became a spectacle staged
simultaneously as a declaration of great nation status, via the mastery of
science and nature, and as a supernatural portent: “‘The desert shook,’ the
government of India informed us . . . ‘The whole mountain turned white,’
the government of Pakistan replied . . . One scientist on seeing [the blast]
said, ‘I can now believe stories of Lord Krishna lifting a hill.’”16 On both
sides of the border the bombs set off serial media explosions of national
self-aggrandizement expressed through the languages of the technological
sublime, national religious destiny, and a virile jingoism: “We have proved
we are not eunuchs any more.” “We have superior strength and potency.”
“These are not just nuclear tests, they are nationalism tests.”17 The conver-
gence of the technological sublime, manifest destiny, and a hubristic, jingo-
istic refusal of limit has, of course, its own variant in the entangled nuclear

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unim agined communities

[1 5 9 ]

and hydrological histories of the American West. “What do you do,” Wal-
lace Stegner asks, “if you are a nation accustomed to plenty and impatient
of restrictions and led westward by pillars of fi re and cloud? You try to engi-
neer it out of existence.”18 The very notion of the Bureau of Reclamation is
suggestive of such national hubris: the federal agency was tasked not with
claiming the desert through megadams and irrigation, but with reclaiming
it, as if the arid West were once fertile federal property wrongfully seized by
sinister desert forces.

In both Roy’s nuclear and her megadam essays, one senses a mistrust
of her government’s outsize technological assertions of India’s modernity,
of the way these purportedly unifying spectacles of imagined community
have been predicated on violent habits of imaginative disconnection—what
I am calling the nation’s unimagined communities. The much-vaunted sur-
vivable nuclear war against Pakistan rested on just such a dissociative fan-
tasy: that contiguous nations sharing sky, air, and water could avoid being
radiated and poisoned in unbounded ways when citizens on both sides of
the nuclear divide were also ineluctably regional citizens of an unparti-
tioned Earth. One senses a similar turn in “The Greater Common Good,”
wherein Roy exposes the imaginative disconnect between “the most ambi-
tious river valley development project ever conceived in human history”
and the human and ecological disasters that fl ow from that grandiose proj-
ect of national reengineering.19

Roy’s radical, controversial move was to view the Indian government’s
nuclear and hydrological hubris as two versions of a single mindset rather
than divide them into a purely malign and a purely benign spectacle of
modernity.20 Her conjoining of her antinuclear and antimegadam polemics
suggests this explicit pairing can help shift our perspective on what quali-
fi es as modernity. This—at least implicitly—is one alternative defi nition
of modernity: “The orbits of the powerful and the powerless spinning fur-
ther and further apart from each other.”21 As William Finnegan observes in
another context, “It is simplistic, even misleading, to talk about whole nations
as winners or losers under the current globalization regime, since there are,
in every country, signifi cant groups of both winners and losers.”22 Thus, at
the heart of Roy’s exposé of the megadam as a grandiose, highly selective,
divisive fi ction of Indian modernity lies an integrative ambition: the desire
to imagine the Narmada Valley dams not just from the distant orbit of the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 6 0 ]

powerful modernizers (those who, in her words, conduct “imperialism by
email”) but from the more intimate orbit of the powerless as well, that is,
from the vantage point of those whom we might variously call modernity’s
surplus people, its developmental refugees, and its virtual uninhabitants.

The Writer-Activist and the Submergence Zone

At the heart of Roy’s polemical method is the very writerly subject of imagi-
native limit. If her nuclear essay engages the quandary of how to give sen-
sory defi nition to the unimaginable—the more or less evenhanded disaster
of atomic apocalypse—the companion essay protesting the mass dam-
ming of the Narmada River engages the imaginative dilemmas posed by
an unequally distributed catastrophe. Here the primary quandary becomes
how to bring into imaginative focus threatened communities and ecosys-
tems rendered invisible by the celebratory developmental rhetoric that
gushes from big dam technocrats, cabinet ministers, World Bankers, and
media moguls. The World Bank, a larger-than-life character in Roy’s non-
fi ction, made an early, premonitory cameo appearance in The God of Small
Things, when Estha strolls “along the banks of the river that smelled of
shit and pesticides bought with World Bank loans.”23 The very notion of
the World Bank, one notes, contains a dead aquatic metaphor. Banks shore
up investments, control streams of capital and global fl ows. If we pause to
refl ect on the submerged metaphor of the World Bank, we see that a river
runs through it.

Across scores of essays, Roy returns to the connection between the tyr-
anny of scale and the politics of a violent invisibility. These have become
the signature subjects—the great binding themes—of her writings on envi-
ronmental justice, globalization, empire, and the war on terror. It is no acci-
dent that, in the triumphal aftermath of The God of Small Things, she turned
to confront the secular and religious gods of mammoth things: the World
Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization,
the American empire, the Murdoch empire, religious fundamentalism, the
war on terror, nuclear proliferation, and the megadam. Her novel’s out-
size success had bestowed on Roy a sudden, unexpected visibility that she
chose to channel into challenging the largely opaque collusions between
transnational and national forces that imperil the weave of human and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 6 1]

biotic communities. Her essays acknowledge that the mechanisms of these
giant, shape-shifting forces are diffi cult to track, visualize, dramatize, and
expose—and hence successfully oppose—not least when they promote the
megadam as a munifi cent, luminous icon of triumphal national progress, a
bright beacon on the road to great nation status.

In contrast to the encomiums that greeted the Hoover Dam, Roy’s
approach to India’s most iconic megadam focuses not on the scale of the
modern edifi ce but on the scale of the very modern forced removals it
incurs. The dam’s outsize dimensions are easily calculable yet, symptom-
atically, the outsize dimensions of the displacements remain unknown. A
direct relationship emerges between the massive imaginative displacement
required to sustain the developmental fantasy of a benign, redemptive
dam and the imaginative displacement required to suppress the fate of the
human and nonhuman casualties of the “submergence zone.” The bureau-
cratic euphemism of the “submergence zone” itself suggests the drowning
out of developmental refugee voices, voices rendered inaudible by the fl ood-
waters of gung-ho developmental rhetoric.

Roy’s obsession with the politics of scale and the politics of visibility call
to mind a similar preoccupation in the writings of John Berger, one of our
most astute contemporary writer-activists on the links between neoliberal
globalization and the transnational devastation of place, as community and
ecosystem. In his preoccupation with ways of seeing and not seeing—with
the invisibility industry—Berger is especially insightful on the violence
wrought by the rationalizing developmental rhetoric of the zone:

Extensive areas which were once rural places are being turned

into zones. The details of the process vary . . . The initial dis-

membering, however, always comes from elsewhere and from

corporate interests pursuing their appetite for ever more accu-

mulation, which means seizing natural resources (fi sh in Lake

Victoria, wood in the Amazon, petrol wherever it is to be found,

uranium in Gabon, etc.), regardless of to whom the land or

water belong . . . People in such zones lose all sense of residence

. . . Once this has happened, to restore any sense of domesticity

takes generations. Each year of such accumulation prolongs the

Nowhere in time and space.24

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Berger’s outrage is directly pertinent to the transformation of places of
residential subsistence and ecological complexity into hydrological zones
and submergence zones that, in the violence of their euphemized effects,
are second cousins to the so-called sacrifi ce zones of military strategy. The
patriotic-cum-technocratic discourse of zones displaces place, creating con-
ditions for the transformation of inhabitants into surplus people, barely vis-
ible beside the seductive image of the megadam as a towering miracle of
achieved modernity.

When refugees are severed from environments that have provided
ancestral sustenance they fi nd themselves stranded not just in place but in
time as well. Their improvised lives in makeshift camps are lives of tempo-
ral impoverishment. When a megadam obliterates a fl ood plain whose ebb
and fl ow has shaped the agricultural, fi shing, fruit and nut harvesting—and
hence nutritional—rhythms of a community, it also drowns the past: the
submergence zone swallows place-based connections to the dead, the dead
as living presences who move among past, present, and future, animating
time with connective meaning. It is in this sense that I read Berger’s warn-
ing of the generations it would take to rebuild “domesticity.” For if forced
removal involves agonizing adjustments to bleak accommodation, unfamil-
iar ecologies, and typically barren, hostile terrain, it involves the additional
challenge posed by temporal violence: how to survive in a truncated, sev-
ered present, torn by involuntary displacement from the numinous fabric
that had woven extended meaning from time-in-place.

As one of the most sensational, visually arresting spectacles of develop-
ment, the megadam readily defl ects attention from the undertow of violent
underdevelopment that follows in its wake, especially in densely populated
societies like India and China. The construction of Sardar Sarovar, Roy
argues, involves “an unacknowledged war.” Symptomatically, no offi cial fi g-
ures for the casualties of this war exist. The problem is not that such people
have been reduced to statistics but that they’ve been reduced to nonstatis-
tics, a whole different level of dehumanization—indeed, one defi nition of
surplus people. To gain a more textured sense of the conversion of inhabit-
ants of “hydrological zones” into uninhabitants who (if represented at all)
fi gure as backward impediments to the developmental advancement of the
nation proper, we need to consider the specifi c violent and nonviolent strate-
gies deployed.

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[1 6 3 ]

Five main strategies have been used to deny the rights of “hydrological
zone” inhabitants. The fi rst is the blunt threat of direct violence: forced
removal at military or paramilitary gunpoint or via the barrel of a dam.
(Here is Morarji Desai, addressing villagers in the submergence zone of
the Pong Dam in 1961: “We will request you to move from your houses
after the dam comes up. If you move, it will be good. Otherwise we shall
release the waters and drown you all.”)25 The second strategy (often used
in tandem with direct violence) involves a rhetorical appeal to selective self-
sacrifi ce: your loss, your suffering is for the greater good—a heroic offering
on the pyre of national development. (Here is Nehru, in 1948, exhorting the
communities about to be dispossessed by the Hirakud Dam: “If you suffer,
you should suffer in the interest of the country.”)26

The third strategy for denying “hydrological zone” inhabitants their
rights and diminishing their visibility involves the indirect violence of
euphemism and acronym. The offi cial terminology favored by the World
Bank (for decades the core backer of megadams in the global South) is
PAPs—Projected-Affected People. This bloodless, technocratic, deviously
neutral term obscures the fact that those affected are inevitably negatively
affected—often doomed—by the project in question. “Project affected”
translates as involuntary eviction, loss of land, community dispersal, and
plummeting life prospects. To cut through the pseudoneutrality of such
bureaucratic jargon, big dam opponents have preferred a more direct lan-
guage that underscores the violence involved, advancing terms that range
from “oustees” (an Indian neologism that has since garnered international
currency) to Scudder’s “developmental refugees.”

In a fourth strategy the rights of those inhabiting a projected submer-
gence zone may be dismissed on the grounds that such people are cultur-
ally inferior—or indeed lack any culture to speak of. This strategy did not
end with the waning of direct colonialism: in postindependence India, the
Adivasis, or tribals, who together with the Dalits make up the majority of
oustees have been treated as expendable because they’re widely viewed as
culturally contemptible and marginal to the core Hindu nationalist param-
eters of Indian civilization, although the Adivasis’ presence in India long
predates Hinduism’s advent.27 I. M. Shah, a leading engineer in the Sardar
Sarovar, advocated sterilizing all Adivasis, while Vidhut Joshi of Gujarat’s
Gandhi Labour Institute argued that “a culture based on lower level of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 6 4 ]

technology and quality of life is bound to give way to a culture with superior
technology and higher quality of life. This is what we call development.”28

The treatment of such people as inconveniencing anachronisms in
a globalizing economy is often vindicated through fused discourses of
environmental and cultural utilitarian control, whereby the convergent
unruliness of “irrational” river people and an “irrational” river must be
straightened out and channeled into a national culture of rational develop-
ment. We thereby witness—and this is far from unique to India—a com-
bined assault on an “unregulated” river and purportedly “lawless” people.
Such communities can be readily dismissed as living benighted lives; they
belong, in the fullest sense of the dead metaphors, to a cultural backwater
not the national mainstream.29

The plight of river-reliant Adivasis and Dalits leads us to the fi fth strat-
egy for abrogating the rights of those dispossessed by hydrological mega-
schemes. For the question of cultural recognition—of what counts as a
culture—is intimately connected to the question of what counts as belong-
ing. The Adivasis—and indeed most oustees in the global South—do not
have title deed to the riverbanks, fl oodplains, river-dependent forests,
and catchment areas that have sustained them, in some cases for millen-
nia. Such people may belong to the land but, within a Lockeian logic of
private property, the land doesn’t belong to them. Thus in terms of the
right to remain (not to speak of the right to just compensation) they can
readily be cast as uninhabitants, residual presences from a precapitalist era
whose anachronistic criteria for dwelling may be overridden by the legal
logic of private property as self-development within a larger narrative of
national development. In these terms, oustees can be displaced without
being dispossessed.

For fl oodplain people, as for desert people, to live adaptively on the land
through cycles of mobility makes environmental and nutritional sense. One
can assert that much without romanticizing ways of living that are often
arduous, fraught with danger, and at times result in mismanaged resources.
Recession agriculture, for example, which depends on a river’s seasonal
vagaries, may involve a deeply cultural but always approximate environ-
mental dynamic. However, the perils of mobile adaptation to the risky,
unpredictable provisions of river and fl ood plain and the forests they sustain
pale beside the perilous life of the megadam refugee.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 6 5 ]

In Lockeian (and in Jeffersonian) terms, to dwell in movement is an
unacceptable, uncivilized, irrational contradiction: you are improving
neither the physical land nor yourself and, by extension, you’re failing to
advance the national interest. What counts as productive, legitimate,
bureaucratically authenticated residence thereby becomes inextricable from
the politics of visible self-improvement and the civilizational spectacle of the
nation. Thus, through the logic of a selective enlightenment that discrimi-
nates against environmentally viable mobility, a deep temporal belonging is
made shallow by the designation “informal residents.” From there, borrow-
ing from the pervasive discourse of the global “war on terror,” it is only one
rhetorical step to downgrading “informal residents” who protest eviction to
the status of “insurgents.”

Through the invention of emptiness—emptiness being the wrong kind
of presence—“underdeveloped” people on “underdeveloped” land can be
rendered spectral uninhabitants whose territory may be cleared to stage
the national theatrics of megadams and nuclear explosions, those certifi able
acts that mark the “developing” nation’s ascent into modernity’s pantheon.
Emptiness is an industry that needs constant rhetorical replenishment:
the promotion of megadams depends on such emptying out, on actively
administered invisibility. Within the dynamics of invisibility and hypervis-
ibility, the myths of emptiness generate unimagined—or at the very least,
underimagined—communities. The rationalizing logic of forced removal
and resource theft thereby suppresses an environmental justice variant of
Walter Rodney’s insight: that underdevelopment is not as an original condi-
tion of backwardness crying out for modernization, but in large measure
an infl icted condition, the legacy of a very modern external plunder by
far-off forces.

In the national and transnational resource wars, a double paradox asserts
itself. First, in what one might call the resource law of inverse longevity, the
longer a people have dwelled in an area in a condition of mobile adaptation,
the less they offi cially belong there, their tenure rendered precarious by a
Lockeian logic of what counts as belonging. Their residence, if acknowl-
edged at all, can be dismissed as extralegal. Second, in what one might call
the resource law of inverse proximity, the closer people live to the resources
being “developed,” the less likely they are to benefi t from that “develop-
ment,” be it water from megadams or oil pumped from beneath their lands.

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[1 6 6 ]

Megadams and the Limits of Postcolonialism

The twentieth century was the century of the megadam: in 1900, no dam on
our planet was higher than fi fteen meters; a hundred years later, there were
36, 562 dams that exceeded that height.30 This headlong rush not just to con-
trol the great rivers of the world but to control them with gargantuan struc-
tures had two primary political contexts. The fi rst was the cold war, which
saw the superpowers vying to demonstrate greater scientifi c and engineer-
ing supremacy, in the hydrological as in the nuclear domain. The megadam,
like the mushroom cloud, made an awesome, cinematic statement of super-
power prowess in the race to be the übermaster of natural mastery.31

Decolonization became the second primary political motor behind the
proliferation of megadams. Nasser, Nkrumah, and Nehru were all seduced
by the symbolism of epic dams at a time when these leaders were striv-
ing to give material solidity to a newly acquired state of independence.32
Grandiose dams (like the High Aswan in Egypt and the Akosombo in
Ghana) assumed a national psychological signifi cance over and above their
pragmatic promise. If the dam wars between the United States and the
Soviet Union became one front in a cold-war rivalry for visible technologi-
cal supremacy, in the newly independent nations of the global South the
fervor for megadams became expressive of a different rivalry, one infused
with an anxious politics of emulation: whatever our old colonial masters
can do, we can do as well. Unlike, say, a rise in literacy rates or life expec-
tancy, megadams served as highly visible, spectacular statements that new
nations were literally soaring toward development by mastering rivers and
reaching for the sky.

Constructions on such a scale rendered material the trope of nation
building: to erect a megadam was literally to concretize the postcolonial
nation’s modernity, prosperity, and autonomy. No nation boasting such
solid grandeur could be dismissed as backward or puny. Each dam was
simultaneously an act of national self-assertion—independence writ large
across the landscape—and an act of natural conquest. “Nasser and his asso-
ciates,” notes John Waterbury, “could no longer regard the dam as simply
a big engineering project, but rather came to hold it up as the symbol of
Egypt’s will to resist imperialist endeavours to destroy the revolution.” Such
redemptive symbolism gained populist traction, as crowds fl ocked to the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 6 7]

Egyptian parliament crying “Nasser, Nasser, we come to salute you; after
the Dam our land will be paradise.”33

Yet ironically, in economic and political terms, these glamorous hydro-
logical regimes of independence doubled as invisible statements of depen-
dence that threw into question the very condition of postcolonialism itself.
Literally and metaphorically, the glittering prestige projects of the megad-
ams depended on submergence: of disposable people and ecosystems, but
also on the submerged structures of dependence that lay beneath the fl am-
boyant engineering miracles. For the megadams of the South depended
on vast loans (typically from the World Bank, the United States, or the
Soviet Union) that shackled new nations with high debt loads. Moreover—
as in cases like the High Aswan and the Akosombo—where the pressures
of cold-war competition and postcolonial aspiration converged, the dams
unleashed torrents of political indebtedness to the fi rst- and second-world
superpowers. Structures of collusion arose between elites in the fi rst, sec-
ond, and third world around a related dynamic of invisibility: spectacu-
lar megadams require megafunding that offer seductive opportunities for
masking gigantic graft.

The Hoover Dam became the gold standard in the rush to emulation.34
In harnessing the Colorado, it unleashed a torrent of international imita-
tors who took as their canvases the Volga, the Nile, the Niger, the Zambezi,
the Yangtze, the Yellow, and the Parana, to name but a few of the most
monumental. Although the Oregon Dam soon surpassed the Hoover Dam
in scale, it was Hoover that established what became one of the signature
discursive features of megadams, namely the contest over the language of
transcendence. Hoover gave body to both practical purpose and aesthetic
ideals by marrying a miraculous feat of American hydraulic engineering to
a sublime spectacle of grandeur.35 From Hoover onward, megadams became
places where the transcendentalisms of religion, nation, science, and art
would converge. In this spirit Nehru would proclaim that “dams are the
Temples of Modern India,” and (in what was then Southern Rhodesia) the
boosters of Kariba Dam would marvel at that “glorious castle in the sky.”36
Kariba as transcendental feat of engineering was accompanied by Kariba the
transcendental rescue epic—christened Operation Noah—to save the inun-
dated valley’s megafauna from drowning. (The eponymous documentary
became a nature classic.) Lost in the mix, overshadowed by the glorious sky

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 6 8 ]

castle and by Operation Noah, were the 57,000 displaced Gwembe Tsonga,
forcibly driven from the valley they had inhabited for centuries and dumped
in distant, semiarid terrain, amidst unfamiliar and nonsustaining ecologies.

Small Forms and the Disease of Gigantism

In his latter years, Nehru, formerly enamored of big dams as statements
and vehicles of independence, became disenchanted with them, recognizing
them as travesties of scale, destructive of local bonds and failing to deliver
on their outsize promises. Addressing the Central Board of Irrigation and
Power in November 1958, Nehru concluded:

For some time past, I have been beginning to think that we are

suffering from what we may call “the disease of gigantism.” We

want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This

is a dangerous outlook developing in India . . . the idea of big—

having big undertakings and doing big things for the sake of

showing that we can do big things—is not a good outlook at all.37

The sustainable future, he continued, lay in “the small irrigation proj-
ects, the small industries and the small plants for electric power.” Nehru’s
prescient volte-face critiqued the seductive—yet typically ineffi cient and
destructive—forms of modernity engineered on a vast scale.

During the high era of neoliberal globalization, the “disease of gigantism”
manifested itself in concrete and on paper: the physical hubris of giant dams
was accompanied and enabled by an insuffi ciently studied, yet potent cluster of
outsize genres of writing, prominent among them the World Bank feasibility
study and the environmental impact report. (The latter, in the global South,
was ordinarily ex post facto, published well after dam work had begun.) This
issue of genre and scale is of direct pertinence to Arundhati Roy’s turn to the
essay as a small, nimble form that allowed her to take on the weighty, leaden
genres that gave ballast to the culture of the megadam and, beyond that, to
the culture of developmental gigantism. Her quarrel with the genre of the
report had several facets to it: she loathed the form, the diction, the voice,
and the way all three colluded to render inaccessible what ought to be public
knowledge. As a writer, this was her primary contribution to the NBA and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 6 9 ]

to the international environmental justice movement: to expose the insidi-
ous, traumatic violence infl icted on the most vulnerable, human and nonhu-
man, by the affectless language of technospeak. “Language is the skin of my
thought,” Roy observes. “At The Hague I stumbled on a denomination, a sub-
world, whose life’s endeavor was entirely the opposite of mine. For them the
whole purpose of language is to mask intent . . . They breed and prosper in the
space that lies between what they say and what they sell.”38

Roy returns obsessively to that space between: that distance—of dic-
tion, genre, and geopolitics—that concentrates power and dissipates respon-
sibility.39 Her writings against the “disease of gigantism” speak into that gap,
speak to the calamitous consequences, especially for ecosystems and ecosys-
tem people, of development as remote control. The contest over access—to
resources, power, and audiences—prompted Roy to shift her creative center
from the novel to the essay, a form that allowed her to participate more
directly and fl exibly in the showdown between social movements, a show-
down that acquired a generic dimension whereby the agile personal essay
was set against the ponderous, strategically impersonal epic report.

Roy’s essays stage intimate assaults on the calculated opacity, the pro-
foundly consequential tedium, of the technocratic report that camoufl ages
violence while clearing a path for it in a language scoured of emotion. Extrap-
olating from her style, one can posit a connection between the uninhabited
language of forum speak, policy speak, boardroom speak, and environmen-
tal impact speak and the failures of imagination that scour “hydrological
zones” of life, replacing threatened living forms with virtual uninhabitants.

In all her writing, Roy teases out the relationship between distance and
transgressive intimacies that cross chasms of caste, class, gender, nation,
region, and religion. Her concern with the abstracting of life by distance
refl ects her concern with hierarchies of visibility: the seen and the unseen, the
tangible and the untouchable. If Roy writes against distance in many forms,
one crucial variant is the distance between the incorporeality of corporate
power and its convulsive, material effects. This gap poses particular chal-
lenges for the environmental justice movement, hence her call for writers

who can translate cash-fl ow chards and boardroom speeches

into real stories about real people with real lives. Stories about

what it’s like to lose your home, your land, your dignity, your

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[1 7 0 ]

past, and your future to an invisible force. To someone or some-

thing you can’t see. You can’t hate. You can’t even imagine.40

Roy thus turns to the essay as a form that, in temporal and sensory terms,
holds the promise of the immediate, of a quick, inhabited retort to the
unimaginable—and unimaginative—culture of the colossus. In this spirit,
she calls for an art committed to undoing verbally and bureaucratically
infl icted absence: “[A]n art that makes the impalpable palpable, makes the
intangible tangible, and the invisible visible. An art which can draw out the
incorporeal adversary and make it real. Bring it to book.”41

In bringing to book the deadly, long-distance administration of living riv-
ers via the silted language of the hydro-bureaucrat’s report, Roy repeatedly
returns to questions of narrative monopoly. The shrinking of knowledge to
expertise and the centralizing of power—not least the power to tell—ren-
ders us unsighted, making it harder to inhabit the lived consequences of
neoliberalism’s densely rationalized developmental narratives.

Roy’s vocal tactics, by contrast, are expressly decentered. There’s a
productive instability to her voice that keeps her audience off balance. She
belongs, in that sense, to the tradition of the lyric essay as environmental
polemic, a tradition that includes fi gures as diverse as Edward Abbey and
Jamaica Kincaid. All of them are cantankerous, rowdy, irreverent, but also by
turns tenderly specifi c, interspersing a lyricism of the sentence and a lyricism
toward living forms with blasts of sarcasm, parody, hyperbole, vehemence,
and blunt anger. All three writers are exponents of what Raymond Williams
called “militant particularism,” but all are equally exponents of the calculated
overgeneralization. In the process, they jettison any ambition of directing the
essay’s formal possibilities toward building a quiet, readerly rapport, far less
universal admiration. By seceding from what one might call the emotionally
miniaturist tradition of the essay, Roy, Abbey, and Kincaid explode the form
with outsize sentiments directed at outsize adversaries: developers, the tour-
ist industry, empire, the World Bank’s hydrological regimes.

If, as I’ve suggested, Roy’s defi ning subjects are the politics of visibil-
ity, distance, and scale, one witnesses through her activism a showdown
between two highly engineered spectacles of modernity—the megadam and
the megacelebrity, in this case a Booker Prize-winning author and icon of
Indian national cultural pride. By appending her garlanded visibility to the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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unim agined communities

[1 7 1]

environmental justice movement that opposed the Sardar Sarovar Dam, Roy
plunged headfi rst into the political quagmires of representation and displace-
ment. She would be duly accused, among other things, of celebrity showboat-
ing, of ethical egotism, of impetuous self-involvement, of strategic naïvety,
and of squandering her novelistic gifts on mere polemics.42 Some of these
charges were specifi c to turn-of-the-millennium Indian politics, others echo
familiar accusations against novelists, from James Baldwin to Nadine Gordi-
mer, who have activated the essay’s polemical possibilities to advocate for
political causes. Through her celebrity persona, Roy found herself in a para-
doxical position: she represented the distance of privilege, so had to strive to
surmount the suspicions that distance provoked by grounding her creden-
tials through the Andovar movement. Moreover, while arguing for the devo-
lution of the power to narrate, she herself would have to ward off charges
that she was recentering narrative authority through her hypervisibility.

In contrast to writer-activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wangari Maathai,
Roy was not a founding member of an environmental justice movement but
a late affi liate. This complicated the fraught politics of representation and
left her more vulnerable to attack on grounds of privilege, insensitivity, and
usurpation. However, she persisted in using her celebrity visibility to try to
amplify the cause of the Narmada River’s resource rebels. Moreover, she
became a vital translator in four ways. First, she translated an impenetrably
technocratic discourse into more accessible language and story lines. Sec-
ond, she gave an Indian story an international audience of an order it would
not otherwise have achieved. Third, alongside the NBA, Medha Pratkar,
and Vandana Shiva, she articulated the battle over the Narmada River mega-
dams to the international water wars, helping make the Narmada campaign
an iconic struggle. Fourth, Roy placed destructive hydrological regimes in
the broader transnational contexts of neoliberalism’s ascendant hegemony
and the international opposition to that ascent. Through this last act of
translation, Roy became, alongside Naomi Klein, the primary invigorating
voice for a whole new generation of antiglobalization activists.

Monumental Modernity, Ecological Democracy

Collectively, the notions of surplus people, developmental refugees, and unin-
habitants give us a language for contesting the narrative of the redemptive

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[1 7 2 ]

megadam as spectacular symbol of rational deliverance from irrational riv-
ers and irrational cultures. At stake is submergence: of communities, eco-
systems, and voices, as the emissaries of gigantism seek to drown out the
narrative diversity that would expose the short-lived, impossibly contradic-
tory combinations of permanent plenitude such emissaries promise in the
name of a forward-thrusting (but selectively delimited) nationalism. But the
megadams are transients, temporary sojourners in the long life of the river.
All too often, they silt up, spread salination, poison the soil. They are also
steeped in well-timed deceits: in 1985, the World Bank estimated the Sardar
Sarovar project would displace 33,000 people; eight years later, with the dam
safely underway, the Bank reestimated the displaced at 320,000.

George Perkins Marsh recognized as far back as 1874 that large hydro-
logical schemes redistribute more than water: “The tendency of irrigation as
a regular agricultural method is to promote the accumulation of large tracts
of land in the hands of single proprietors, and consequently to dispossess
the smaller land-holders.”43 Patrick McCully, our own age’s nonpareil critic
of outsize dams, underscores this point: “The story is a familiar one from
Rajasthan to California. Irrigation schemes are promoted with the prom-
ise of land to the tiller, but end up delivering it to the absentee landlord.”44
Often, those not driven away end up as bonded laborers on what formerly
was their own land.

Big dams are thus diversionary in a triple sense. They divert water—
and through water, land—from the powerless to the powerful. But they
also divert attention, their glistening enchantments throwing into shadow
unimagined communities. One recalls, in this spirit, Roy’s portrait of glo-
balization as “like a light which shines brighter and brighter on a few peo-
ple 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.”45

Vandana Shiva is right: “[T]he water crisis is an ecological crisis with
commercial causes but no market solutions . . . Ending the water crisis
requires rejuvenating ecological democracy.”46 For that to be achieved we
have a long way to go. As I write, the all-too predictable script of hydro-
logical hubris is repeating itself in Ethiopia, in an unequal battle between
resource omnivores and ecosystem peoples. Dam work has begun on the
Omo River: the contract for the dam, which will create the second-largest

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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reservoir in sub-Saharan Africa, was signed for almost two billion dollars
with an Italian dam construction company. No tenders were made and the
fi rst environmental impact report was published two years after the dam’s
construction had begun. The procedures were so scandalously immoral
that even the World Bank withdrew its funding, leaving the government
of Ethiopia—one of the world’s poorest, most debt-laden nations—saddled
with a shortfall of over $500 million.

The Omo River megadam may deliver electricity and graft to the capi-
tal’s elite, but the downstream tribes whose livelihoods and ecosystems are
most at risk will be left literally and metaphorically in the dark. Informed
by a BBC reporter of the imminent damming of their river, they declared
they would take up arms against the government. (The tribes in Ethiopia’s
impoverished southwest are awash with arms that have fl ooded in from the
neighboring confl ict in southern Sudan.) One elder observed that the sur-
vival of his people depended on three rocks that hold up the pot: cattle;
crops grown on higher ground in the rainy season; and in the dry season,
fl oodplain (recession) agriculture. If the river is narrowed and controlled
from above, two of those rocks will be removed: “[T]he pot will topple over
and my people will starve.” The most probable scenario is this: the deaden-
ing of the river’s seasonal pulse will provoke resource wars among the heav-
ily armed tribes who live downstream from development.47

This hydrological story—as happens so often—doesn’t end at the bor-
der. The Omo River drains into the largest lake in northern Kenya, where
tribes fi nd sustenance through a blend of fi shing, cattle herding, agriculture,
and hunting. Once the dam throttles the infl ow of fresh water, the vast lake
(whose salinity is already rising) will become fatally salty, unfi t for humans,
cattle, wildlife, crops, and fi sh. The ecosystem—and the cultures of ecosys-
tem peoples dependent on it—are at risk of collapse. Together, the dam and
the confl icts it stirs up on both sides of the border will result in new waves
of developmental refugees.

Despite the formidable odds, sometimes diverse, creative coalitions
between local and international activists successfully turn back the mega-
dam juggernaut. When in the late 1980s the Brazilian government, embold-
ened by a $500 million World Bank loan, announced plans for a massive
hydroelectric project on the Xingu River, eleven Indian nations were slated
for displacement by fl ooding. Al Gedicks recounts how the chief of one of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 74 ]

those nations, Paulinho Paiakan of the Kayapo, his cousin Kube-I, and Dar-
rell Posey (a North American ethnobiologist who had long worked with
the Kayapo) seeded a powerful trans-tribal and international oppositional
alliance.48 In an effort to blunt their initiative, the Brazilian government
charged the two Kayapo leaders (along with Posey) with contravening a law
that banned foreigners from criticizing the government. Under an astonish-
ing statute, native peoples, who had inhabited the Amazon for millennia,
could be designated as foreigners and therefore subject to the gagging mea-
sure. Thus the threat of physical expulsion from their lands by fl ooding was
compounded by the imaginative and legal expulsion of the Kayapo from
the idea of the nation. But these uninhabitants fought back successfully: 600
native leaders from across the Americas descended on the proposed dam
site in protest and, after an international outcry, the World Bank cancelled
the loan.

That insurrection bought the Kayapo and allied Amazon tribes some
time: two decades, to be precise. For as I write, the Xingu River water wars
have begun all over again. In August 2010, Brazil’s former president, Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, authorized construction on the $11 billion Belo Monte
Dam on the Xingu, throwing into jeopardy the future of the Kayapo and
a score of other tribes. Belo Monte—slated to be the world’s third largest
dam and a destructive monster of gargantuan ineffi ciency—is catalyzing yet
again a vital coalition of resource rebels.

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6

Stranger in the Eco-village

Race, Tourism, and Environmental Time

[Conservation biologists and political ecologists] tend to speak
entirely past each other. . . . Conservation biologists segregate
nonhumans; political ecologists too often take them for granted as
resources for human use. Instead, we might want to look at how
species and populations slip in and out of markets, in and out of cul-
tural attention, and in and out of a whole spectrum of not-yet-fully-
described interactions between humans and nonhumans.

—Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

Anna Tsing, one of our most incisive thinkers about glo-
balization and the environment, may be writing here about Indonesia, but
her insights can be productively adapted to South Africa, where the segrega-
tions of humans from nonhumans have long been implicated in the violent
segregations of humans from humans. South Africa’s traumatic history of
colonial conquest, land theft, racial partition, and racist conservation places
particular pressure on those conservation biologists, political ecologists,
writers, and activists committed to reimagining, during the postapartheid
era, their society’s inherited cultures of nature.1

This transformative task is rendered more urgent by South Africa’s rare
environmental signifi cance: only two nations, Brazil and Indonesia, surpass

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[1 7 6 ]

it in biodiversity. South Africa thus combines, in combustible form, extreme
ecological wealth and a postapartheid legacy of extreme economic and ter-
ritorial inequity. A major fl ashpoint for the tension between these extremes
remains the game reserve, that contradictory, potentially lucrative, histori-
cally troubled space that promises encounters with the “timeless” Africa of
charismatic megafauna yet risks reinscribing the society’s dominant cul-
ture of nature as racially exclusive and hostile to political transformation.
Against this backdrop, we need to explore what I call racialized ecologies of
looking in relation to environmental amnesia. This environmental dynamic
between seeing and not seeing, between remembering and forgetting, is
forcefully exemplifi ed by the game reserve. But it has a broader pertinence
to the challenges of reconciling environmental justice, political transforma-
tion, biodiversity, and touristic expectations that have been shaped by the
international marketing of nature.

Across much of southern and East Africa, game reserves and “native”
reserves have shadowed each other historically in the interdependent
administrations of conservation, leisure, and labor. The noun “reserve” may
refer to either a sanctuary or a place of involuntary confi nement—a refuge
or a cage. This double valence carries a special force in South Africa, sug-
gesting both spaces reserved for environmental protection and the “native”
reserves (precursors to the Bantustans) that served as holding pens in the
circuits of migrant mine labor. Because South Africa’s ecologies of enclo-
sure are ghosted by traumas of forced removal, the destiny of the game
reserve—within what Njabulo Ndebele calls the postapartheid “liberation
of leisure”—remains inextricably bound to the racial dynamics of sanctuary
and trespass, memory and amnesia, visibility and invisibility, looking and
looking away.2

To illuminate these dynamics I trace in this chapter four journeys, one
autobiographical, two nonfi ctional, and one fi ctional. Collectively, these
journeys track the temporal and racial performances of “wild Africa” through
the transnational questions that contour them, not least the international
tourist feedback loop whereby the lucrative global branding of charismatic
megafauna as quintessentially South African shapes both tourists’ expecta-
tions and the nature industry that greets them. Such circular expectations, I
suggest, can inhibit expanded access to what have been painfully exclusive
spaces and retard a broader commitment to biodiversity that isn’t reducible

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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str a nger in the eco-v illage

[1 7 7]

to—and is sometimes incompatible with—the spectacular concentrations of
megafauna that drive South Africa’s nature industry.

Canned Lions and an Eternity of Bush

In the run-up to Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994, South Africa experienced
considerable white fl ight. One of the less-noted side stories was a surge in
megafauna for sale—lions, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, and the like—sent
to market by emigrating whites who had shut down their circuses and pri-
vate zoos. At the time, I was covering the election in the country’s East-
ern Province and heard word of a wildlife entrepreneur, J. P. Kleinhans,
who had converted his sheep farm into a hybrid space—half game reserve,
half hunting lodge. I sought him out upon hearing rumors that some of the
seventy lions in his reserve had been purchased on the white-fl ight black
market and that he was charging foreign trophy-hunters top dollar to shoot
dangerous African animals that were in fact “canned lions,” circus retirees
put out to the carnivore’s equivalent of pasture.

Kleinhans greeted me with a hearty air of practiced informality: “J. P.
Kleinhans, just call me J.P., Texas style.” His huge palm in the center of my
back, he steered me into the lodge lobby where I found myself surrounded
by lion, buffalo, hippo, warthog, bush pig, and a dozen species of antelope,
all in half-body mounts, stampeding toward me through whitewashed walls.

Following him through a second door, I entered arguably the world’s
most voracious master bedroom. Mounted carnivores massed every-
where—across the fl oor, through the air, obscuring windows. The bed was
surrounded. A leopard slunk by the pillow, as if waiting for husband and
wife to drop their guard and dip into sleep. A lioness pushed past some jack-
als squabbling over fi rst rights to the kill. Above the bed hung a vulture with
eight-foot wings, beak tilted down, glassy eyes wide, searching the duvet
for any whiff of carrion or death. What kind of person, I wondered, would
choose to wake to vulture talons, to stagger from some convulsive dream
into a hyena’s huge, mocking teeth?3

As we stepped outside, beyond his theatre of risk, Kleinhans made a
tentative allusion to the slur of domesticity that had adhered to his lions.
“I’ve been to the States to hunt. But let me tell you, man, it’s different
there. Their animals, compared to ours, they’re all so tame.” We were soon

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[1 7 8 ]

bumping across the thornveld in his jeep, Kleinhans recounting how his
son and a school friend had survived a recent mauling by some lions—“ just
over there.” As he spoke, I felt an anxious determination in him that the
tired, AARP lion that had spent its life leaping meekly through circus hoops
be crushed by that other fi gurative lion, the untamable, almighty king of
beasts, whose rule since time immemorial had terrorized the African bush.
Kleinhans, as a wildlife image manager, was clearly fearful that the reputa-
tion of his lions (including his lionesses) was being feminized. It was, after
all, the aura of explosive risk that would give his lions, male and female,
their commercial teeth. His economic survival and male dignity depended
on decommodifying the purportedly canned lions in order to recommodify
them as a different product—pure, uncanned embodiments of a snarling,
timeless African authenticity that couldn’t be bought elsewhere.

“Almost anything Africa has got to offer,” Kleinhans interjected, “you
can kill it here, right here at Wolwekloof. The Americans love this place. One
client, he told me, he’d traveled all over—Masai Mara, Zambia, Namibia,
Kruger Park. But he said here at Wolwekloof, for the fi rst time, he’d touched
the real Africa.”

Kleinhans had no blacks working at his game lodge: “My wife and me,
we made enough sons to do the job. I don’t need blacks here.” (His wife and
female relatives took care of domestic chores—the cleaning, cooking, and
secretarial side of things.) At the very moment of black empowerment in
the society at large, Kleinhans was creating a racial and temporal enclave, a
timeless island outside a time of change. His brochure promised his Ameri-
can (and Russian, Italian, German, and Canadian) clients an “exclusive”
experience—a word that resonated in complex ways in a country whose
psychic and physical landscapes bore deep scars of enclosure and expulsion.

Many of his American clients, he noted, loved to bag their lions with
crossbows. I pictured the scene as he described it: Kleinhans picks up his cli-
ent at the airport, drives him to the lodge, where he enacts some ersatz bow-
and-arrow hunt, half in the spirit of Iron John, half National Geographic
pigmy, while accruing, before being whisked back to the airport, both a
trophy lion and an indelibly African adventure shielded from any inconve-
niencing encounter with living Africans.4

It would be easy to read Wolwekloof as a straightforward narrative of
atavistic, Afrikaner self-enclosure, of a racially and historically threatened

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[1 7 9 ]

man barricading himself against history, democracy, and black empower-
ment. But to that narrative we must add a complicating twist. If the post-
apartheid turn disturbed Kleinhans, he also recognized in it fresh business
opportunities. With foreign tourists and hunters pouring in under Mandela,
Kleinhans could capitalize on resilient mythologies of international white
masculinity for which the lion hunt could serve as a seductive, profi table
shorthand. In creating a racio-temporal island in a sea of black majority
rule he was simultaneously reaching out to an oceanic white wildlife kill-
or-consume culture that stretched beyond the nation. By internationalizing
his parochialism, Kleinhans was articulating himself to the white call-and-
response of the charismatic megafauna touristic feedback loop.

Foreign hunter-tourists could be fi erce in their demands; and what they
demanded was the prospect of an ancient African ferocity, embodied not
only in the king of beasts but in the landscape’s untamed visage too. These
projected desires had solidifi ed around Kleinhans’s alfalfa problems, which
were compounding his canned lion problems. His clients kept grumbling
about an alfalfa fi eld on a distant farm visible from one corner of the lodge.
The fi eld spoiled the experience, they said; it didn’t look African. In order to
expunge from view agriculture’s domestic taint, Kleinhans was busy erect-
ing new accommodation for his hunter-tourists—“Zulu” huts on a hillside
that guaranteed panoramic vistas unsullied by labor, human necessity, or
food production.5 Like the reed baskets, masks, and beadwork that adorned
the lodge, his “Zulu” huts would foster the ambience of a cultural village
sans villagers. By swiveling the view, Kleinhans could now provide his tour-
ists with the sight lines they demanded, guaranteeing them a genuine simu-
lacrum of foreign visual expectations of an authentic Africa.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Kleinhans said, tipping back his Elk Lodge base-
ball cap. “I like the American. But the thing about the American is you have
to speak his language. What the American wants when he comes here is an
eternity of bush.”

I stood with him at that hilltop “Zulu” hut looking down at the bushveld
scene he’d laid out for his clients: a seemingly endless temporal panorama of
undying purity that his hunters could enter to make their kills.

Six months after visiting the lodge, I read in a local newspaper that
Kleinhans and a Texan client had heard a distant ruckus one night: two lions
brawling. The men had driven to the fi ght where Kleinhans attempted to

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[1 8 0 ]

distract the warring lions by throwing them some donkey meat. When that
failed, he walked toward them shouting and waving before trying to part
them with bare hands. The lions turned on him and mauled him to death.

Kleinhans died a performer in the transnational theater of Wild Africa
on a stage crowded with anxieties about race, white manhood, domestic-
ity, class, risk, and authentic wilderness, a stage that was both “timeless”
and suffused with the historical uncertainties of an emergent postapartheid
order. He sought to stave off that order—and capitalize on it—by aligning
himself, economically and psychologically, with the eco-archaic expecta-
tions of the Pretoria-Fort Worth axis.

Kleinhans’s eldest son, Adolf, made an announcement to the press: “We
will not kill these lions that killed our father.” (In other words, the lions
would not be singled out for punitive execution but would be available, as
per normal, for commercial killing.) Within this family tragedy, something
else emerged: through his unwitting martyrdom Kleinhans had left a leg-
acy of killer lions. The ferocious manner of his death had cleansed his ani-
mals—and the enterprise his sons inherited—of any domestic taint. Who
now would dare claim he was defrauding foreign hunters with toothless
circus retirees masquerading as Wild Africa?

Looking back at my encounter with Kleinhans on this volatile historical
cusp, I am returned to Donna Haraway’s classic essay “Teddy Bear Patriar-
chy,” in which she links, during a time of American social upheaval, Teddy
Roosevelt and Carl Akeley’s hunting expeditions to censored performances
(in the fi eld and in museum dioramas) that betray profound racial, class,
and gender anxieties. I am returned not just to her account of how anything
that might complicate a narrative of individual white male hunter heroics
was cropped from photographs and narratives, but also to the connection
she makes between the uneasy representational artifi ce of the transnational
African hunt as theatre of risk and a nation’s racial and gender panics.6

The Postapartheid Game Lodge and
Ecologies of Looking

Not long after my encounter with Kleinhans, in the newly democratic South
Africa of the mid-1990s, the fi ction writer and essayist Njabulo Ndebele visited
a game lodge in his native land for the fi rst time, a venture he refl ects on in

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[1 8 1]

his essay “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists.”7 Ndebele describes enter-
ing the game lodge at a dynamic moment in his society’s transformation, yet
fi nding himself cocooned in a temporal enclave, sealed against the environ-
ment of political change. Intent on leisure, Ndebele is haunted instead by “the
damning ambiguities of the black tourist.”8 Ndebele is not alone in writing
about the leisurely stresses, the wrenching ambiguities, of the ancestrally
colonized tourist vacationing in an erstwhile colony. The comparison with
black travelers to the Caribbean—like Jamaica Kincaid and June Jordan—is
particularly suggestive given the pervasive marketing of the islands as, like
the game lodges, free-fl oating Edenic enclaves of natural time, unmoored
from historical memory, clock-time, and the time of labor.

The white game lodge is a classic instance of what Anne McClintock
terms an anachronistic space, a space marked as noncoeval with the world
around it and whose implication in modernity is suppressed.9 But here the
spatial anachronism does not simply mark the game lodge as “backward” in
a progress discourse indebted to a tendentiously selective imperial enlight-
enment; instead, the lodge’s refusal to acknowledge the contemporary
renders it an atavistic space in denial of South Africa’s democratic transfor-
mation while simultaneously capitalizing on that transformation. We can
read the game lodge, then, as a manifestation of the postapartheid nation’s
suddenly expansive modern tourist industry and as a racialized and natural-
ized fortress against that very modernity. It is into this contradictory tempo-
ral domain that Ndebele steps.

In its antimodern dimension the lodge exists as a temporal enclave in a
double, layered sense: the temporal styles evoked are both historically colo-
nial (self-effacing servants vanishing into the bush, white campfi re camara-
derie, male tales of derring-do) and eternally natural (a time outside of time,
before and after the human, when megafauna rule—Kleinhans’s “eternity
of bush”). Crucially, for our purposes, the game lodge locates itself in the
postapartheid marketplace by selling a blended aura of colonial time and
prehuman natural time.

Ndebele arrives as a visitor from the future present, a postapartheid pio-
neer. As a white-collar black wildlife tourist, his arrival at the game lodge
gates is a harbinger of change, an intimation that the racialized ideology
of fortress conservation is pregnable. His presence is historic in an enclave
from which history has been banished; he disturbs the sealed domain of

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[1 8 2 ]

white men playing games of bushveld risk, implicitly reminding them of
risk in a wider form—those political transformations that may, however,
come in tandem with opportunities. (Ndebele wonders whether the whites
around the campfi re view him as someone with usable political connections
to the ascendant black power elite.)10

In class terms, Ndebele too now belongs at the lodge. But the politics of
his belonging are fraught with temporal contradictions. As an indigenous
tourist from a newly arrived future, he also bears in his person reminders
of the past; his presence points forward and backward in time: forward to
the anticipated incursions of an excluded black majority into white nature
enclaves, and backward to an ancestral history of being territorially dislodged
by game lodges and other conservation projects that, while modest in rela-
tion to the country’s broader history of forced removal, nonetheless created,
under the banner of wildlife conservation, dispossessed conservation refu-
gees.11 Ndebele’s presence thus renders visibly political the apolitical posture
of the game lodge as natural sanctuary from politics.

We can read Ndebele’s position as that of a man who has ventured
abroad in his own country, an inner émigré in a white nature industry
whose marketing premise is the managed wildness of the eco-archaic. His
complex pursuit of leisure in this environment—and his concomitant exis-
tential stresses—are linked to what I call the ecologies of looking, that is,
the interconnected webs of looking and being seen in a context where the
idea of the natural predominates. Ndebele has come to relax and look: to
peer through his binoculars, alongside these other folk, at the charismatic
megafauna, at the spectacles of the wild. But his own spectacular presence
disrupts the smooth optics of tourism.

By inserting himself into a tableau of neoapartheid time, amidst those
he calls by turns “leisure colonialists” and “leisure refugees,” Ndebele
makes whiteness visible.12 He does so by unsettling the temporal and physi-
cal insularity of the archaic game lodge, which operates as both a nostalgic,
amnesiac space of white refusal of apartheid’s aftermath and a contempo-
rary expression of postapartheid South Africa’s reintegration into global
tourist networks.

Ndebele himself, however, is also profoundly unsettled. We can read
the layered self-consciousness into which he fi nds himself propelled as a
kind of bushveld version of Fanon’s “Look, a Negro”; that moment when, on

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[1 8 3 ]

encountering the white world, Fanon observes: “I took myself far off from
my own presence. . . . It was no longer a question of being aware of my body
in the third person but in a triple person. . . . I was responsible for my body,
for my race, for my ancestors.”13 But inside the game lodge, a black tourist
like Ndebele isn’t just under observation and self-observation; he has forked
out good money to be observed. As he notes sardonically, “he pays to be the
viewer who has to be viewed.”14 (It’s rhetorically apposite—a measure of
Ndebele’s self-anthropologizing self-estrangement—that much of the essay
is written as third-person autobiography.)

Ndebele has long been troubled by what is sacrifi ced, imaginatively, to
the pressures of spectacle. In the 1980s, amidst a brutal apartheid state of
emergency, he published two controversial essays that questioned what he
saw as the subservience of much South African writing to the Manichean
dictates of spectacular racial violence. Those essays—“The Rediscovery of
the Ordinary” and “Redefi ning Relevance”—lamented a literary bias toward
“the predictable drama between ruthless oppressors and the pitiful vic-
tims,” a bias that contracted and calcifi ed the imaginative “range of explor-
able experience.”15 This “hegemony of spectacle” seduced many writers
into focusing on a predictable apartheid-antiapartheid agon that obscured a
whole spectrum of ordinary experience, thereby producing a literature defi –
cient in complex interiority, defi cient in infl ected historical awareness, and
neglectful of the fabric of everyday life. Skewed by international pressures to
produce a recognizable black-on-white agon, Ndebele argued, the prevailing
literary imagination tended to marginalize rural black lives in communities
that might never encounter a white person from one year to the next.

I read “Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists” as an extension of Nde-
bele’s early preoccupation with both the spectacular costs of spectacle and
the rediscovery of the ordinary. The essay asks, at least implicitly, what
would it take for a black South African to enter the game lodge as an unspec-
tacular, unwatched, ordinary tourist, thereby transforming what I’m call-
ing the ecologies of looking? Second, how can the temporal enclave of the
rural game lodge be reintegrated into a postapartheid national imaginary?
Third, just as the international market for the Manichean conventions of
apartheid-antiapartheid showdowns may have narrowed the South African
literary spectrum, in what ways does the international tourist feedback loop
of demand and satisfi ed desire narrow, through repetitive reinforcement,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 8 4 ]

South Africa’s viable cultures of nature? Returning to Anna Tsing’s call for
reconciling the priorities of conservation biologists and political ecologists,
we can recognize in Ndebele’s essay a quest to rediscover the ecological
ordinary—those quotidian interactions between humans and nonhumans
that move beyond the racialized theatre of the eco-archaic.

Like the Caribbean paradise, the game reserve is shaped as a sanctuary
from labor and from history’s brutality; here history’s corrugations have been
Botoxed from nature’s visage. In the temporal enclaves of the island refuge
ringed by ocean and in the game reserve ringed by electrifi ed fences, the tour-
ist is guaranteed full immersion in the eco-archaic, which is not to be con-
fused with the historical. To enter this refuge is to enter a charmed space that
is segregated, among other things, from the history of its own segregation.

For black tourist-writers, from June Jordan and Jamaica Kincaid to Nde-
bele, this stage-managed amnesia becomes a special source of disorientation
and outrage. A direct relationship emerges between a suppressed history of
dispossession and the black visitor’s embattled self-possession. “How is it
[Ndebele asks] that a simple quest for peace and restoration turned into an
unexpectedly painful journey into the self ?” He fi nds himself “pushed into
a state of simmering revolt.”16

What surfaces for Ndebele, like Jordan and Kincaid before him, is a
vexed relationship to labor, both historically and in the present. The vio-
lent labor histories that shaped the colonial landscapes of the Caribbean and
South Africa were inseparable from forced removals, whether trans-Atlan-
tic or internal to the white settler nation-state (via fi rst the Native reserves
and later the Bantustans). Given this anguished history, all these writers
are angered by the labor-intensive production of labor’s illusory absence,
an absence critical to the eco-archaic’s role in producing a sweat-free, soft-
focus, natural tranquility that appears at once effortless and untouched by
human history.17

In the touristic present, the fraught issue of labor resurfaces through the
prism of class, which complicates whatever racial identifi cation the vaca-
tioning writer may feel with those who tiptoe around him or her in roles
of unobtrusive service. Ndebele is plunged into anguished inner debate on
how to relate to paradise’s servants: if he fraternizes with them, will his dig-
nity be compromised in the eyes of the white tourists? How do the servants
view him? How much is the correct amount to tip?

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 8 5 ]

In the Bahamas, Jordan, a Harlem-born daughter of Jamaican immigrants,
fi nds herself veering between, on the one hand, a gendered, racial identifi ca-
tion with local women and, on the other, a discomfi ting acknowledgement
that a class chasm separates her from the structurally invisible women who
service her hotel room. Indeed, the most deeply characterized Bahamian
woman in Jordan’s essay is the spectral Olive, the maid whose performance
Jordan is urged to grade at the end of her stay in paradise without ever hav-
ing met her. In thinking through her relationship to Olive’s labor, Jordan
concludes that sharing a common racial adversary is an insuffi cient source
of shared identity.18 When Kincaid revisits her natal Antigua as a naturalized
American, the question of labor—past and present—renders her apoplectic.
How, she exclaims, can the emancipated descendants of slaves celebrate the
Hotel Training School “which teaches Antiguans how to be good servants”?19

At the heart of the history-labor-nature quandary stands the vexed issue
of transport—as ancestral racial journey, as aesthetic convention, and as
touristic affect. Ndebele, Jordan, and Kincaid, all shadowed by histories of
forced removal, fi nd themselves unable to enter, in any straightforward way,
the sublime as portal to a “natural” state of transport. Given their ances-
tral histories—and given the suppression of those histories in the tempo-
ral enclaves of eco-archaic amnesia—Ndebele, Kincaid, and Jordan all fi nd
themselves resistant to being unselfconsciously “carried away.”

The uneasy circuits of sublime pleasure are directly related to another
dilemma: What does it mean, in the fullest sense of the phrase, to be absorbed
by nature? In terms of a post-Enlightenment ecology of spectatorship, how
are Kincaid (an anticolonial botanical enthusiast) and Ndebele (an avid anti-
apartheid bird-watcher) to circumnavigate the repressive legacy of racial
classifi cation that fi gured their ancestors as “natural”? White nature tour-
ists, I would suggest, have less troubled access to sublime natural absorp-
tion in a post- or neocolonial environment because they can experience their
whiteness as an unselfconsciously unclassifi ed state. Ndebele, by contrast,
is painfully alive to the problematics of natural union and a historically
freighted politics of looking: “[W]hen [black tourists] go game viewing, it is
diffi cult not to feel that, in the total scheme of things, perhaps they should
be out there with the animals, being viewed.”20

The presence of these animals is critical. In the tourist cultures of the
Caribbean, Eden typically fi gures as a garden—a sanctuary from history and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 8 6 ]

labor, but a sanctuary without predation.21 By contrast, the African Edens of
the southern and East African tourist industries are shaped around the pres-
ence—and managed threat—of charismatic megafauna, which becomes the
primary guarantor of encounters with the timeless and the pristine.22 This
has profound gender implications: the African Eden must be scoured not
only of history and labor but also (as we’ve seen in the case of Wolwekloof )
of the taint of domesticity, the stigma of the tame. As a result, the cultural
spectacle around African Edens has a strongly masculine tilt: the white
game guides, the black trackers, the bush pilots all carry forward—adapted
for the contemporary global marketplace—a neo-Victorian obsession with
risk (or at least with saleable performances of risk’s illusions).23

Stranger in the Village

James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” may seem an unlikely text to
enfold into an analysis of game reserves, racialized tourism, and environ-
mental time. Yet in light of the discussion of Kleinhans and Ndebele, we
can glean from Baldwin’s classic essay productive insights into racialized
ecologies of looking and the role that cultures of nature play in modernity’s
civilizational power plays. Some forty years before Ndebele arrived as a soli-
tary, improbable novelty at the game lodge gates, Baldwin spent the fi rst
of several sojourns in a Swiss Alpine village that he portrayed as a “white
wilderness.”24 He had been forewarned that “he would probably be a ‘sight’
for the village,” and his essay offers a far-reaching meditation on invisible
visibility, on how it feels—and what it means culturally—to be a “sight”
unseen. Baldwin, like Ndebele after him, is thrust by the stresses of racial-
ized leisure into a state of spectacular self-consciousness.25

Baldwin’s anger and insight fl ow from his experience of what one might
call empowered parochialism. The Swiss villagers have never encountered a
black person before; they lead untraveled lives, holed up in their icy redoubt,
severed from the larger world. Yet Baldwin recognizes these hyperparochial
people are powerfully connected in their severance, unconsciously embold-
ened by the broad currents of Western culture—Dante, Michelangelo, the
cathedral at Chartres—that afford them an assumed racial superiority and ease.

What makes Baldwin’s essay so suggestive in tandem with Ndebele’s is
the acuity with which both writers expose the profound resistance—local,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 8 7]

national, international—to the temporal and geographical incorporation of
blackness into modernity. Baldwin is treated in the village as a “suspect late-
comer”; despite his experiential cosmopolitanism he is made to feel more
tangential to the vast temporal and spatial fl ows of Western culture than the
most illiterate, cut off Swiss villager.26

Unlike Baldwin in blindingly white rural Switzerland, Ndebele doesn’t
have to travel far—just assume the mantle of local time traveler—in order
to be exoticized as an oddity in a blindingly white South African rural
enclave. If Ndebele too remains, for now, alone and improbable, he is writ-
ing decades later than Baldwin, on a very different historical cusp. Yet, when
Ndebele exclaims that “the entire world of contemporary tourism carries no
intuitive familiarity” for him, we sense a kindred indignation to Baldwin’s
anger at the energy it takes to stake out for himself a space in a modernity
organized around his anachronistic yet constitutive exclusion.27 The chal-
lenge Ndebele faces is to reclaim—and ultimately reimagine—the game
lodge’s overdetermined modern nature, a modern nature in denial of its
modernity. Ndebele’s insights can be read as supplementing Baldwin’s in
this essential way: it is not only the architectural, literary, artistic, and musi-
cal cultures of the West that have historically been wielded as weapons of
black exclusion (largely through denied coevalness and denied hybridity),
but the cultures of nature as well, including the culture of wildlife tourism,
whereby a provincial whiteness is fortifi ed by white pilgrims from abroad.28
The game lodge becomes, then, a site of “provincial cosmopolitanism,” to
adapt Amitava Kumar’s phrase. 29 Thus Wild Africa, while purporting to
represent civilization’s antithesis, simultaneously freights whiteness with
another kind of cathedral ballast.

Both Baldwin’s and Ndebele’s “white wilderness” essays assail a diehard,
historically dominant culture’s determination to keep living in denial, to
sustain an unsustainable condition of contorted innocence. For the Europe
of the 1950s, black people—over there in the colonies—could remain at an
abstract remove: “[I]n effect,” Baldwin notes, “the black man, as a man,
did not exist for Europe.”30 American whites of that era, he adds, proved
even greater contortionists, “still nourish[ing] the illusion that there is
some means of recovering the European innocence, of returning to a state
in which black men do not exist.”31 The postapartheid South African game
lodge—as sanctuary of illusory innocence and eco-archaic return—depends

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[1 8 8 ]

on an even less plausible theatre of denial, given the accession of the black
majority to political power.32 Buoyed by performances of ecological elegy
and arrested time, the game lodge serves as the last great hope of a mono-
chromatic nostalgia that wishes away the cultural, economic, and political
transformations of the society in which it is embedded. If, in Baldwin’s clos-
ing assertion in his 1953 essay, “[t]his world is white no longer, and will never
be white again,” how much more decisively his voice echoes four decades
later in a nation where a black majority, for the fi rst time in world history,
had voted a white supremacist regime out of offi ce.33

From Leisure Refugees to the Ultimate Safari

Nadine Gordimer’s short story “The Ultimate Safari” follows a group of ref-
ugees from Mozambique’s civil war on a fugitive, perilous trek across South
Africa’s largest and most celebrated wildlife preserve, the Kruger National
Park. The story centers on the experiences of traumatized cross-border trav-
elers at the furthest remove from Ndebele’s “leisure refugees” and Klein-
hans’s foreign tourists craving their “eternity of bush.” Inside the Kruger
Park, the Mozambican refugees fi nd themselves plunged, unguided, into a
time outside of time, into a bewildering, life-threatening timelessness from
which, if they are to survive, they must extricate themselves. “The Ultimate
Safari” carries forward my concern with rival ecologies of time, with the
politics of mobility, and with the racialized politics of looking.

Gordimer has a penchant for ironizing tourist industry boilerplate in
the titles of her stories, for instance, calling her most brilliant exposé of a
racist consciousness “Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants.” “The Ultimate
Safari” bears as its epigraph an advertising pitch that appeared in a British
newspaper: “The African Adventure Lives On . . . You can do it! The ulti-
mate safari or expedition with leaders who know Africa.” Gordimer’s story
pivots on the ambiguity of “ultimate,” which can imply either “nonpareil”
or “fi nal.” The tourist-ad safari is pitched as unbeatable, the adventure of a
lifetime, while her fi ctional refugees’ safari, which trades the frying pan of
the Mozambican civil war for the fi re of foreign human and animal threat,
risks becoming terminally ultimate.

The Kruger Park, over eighty years old and roughly the size of
Israel, stretches for 220 miles along South Africa’s eastern perimeter with

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[1 8 9 ]

Mozambique.34 This megafauna-rich game park is symbolically central
to South Africa’s conservation history, wilderness mythology, and tourist
industry. Yet it is also multiply liminal, serving during the Mozambican
civil war that lasted from 1975 until 1991 as an overdetermined border zone:
between a Marxist postcolonial state and its anticommunist apartheid neigh-
bor, between black majority rule and white minority supremacy, between
the cultures of tourist leisure and migrant labor, and between the animal
and the human.35 This liminal overdetermination has a profound temporal
dimension as well, bringing into frictional proximity animal time, tourist
time, refugee time, the spiritualized time of white supremacy, and revolu-
tionary utopian time, all represented as noncoeval on this particular cusp
of modernity. If Yellowstone were located at Nogales or El Paso, it would
loosely approximate the convergence of charismatic megafauna, tourist lei-
sure, cross-border desperation, militarization, and clandestine fl ight that
have crisscrossed Kruger’s history.

The Kruger Park of Gordimer’s story—especially when read alongside
her little-known essay on the park as frontier—takes shape as a place of con-
trasting visible and ghosted movements of animal herds, herds of tourists,
civil war refugees, conservation refugees, and migrant laborers shuttling
back and forth between Mozambique and the South African gold mines.36
By selecting as her narrator a ten-year-old refugee, Gordimer grants her
story a potent affective energy and intimacy. But the little girl’s perspec-
tive is necessarily limited in its grasp of the broader political implications of
the journey, which we can productively situate in the ideological history of
Kruger Park, a history that dramatizes the complicity between the rise of a
white supremacist capitalism and an eco-archaic bushveld aesthetic.

Almost a century ago, the Transvaal legislature banned blacks from
owning guns and hunting dogs, transforming game, notes Jane Carruthers,
from “an economic resource available to everyone, to a commodity reserved
for the ruling white group.”37 This ban—in the name of conservation—com-
pounded the multipronged squeeze on rural African subsistence living, ren-
dering it increasingly precarious. In the dominant colonial conservationist
mythology, the nineteenth-century decimation of game resulted primarily
from the cruel, uncontrolled slaughter of wildlife by rural Africans, whereas
historically the prime culprit in that butchery was an imported European
ethos of killing as an ennobling sport, an ethos that, backed by advanced

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[1 9 0 ]

weaponry that Africans lacked, severed hunting from the need for protein
and hide clothing and the need to safeguard crops, herds, and fl ocks from
animal predation.38 The racially skewed hunting laws had a malign impact
on African nutrition, subsistence livelihoods, and food security. Together
with the creation of national parks like Kruger and (to a far greater extent)
the creation of congested native reserves and the imposition of taxes, such
laws drove more and more blacks into the capitalist economies of the
mines and white agriculture.39 The racialized discourse of wildlife scarcity
(mapped in temporal terms as an ethical difference between “backward”
and “advanced” peoples) was thus profoundly entwined with the discourse
of labor scarcity in a rapidly modernizing economy.40

The colonial rescripting of wildlife scarcity as a black problem—which
helped rationalize the early twentieth-century creation of national parks—
depended on demonizing blacks as barbarous poachers whose relationship
to wildlife was one of illegality and threat while depending, conversely, on
mythologizing whites as stewards of nature whose conservationist princi-
ples evidenced a wider civilizational superiority. This explosive history of
land theft and unequal access to wildlife as resource (whether for hunting
or, later, tourist revenue) helped harden stereotypes of the white conserva-
tionist and the black poacher that continue to hamper environmental efforts
today, with many black South Africans still viewing wildlife as rivals for
water, food, and grazing land.

South Africa’s game reserves are thus historically ensnarled in a tangle
of elegiac narratives around vanishing wildlife, vanishing land, vanishing
livelihoods, and vanishing labor. Neither the game reserve nor the native
reserve was represented as coeval with South Africa’s white, mining-driven
modernity, yet both were products of that modernization: the game reserve
as a hypervisible space of “ancient” wildness administered for touristic con-
sumption, the native reserve as an anachronistic space structured around
invisibility, where crowded human suffering and attendant ecological calam-
ity were concentrated in “out of the way” places.41 In terms of a national
progress narrative, the mutually constitutive discourses of racial and natu-
ral purity were mapped onto both game reserves and native reserves. Game
reserves were represented as positively archaic—unimproved places where
whites could venture for spiritual renewal—whereas native reserves were
negatively archaic, places set aside for the uncivilized.

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As Jane Carruthers observes in her superb history of Kruger Park, the
white nationalist regime, confronted with international condemnation
when apartheid was imposed in 1948, invoked its caring conservationist
ethos—with Kruger Park as primary showpiece—as evidence that South
Africa belonged to the community of civilized nations.42 Carruthers’s most
astute insight is her recognition that during the 1940s and 1950s, before the
ascent of international tourism to South Africa, the idea of the national
park helped foster a unifying ideology of white nationalism between his-
torically antagonistic English and Afrikaans South Africans. That ideology
drew on two quite discrete, mutually distrustful traditions: British colo-
nial conservation and the Afrikaner mythology of themselves as a chosen
people in a God-given land. Post-1948, a trip to the Kruger National Park
could be promoted as a spiritual pilgrimage for both Afrikaner and English
whites, as in the words of National Parks Board public relations director,
R. J. Labuschagne:

Exalted personages of the past have ever fl ed to nature for medi-

tation and solitude: Christ climbed the Mount of Olives . . . Solo-

mon repeatedly exhorts mankind to return to nature; President

Kruger [of the Transvaal Republic] spent three days on the Mag-

aliesberg in silent meditation . . . It is for this reason that the

[white] South African nation undertakes the yearly pilgrimage

to the Kruger National Park.43

Here Labuschagne deploys, in the service of white unity, the well-established
colonial trope of the topographically and socially elevated white male com-
muning in solitude as the monarch of all he surveys. But he also mobilizes
the religious archaic—the images of Christ and Solomon—to advance a
racially exclusive touristic modernity. We witness here a paradoxically
archaic modernity that exhorts white tourists to “return” to nature as a
patriotic exercise, an individually and collectively elevating pilgrimage
of renewal which is routed both through a Christianized antiquity and
through a racially exclusive romantic sublime.44

In the late 1980s, when Mozambique was gripped by civil war and South
Africa by antiapartheid uprisings, Gordimer visited the frontier zone formed
by southern Mozambique, Kruger Park, and the neighboring Bantustan of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[1 9 2 ]

Gazankulu.45 In an astutely materialist account of her untouristic explora-
tions, she reads that frontier wilderness as a cultural space shaped by land
wars, militarization, and migrant labor. Since the late nineteenth century,
Mozambique has remained the primary foreign labor reserve for South
Africa’s mines.46 At the northern end of Kruger Park, a giant baobab tree
served for decades as the primary recruiting station for tens of thousands
of Mozambican men who were certifi ed, dipped in disinfectant, and carted
off to the mines. At this site the cultures of labor, militarism, tourism, and
nature converged and interpenetrated: “Although it is within the Kruger
Park,” writes Gordimer,

the road leading to the TEBA [the Employment Bureau of Africa]

site is barred, like the many roads which now lead to concealed

military camps rather than viewpoints for observing the ani-

mals. Nevertheless, I got there, passing buck and warthog along

deserted tracks. High up overlooking the convergence of the three

frontiers was a scene out of Conrad: buried in tropical trees, low

buildings where men were received, fed, medically examined,

signed up and transported; . . . a dark-browed thatched mansion

surrounded by a moat of huge-leaved plants, with a magnifi cent

wild fi g tree thrust, like a tower, through the structure.47

To this complex ecology of spectatorship we must add another invisible
layer. When this northern region was incorporated into the Kruger Park in
the 1930s, the Tsonga-speaking Makuleke were driven from their land. Some
of these conservation refugees ended up, after decades of resistance, in the
Shangaan-Tsonga “ethnic homeland” of Gazankulu, others fl ed to Mozam-
bique. By the late 1970s and 1980s, a reverse border-crossing was underway;
this time the Shangaan were in fl ight not from conservation violence in South
Africa but from South African-fomented military violence in Mozambique.
By the late 1980s, refugees were streaming into Gazankulu at the rate of 1,000
a month. To get there, most had to breach fi rst the Kruger Park’s 11,500-volt
electric fence, then a backup razor-coiled fence, and then the park itself. In
short, this “timeless” place has been repeatedly crisscrossed by the convul-
sive movements of desperate humans historically uprooted from their land,
whether by conservation, war, or the ethnic engineering of the Bantustans.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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str a nger in the eco-v illage

[1 9 3 ]

It is one such convulsive movement that Gordimer imagines in “The
Ultimate Safari,” which we can read as a fi ctional companion piece to
the sociopolitical frontier essay she published fourteen years earlier. The
unnamed ten-year-old war orphan who recounts her group’s via dolorosa
across the Kruger Park tells a story that becomes, among other things, about
tourism without tourists, the perspectival antithesis of Kleinhans’s “Zulu”
village without villagers. If Ndebele’s essay focuses on the dilemmas of the
hypervisible black middle-class tourist encircled by a white nature industry,
Gordimer’s story dramatizes the fears of ultra-poor Africans whose lives
depend on passing unseen through the white nature industry’s commercial-
ized zone of animals.

The girl’s journey through time, megafauna, and the bush stands in blunt
contrast to the pilgrimage toward a spiritually regenerative white race-time
promulgated by Labuschagne and his ilk. “To get there,” she recalls,

we had to go through the Kruger Park. We knew about the Kru-

ger Park. A kind of whole country of animals—elephants, lions,

jackals, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, all kinds of animals. We had

some of them in our own country, before the war (our grandfa-

ther remembers; we children weren’t born yet) but the bandits

kill the elephants and sell their tusks, and the bandits and our

soldiers have eaten all the buck. There was a man in our village

without legs—a crocodile took them off, in our river; but all the

same our country is a country of people, not animals. We knew

about the Kruger Park because some of our men used to leave

home to work there in the places where white people come to

stay and look at the animals.48

The girl’s great trek from her lost “country of people” to the “whole country
of animals” gathers force from a potent, if implicit, contrast with the jour-
ney the tourists have undertaken. In the country of animals that the girl
is entering, humans remain unseen: the story alludes to the tourists who
exist only as voices and cooking smells wafting through the animal night
from the far side of the rest camp fence. Though constituted by the same
modernity, these two contiguous groups live trespass, risk, and animal time
in radically different modalities.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 9 4 ]

As I have argued, white tourists purchase the frisson of trespass into a
“timeless” animal zone, a memorable, risk-simulating adventure in an eco-
archaic world liberated from history. However, those other foreigners, thrust
into the “whole country of animals” by history’s convulsions, seek to survive
risk and trespass by laboring to remain invisible in the historical present, by
passing through the elephant grass undetected (by game wardens, border
police, lions), by moving “like animals among the animals, away from the
roads, away from the white people’s camps.”49 If the Kruger Park is pitched to
tourists as an opportunity to “get close” to wildlife, for the refugees human-
animal intimacy depends on a deeper kind of interspecies recognition. The
girl and her fellow travelers, in their transnational trespass, have also crossed
over into the border zone of the human animal—where knowledge gleaned
from other species can offer lifesaving pointers to where water and food are
and how to achieve a deeper camoufl age, a safer invisibility.

As they traverse this border zone, the tourist and the refugee exist in dif-
ferent states of transport. The Kruger Park promises the tourist the excite-
ment of a safely managed plunge into the deep time, the eco-archaic, of the
purely animal. (Suspense typically hinges on seeing or not seeing one of
the Big Five—lion, elephant, rhino, leopard, and buffalo—that have proven
indispensable to the branding of South African tourism.) The refugee’s tem-
poral experience, however, is quite different: the perilous passage through
a time zone dedicated to tourists and animals doubles as a portal, not into a
suspended past, but into a suspended future. These two groups of transients
from opposite ends of the spectrum of voluntary and involuntary mobil-
ity pass each other like ships in the night, freighted with radically different
hopes, radically different experiences of national park space-time, and radi-
cally different visions of what constitutes escape.

On their ultimate safari, the Mozambicans’ collective egress represents
a history-driven descent into timelessness, though one quite remote from
the fenced, managed timelessness of the tourist domain. When right-wing
bandits scorched their Mozambican village church and schools, the girl and
her siblings began to lose their footing in the institutional rhythms of calen-
drical time. Thereafter, as they fl ee through “the country of animals,” the
days lose their names and traction; the old, structured rhythms of a now-
destroyed village time give way to an improvised survival dependent on
reading sun, sky, and animal behavior.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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str a nger in the eco-v illage

[1 9 5 ]

The Mozambicans, their known world razed by civil war, are not so
much moving toward as moving away. “Away” becomes the story’s signa-
ture word: “We wanted to go where there were no bandits and there was
food. We were glad to think there must be such a place; away,” the girl
declares, “we started to go away, again.”50 When they fi nally reach a refugee
camp beyond the park, she fantasizes about living “in a real house again,
with no war, no away.”51

Away: between the lines the reader fi lls in the complexities of that
abrupt, complex word, connecting it to a double discourse of escape that
exposes the chasm between the tourist-ad’s promotional blurb and the little
girl’s voice. Away: as in getaway, sanctuary, refuge, retreat, terms that take
on diametrically opposed valences depending on whether leisure or terror is
the propulsive force, depending on whether you’re in temporary fl ight from
your white-collar workweek or intent on the hard labor of fl ight through
electrifi ed fences into a time that has lost all shape.

Having survived the wildlife reserve, the girl fi nds sanctuary in a refu-
gee camp that we can assume (extrapolating from hints in Gordimer’s short
story and her essay) is located in the Gazankulu Bantustan. By story’s end
the girl has been living there for over two years, in a vast, overcrowded tent
that rises in implicit counterpoint to the tented rest camps of the leisure
colonialists. The refugees have thus exchanged the suspended time of tran-
sit through the national park for the suspended time of the refugee camp, a
provisional place that, within the symbolic economy of the story, can never
quite serve as resolution or destination.

Gloria Anzaldua has famously observed that

borders are set up to defi ne the places that are safe and unsafe, to

distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow

strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undeter-

mined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural

boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited

and the forbidden are its inhabitants . . . those who cross over,

pass over, or go through the confi nes of the normal.52

When, I would add, that “unnatural boundary” is marked by a national park
that embodies a national culture of nature, the borderland can become a site

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 9 6 ]

of redoubled violence in its militarized severance of natural from unnatural
and native from foreign.53

This fi erce severance pertains powerfully to the Shangaan, the trans-
frontier people to whom Gordimer’s narrator clearly belongs.54 On entering
the refugee camp in the Bantustan, the girl

was surprised to fi nd they speak our language; our grandmother

told me. . . . Long ago, in the time of our fathers, there was no

fence that kills you, there was no Kruger Park between them

and us, we were the same people under our own king, right

from our village we left to this place we’ve come to.55

The refugees’ journey thus retraces a continuity that persists only in the
unfenced past of oral memory, before this threshold people was culturally
and territorially severed, fi rst, by the map separating Portuguese colony
from Boer Republic, and later by conservation’s electrifi ed fence that delim-
ited the beginning of South Africa’s national and national-nature space.56
The Shangaan were left straddling the divide.57

As a transfrontier people—who can be capriciously designated by South
Africans as either “us” or “them”—the Shangaan have suffered from new
forms of vulnerability in recent years, becoming targets of brutal assaults
and expulsions. During the wave of xenophobic killings and shack burn-
ings that swept through the shantytowns of Johannesburg and other South
African cities in 2008, Shangaan, both South African and Mozambican, were
targeted as “foreigners,” who (in the all-too-familiar-scapegoating) were
deemed “criminal elements” who “come over here” to steal our jobs, our
women, our shacks, our things.

This often violently enforced postapartheid discrimination between the
“authentically” national and the undesirable foreign is ironically waived
when it comes to the commodifi ed performances of memory and amne-
sia on which the tourist industry depends. The carved wooden animals,
the soapstone sculptures, and the masks that American, European, and
Japanese tourists carry home as authenticating mementoes of their South
African game-park trip overwhelmingly derive from beyond South Africa’s
borders, especially from Mozambique and Zimbabwe, but also from Ghana,
Congo, Senegal, Nigeria, and Cameroon.58 Immigrants who risk everything

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str a nger in the eco-v illage

[1 9 7]

crossing borders, fences, national parks, and hostile communities may be
branded as undesirable others in their persons, yet play an indispensable role
in the circuits of desire of the international tourist feedback loop. For it is
these artists and vendors from “away” who serve as the primary purveyors
of an ersatz indigeneity through the rebranding of their artifacts as “South
African” memorabilia. The carved elephants, lions, hippos, and other char-
ismatic megafauna they sell in the condensed form of the commodity icon
authenticate the tourist’s “ultimate safari” into the eco-archaic.

International Recolonization?

Whether the space of the game reserve can be repossessed, imaginatively
and experientially, will depend on at least four critical factors. First, how
will the reserves be impacted by government policies toward land restitu-
tion? Second, what role will the ascent of black tourism play in reshaping
South Africa’s nature industry? Will game reserves become alluring destina-
tions to black tourists or remain alienating reminders of racial entitlement,
dispossession, and apartheid atavism? Third, how sustainable will rural
ecotourism initiatives prove? Will they offer broad-based economic oppor-
tunities and draw on cultures of nature outside the purview of neocolonial
conservation? Finally, how will international forces—the feedback loops of
global tourism and the pressures exerted by European and American-based
conservationist NGOs—shape South Africa’s environmental priorities?

Hector Magome and James Murombedzi, two incisive analysts of these
policy dilemmas, have expressed a profound skepticism toward the interna-
tional role: “If the dominant agenda is conventional biodiversity conserva-
tion, the political expediency that facilitates the decolonization of nature at
the national level will cause its re-colonization at the international level.”59
This remains a real, active risk. That said, however, the primary driver
behind the South African conservation systems, both state-run and private,
has tended to be the lucrative, easy sell of spectacular megafauna rather
than biodiversity. The latter, from a tourist perspective, is often unspec-
tacular and therefore “boring.”60 As Kleinhans’s alfalfa problem suggests,
for many foreign tourists, mixed-usage landscapes (which blend agriculture,
subsistence, and conservation) are anathema, unappealing as spectacle and
insuffi ciently severed from the domestic and the familiar. Yet, for all the

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[1 9 8 ]

complexities that the coexistence of pastoralists, agriculturalists, and wild-
life entails, such hybrid uses of land can play an essential part in the long run
to help dissolve the resilient, Manichean perception of blacks as poachers (or
encroachers) and white environmentalists as humane toward animals but
inhumane toward people. Amidst the land squeeze, increased mixed usage
will be a necessary component of efforts to reconcile water, food, and eco-
system security for humans and nonhuman life-forms. The alternative is
unsustainable: powerhouse international NGOs in cahoots with stereotypi-
cal tourist demands for Wild Africa driving subsistence farmers and ecosys-
tem people off the land.

In its unevenly postapartheid mode, South Africa has to contend with
the civilizational clout of powerful national and international ideologies of
nature. These are potentially mutable ideologies, to be sure, but nonetheless
etched into the nation’s physical, psychic, and economic landscapes. These
lingering legacies of political subjugation and territorial appropriation (but-
tressed by the civilizational discriminations of colonial progress narratives)
have been used to rationalize unequal access to land, wildlife, and leisure
while erecting a vast international marketplace around charismatic mega-
fauana and the eco-archaic. What is acutely at stake in understanding South
Africa’s environmental dilemmas is that they point, in critical form, toward
more generalized global crises around land access, food security, resource
wars, biodiversity, tourism, and the place of amnesia in the racial politics of
the international wildlife marketplace.

In our quest to transform colonialism’s temporal and spatial legacies,
a profound tension often arises between economic, historical, and psycho-
logical impulses. How much change, how fast, at what cost to whom, and
when? The strategic answers will vary according to the specifi c frictions or
collaborations between global forces, local and national power structures,
and what Tsing calls “the sticky materiality of practical encounters.”61 Let
Ndebele, surveying the game lodge, have the fi nal word: “The ambiguities
and choices are diffi cult, even painful. Now we want to throw off the psy-
chological burden of our painful past; now we want to hold on to it. . . . We
think: there is no peace for those caught in the process of becoming.”62

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7

Ecologies of the Aftermath

Precision Warfare and Slow Violence

The war has used up words; they have been weakened, they have
deteriorated like motor car tires; . . . we are now confronted with
a depreciation of all our terms . . . that may well make us wonder
what ghosts will be left to walk.

—Henry James in interview, March 21, 1915

One day my Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Graff, read the Noah’s
Ark story aloud to our class. When she came to the part about the
fl oodwaters drying up, she held the book open to the picture of the
sturdy, gleaming ark surrounded after the fl ood by the lush green
trees and colorful plants, all under the beautiful rainbow in the sky.

The entire class was entranced except for Joel, the boy sitting
beside me.

Joel stared at the picture our teacher held up and yelled suddenly.
“WHERE ARE ALL THE BODIES?!? ”
Our teacher looked puzzled and annoyed. She put her book

down.
“WHAT BODIES, JOEL?”
“THE BODIES!” he cried. “WHERE ARE ALL THE BODIES

OF THE PEOPLE AND THE ANIMALS THAT DIED IN THE
FLOOD?!? ”

—Ellen O’Grady, Outside the Ark: An Artist’s
Journey in Occupied Palestine

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 0 0 ]

What is a war casualty? The answer appears painfully
obvious. It asserts itself less through argument than through visceral pho-
tographs: a torso shredded by a roadside bomb; a bloodied peasant spread-
eagled in a ditch; a soldier, cigarette dangling nonchalantly, crashing his
boot into a dead woman’s head. Yet such images account only for immedi-
ate, visually arresting fatalities. What about those casualties that don’t fi t
the photographic stereotypes, casualties that occur long after major com-
bat has been concluded, casualties whose belatedness and dispersal make
them resistant to dramatic packaging? The media, in thrall to speed and
spectacle, lacks the attention span to follow war-infl icted catastrophes that
take years or generations to exact their toll. After offi cial victory has been
declared, how do we track the persistence of unoffi cial hostilities in the cel-
lular domain, the untidy, attritional lethality that moves through the tissue,
blood, and bones of combatants and noncombatants alike, moving through
as well the living body of the land itself ?

As Joel’s disquiet over the shiny, rainbow version of Noah’s rescue nar-
rative suggests, stories—tightly framed for time, space, and point of view—
are convenient places for concealing bodies. Stories of the aftermath are
protracted, convoluted, messy, open ended, and often discomforting to tell,
particularly when—whether it’s Noah’s ark or the 1991 Gulf War—the offi –
cial narrative frame is unequivocally triumphalist. The Gulf War offers a
dramatic instance of how challenging it can be to narrate the ecology of
the aftermath because America’s corporate media represented that war as
a spectacular achievement of speed and untainted victory—a strategically,
technologically, and ethically decisive war, the nation’s anti-Vietnam. Yet
the Gulf War was, at the same time, the confl ict that gave us Gulf War
syndrome and—less remarked upon—the fi rst confl ict in which depleted
uranium munitions were deployed on a large scale. It was thus a war of pro-
found narrative contrasts: between the crisp story line that marches briskly
toward victory and the diffuse, laborious story about slow violence, about
convoluted scientifi c proof and the politics of risk, a story that fans out into
the open-ended, uncertain ecologies of the aftermath.

Public debate is overdue on war’s hidden human and environmental
costs, a debate that acknowledges major shifts in the ways that contem-
porary wars kill. Military euphemisms like “precision” warfare, “surgi-
cal” strikes, “smart” wars, “depleted” uranium, and “miracle drones” have

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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 0 1]

helped legitimize recent high-tech confl icts while concealing their long-
term toxic and radiological impact. The rhetoric of precision lulls us into
regarding the fatalities of war as swift, immediate killings. But ironically,
the increasing reliance of American and British forces on the discourse of
“precision” coincides with the integration of “depleted” uranium into their
missiles, bullets, and tank armor.

Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, a new kind of fatal environmental impre-
cision has been built into “precision” warfare, for that war was history’s
fi rst depleted-uranium confl ict. Arguably, not since Hiroshima and Naga-
saki have humans unleashed a military substance so tenaciously hostile to
life itself. Depleted uranium (DU) possesses a durability beyond our com-
prehension: it had a radioactive half-life of 4.51 billion years. When it enters
the environment, DU effectively does so for all time, with consequences
that are resistant to military metrics, consequences that we are incompe-
tent to judge.

In our age of depleted-uranium warfare, we have an ethical obligation
to challenge the military body counts that consistently underestimate (in
advance and in retrospect) the true toll of waging high-tech wars. Who
is counting the staggered deaths that civilians and soldiers suffer from
depleted uranium ingested or blown across the desert? Who is counting the
belated fatalities from unexploded cluster bombs that lie in wait for months
or years, metastasizing into landmines? Who is counting deaths from chem-
ical residues left behind by so-called pinpoint bombing, residues that turn
into foreign insurgents, infi ltrating native rivers and poisoning the food
chain? Who is counting the victims of genetic deterioration—the stillborn,
malformed infants conceived by parents whose DNA has been scrambled by
war’s toxins? The calculus of any confl ict needs to at least acknowledge such
environmental casualties, even if they cannot be quantifi ed. Such casualties
may suffer slow, invisible deaths that don’t fi t the news cycle at CNN or Fox,
but they are war casualties nonetheless.

Fractal Wars and Surgical Tropes

The 1991 Gulf War is widely acknowledged as a benchmark moment in the
representation and experience of war. It was, in Paul Virilio’s infl uential for-
mulation, the fi rst “fractal war”:

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 0 2 ]

With modern techniques and new logistics of perception, the

battlefi eld of the Gulf War also developed within the fi eld of per-

ception. It appeared to be a local war, in the sense that its bat-

tlefi eld was very small compared with the Second World War.

However, considering its representation, it was a worldwide

war. . . . So, on one hand, there was a local war of small interest, with

very little human loss on one side, with very little consequences, but on

the other hand, there was a unique fi eld of perception operating.

Unlike the Vietnam War, it was a worldwide war, live, with all

the special effects of course, the data processing supervised by

the Pentagon. . . . So, yes, this war happened, more on a screen

than on the ground. It happened more on the TV screen than in the

reality of the battlefi eld. To that extent, one can say that real time

defeated real space. (my emphases)1

What appeared so novel about this war was its aura—its manipulated
aura—of virtual immediacy. Here was a “real-time” war conducted and
viewed at high speed in the present tense, a “smart” war projected through
myriad networks onto linked screens in the bomber’s cockpit, on TV, and
the Internet, giving the potent sensation of instant access and total, continu-
ous immersion. Perceptually, the Gulf War was high defi nition, yet episte-
mologically it was blurry, suggesting a radically new turn in what James Der
Derian has dubbed the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network.”2

Yet commentators on the Gulf War, whether technophile or techno-
phobe, whether dazzled or appalled, have consistently represented it as a
war of speed, brief in historical time and instantly available (though through
complex mediations) as spectacle. Virilio, for example, glosses over the war
on the ground as inconsequential, local, and quick; the war’s only long-term
signifi cance derives from its impact on the logistics of the perceptual battle-
fi eld. However, this critical fi xation with the ethics of the war’s potent techno-
logical innovations has overshadowed inquiries into the environmental and
epidemiological ethics of its duration. A preoccupation with the paradoxes of
the Gulf War’s mediated immediacy has made this a particularly challenging
war to represent in terms of the longue durée of the ecological aftermath.

We can give this diffi culty the traction of story by embarking on a road
trip in the company of two very different guides who ventured independently

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 0 3 ]

down the same paved two-lane transnational highway in the same week
early in March 1991. The highway stretches north from Kuwait City through
the border town of Safwan and from there on to Basra, Iraq’s primary port.
Both our guides traveled that road to Basra soon after American bombers
had incinerated retreating Iraqi convoys in what became known as the “tur-
key shoot” on the Highway of Death.

Our fi rst guide is writer Michael Kelly, whose award-winning Martyr’s Day:
Chronicle of a Small War (1993) has won acclaim as the fi nest work of American
war literature since Michael Herr’s Dispatches and has been hailed (alongside
Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead) as the literary masterpiece of the fi rst Gulf War.3
Kelly, a former editor of the New Republic and National Journal who would go
on to edit the Atlantic Monthly, offers a visceral account in Martyr’s Day of the
charred bodies and tanks strewn along the Highway of Death. As a reporter, he
observes this spectacle of carnage with something bordering on relief:

The Gulf War was an experience disconnected from itself, con-

ducted with such speed and at such distances and with so few

witnesses that it was, even for many of the people involved, an

abstraction. It was diffi cult for the Americans, who had done

their killing almost entirely from afar, to feel a connection with

those they killed, or with the act of killing.4

Kelly belongs to the camp of Gulf War commentators who suffered from
pixilation fatigue; affl icted by the vertigo of the virtual, he was disturbed by
the war’s fusion of video game presence with corporeal absence, its mixture
of closeness and distance that made it feel both instant and elusive even, he
suggests, to the killers themselves.

Traveling the Highway of Death, Kelly fi nally comes eye to eye with the
intimate, bodily certainties of war. He has stepped outside the infosphere
and into a carnal space where war residues penetrate the nostrils and coat
the skin. “For miles and miles,” he observes, “the roads were rich with the
physical realities of war, glutted with the evidence of slaughter and victory.
They became the great circuit board of the Gulf War, where the disconnect-
edness stopped.”5

From Kelly’s vantage point, then, the Highway of Death marks the end
of the road. This is the terminus he has been craving, a place of convergent

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 0 4 ]

fi nalities, where the war has exacted its last fatalities, where certain victory
has been achieved, and where the feedback loop of bloodless mediation has
been trumped by the raw materiality of a corpse-strewn highway. Here,
fi nally, he can slough off the deranging enchantments of the virtual and,
standing on the carnal terra fi rma of American triumph, fi nd the empirical,
experiential, and narrative closure he has yearned for.

Our second guide, traveling down that same road that very week, is a
woman named Carol Picou, who ventured there in a very different capacity.
First Sgt. Picou was serving as a combat support Army nurse working with
a mobile hospital unit. A seventeen-year veteran of the U.S. military, she
helped open a fi eld hospital alongside the highway and for fi fteen grueling
days treated the injured and retrieved the Iraqi and Bedouin dead, clamber-
ing in out of those same incinerated tanks that for Kelly marked his sense
of an ending.6 Within days of her departure from this scene, Picou’s skin
starting to erupt in black spots; soon she lost control of her bladder and her
bowels. She came to depend permanently on a catheter and diapers. After
her return to America, over the months and years that followed, she devel-
oped thyroid problems and squamous cancer cells in her uterus; she devel-
oped immunological dysfunction and encephalopathy. Three years after her
stint on the Highway of Death, tests found dangerously elevated levels of
uranium in her urine. Not until a barrage of affl ictions had jeopardized her
life did Picou fi rst heard the phrase “depleted uranium” and begin to learn
of the threat its residues could pose.

“Depleted” is a lulling word: place it in front of robust nouns like
“energy” or “ambition,” and “depleted” saps them of their vigor. Not so
depleted uranium. It poses a terrible radioactive and chemical threat that
actively endangers soldiers, civilians, and the environment itself. Despite
that reassuring “depleted” in its name, depleted uranium possesses 60
percent of natural uranium’s radioactivity. During the Gulf War alone,
American troops fi red weapons containing 340 tons of depleted uranium.
According to British professor of medicinal chemistry Dr. Malcolm Hooper,
this contributed signifi cantly to making the Gulf War “the most toxic war
in Western military history.”7 In Hooper’s measured opinion, depleted ura-
nium is “a new weapon for indiscriminate, mutually-assured destruction.”8
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights, moreover, has clas-
sifi ed depleted uranium munitions with nuclear, biological, and chemical

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 0 5 ]

weapons as “weapons of indiscriminate effect.” Although German scientists
fi rst researched DU’s military potential in the 1940s, for a half century it was
kept off the battlefi eld. Not until the 1991 Gulf War was depleted uranium
integrated into conventional warfare, thereby adding a new fatal kind of
environmental imprecision to “precision” warfare. How did such an unethi-
cal radioactive substance become enfolded, from the Gulf War onward, into
the landscape of modern warfare and into the ecology of war’s aftermath?

Why, Carol Picou asked, had she and her unit not been warned of
depleted uranium’s potential radiological and chemical perils before enter-
ing those heavily polluted battle zones? Why had the U.S. military not
outfi tted them with protective gear, these nurses on their mercy mission,
working inside and alongside tanks incinerated by depleted uranium-tipped
munitions? In retrospect, Picou worried about the fi erce desert winds that
her unit had encountered while tending to the injured, winds that had
whipped up the desert dust and with it, unbeknownst to her, suspended
depleted uranium particles.

Picou’s unit included 300 troops. Of those, 150 worked along the front
line on the Highway of Death; the other 150 remained in the rear. By 1996,
fi ve years after the Gulf War’s offi cial end, of the 150 members of Picou’s
unit who worked on the Highway of Death forty were seriously ill and six
had died. By contrast, the 150 who had stayed back from the front line had
remained healthy. On learning that some returning veterans had started
to father or conceive children missing an eye or an ear or a thyroid gland,
that children were being born with fl ippers instead of arms, Picou, who had
done so much to heal war’s casualties, decided to have her tubes tied.

The Department of Defense discharged Carol Picou in March 1996, fi ve
years after her return from the Highway of Death. She was dismissed with
“Bowel and Bladder Incontinence—Etiology Unknown.” According to the
document that terminated her service, the barrage of illnesses she suffered
from was “non-combat-related.”9 She was thus denied the kind of pension
that servicewomen and men injured in the battlefi eld secured. Her decisive
dismissal on the basis of a medically indecisive narrative further under-
mined Picou’s physical and fi nancial prospects. Beneath the camoufl age of
slow violence, and despite soaring uranium levels in her urine fi ve years
after combat, Picou’s catastrophic physical collapse was dissociated entirely
from the environment of war.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 0 6 ]

For Michael Kelly, the road to Basra marked the end of a pilgrimage, the
moment when he could fi nd relief in a triple termination: to the Gulf War’s
virtual disconnectedness, to the war itself, and to the murky humiliations
of America’s Vietnam syndrome.10 For Picou, by contrast, that same high-
way was where her personal and professional termination would begin, the
place where the war’s corporeal disconnectedness would begin in earnest.
For Picou, the Highway of Death marked the onset of a different kind of
disconnection—between her body’s collapse and her struggle to be believed
as she plunged into an unending battle to win offi cial military acknowledge-
ment as a postcombat war casualty. For Picou, by March 1991 the Gulf War
had barely begun.

In ignoring the unfolding of slow violence across environmental and
epidemiological time, Kelly, like Virilio, accepted the Gulf War’s face-value
brevity. The title of Kelly’s book—Martyr’s Day: Chronicle of a Small War—
underscores this image of a miniconfl ict tidily contained, a confl ict he dubs
the “Hundred Hour War.”11 When he revisits his book eight years after pub-
lication to add a post-9/11 foreword, Kelly mounts an argument that would
become widespread in rationalizing the then imminent 2003 Iraq War,
namely, that a direct line could be drawn between the Gulf War’s sanitary
brevity, America’s cutting-edge precision materiel, and American military
humanitarianism:

The Gulf War wasn’t named a war. It was named an operation—

Operation Desert Storm. An operation is not a war; it is a surgi-

cal event. It is something the defi nitional purpose of which is

limited: get in, get the tumor, get out. . . . The Gulf War was

run as an operation, and as an operation it worked very well . . .

The troops went in and removed the tumor from Kuwait, which

was the sole goal of the operation. Few people got killed. (And in

“few,” I am including an assessment of Iraqi deaths, which were

much higher than Allied deaths, but remarkably low consider-

ing the lethal capacity of Iraq’s enemy; the Gulf War was the fi rst

important demonstration of the ability of the new American

military to exploit its overwhelming technological superiority

to produce a historic contradiction in terms—effective humani-

tarian war.)12

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 0 7]

The notion that surgical strikes, precision warfare, and smart bombs exhibit
a morally exact intelligence is understandably widespread.13 In America, we
are primed to view contemporary life as an incessant, accelerating series of
technological upgrades, each promising more marvels than the last. Inside
this progress narrative, the cults of speed, novelty, and spectacle can seem
to generate their own innate morality. It is easy, in such a technological
climate, to grant each new weapons system an enhanced ethical potency.14

What Kelly fails to observe in retrospect is the shadow of imprecision
trailing behind those luminous technologies of precision streaking across
the sky, a shadow that for months, years, decades, generations would jeop-
ardize the lives of random civilians through the lethal legacies of inciner-
ated munition depots, depleted uranium, and unexploded cluster bombs.
Quick causal leaps from “technological superiority” to “effective human-
itarian war” allow no place for what Hiroshima journalist Akira Tashiro
terms war’s discounted casualties.15 Kelly’s ornate surgical metaphor is espe-
cially inapt, given the carcinogenic risks associated with depleted uranium
wars: the same “surgical” technologies used to remove the Iraqi “tumor” are
instrumental in tumor spread. What kind of surgeon operates with instru-
ments so radioactive that they may catalyze literal cancers in the name of
metaphorically excising them?16

More apt is Rachel Carson’s metaphor of the “unselective bludgeon,”
which she invokes to describe purportedly target-specifi c insecticides.17
Writing in the aftermath of death-camp science and the science behind Hiro-
shima and Nagasaki, Carson was all too aware how readily the civilizational
rhetoric of progress and precision could cloak barbarous consequences. In
exposing the long-term perils of unchecked techno-boosterism, she stressed
how often the precision pitch relies on reckless promises of miraculous,
merciful selectivity.

Kelly, in advocating an ethics of corporeal intimacy over the confound-
ing paradoxes of virtual distance, succumbs to an environmentally obso-
lete image of war as spectacle. What he observes is not a luminous victory
for both America and unmediated empiricism, but rather unwittingly the
mirage of war’s end. A visible precision—readily framed as instant spec-
tacle—may mask a devastating imprecision, invisible and inhumane, dis-
persed across the desert sands and across the sands of time. In trusting the
authority of his eyes to bring the war to closure, Kelly fails to acknowledge

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 0 8 ]

the chemical and radiological perils that lie ahead for Iraqis; for the region’s
water, earth, and air; for creatures domestic and wild; for the region’s crops;
and for American troops as well. Beyond the vanishing point of Kelly’s sight
line stretches the prospect of months, years, generations of epidemiological
and environmental threat, a threat that Carol Picou, for one, would come to
know with a different kind of intimacy, the intimacy of her own disintegrat-
ing organs and crumbling bones. Entering those incinerated tanks along the
Highway of Death, Picou unknowingly entered a new phase of that “small
war” to which her body’s cells would bear corrosive witness.

Hysteria, Millenarianism, and Slow Violence Disavowed

In the aftermath of the Gulf War, the forces of epidemiological disavowal
gained an ally from an unexpected quarter: Princeton literary scholar Elaine
Showalter. Showalter, best known for her brilliant, pathbreaking work on
the cultural production of gendered madness, adjudged in her book Hys-
tories that Gulf War syndrome was the result of a media-stoked millen-
nial hysteria. Showalter maintained that with the millennium’s approach,
Americans were especially susceptible to social panics, hence the rise of
alien abduction, Satanic ritual abuse, multiple-personality syndrome, the
recovered-memory movement, and Gulf War syndrome—all of them, in her
view, millennial epidemics of hysterical disorders and imaginary illnesses,
and all virally transmitted through the media.18

Gulf War syndrome could thus best be understood as a hysterical “plot-
line” that gave shape and meaning to the war neuroses of returning veterans:

Patients learn about diseases from the media, unconsciously

develop the symptoms, and then attract media attention in an

endless cycle. The human imagination is not infi nite, and we are

all bombarded by these plot lines every day. Inevitably, we all

live out the social stories of our time.19

Gulf War syndrome thus becomes little more than a feedback loop in which
“psychogenic symptoms” generate stories, which in turn generate further
self-identifying victims.20 As a fi n-de-siècle hysterical script, Gulf War syn-
drome, like alien abduction and Satanic ritual-abuse stories, thereby becomes

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 0 9 ]

part of a media-transmitted psychological plague. Showalter dismisses objec-
tions to her theory as evidence of resistance to psychology itself: “A century
after Freud, many people still reject psychological explanations for symp-
toms; they believe psychosomatic disorders are illegitimate and search for
physical evidence that fi rmly places cause and cure outside the self.”21

Despite its idiosyncratic millennial-media spin, Showalter’s argument is
continuous with a slew of narratives of disavowal that are quick to dismiss
or trivialize causes “outside the self.” What such narratives downplay is the
way each war generates a distinctive, historically specifi c chemical, radio-
logical, epidemiological, and environmental legacy. As the technologies of
war shift, so does the composition of the aftermath. Showalter, obsessed
with the millennium’s media prelude, defl ects attention away from the
aftermath in all its textured chemical and radiological specifi city.

Moreover, if Gulf War syndrome (or more accurately, Gulf War illness)
really were expressive of a fi n-de-siècle media-induced panic and had no root
environmental causes, then the moment for that panic has long passed: the
millennium has come and gone, as have the “media-stoked millennial pan-
ics.” Yet the number of veterans reporting Gulf War illness continues to soar.
In 1997, when Showalter published her book, some 60,000 U.S. Gulf War
veterans were affl icted; by 2008, eight years after the uneventful passing of
the millennium, that number had surpassed 175,000.22 The inhabitants of the
Basra region, where depleted uranium weaponry was used extensively dur-
ing the Gulf War, share some disturbingly similar symptoms to America and
Britain’s ailing veterans. Are we to believe that the Basrans also contracted
these symptoms from America’s millennial media? After NATO planes
deployed depleted uranium-tipped missiles in the Balkan Wars, returning
European troops reported a high incidence of “peacekeeper’s syndrome,”
again with strong epidemiological similarities to the symptoms suffered by
Gulf War veterans and the Basrans. All three groups experienced, in par-
ticular, spikes in leukemia, renal collapse, and birth deformities. While the
science on this remains incomplete—indeed, it has in many instances been
insuffi ciently investigated or obstructed—the overlapping tendencies in the
epidemiological aftermath of depleted uranium wars are cause, at the very
least, for a more precautionary approach.

By insisting that Gulf War syndrome is the creation of millennial pan-
ics, the mass media, and veteran hysteria, Showalter excludes from the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 1 0 ]

realm of explanation battlefi eld environmental forces. Her line of think-
ing thereby shrinks the spatial and temporal frames of the aftermath; it is
a line of thinking readily reconciled with the military’s dismissal of cases
such as Carol Picou’s: “etiology unknown, not combat-related.” Surely we
can acknowledge the power of “plot bombardment” without losing sight
of the less metaphoric battlefi eld bombardment that profoundly shapes the
bodily aftermath?

Showalter, like others in the disavowal camp, displays a naïve, unwar-
ranted faith in the commitment by the Departments of Defense and Veterans
Affairs to a thorough, well-funded investigation. The historic track record of
such organizations—most notably, toward atomic veterans and casualties of
Agent Orange—gives ample grounds for skepticism. The U.S. military has
a long record of dissimulation on such matters, a record of “it’s all in your
mind” dismissals, of foot dragging and of underfunded, half-hearted science.
For twenty years it dismissed the physiological effects of Agent Orange as a
grand hallucination. Similarly, it would take the U.S. military until 2008—
seventeen years after the offi cial end of Kelly’s “small war”—to acknowledge
that Gulf War illness exists and has material chemical causes.23

Temporal Camoufl age and the Politics of Belatedness

As we have seen, the proponents of “smart” wars often market them as
humane because they appear to promise not just greater accuracy but
greater brevity. However, the Iraq War that began in 2003 complicated
that assumption, exposing the chasm between a hygienically “smart” war
and the messy hazards of a drawn-out, urban guerilla confl ict. Innumer-
able commentators, of course, have made this point. However, they typi-
cally continue to overlook the way the specifi c technologies that purport
to shorten a confl ict may delay, disperse, and therefore extend “precision”
warfare’s ecological impact. Such technologies, when they compromise the
environment, morph into long-term killers, creating landscapes that infl ict
lingering, off-camera casualties. Time itself becomes the ultimate cover-up,
a dependable ally in camoufl aging “smart” warfare’s sprawling toll.

Environmentalists routinely face the quandary of how to convert into
dramatic form urgent issues that unfold too slowly to qualify as breaking
news—issues like climate change and species extinction that threaten in

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 1 1]

slow motion. Any environmentalist who seeks to tally the delayed-action
casualties of “precision” warfare labors under a similar disadvantage. How
many years, how many decades, how many generations will he or she be
granted to come up with an always-approximate count that includes war’s
after-dead? Since 1991, depleted-uranium ordnance has been deployed in
Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait, Serbia, Somalia, and Chechnya and—
in unprecedented quantities—during the 2003 war in Iraq. Given depleted
uranium’s 4.51 billion-year half-life, what can counting even mean?

War deaths from environmental toxicity demand patient, elaborate
proof. Spikes in renal collapse; infertility; leukemia; testicular, brain, and
breast cancers; and clusters of infant malformations are harder to link to
war’s technologies than a bullet through the head. The military statistician
can simply count corpses within a given place and time, subdivide those
columns into combatants and civilians, then draw a line beneath his sums.
Such calculations conform tidily to our preconceptions about the time frame
within which a war is waged. However, to view war through the prisms of
ecological time and genetic mutation demands a different ethical attention
span. Uranium, after all, is genotoxic and chemically alters DNA.24

An earlier generation of environmental historians fi rst addressed this
problem of the relationship between changing military technologies, offi –
cial disavowal, and belated casualties. Thomas Whiteside’s The Withering
Rain: America’s Herbicidal Folly and John Lewallen’s Ecology of Devastation:
Indochina (both published in 1971) launched the by now extensive litera-
ture on the protracted lethality of Agent Orange.25 In 1982, Harvey Was-
serman and Norman Solomon’s Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s
Experience with Atomic Radiation detailed the catastrophic long-term impact
of atmospheric nuclear testing on America’s “atomic soldiers.”26 The turn
to depleted-uranium warfare and the unprecedented proliferation of cluster
bombs demands that we revisit the question of who counts as a casualty.
Who is counting the veterans slain or disabled by environmentally trans-
mitted “friendly fi re” and the deferred casualties among refugees returning
to poisoned, radiated landscapes, both groups harboring the illusion that the
war is safely behind them?

What accounts for depleted uranium’s sudden surge in military popu-
larity? As a by-product of nuclear testing and nuclear power, depleted
uranium is extremely cheap—indeed, better than free. A half century of

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 1 2 ]

nuclear-weapons and nuclear-power production has left the Department
of Defense with more than a billion pounds of nuclear waste in storage.
The Department of Defense is delighted to off-load some of that waste onto
arms manufacturers, gratis, in the form of depleted uranium. The result is a
seductive kind of alchemy: weapons manufacturers magically cut their pro-
duction costs while the Defense Department magically rids itself of a fi ve-
alarm waste product that no American wants buried in their backyard. The
result is a kind of antienvironmental recycling that converts highly toxic
waste into even more deadly explosive forms.

In a classifi ed acknowledgement of depleted uranium’s perils, Britain’s
Atomic Energy Authority warned that, in the Gulf War’s wake, depleted
uranium could enter the food chain and cause a half million premature Iraqi
and Kuwaiti deaths.27 By expanding its depleted-uranium arsenal, America
is effectively exporting nuclear waste to foreign soil—nuclear waste that
contains traces of plutonium, for which there are no safe levels. This nuclear
waste also contains the uranium isotope 236, which does not exist in nature
and has caused concern among epidemiologists. Dr. Michael Kilpatrick, a
leading Pentagon spokesperson on DU has asserted that “our studies in the
United States over fi fteen years have not shown depleted uranium going
from soil into groundwater.”28 However, as Dan Fahey notes, several scien-
tifi c studies have refuted Kilpatrick’s claim by demonstrating the seepage of
DU into aquifers and ecosystems:

Depleted uranium dumped into a pit at the Starmet (formerly

Nuclear Metals) manufacturing plant in Concord, Massachu-

setts, has leached through the soil into groundwater. The State of

Massachusetts permits drinking water to contain up to 29 micro-

grams of uranium per liter, but test wells at the Starmet site have

measured levels up to 87,000 micrograms of uranium per liter

water. A recent study found DU in the sapwood and bark of oak

trees on the Starmet site; the DU was apparently transferred to

the sapwood through uptake of contaminated groundwater.29

Foreign war zones may appear far-off and, yes, foreign civilians (and the
environments on which they depend) bear the brunt of the noxious load.
However, they do not bear that load alone: as we have seen, American

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 1 3 ]

and British troops also become victims of depleted uranium’s slow-motion
slaughter.

The Pentagon loves depleted uranium not just because it’s free, but also
because the metal’s density gives it a high penetrative capacity. That means
depleted-uranium munitions can be fi red from greater distances, ensuring
improved “kill range” and thereby purportedly helping keep U.S. troops out
of harm’s way. But such reasoning depends on a myopic notion of “harm’s
way” and “kill range”; both euphemisms demand an environmental gloss.30
For we need to measure a weapon’s “kill range” not just across battlefi eld
space but across ecological and genetic time as well.

When a depleted-uranium warhead strikes a metal target, the depleted
uranium spontaneously combusts, releasing minute glass particles in aero-
sol form. These so-called ceramic aerosols, despite the aesthetic elegance
of that phrase, give off no scent, so troops and civilians alike inhale them
unknowingly. Because ceramic aerosols emit radiation in potentially lethal
doses, if they enter your lungs or if you ingest them or if they seep into a cut,
you’re at grave risk of developing life-threatening renal carcinoma, leuke-
mia, lymphomas, or any one of multiple cancers. Most cancers take fi ve to
thirty years to incubate.

Narrating the Aftermath: The Challenges of Scale

In February 1991, on the eve of the Gulf War, the nuclear scientist Leon-
ard A. Dietz warned of catastrophic consequences if the United States and
its allies introduced depleted-uranium weaponry to the battlefi eld.31 Dietz’s
prescient appeal was ignored. As a consequence the Gulf War has left in its
wake radioactive landscapes that will continue, for untold years, to wage
widespread, random warfare. When Dietz cautioned against integrating
depleted uranium into conventional warfare, his alarm was grounded in
experience. During the late 1970s, he was employed to monitor depleted-
uranium levels outside an Albany factory that produced cannon shells for
the Air Force. New York state authorities, on learning that radiation lev-
els near the factory had reached ten times permissible state standards, shut
down the plant. The subsequent cleanup cost more than $100 million.

Dietz underscored the hypocrisy of such stringent domestic regulation
when the United States was creating in the Gulf an infi nitely more toxic

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 1 4 ]

environment for its troops and for the region’s inhabitants. Shortly after the
Gulf War began, Dietz observed: “To protect the health of Americans, we
shut down a factory for discharging the equivalent of about two 30mm shells
into the atmosphere per month. How can we justify using a million such
shells in Iraq and Kuwait, most of it in only four days of war?”32

Major Doug Rokke, former director of the Bradley Radiological Labora-
tory in Fort McLellan, Alabama, makes a similar argument to Dietz. Rokke
was tasked with leading an operation to clean up American military vehi-
cles shipped back to the United States in the Gulf War’s aftermath. That
clean up, Rokke notes, took four years. What does that indicate about the
toxic threat those war-exposed vehicles posed, not to speak of the long-term
threat to the environment whose toxicity went untreated?33

No sooner had military victory been declared in the Gulf War than
the public relations battle was joined to shield depleted uranium materiel
from environmental critiques that might jeopardize its future in the United
States’ arsenal. On March 1, 1991, Lt. Col. M. V. Ziehmn of the Los Alamos
National Laboratory sent out this memo to all offi cers in the fi eld:

Depleted Uranium penetrators were very effective against Iraqi

armor . . . but there has been and continues to be a concern

regarding the impact of DU on the environment. Therefore, if

no one makes a case for the effectiveness of DU on the battle-

fi eld, DU rounds may become politically unacceptable and thus,

be deleted from the arsenal . . . I believe we should keep this

sensitive issue at mind when after-action reports are written.34

On receiving this memo in Kuwait where he was leading his meticulous
effort to scour vehicles of DU residues before shipping them back to the
United States, Rokke read it as an unambiguous instruction to self-censor:
“[W]e want this stuff—don’t write anything that might make it diffi cult for
us to use it again.”35

Pentagon offi cials closed ranks around a public insistence that DU was
environmentally innocuous. Former Pentagon spokesman Dr. Michael Kil-
patrick was especially vocal and insistent: depleted uranium, he declared, is
“a lethal but safe weapons system. . . . I think we can be very confi dent that
what is in the environment does not create a hazard for those living in the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 1 5 ]

environment and working in it.”36 But sometimes a less decisive view slipped
through. “The military benefi ts are so much larger compared to any health
problems,” Colonel James Naughton declared,

[w] e feel we have to use it. It’s radioactive—I wish it wasn’t,

but I can’t change the laws of physics. The issue is, once you’ve

had a hit, once you’re involved in the catastrophic failure of the

tank, did the crew survive long enough to really care whether it

was tungsten or depleted uranium that hit them? Anyone who

does should count themselves damn lucky. I’m sure every one

of them would thank God that they lived forty years to contract

lymphoma.37

What Naughton acknowledges openly here is a two-speed lethality, the dif-
ference between what I call cold- and hot-war casualties. Here, as is typi-
cally the case, the immediate risk in the heat of battle trumps the violence
of deferred effects. But as Carol Picou, Doug Rokke, and veterans in their
thousands—not to mention far greater numbers of Iraqis—already knew in
their soft organs and in the marrow of their bones, you can become a post-
combat war casualty in well under forty years. As Major Rokke explains:

Four years after the fi rst Gulf War I was blowing 432 micrograms

of uranium per liter of urine. That’s 5,000 times the permissible

level. I was pissing fi re . . . My immune system is fucked up. I get

endless rashes, open sores that bleed, renal problems. My kid-

neys are gone to crap, my lungs have gone to crap, my bones are

crumbling. My teeth break off and fracture. Uranium replaces

calcium. Chemistry 101.38

To revisit Michael Kelly’s title, a chronicle of Rokke’s “small war” requires a
different type of attention span and more fi ne-grained narrative strategies.
The slow, invisible ousting of calcium by uranium in the body isn’t compat-
ible with the triumphal narrative arc that leads, ineluctably, to the tank-and-
corpse scene that delivers a satisfying terminus to Kelly’s victory quest. We
need counternarratives that locate the Highway of Death circa March 1991
as not a scene of fi nality, but an early moment in a far longer story of slow

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 1 6 ]

violence, of random, unoffi cial hostilities fought out in the cellular theatres
of a physically dispersed aftermath. The task facing both epidemiologists
and environmentalists is how to track and recount the winding, concealed
metamorphoses of sequestration.

The narrative challenges posed by slow violence of this kind are chal-
lenges of catastrophic miniaturism, as the diffi culty of narrating temporal
duration is compounded by the diffi culty of narrating physical scale. “What
would constitute adequate protection?” Rokke asks of depleted uranium.
“There is none. This stuff is 21 microns. It’s smaller than the inner diameter
of a red blood cell. We don’t have respiratory fi lters anyplace that can stop
it short of a space suit.”39 These microscopic temporal narratives of preentry
threat and postentry mutation are amplifi ed by a spatial threat that, again,
passes beneath the levels of naked eye detection. Pentagon spokesmen have
asserted that because depleted uranium is heavier than lead, it lies where
it falls and can’t pose a mobile risk. But as research by Dr. Dietz and oth-
ers has shown, the particles in question are so minute—fi ner than talcum
powder—that they can attach themselves to miniscule particles of sand and
become readily resuspended in desert winds. Thus, Dietz concludes, “the
fallout range of airborne DU aerosol dust is virtually unlimited.”40

The spatial and temporal carry of this threat, together with the extreme
physical scales across which it operates (from the cellular to the transna-
tional) compound the challenge of producing simple, readily communi-
cative narratives of risk. What we need is stories of anticipation based on
the emerging science. The science itself is inescapably slow and has been
further slowed by an offi cial reluctance to commit funds to long-term, in-
depth research. However, this much we know: studies show that DU is car-
cinogenic, causes tumors and DNA damage, crosses the blood-brain barrier,
deposits in the brain, deposits in the lymph nodes and testes, can cross the
placenta, and enters the fetus.41 Alexandra Miller, a radiobiologist with the
Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, has
discovered direct evidence that radiation from DU can damage chromo-
somes. Miller observes that when assaulted by depleted uranium “the chro-
mosomes break and the fragments reform in a way that results in abnormal
joins. Both the breaks and the joins are commonly found in tumor cells.”42
On the basis of her research she has expressed concern that the chemical and
radiological effects of DU were reinforcing each other and, moreover, that

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 1 7]

DU was causing indirect damage to so-called bystander cells, that is, cells
adjoining those that were directly hit.

Home and Away

If the Gulf War is any measure, we can anticipate an even more widespread,
protracted epidemic of belated casualties following the war in Iraq that
began in 2003, given the considerably greater volume of depleted-uranium
munitions deployed by American and British troops and the lengthier dura-
tion of the offi cial war itself. But this judgment is based on more than just
the comparative volume of DU munitions used. For the Gulf War was essen-
tially a desert confl ict, whereas the later war was decidedly more urban,
so that densely populated areas suffered direct exposure to chemical and
radiological risk.

The gravity of this urban risk startled Scott Peterson, a reporter for the
Christian Science Monitor, when in May 2003 he began taking Geiger counter
readings at sites across Iraq:

Near the [heavily bombarded] Republican Palace where US

troops stood guard and over 1,000 employees walked in and out

of the building the radiation readings were the hottest in Iraq, at

nearly 1,900 times background radiation levels. Spent shell cas-

ings still littered the ground.43

If the 2003 war involved heightened urban exposure, there was another criti-
cal difference in the deployment of depleted uranium by U.S. and British
forces. Whereas most Gulf War troops, like Carol Picou, had never even
heard of depleted uranium, much less the threat it posed, by 2003 army
training manuals insisted that anybody who came within seventy-fi ve yards
of any blown-up tank or spent shells had to wear respiratory and skin pro-
tection. The manuals also warned that “contamination will make food and
water unsafe for consumption.”44

The U.S. military, however, continued to send out mixed messages on
depleted uranium’s threat. One report from the U.S. Army Environmental
Policy Institute asserted: “If DU enters the body, it has the potential to gen-
erate signifi cant medical consequences.”45 Yet when questioned about the

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 1 8 ]

spike in cancers reported in Basra, where the Gulf War’s heaviest bombard-
ment had occurred, director of the Pentagon’s deployment health support
directorate Dr. Michael Kilpatrick responded unequivocally: “To the ques-
tion, could depleted uranium be playing a role, the medical answer is no.”46

How were troops and their families—not to mention Iraqis perma-
nently domiciled in the area—supposed to reconcile such contradictory
messages? While U.S. troops in the 2003 war had received warnings about
the hazards of getting closer than seventy-fi ve yards to scorched tanks and
spent munitions without respiratory and skin protection, Iraqi civilians
had received no such warnings. The implications are clear. When Scott
Peterson was roaming Baghdad with his Geiger counter he happened to
pause by a roadside vegetable stand and chatted with a woman selling pars-
ley, mint, and onions. Five yards away from her vegetable stand stood the
scorched hulk of an Iraqi tank; some children were frolicking inside. When
Peterson entered the tank, his Geiger counter started singing, registering
almost 1,000 times normal background radiation. Peterson asked the veg-
etable vendor how often the children play inside the tank. She shrugged
and replied, “Every day.”

Because Iraqi civilians received no offi cial warnings about depleted
uranium, and because no one has claimed responsibility for postwar clean-
ups, this scene is replaying itself across Iraq, as a whole army of dead tanks
tempts bored children to turn them into instant jungle gyms. Let’s call one
of the children playing in that radioactive tank beside the vegetable vendor
Ahmed. Like most children, Ahmed yearns to be taken seriously. The tank
offers him that chance, the chance to leapfrog into imaginary adulthood, to
get behind the wheel of this mighty machine, steer it, fi re fantasy shells at
fantasy enemies. Day after day Ahmed and his friends return to that tank
beside the parsley vendor to reinvent themselves as battlefi eld heroes. But
unbeknownst to Ahmed or his family, he is fi ghting two wars at once: the
war game inside his head, and another long-term war, a hide-and-seek with
mortality itself.

Did Ahmed cut himself on the tank’s jagged metal? Did he lick a fi n-
ger, wipe or pick his nose, or breathe in DU particles? If so, he may have
unwittingly enlisted as a child soldier to fi ght in a real biological war, waged
slowly, silently against his kidneys, his lungs, his lymph glands, or his thy-
roid—his blood, bones, chromosomes all under fi re.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 1 9 ]

In the language of the Geneva Conventions, DU has been condemned
as a “weapon of indiscriminate effect,” yet its effects are not entirely indis-
criminate. Its increasing military popularity threatens children most
directly: children are ten to twenty times more sensitive than adults to
radiation’s cancerous risks. Once DU passes into the water system, it trav-
els from there into mother’s milk, gathering concentration as it goes, con-
tributing to the cancer clusters among children that were recorded in the
Gulf War’s aftermath, particularly in the heavily bombarded Basra region.
In 2002, eleven years after that war’s offi cial end, Basra hospitals reported
a tenfold increase in birth defects and miscarriages.47 When Democratic
congressman, doctor, and child psychiatrist Jim McDermott visited Iraqi
hospitals in September 2002, he was told by a resident obstetrician that
“‘the average Iraqi woman giving birth no longer says, “Is it a boy or a
girl?’ She asks, “Is the baby normal or abnormal.’”48 “It would be a tragedy,”
McDermott concluded, “for us to bring democracy to Iraq and leave in our
wake a horrendous cloud of nuclear waste.”49 Within six months of McDer-
mott’s visit, the country would be subjected to a second depleted-uranium
war, as tanks and planes unleashed another long dying under cover of a
cloud of rhetoric about “precision.”

Under such circumstances, the boundaries between the domestic and
the foreign, home and away, are impossible to maintain. American and
British troops are drawn disproportionately from communities that (by
their own countries’ standards) are poor; their fates crisscross the fates of
those poor from global South war zones who must inhabit, long term, the
uranium-compromised aftermath. Many wives and girlfriends of returning
Gulf War veterans complained repeatedly that when making love to their
husbands and boyfriends, they experienced a ferocious burning in their
genitals. For years these women were ridiculed, some for suggesting that
Gulf War syndrome could be transmitted through semen. Recent research
suggests these women were only partly wrong. The burning is a sign that
a lover’s semen is polluted with uranium. Research also points to a connec-
tion between uranium-polluted semen and increased levels of endometriosis
among veterans’ sexual partners. Thus depleted uranium munitions may
launch a preemptive strike against both semen and the womb. This is the
other ultimate sacrifi ce—sacrifi cing in perpetuity one’s procreative pros-
pects and the integrity of one’s DNA.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 2 0 ]

One man’s precision-guided missile is another man’s weapon of indis-
criminate destruction. With depleted uranium, we’re not talking about
rogue missiles that accidentally shred a marketplace or a wedding party.
We’re talking about the triumphant, pinpoint strike that doubles as a chaotic
weapon, a weapon that haphazardly strikes down civilians who, whether
under some future tyranny or future democracy, just happen to live down-
wind in time.

From Landmines to Cluster Bombs

In 1932, almost sixty years before the fi rst Gulf War, the Indian Nobel laure-
ate Rabindranath Tagore boarded a plane and fl ew over Iraq during a British
attempt to put down an anticolonial rebellion from the air. He was availing
himself of a novel technological perspective: British aerial bombings in Iraq
and Afghanistan during the late 1920s and 1930s foreshadowed the way the
airplane would reshape the politics, ethics, and aesthetics of military dis-
tance during the mass bombings of civilians during World War II. On land-
ing in Baghdad, Tagore met the chaplain at the local British air force base
and observed: “[T]he Christian chaplain informs me that they are engaged
in bombing operations on some Sheikh villages. . . . The men, women and
children done to death there meet their fate by a decree from the strato-
sphere of British imperialism—which fi nds if easy to shower death because
of its distance from its individual victims.”50

Tagore’s insight into the military power of distance remains as resonant
as ever in our age of “precision” warfare, above all, with the advent of the
drone. The stratosphere Tagore writes of is susceptible to multiple interpre-
tations: as a measure of the technological distance between the pilot and his
invisible victims, as a measure of the geographical distance between imperial
metropolis and invisible colony, and as a measure of the numbing emotional
distance between the trigger act of killing and the earthly consequences far
below. The emotional sanitation of war involves, in entangled ways, tech-
nological, geographical, temporal, and linguistic strategies for distancing.
Particularly in our age of slow-acting “precision” weapons delivered from
afar, we’re readily distracted from the violence of deferred effects—those
causal chains stretched thin by time. Stretched thin not just by technologies
of instant spectacle but also by the forces of linguistic dissociation, those

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 2 1]

regiments of euphemism, prominent among them depleted uranium and
cluster bombs.

Humans have long relied on a combination of verbal, geographical, tech-
nological, and temporal distance to shield themselves from the enormity
of what Walt Whitman called war’s “red business.”51 How in a democracy
could wars possibly be sold, justifi ed, perpetuated without the softenings
of euphemism? (“Death,” Donald Rumsfeld once noted, “has a tendency to
encourage a depressing view of war.”)52 Each confl ict brings together new
euphemisms, new technologies, new strategies of temporal and geographi-
cal displacement that help us keep suffering at arm’s length, allowing us
to live in states of denial distinctive to our age. One crucial displacement
of this kind involves the offi cial efforts to segregate—linguistically and
thereby ethically—the barbarous landmine from the humane cluster bomb
that, together with depleted uranium, has become a signature weapon in
the contemporary battlefi eld discourse of “precision.”

Landmines have accrued a public stigma, especially since Princess
Diana’s much-publicized walk through an Angolan minefi eld in 1997. Later
that year, 150 nations signed the Ottawa Landmine Treaty, which barred
the further production, transfer, and use of mines—“weapons of indiscrimi-
nate effect.” In confl icts over the past two decades (the Balkans, Afghani-
stan, Iraq, and Lebanon), America, Britain, and their allies have phased out
landmines and relied increasingly on cluster bombs instead. Especially in
the United States, the cluster bomb has attracted less scrutiny and gener-
ated far less public indignation than the landmine. While the landmine has
been denounced as backward and barbarous, the cluster bomb has become
associated with the era of advanced “smart” wars, wars whose technologi-
cal sophistication offers the promise of a merciful, civilized precision. The
United States has not only used cluster bombs in more confl icts than any
other nation, it has also become the most vocal advocate of this technology’s
purportedly indispensable and humane intelligence.53

The cluster bomb has become a pivotal actor in the story of smart
warfare’s shadow casualties—casualties that result from what one might
call precision’s death lag. The rise of the cluster bomb has largely corre-
sponded to the decline in the reputation of the landmine, ever more widely
condemned as an environmental and ethical pollutant. In 1993, the U.S.
Department of State adjudged landmines to be “perhaps the most toxic and

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 2 2 ]

widespread pollution facing mankind.”54 The scale of landmine pollution
remains forbidding: 100 million unexploded mines lie inches beneath our
planet’s skin. Each year they kill 24,000 civilians and maim many times that
number. They kill and maim on behalf of wars that ended long ago; they kill
and maim as if in afterthought, spreading social and environmental havoc.
In neither space nor time can mine-terrorized communities draw a clear line
separating war from peace.

The British government under former Prime Minister Tony Blair ral-
lied behind American efforts to maintain a decisive moral divide between
landmines and cluster bombs. Blair signed the 1997 Landmine Treaty, but he
showed no ethical qualms about deploying cluster bombs. On the eve of the
2003 invasion of Iraq, Blair’s Defense secretary, Geoffrey Hoon, defended
cluster bombs as legitimate, conventional weapons that his troops would be
at liberty to use. Likewise, questioned about cluster bombs that the United
States dropped on Afghanistan, former American Deputy Secretary of
Defense Paul Wolfowitz offered a blunt retort: “[W]e have to win this war
and we’ll use the weapons we need to win this war.”54

How distinct are the humanitarian and environmental repercussions of
landmines and cluster bombs? To address this question, we need to ponder the
terms themselves, for when it comes to waging war, the softenings of euphe-
mism are no less dispensable than military hardware. Landmines aren’t called
landmines in military jargon. The technically correct term is anti-personnel
mines, to distinguish them from mines that target tanks and other vehicles.
“Anti-personnel,” however, is one of those verbal fudgings that under the guise
of technocratic exactitude obscures what it purports to reveal. “Anti-person-
nel” is a faceless word, a word without hands or feet or arms or legs.

According to the U.S. Air Force Dictionary, “anti-personnel” means
“designed to destroy or obstruct personnel.”56 But who are these personnel
that the mines are so anti? An Afghan girl, late for school, who takes a short
cut across a hill. A Vietnamese herder, dreaming of dinner, while rounding
up his pigs. An Angolan peasant clambering down a riverbank to fi ll her
water jug. A Laotian farmer, stooping to harvest his rice, who reaps blind-
ness and amputation instead.

Webster’s defi nes “personnel” as “the body of persons employed in an
organization.”57 So to call mines “anti-personnel” fl atters their accuracy
by implying that they target an organization, military or otherwise. Yet

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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 2 3 ]

four-fi fths of landmine casualties are civilians: mostly peasants and, dispro-
portionately, children. Children’s spontaneous energy and their craving for
play make them particularly vulnerable. For this reason, in heavily mined
northern Somalia, mothers took to tethering their toddlers to trees. Human
ingenuity has devised some 270 varieties of landmine, yet not one that can
discriminate between a soldier’s tread and the footfall of a child.

Peasants cannot tend their crops or fl ocks without moving through
their land. But to the mine’s undiscerning eye, all movement is enemy
movement: any human or other mammalian body above a certain weight is
adjudged to be a body in uniform—personnel in need of blowing up. Long
after the troops have returned home, long after a war’s soldiers have been
demobilized, the landmine maintains its unblinking vigilance. It is there to
do its duty—even if ten, twenty years too late, retaliating against an enemy
as unspecifi c as humanity itself. These are not anti-personnel mines, they
are anti-person mines.

“Cluster bomb” is an even more insidious misnomer than “anti-personnel
mine.” What distinguishes cluster bombs is less their clustering than the dis-
persal of their malign effects. Whether ground launched or dropped from
planes, these munitions are indeed clustered at the moment of dispatch, but
their impact across space and time is scattershot. Part of what’s at stake here
is a numbers game. Take, for example, the Pentagon’s declaration that it
dropped or fi red 10,800 cluster bombs during the fi rst, pre- “mission accom-
plished” phase of the Iraq War. (The British deployed another seventy such
bombs.) Using the most conservative of offi cial dud rates, 5 percent, this
would suggest to the casual observer that some 550 coalition bombs failed to
explode on impact, posing a long-term, landmine-like threat. In a country
the size of Iraq, 550 unexploded munitions is a modest number. So the offi –
cial American and British fi gures would seem consistent with the protocol
in the Geneva Conventions barring the use of disproportionate fi repower
and weapons of indiscriminate effect.

However, to tally cluster bombs the way we tally landmines amounts to
false accounting. A cluster bomb only remains a single weapon for a few sec-
onds after it is dispatched, until its canister bursts open to deliver (depend-
ing on the model) scores or hundreds of bomblets. Each bomblet, in turn,
explodes (on impact or when touched) to release a hail of sharp metal shards
that can kill or injure people up to 150 yards away.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 2 4 ]

Here’s how the Human Rights Watch Report, Off Target, describes the
impact of the bomblets delivered by the CBU-130, a cluster bomb the U.S. Air
Force fi rst deployed in Afghanistan in 2001:

The CBU-103’s bomblets . . . are soda can-sized yellow cylinders.

Each one of these “combined effects munitions” represents a

triple threat. The steel fragmentation core targets enemy troops

with 300 jagged pieces of metal. The shaped charge, a concave

copper cone that turns into a penetrating molten slug, serves as

an anti-armor weapon. A zirconium wafer spreads incendiary

fragments that can burn nearby vehicles.58

Let’s do the math. Each CBU-103 contains 202 bomblets, and each bomblet
harbors 300 jagged pieces. In other words, a single cluster bomb can dis-
patch 63,600 potentially lethal pieces driven outward by the blast wave at
ballistic speed. The destructive capacity of the molten cone and incendiary
fragments amplifi es this threat.

Viewed this way, the coalition’s use of 10,870 cluster bombs during the
fi rst phase of the 2003 Iraq War appears less restrained. Those bombs strewed
2 million bomblets across Iraqi cities, villages, deserts, and fi elds. According
to Human Rights Watch, a minimum of 100,000 bomblets failed to explode
on impact. Given that some American ground-launched cluster weapons had
dud rates as high as 22 percent, the war’s fi nal fi gure could be closer to a half
million potentially live failures. The threat posed by each of those 100,000 to
a half million live failures then needs to be multiplied by 300 jagged shards.

What did all this look like from the ground?
Mohamed Moussa, who lives in al-Hilla (sixty miles south of Baghdad),

described to a British reporter how, on March 31, 2003, a hailstorm of silvery
objects “like small grapefruit” descended from tumbling white canisters
onto his neighborhood. “If it hadn’t exploded and you touched it, it went off
immediately,” he said. “They exploded in the air and on the ground and we
still have some in our home, unexploded.”59

That same day those “grapefruit” killed 38 civilians and injured 156 in
al-Hilla alone.

It is at this point, after the initial civilian toll, that the dud bomblets are
reincarnated as landmines in all but name. Their passive-aggressive presence

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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 2 5 ]

has the power to rend a community’s social, agricultural, economic, and
environmental fabric. Generals like to refer to cluster bombs euphemisti-
cally as “situational obstacles,” meaning they can be used to impede the
progress of enemy troops by boxing them in. But when, in defi ance of the
Geneva Conventions, American, British, Israeli, and Russian forces have
fi red cluster bombs into populated areas, the failed offspring of those bombs
become, long term and en masse, “situational obstacles” to life itself.

In Iraq, to speak of the shards of memory is to make metaphor mate-
rial again. The unexploded remnants of war have assumed the sedimentary
character of that nation’s layered confl icts. Landmines from the epic Iran-
Iraq War continue to pose a hazard, their threat redoubled by thousands
more (planted by both sides) during the Gulf War. The 24 million cluster
munitions the allies dropped on Iraq in 1991 have compounded this haz-
ard. How many of them continue to strew fear across the landscape? Not
to speak of the further load (from both coalition cluster bombs and Saddam
Hussein’s mines) that has polluted Iraq’s land and waters since the onset of
the 2003 war.

The problem in Afghanistan—our planet’s most heavily mined nation—
is similarly stratifi ed. As in Iraq, the 1980s proved to be a dire decade for
landmine pollution in Afghanistan. The Soviet occupiers left the country
densely seeded with mines, turning immense huge swaths of the nation
into what Lydia Monin and Andrew Gallimore have called “the devil’s gar-
dens.”60 The country’s Taliban-era internal confl icts and American and Brit-
ish cluster bombing during the 2001–2002 war added to that deathly crop.

Wherever troops use cluster bombs and/or landmines, a tangle of eco-
nomic, humanitarian, and environmental crises typically results. National
reconstruction and the safe return of refugees are impeded; medical
resources become overstretched; rural dwellers face a diabolical choice
between abandoning their pastures or fi elds and risking death or mutilation;
amidst a degraded environment, pressure on the land increases, fueling fur-
ther rounds of confl ict. These developments often lead to rapid deforesta-
tion and the slaughtering of wildlife. We can witness all these convergent
ill effects, for example, in Angola—a lush, once agriculturally self-suffi cient
country whose economic and medical fabric continues (despite the offi cial
end of a twenty-fi ve-year-long civil war) to be overstrained by 5 million land-
mines and the world’s highest per capita population of amputees. In Angola,

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 2 6 ]

desperate, displaced rural peoples have hacked down much of the country’s
woodlands and decimated its once rich and varied game.

Most people forced to adjust to living amidst unexploded ordnance are
rural and surviving off the land. Across the mined globe, people have found
colloquial ways to convey the mad morphing around them of the land’s
former fecundity: “the devil’s gardens,” Cambodia’s “killing fi elds,” Iraqi
descriptions of cluster bomblets as strange, mutant fruit appearing in the
wrong groves—deadly oranges and grapefruits dangling from palm trees.
This sense of the earth’s munifi cence taking a demonic turn was evident in
the language of the Vietnam War as well: the Vietcong dubbed two early
American cluster bomblets (the CBU-24 and the BLU-3) the guava and the
pineapple. And in a particularly resonant coinage in terms of the violence of
deferred effects, the Vietcong nicknamed another brand of cluster submu-
nition the “lazy dog”: that pseudo slumberer who takes his time to rouse
himself and bite.61

The submunitions that cluster bombs dispense are often gleaming and
colorful—inquisitive children readily mistake them for toys or food. Some
bomblets resemble striped soda cans, others green baseballs or cigarette
lighters. During the war in Afghanistan, Allied planes dropped two types of
smallish yellow objects: cluster bomblets and humanitarian rations. Even-
tually, pamphlets explaining the difference had to be dropped too, after
humanitarians warned that children would simply see yellow, reach for the
false food, and be blown up.

This was not some freak tragedy but a predictable disaster that gets
reenacted every time imprecise weapons are deployed in another so-called
precision war. During and after the Afghanistan War, 69 percent of casual-
ties from unexploded ordnance were under eighteen. And in the aftermath
of the fi rst Gulf War, 60 percent of such casualties in southern Iraq had yet to
turn fi fteen. A UNICEF report has estimated that there is one landmine for
every twenty children on earth, a fi gure that doesn’t even include the untold
number of quasi landmines in the form of cluster bomblets.62

Like most forms of pollution, cluster bomb and landmine pollution is
only semirandom. Just as in Western nations toxic waste sites tend to be
placed near poor or minority communities, so too unexploded ordnance pol-
lution is concentrated in the world’s most impoverished societies, Afghani-
stan, Cambodia, Laos, Somalia, Angola, Mozambique, Vietnam, Somalia,

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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 2 7]

Nicaragua, and El Salvador among them. Because the burden of lethal war
residues is unevenly distributed between wealthy and poor nations, the
physical liberty to forget the wars themselves is also unevenly distributed.
As the list above suggests, many of the world’s most heavily mined societ-
ies were once cold-war battlefronts, where the superpowers fanned, funded,
and armed internal confl icts, often through proxy armies. Many of these
countries—destabilized, overarmed, and undermined—have descended
into serial warfare. In such societies, where landmines continue to infl ict
belated maimings and after-deaths, the post- in post–cold war has never fully
arrived. Instead, whole provinces inhabit a twilight realm in which everyday
life remains semimilitarized by slow violence and in which the earth itself
must be treated with permanent suspicion, as armed and dangerous.

Our planet’s 100 million leftover landmines approximate in number the
combined residents of California, New York, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylva-
nia. Except that the mines are over there, not over here. As Cyrus Vance and
Herbert Okun have noted:

If children walking to school or playing in a fi eld in Manhat-

tan, Maine, or Monterey were having their legs blown off, the

U.S. government would certainly be doing everything possible

to stop it. This is happening, however, in foreign places where

medical care is often almost nonexistent, and physical labor is

necessary for survival.63

It costs roughly 100 times more to remove a landmine than to lay it. The case
of Kuwait after the Gulf War illustrates the human and fi nancial toll that
mine clearance exacts. The bill for clearing that minute, New Jersey-sized
country of unexploded landmines and cluster bombs came to $800 million.
And before the clearance was complete, those mines had slaughtered several
hundred Kuwaiti civilians, 100 bomb disposal workers, and 100 American
soldiers. The fi gure for deminers and American troops alone exceeds the
total number of U.S. forces killed during Desert Storm.

Eighty-four countries now suffer from landmine and/or cluster bomb
pollution. Most are far larger and far poorer than Kuwait. As a result, for
example, it took demining agencies fourteen years to clear just 754 square
kilometers in Afghanistan. The International Committee of the Red Cross

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 2 8 ]

estimates that between 9 million and 27 million landmines and bomblets
remain embedded in Laotian soil and streams alone—relics of the huge load
that U.S. forces dropped on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam between 1964 and
1973 and during the subsequent civil foment. How are Laotians to forget the
twenty-fi rst-century threat, as immediate as ever, from cluster bombs and
landmines that rained down on them—in American time—during the era
of President Johnson?

The slow violence of unexploded munitions exacerbates the problem
of political accountability. In the aftermath of war, political changes occur
far faster than environmental recovery. There remains little incentive for
an administration to spend taxpayer money cleaning up lethal detritus left
behind in far-off countries from a predecessor’s war.

In 2004, the Bush administration issued a new landmine policy that put
a greater distance between the American position and international efforts
to universalize the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. Bush’s policy reversed a prior
U.S. commitment to sign that treaty by 2006 if alternative weapons were
identifi ed. The administration’s revised stance permitted the United States
to deploy long-lived “anti-personnel” mines in Korea and self-destructing
mines anywhere in the world. With “self-destructing mines,” another
euphemism—and another form of temporal camoufl age—has arisen. As
Human Rights Watch has observed, self-destructing mines may take up to
nineteen weeks to become inactive.64 And a signifi cant number malfunc-
tion, resulting in the usual unpredictable mix of live and dead duds, a mix
that continues to pose a humanitarian hazard to civilians that requires
painstaking demining.

No single nation or administration is responsible for the ongoing cluster
bomb and landmine crisis. However, it does seem especially hypocritical
for an American administration to campaign vocally for fetal rights while
its advocacy of “precision” weapons was wreaking ruin on the unborn, who
months or years later would inherit an environment that treated them,
anachronistically, as enemy personnel. It is equally disturbing that the
Obama administration—despite advance pledges to change course on land-
mines—has adhered to the Bush-era policies.

In November 2003, ninety-two countries (including the United States)
approved a treaty obliging nations to clean up cluster submunitions and
other explosive remnants at war’s end. This, the fi rst disarmament treaty

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ecologies of the a fter m ath

[ 2 2 9 ]

the former Bush administration endorsed, could potentially help narrow
the gap in international law between landmines and cluster bombs. The
treaty was a fi rst step toward acknowledging that cluster bombs, while
classed as conventional weapons, often behave more like landmines—
weapons of indiscriminate effect that contravene the Geneva Conven-
tions. The treaty marked a tentative fi rst step toward addressing postwar
obligations. However, it has no preemptive force in a world where cluster
munitions and landmines still proliferate, with lethal fecundity, faster than
they can be removed. The Pentagon continues to argue that it can produce
smart-weapon solutions to the cluster bomb problem, in the belief that dud
levels can be reduced to as little as 1 percent. (That’s far below the 14 to 22
percent failure rate of America’s ground-launched cluster munitions dur-
ing the 2003 Iraq War.) However, the fi ne print in the Pentagon’s position
remains chilling. It insists that in future wars American forces will con-
tinue to include in their weapons mix old cluster ordnance, what the Pen-
tagon calls “legacy” munitions (as if they were irreplaceable heirlooms).
Those “legacy” reserves are huge: the American military has stockpiled
more than a billion cluster submunitions of extremely variable antiquity
and inaccuracy, like the Rockeye cluster bombs developed during the 1950s
and deployed in the Vietnam War and again in the 1991 Gulf War. In both
Vietnam and the Gulf, Rockeyes continue to infl ict long-deferred twenty-
fi rst-century deaths and injuries.

Mistrust and enduring animosity are the ultimate legacies of so-called
legacy munitions. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Indochina, American clus-
ter bombing has alienated many of the very civilians that the military pur-
ported to be liberating, by instilling in their midst a material dread that
outlasts the bounds of victories and defeats. As a Church of England spokes-
man has put it: “You will not win the hearts and minds of a people if, in your
effort to provide them with a better future, your real legacy is to be associ-
ated with hidden deaths and hideous wounds for years to come.”65

Imprecise intelligence makes even supposedly precise bombs dumb. In
2003, the United States fi red rumor-guided cluster bombs into urban Iraqi
neighborhoods where someone or other from the CIA’s “blacklist” was
alleged to be hiding. Time after time, the rumor came to nothing and civil-
ians took the hit. Formidable human, meteorological, and environmental
obstacles exacerbate the inaccuracy of these weapons. For instance, pilots

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[ 2 3 0 ]

hoping to avoid enemy fi re may drop their bomb load from inappropriately
high altitudes, expanding the broad footprint over which the bombs scat-
ter. (This has happened in the Balkans and Afghanistan.) Wind drift may
drag the bomblets off course. Cluster munitions, furthermore, explode most
consistently when they strike hard surfaces like roads. Soft surfaces—sand,
marshy areas—result in high live failure rates, a recurrent problem if one
is waging desert wars. As the cluster canister disgorges its bomblets, and as
the detonating bomblets in turn spew out their jagged pieces, the dispersal
area widens along with the scope for inaccuracy. The resulting imprecision
in space is compounded by temporal imprecision, as the remnants maintain
their assaults beyond war’s end.

One of the strongest currents of American optimism fl ows from Thomas
Jefferson’s vision of land as the most prudent investment, an investment that
benefi ts both the individual and the nation. You can mint more money, Jef-
ferson observed, but you cannot mint more land. Yet that credo seems less
certain when one considers a nation like Cambodia, where 4 million to 7
million active mines and uncounted cluster submunitions have rendered
half the country unsafe. To demine Cambodia would amount to a miracu-
lous land-minting scheme, effectively doubling the country’s size without
conquering a neighbor.

In terms of military strategy, landmines and cluster bombs are both
“area denial weapons.” The problem is that, too often, “area denial” per-
sists into the so-called postwar era, shrinking the viable earth and strain-
ing its resources. As a fi rst step toward alleviating this scourge, we need to
acknowledge landmines and cluster bombs as two versions of one problem;
we need to recognize the ease with which cluster bombs become de facto
landmines under cover of a pseudonym.

Fifty-seven nations now possess cluster munitions and sixteen have
deployed them, the United States most extensively. Ideally, we should be
campaigning for a universal ban on both air- and surface-delivered cluster
bombs. But given the daunting pervasiveness of these weapons, it may be
more pragmatic to endorse Human Rights Watch’s initial demand that as
a fi rst step, all obsolete, high-failure legacy munitions be outlawed. This
move needs to be supplemented by a moratorium on newer ordnance until
a dud rate of less than 1 percent can be demonstrated. But the ultimate goal
should be to outlaw all cluster bombs as weapons of indiscriminate effect.

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[ 2 3 1]

To achieve such a goal, we will fi rst have to start dismantling the whole
delusory rhetorical domain of “smart wars” and “precision” warfare.

We need to demand, moreover, that the former Bush administration’s
regressive landmine policy be overturned, for the sake of children and adult
civilians in as yet unimagined wars, and for the sake of an environment that
remains compromised wherever landmines and cluster bombs congregate.
In the words of Kenneth Anderson, director of the Arms Project of Human
Rights Watch: “The effects of landmines as a pollutant in the environment
are just now beginning to be understood. . . . all of society pays, over and
over again.”66 The same society-wide payments are exacted by cluster bom-
blets—those landmines in masquerade.

The Highway of Harm

Again and again with furrowed brows, our leaders pledge to keep “our troops
out of harm’s way.” But the highway of harm is broad and long, stretching
beyond the sight lines of the generals and beyond any single generation.
As nurse Carol Picou learned, the Highway of Death is a deceptive road
that dips and rises through convoluted switchback narratives of disavowal,
a road that, despite it’s simple two-lane surface, is traveled unwittingly at
many different speeds.

At least seventeen nations have bought depleted-uranium weapons from
the United States since they were fi rst showcased during the Gulf War. As
these weapons and cluster bombs become increasingly enfolded into con-
temporary warfare, we have an ethical responsibility to redraw the bound-
ary between the war survivor and the war casualty. People may outlast a
given confl ict, but if untold thousands die deferred war deaths, what kind of
justice is it to call them survivors?

In our age of depleted-uranium shells and cluster bombs, “smart” wars
become wars of ecological folly as we turn soil, air, and water and into slow
weapons of mass destruction, wielded unremittingly against ourselves.
Armies move on, as do our memories, but a deeper memory remains lodged
in the earth. Despots may be deposed, but environmental mayhem outlives
regime change.

One of the greatest challenges we now face is to reinstate a more expan-
sive vision of what it means to be secure. What time span will we allow

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 3 2 ]

to defi ne our national security and our security as a species? At home and
across the planet, in wartime and in peace, environmental safeguards must
be reasserted, safeguards on which our health, freedoms, and international
standing depend. The fi xation on meeting terrorism with high-tech military
terror has shrunk our vision of what constitutes sustainable security. If we
improved the fuel effi ciency of America’s cars and light trucks by a mere
2.7 miles per gallon, we would be liberated from the need to import any oil
from Saudi Arabia. Such a bold, but feasible move to conserve energy would
also help reintegrate a viable environment into our vision of how to protect
America in the long term.

Americans cannot afford to shrink military threats to the future to the
real but reductive threat of terrorism. If we continue to glorify poisonous
weapons of fake precision, belated war deaths will become increasingly
widespread, as will the political consequences of the accompanying blow-
back rage. We will face an unbounded war, as the planet itself metastasizes
into a combatant: the ultimate, toxic hyperpower, a force of random, abid-
ing retribution.

We need to fi nd (as Rachel Carson did some fi fty years ago) new ways
to tell the slow-moving stories about the long dying; about last year’s cluster
bombs that turn into next year’s killers, about depleted uranium that treats
as its arbitrary enemy the child of a child as yet unborn. Carson insisted
it was impossible to nourish democracy on a diet of dead rivers and poi-
soned fi elds. Her warning applies to any vision of long-term social stability,
whether at home or abroad. If a war leaves in its wake terrifyingly polluted
lands and mangled genetic codes, any victory will be pyrrhic, as death by
indirection becomes the ultimate form of friendly fi re. No homeland can be
secure if we convert the earth into a biological weapon that threatens biol-
ogy itself. We’re all downwinders now, some sooner than others.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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8

Environmentalism, Postcolonialism,
and American Studies

We may be living in post-colonial times, but we are not yet living in
post-imperial times.

—Linda Colley, “What Is Imperial History Now? ”

What would it mean to bring environmentalism into a full,
productive dialogue with postcolonialism? These two fi elds have emerged
in recent decades as among the most dynamic areas in literary studies, yet
their relationship has been, until very recently, dominated by reciprocal indif-
ference or mistrust. Unlike many initiatives within literary studies (reader
response theory, say, or deconstruction), environmental studies and postco-
lonial studies have both exhibited an often-activist dimension that connects
their priorities to movements for social change. Yet for the most part, a broad
silence has characterized environmentalists’ stance toward postcolonial lit-
erature and theory while postcolonial critics have typically been no less silent
on the subject of environmental literature. What circumstances shaped this
mutual reluctance? And what kinds of intellectual initiatives might best
deepen an overdue dialogue that is belatedly starting to emerge?

In other areas of the humanities and social sciences—notably envi-
ronmental history, cultural geography, and cultural anthropology—a

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 3 4 ]

substantial body of work arose much earlier in the borderlands between
postcolonial and environmental studies, work that recognized, among other
things, the political and cultural signifi cance of the environmentalism of the
poor.1 Yet within literary studies, a critical discipline for both the environ-
mental humanities and postcolonial studies, such crossover work was long
inhibited by a widespread assumption that the subjects and methodologies
of the two fi elds were divergent, even incompatible, not least in their visions
of what counts as political.

Let me turn to the events that fi rst set my thinking on these issues
in motion. In October 1995, the New York Times Sunday Magazine fea-
tured a cover story by Jay Parini entitled “The Greening of the Humani-
ties.”2 Parini described the rise to prominence of environmentalism in the
humanities, especially in literature departments. At the end of the essay,
he named twenty-fi ve writers and critics whose work was central to this
environmental studies boom. Something struck me as odd about the list,
something that passed unmentioned in the article: all twenty-fi ve writers
and critics were American.

This unselfconscious parochialism was disturbing, not least because at
that time I was involved in the campaign to release Ken Saro-Wiwa, the
Ogoni author who was being held prisoner without trial for his environ-
mental and human rights activism in Nigeria.3 Two weeks after Parini’s
New York Times article appeared, the Abacha regime executed Saro-Wiwa,
making him Africa’s most visible environmental martyr. Here was a
writer—a novelist, poet, memoirist, and essayist—who had died fi ghting
the ruination of his Ogoni people’s farmland and fi shing waters by Euro-
pean and American oil conglomerates in cahoots with a despotic African
regime. Yet it was apparent that Saro-Wiwa’s writings were unlikely to fi nd
a home in the kind of environmental literary lineage outlined by Parini.
The more ecocriticism I read, the more this impression was confi rmed. I
encountered some intellectually transforming books by Lawrence Buell,
Cheryll Glotfelty, Harold Fromm, Daniel Payne, Max Oelschlaeger, Scott
Slovic, and many others.4 Yet such books tended to canonize the same self-
selecting genealogy of American authors: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry
David Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Annie Dil-
lard, Terry Tempest Williams, Wendell Berry, and Gary Snyder. All are
authors of infl uence and accomplishment, yet all are drawn from within

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 3 5 ]

the boundaries of a single nation. Environmental literary anthologies, col-
lege course Web sites, and special issues on ecocriticism revealed similar
patterns of predominance. Accumulatively, I realized that literary environ-
mentalism was developing, de facto, as an offshoot of American studies.
Moreover, the environmental justice movement, the branch of American
environmentalism that held the greatest potential for connecting outward
internationally to issues of slow violence, the environmentalism of the
poor, and imperial socioenvironmental degradation remained marginal
to the dominant purview of environmentalism that was becoming institu-
tionalized through the greening of the humanities.

The resulting national self-enclosure seemed peculiar: one might surely
have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than
other fi elds of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-
Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed “ecological genocide,” could
fi nd no place in the environmental canon.5 Was this because he was an Afri-
can? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the
wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings
were animated instead by the fraught relations between ethnicity, pollu-
tion, and human rights and by the equally fraught relations between local,
national, and global politics. It was futile, he recognized, to try to understand
or protest the despoiling of his people’s water, land, and health within a purely
national framework. For Ogoniland’s environmental ruin resulted from col-
laborative plunder by those he dubbed Nigeria’s “internal colonialists” and by
the unanswerable, transnational power of Shell and Gulf Chevron.6

Saro-Wiwa’s canonical invisibility in the United States was all the more
telling given the role that America played in his emergence as an environ-
mental writer. The United States buys half of Nigeria’s oil, and Gulf Chev-
ron has been a signifi cant Ogoniland polluter.7 More affi rmatively, it was
on a trip to Colorado that Saro-Wiwa witnessed a successful environmen-
tal campaign to stop corporate logging.8 This experience contributed to his
decision to mobilize international opinion by voicing his people’s claims not
just in the language of human rights but in environmental terms as well.
Yet it was clear from the prevailing ecocritical perspective in literary stud-
ies that someone like Saro-Wiwa—whose environmentalism was at once
profoundly local and profoundly transnational—would be bracketed as an
African, the kind of writer best left to the postcolonialists.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uow/detail.action?docID=3300958.
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[ 2 3 6 ]

I became aware, however, of a second irony: that postcolonial literary
critics had, in turn, shown scant interest in environmental concerns, regard-
ing them (whether explicitly or implicitly) as at best irrelevant and elitist, at
worst as sullied by “green imperialism.”9 Saro-Wiwa’s distinctive attempt to
fuse environmental and minority rights, I realized, was unlikely to achieve
much of a hearing in either camp.

These, then, were the circumstances that got me thinking about the
mutually constitutive silences that persisted for so long between environ-
mental and postcolonial literary studies. Broadly speaking, four main
schisms appeared between the dominant concerns of postcolonialists and
ecocritics. First, postcolonialists tended to foreground hybridity and cross-
culturation. Ecocritics, on the other hand, historically were drawn more to
discourses of purity: virgin wilderness and the preservation of “uncorrupted”
last great places.10 Second, postcolonial writing and criticism was largely con-
cerned with displacement, while environmental literary studies tended to
give priority to the literature of place. Third, and relatedly, postcolonial stud-
ies tended to favor the cosmopolitan and the transnational.11 Postcolonialists
were typically critical of nationalism, whereas the canons of environmental
literature and criticism developed within a national (and often nationalistic)
American framework. Fourth, postcolonialism devoted considerable atten-
tion to excavating or reimagining the marginalized past: history from below
and border histories, often along transnational axes of migrant memory. By
contrast, within much environmental literature and criticism, something
different happened to history. It was often repressed or subordinated to the
pursuit of timeless, solitary moments of communion with nature. Such time-
less transcendentalism was shadowed by a durable tradition within Ameri-
can landscape writing of erasing the history of colonized peoples through
the myth of the empty lands. Postcolonialist critics were wary of the role
that this strain of environmental writing (especially wilderness writing) has
played in burying the very histories that postcolonialists sought to unearth.

The Place of Displacement:
Cosmopolitanism and Bioregionalism

Postcolonial critics have been understandably discomforted by preserva-
tionist discourses of purity, given the role such discourses have historically

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 3 7]

played in the racially unequal distribution of post-Enlightenment human
rights. In the context of a romantic primordialism, the colonized, especially
women, have been repeatedly naturalized as objects of heritage to be owned,
preserved, or patronized rather than as the subjects of their own land and
legacies. Once cultures have been discursively assimilated to nature (not
least through the settler tradition of viewing the United States as “nature’s
nation”), they have been left more vulnerable to dispossession—whether in
the name of virgin wilderness preservation or the creation of nuclear test
zones. If, in J. M. Coetzee’s terse assessment, “it is certainly true that the
politics of expansion has uses for the rhetoric of the sublime,” that expan-
sionist thrust found a potent set of story lines and images in the traditions
of American exceptionalism animating the work of foundational American
studies thinkers like R. W. B. Lewis, Henry Nash Smith, and Perry Miller.12
In Donald Pease’s succinct formulation,

those images interconnect an exceptional national subject

(American Adam) with a representative national scene (Virgin

Land) and an exemplary national motive (errand into the wil-

derness). The composite result of the interaction of these images

was the mythological entity—Nature’s Nation—whose citizens

believe, by way of the supreme fi ction called natural law, that the

ruling assumptions of their national compact (Liberty, Equality,

Social Justice) could be understood as indistinguishable from

the sovereign power creative of nature.13

Of critical concern within such narratives of naturally-supernaturally pre-
destined nation building was who got cast as which kind of “natural man”
and “natural woman.”

Autobiographical divergences sharpened intellectual differences
between postcolonial and ecocritics over the politics of purity, place,
nation, and history. The preeminent critics associated with postcolonial-
ism—Kwame Anthony Appiah, Homi K. Bhabha, Edward Said, Sara Suleri,
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Gauri Viswanathan, among others—have
lived across national boundaries in ways that have given a personal edge
to their intellectual investment in questions of dislocation, cultural syn-
cretism, and transnationalism. Conversely, the most prominent American

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 3 8 ]

environmental writers and critics are mononationals with a deep-rooted
experiential and imaginative commitment to a particular regional locale:
Vermont for John Elder, the Sierra Nevada for Gary Snyder, Appalachian
Kentucky for Wendell Berry, southern Indiana for Scott Russell Sand-
ers, and Utah in Terry Tempest Williams’s case. These regionally rooted
national writers were adaptively carrying forward the place commitments
evinced in the New England writings of Thoreau and Robert Frost and in
Willa Cather’s Nebraska.

The tension between a postcolonial preoccupation with displacement
and an ecocritical preoccupation with an ethics of place needs to be further
situated in terms of cosmopolitanism on the one hand and bioregionalism
on the other.14 Bioregionalism, in Parini’s words, entails a responsiveness to
“one’s local part of the earth whose boundaries are determined by a loca-
tion’s natural characteristics rather than arbitrary administrative boundar-
ies.”15 Gary Snyder and ecocritics John Elder, David Robertson, and David
Orr are all vocal advocates of a bioregional ethic. Orr connects ecological
destruction to the way people can graduate from college “with obligations
to no place in particular. Their knowledge is mostly abstract, equally appli-
cable in New York or San Francisco.”16 (His comment evidences the antiur-
ban bias that permeates much bioregional thinking.) In a similar vein, Elder
argues that “the traditional model in education has been cosmopolitanism.
I’ve come to prefer a concentric and bioregional approach to learning . . . It
makes sense—educationally—to begin with local writing; then you expand,
adding layers of knowledge.”17

There is much to be said for a bioregional approach: it can help instill in
us an awareness of our impact on our immediate environment, help ground
our sense of environmental responsibility. However, from a postcolonial
perspective, a bioregional ethic poses certain problems, for the concentric
rings of the bioregionalists more often open out into transcendentalism than
into transnationalism. All too frequently, we are left with an environmental
vision that remains inside a spiritualized and naturalized national frame.

Much of the American imaginative and critical literature associated with
bioregionalism tends toward a style of spiritual geography that is premised
on what I call spatial amnesia. Within a bioregional center-periphery model,
the specifi city and moral imperative of the local typically opens out not into
the specifi cities of the transnational but into transcendental abstraction. In

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 3 9 ]

this way, a prodigious amount of American environmental writing and criti-
cism makes expansive gestures yet remains amnesiac toward non-American
geographies in which America is implicated, geographies that vanish over
the intellectual skyline. The spatial amnesia that often attends a bioregional
ethic has temporal implications as well: whether through the legacies of
wars or our outsize consumerism, we have a history of forgetting our com-
plicity in slow violence that wreaks attritional havoc beyond the bioregion
or the nation.

The environmentalist advocacy of an ethics of place has all too often
morphed into hostility toward displaced people. Edward Abbey’s rants
against Mexican immigrants, Mary Austin’s anti-Semitism, and the Sierra
Club’s disastrous referendum on zero immigration all evidence a xenopho-
bic strain running through American ethics-of-place environmentalism.18
With the Sierra Club in mind, Richard Rodriguez has noted how the weep-
ing Indian in the public service commercial fi rst became an environmental
talisman and then, in a grim historical irony, was invoked against the immi-
grant descendants of Indians heading north from Mexico and Central Amer-
ica.19 Sometimes such hostility toward the displaced tilts over into a kind of
Malthusian sublime, as in Snyder’s suggestion that the project of wilderness
restoration would require ninety percent fewer humans.20 D. H. Lawrence,
in “Mountain Lion,” similarly elects himself to the traditions of wilderness
West Malthusianism by declaiming: “I think in this empty world there was
room for me and a mountain lion / And I think in the world beyond how
easily we might spare a million or two humans / And never miss them.”21
Typically, here, the human cull begins with those dispensable, anonymous,
invisible inhabitants who reside in the “the world beyond,” never with any
culling of the poetical, wilderness-expanded egotistical male self.

An exclusionary ethics-of-place can easily lapse into jingoistic tran-
scendentalism, as in an essay that the Montana writer, Rick Bass, wrote in
defense of southern Utah’s Red Rock country. “The unprotected wilderness
of the West,” Bass declared,

is one of our greatest strengths as a country. Another is our imag-

ination, our tendency to think rather than to accept—to chal-

lenge, to ask why and what if, to create rather than to destroy.

This questioning is a kind of wildness, a kind of strength, that

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 4 0 ]

many have said is peculiarly American. Why place that strength

in jeopardy? To lose Utah’s wilderness would be to strip west-

erners and all Americans of a raw and vital piece of our soul,

our identity, and our ability to imagine . . . The print of a deer or

lion in the sand, in untouched country, as you sleep—it is these

things that allow you, allow us, to continue being American,

rather than something else, anything else, everything else.22

In trying to rally Americans to a worthy preservationist cause, Bass may be
resorting here to what Spivak calls “strategic essentialism.”23 After all, it is
the American people’s representatives who will determine the fate of Red
Rock country. But such essentialism, strategic or otherwise, comes at a cost,
for Bass aggrandizes and naturalizes the American national character in
ways that are politically perturbing. How do we square his intimation that
creative questioning is “peculiarly American” with many Americans’ wide-
spread, unquestioning ignorance of the disastrous consequences (not least
environmental consequences) of much U.S. foreign policy? Bass’s position is
predicated on, among other things, a failure of geographic imagination—a
kind of superpower parochialism. If your frame is Red Rock country, the
United States may seem quintessentially a nation of questioners who seek
to “create rather than to destroy.” But from the vantage point of the 1 mil-
lion Vietnamese still suffering the health consequences of Agent Orange or
from the perspective of vulnerable micro-minorities in Nigeria, Ecuador, or
West Papua—places where extraction industry colossi like Gulf Chevron,
Texaco, and Freeport McMoran run rampant—a reluctance to destroy may
not seem as defi nitive an American value. We should temper Bass’s blink-
ered eco-nationalism with Aldo Leopold’s sobering reminder of what else it
means, in environmental terms, to be an American: “When I go birding in
my Ford, I am devastating an oil fi eld, and re-electing an imperialist to get
me rubber.”24

Moreover, Bass’s exaltation of the American as pure imagination—a higher
soul in search of “untouched country”—has a dubious settler lineage. It is pre-
cisely such thinking that has impeded the American environmental movement’s
efforts to diversify its support base. As African American eco-activist Jennifer
Oladipo observes, “the terms environmentalist and minority conjure two distinct
images in most people’s minds. . . . Religion, capitalism, and even militarism

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 4 1]

learned ages ago to reach actively across the racial spectrum. In terms of
winning over minorities, they have left environmentalism in the dust.”25 The
“untouched country” pitch is unlikely to help the U.S. environmental move-
ment match, in the fi eld of diversity, the U.S. military’s attainments.

From the perspective of North America’s First Peoples, the white soul-
dream of “untouched country” has been a source of dispossession and cul-
tural erasure. It contributed, classically, to the Ahwahneechee’s eviction
from Yosemite as part of Yosemite’s reinvention as “pure wilderness.”26
Invoking “the print of a deer or lion in the sand” as a timeless icon of an
all-American spirituality thus fi ts uneasily with the historical imprint of
internal colonialism on the West, most dramatically the imprint left by the
Indian wars.

For people relegated to the “unnatural” margins of nature’s nation—like
gay minority writers Richard Rodriguez and Melvin Dixon—the wilderness
experience can look ominously purifi ed (as opposed to pure). In his ironi-
cally titled essay “True West,” Rodriguez describes how, setting off on a
hike, three minutes beyond the trailhead, he hears rustling in the bushes.
Instead of experiencing transcendental uplift, he fears ambush by “Snow
White and the seven militias.”27 And in Ride Out the Wilderness, poet-critic
Dixon has chronicled how for African Americans, wilderness has been asso-
ciated with the travails of exile: it is more a place of eviction and historical
hauntings than of redemptive silences.28 On the subject of race, gender and
“the fi elds of memory,” poet and essayist Camille Dungy has this to say:

If memory is home, I am a long way from hope. I have escaped

and am running. I have to remember what has been said: I am

black and female; no place is for my pleasure. How do I write

a poem about the land and my place in it without these memo-

ries: the runaway with the hounds at her heels; the complaint

of the poplar at the man-cry of its load; land a thing to work but

not to own?29

The poet Ed Roberson expresses similar hauntings bluntly: “American trees
had ropes in them.”30

To observe all this is not to dismiss ethics-of-place environmentalism
out of hand, but rather to render visible a particular lineage of variously

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[ 2 4 2 ]

misanthropic, jingoistic, xenophobic, racially blinkered, gender entitled,
and amnesiac celebrations of wilderness that mark an imaginative failure
while masquerading as elevated imaginings. Clearly the emotional power
generated by attachments to place can be an invaluable resource for envi-
ronmental mobilization. Yet having said that, we need to recognize how
such attachments do not possess any inherent politics: they can induce a
conservative, bigoted environmental ethic or a progressive, inclusive one.

Our intellectual challenge surely is how to draw on the strengths of bio-
regionalism without succumbing to what one might term eco-parochialism.
Here we should heed the call by British environmentalist Richard Mabey for
a less brittle, less exclusionary environmental ethics. As Mabey writes, “the
challenge, in a world where the differences between native and stranger are
fading, is to discover veins of local character which are distinctive without
being insular and withdrawn.”31 Yet in response to the blurring of the dis-
tinction between native and stranger we have frequently witnessed a defen-
sive tendency to naturalize rootedness and stigmatize as alien people who
are perceived to look or talk differently. Precisely this kind of defensiveness
prompted Paul Gilroy, in a British context, to question the racial implica-
tions of Raymond Williams’s ethics of place.

Williams (whose Country and the City stands as an infl uential precursor
to ecocriticism) championed what he called “rooted settlements” or “natural
communities.” These were communities in which “lived, worked and place-
able social identities” provided anchorage against the dislocating effects of
global capitalism and the abstractions of national identity.32 However, Wil-
liams’s advocacy of “natural communities” was accompanied, on occasion,
by a suspicion not just of capitalism’s dislocating effects but of dislocated
people themselves, as when he expressed sympathy for local resistance in
rural British communities to “the most recent immigrations of more visibly
different peoples.”33 It was insuffi cient, Williams argued, to say these new-
comers “are as British as you are,” because that was to invoke “a merely legal
defi nition of what it is to be British . . . . Any effective awareness of social
identity depends on actual and sustained social relationships. To reduce
social identity to formal defi nitions . . . is to collude with the alienated super-
fi cialities of ‘the nation.’”34 Writing from a more cosmopolitan, postcolonial
perspective, Gilroy voiced alarm at such sentiments. He pointed out that
Williams’s vision of “natural community” meant that minority immigrants

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and their British-born descendants would fi nd themselves typecast as
innately foreign and treated as second-class citizens.35 How many genera-
tions, one might ask, does it take for the “visibly different” to get upgraded
to “natural” members of the national community?

The terms of this exchange are directly pertinent to the project, still in
its infancy, of giving environmental literary studies adequate international
dimension.36 Gilroy’s unease with the implications of Williams’ remarks
dramatizes the need for us to recuperate, imaginatively and politically,
experiences of hybridity, displacement, and transnational memory for any
viable spatial ethic. Postcolonialism can help diversify our thinking beyond
the dominant paradigms of wilderness and Jeffersonian agrarianism in ways
that render ecocriticism more accommodating of what I call a transnational
ethics of place.

Let me situate this ethics through a second disagreement, this time
involving two writers rather than two critics. Its importance lies in the
symptomatic terms of the engagement but also in the rarity of a regional
American writer engaging in depth with a transnational postcolonial writer.
The prolifi c southern Indiana essayist Scott Russell Sanders has written
powerfully about the scars of displacement in American history, scars left
by the slave trade, the Indian wars, and the ravenous power of developers
who wrench the rural poor from their familial places. In the tradition of
Aldo Leopold and Wendell Berry, Sanders proceeds to track the ecologi-
cal, spiritual, and community damage infl icted by an American tradition of
moving on. He proselytizes instead for “staying put,” and in an essay of that
title, takes Salman Rushdie to task for celebrating cosmopolitan displace-
ment without gauging the environmental, psychic, and neighborly costs.37
Two statements by Rushdie rankle in particular: his assertion that “to be
a migrant is, perhaps, to be the only species of human being free of the
shackles of nationalism (to say nothing of its ugly sister, patriotism)” and his
celebration of migrant hybridity in these terms:

The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically

new types of human beings: people who root themselves in ideas

rather than places, in memories as much as in material things;

people who have been obliged to defi ne themselves—because

they are as defi ned by others—by their otherness; people in whose

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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[ 2 4 4 ]

deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions

between what they were and where they fi nd themselves.38

Sanders quite justly questions whether immigrants are indeed unshackled
from chauvinistic prejudice; people who have moved a lot can be just as big-
oted as those who have stayed put. But in disparaging people who refuse to
root themselves in place, Sanders is ultimately on shakier ground.

My empathy for aspects of both Sanders’ and Rushdie’s positions fl ows
from the antithetical forms of marginalization to which the two writers
were subjected. I described Sanders as a “regional writer”—a badge of pride
for some, but also grounds for belittlement by the bicoastal and transatlan-
tic sensibilities that make the big decisions along the London-New York-
Los Angeles Anglophone cultural axis. If you’re regional—and especially
from some region in the Midwest fl yover zone—you’re innately minor
league, irredeemably provincial, paradoxically unplaceable in your rural
placedness.39

From that perspective, Rushdie’s musings about migrant hybridity must
seem, for a writer like Sanders, buttressed by an offputting cosmopolitan
entitlement. Yet Rushdie, before he won the Booker Prize, was an immi-
grant who, while possessing class advantages, faced profound racial obsta-
cles. He is of Paul Gilroy’s generation: both came of age to the soundtrack
of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech, with its imprecations against the
“rising peril” of immigrants who were unassimilable to the British nation.
Rushdie, like Gilroy, became a minority public intellectual against the hos-
tile backdrop of Thatcher’s rise to power. During that era a minority writer
or intellectual could not hazard a rural, place-based English identity—stay-
ing put close to the land—without suffering the most profound alienation
and discrimination, more intensely than in metropolitan London.40

Although Sanders strives to be evenhanded, his land-ethic intolerance
keeps resurfacing. He traces—pure speculation—John Berryman’s suicide
to his “dogma of rootlesness.”41 Sanders stacks the decks with his choice of
classist terms, condemning “vagrancy” and “drifters.” Symptomatically,
in explicating the higher ethic of staying put he doesn’t engage the possi-
bility of an urban commitment to place, not least among landless renters.
In a turn that typifi es a powerfully canonized strain of American envi-
ronmental writing, Sanders draws a direct line between deracination on

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the one hand and, on the other, a dereliction of duty and poverty of being
that are simultaneously civic, ethical, spiritual, and environmental. “To be
landless,” he asserts, “is not to lack property but to lack responsibility.”42
And “only by knocking against the golden calf of mobility, which looms
so large and shines so brightly, have I come to realize that it is hollow.
Like all idols, it distracts us from the true divinity.”43 And so hybridity and
mobility move to the defi cit side of the ecological register, as displacement
is trumped yet again by a place-based—indeed, place-dependent—environ-
mental transcendentalism.

Postcolonial Pastoral and Environmental
Double Consciousness

A transnational ethics of place can help us integrate into the powerful con-
ventions of pastoral the violence beneath colonial and postcolonial uproot-
ings. As an imaginative tradition, English pastoral has long been both
nationally defi nitive and fraught with anxiety. At the heart of English pas-
toral lies the idea of the nation as garden idyll, where neither labor nor vio-
lence intrudes.44 To stand as a self-contained national heritage landscape,
English pastoral has depended on the screening out of colonial spaces and
histories, much as the America wilderness ideal has entailed an amnesiac
relationship toward the Indian wars of dispossession.45

But what happens when memories of colonial space intrude upon pasto-
ralism, disturbing its pretensions to national self-defi nition and self-contain-
ment? The result is a kind of writing that I have called postcolonial pastoral,
writing that refracts an idealized nature through memories of environmen-
tal and cultural degradation in the colonies.46 Postcolonial pastoral can be
loosely viewed as a kind of environmental double-consciousness.

We can see this process at work in Naipaul’s autobiographical novel,
Enigma of Arrival, which draws on his life on a manorial estate in Wilt-
shire—Thomas Hardy country, the heartland of English pastoral.47 Naipaul
self-consciously appends himself, in this novel, to the imaginative lineage of
English pastoral by invoking William Constable, John Ruskin, Oliver Gold-
smith, Thomas Gray, William Wordsworth, William Cobbett, Richard Jef-
fries, and Hardy. In the process, Naipaul engages the centuries-long English
tradition of hortus conclusus, the enclosed garden.

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However, Naipaul’s perspective is that of an uprooted immigrant
whose vision of England can never be fully self-enclosed. In other words,
his experience of pastoral cannot be contained by the historical and spatial
amnesias demanded by an all-English frame. Instead, through the double
consciousness of postcolonial pastoral he experiences the hortus conclusus as
indissociable from transnational, colonial environments and memories. The
counterpoint to the manor garden that he inhabits in Wiltshire is the Trini-
dadian sugar plantation to which his grandparents were indentured from
India. Thus Naipaul views his environment through the double prism of
postcolonial pastoral: behind the wealth and tranquility of an English idyll
he remembers the painful, dystopian shadow garden of the trans-Atlantic
plantation that helped make that idyll possible.

Against this backdrop, we can approach Richard Drayton Nature’s Gov-
ernment as, in part, a map of transnational shadow gardens. In his book—
on the surface, a history of the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew—Drayton
examines, in his words, “how the natural sciences became included in an
ideology of ‘Improvement’ which ordered enclosure at home and expan-
sion abroad.”48 Kew, for Drayton, is not a self-enclosed English space, but
part of an extraordinary network of imperial gardens (stretching from St.
Vincent to South Africa, Ceylon, Australia, and beyond) that became impli-
cated in entangled global developments of botanical knowledge, but also in
economic power, political policy, and imperial administration.

If it is no longer viable to view environmentalism as a Western luxury,
how are we best to integrate environmental issues into our approach to
postcolonial literatures and vice versa? Jamaica Kincaid’s work offers a rich
place to tease out some of the possibilities such a rapprochement allows.
Kincaid, a Caribbean-American postcolonial writer, was for many years
the New Yorker’s resident gardening columnist—likely the only anticolo-
nial gardening columnist the New Yorker will ever have. She was equally
impassioned by lupines and by colonial history. At the heart of much of her
nonfi ction stands this blunt question: “What is the relationship between
gardening and conquest? ”49

Kincaid herself exemplifi es that relationship, given that the British trans-
ported her violated ancestors to Antigua. But colonial ships also carried
to Antigua the alien plants and animals that have since spread across the
island. Kincaid’s interest in Antigua’s environmental viability thus becomes

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inseparable from her obsession with ancestral memories of displacement;
from where she stands, the separation of botany from the history of slavery
seems profoundly unnatural. That much becomes apparent in “The Flowers
of Empire,” an essay in which Kincaid recounts how, in a moment of botani-
cal rapture, colonial history ambushed her:

One day I was walking through the glasshouse area of Kew Gar-

dens in London when I came upon the most beautiful hollyhock

I had ever seen. Hollyhocks are among my favorite fl owers, but I

had never seen one quite like this. It had the characteristic large,

fl ared petal, and it was a most beautiful yellow, a clear yellow,

as if it—the color yellow—were just born, delicate, just at the

beginning of its history as “yellow.” It was on looking at the label

on which was written its identifi cation that my whole being was

sent awhirl. It was not a hollyhock at all but gossypium, the com-

mon cotton. Cotton all by itself exists in perfection, with malice

toward none. But it played a tormented, malevolent role in the

bondage of my ancestors.50

Here, as in Naipaul’s Enigma of Arrival, Kincaid’s passion for nature is com-
plicated by her postcolonial double consciousness.

One can read Kincaid’s writings against John Elder’s insistence that
bioregionalism is a more responsible pedagogical model than cosmopoli-
tanism. For Kincaid confounds such oppositions. A Small Place, her nonfi c-
tional polemic about Antigua and tourism, could be read as bioregional in
approach: it takes as its starting point the natural boundaries of this tiny
island. Yet the small place where Kincaid stands, the place where knowl-
edge must begin, is inextricably local and transnational.51 Place is dis-
placement, for British colonists killed off the indigenous inhabitants and
replaced them with transported slaves. In the process, the colonists turned
what was once a well-wooded island into a desert, clearing the forests to
grow slave crops—sugar and cotton.52 As a result of this slave-era environ-
mental degradation, the island has lost its ability to retain water and is, to
this day, forced to import it.

This colonial-induced drought has deepened Antigua’s economic reli-
ance on tourism. So ironically, a place marked by a long history of coercive

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labor and violence has been reinvented as an Edenic retreat where Europe-
ans and Americans can experience nature as pure—a paradise beyond reach
of work and time. We can thus read A Small Place as Kincaid’s effort to return
this Eden to a transnational ethics of place. In this way, Kincaid allows us
to see Antigua, like Naipaul’s Trinidad, as a shadow island, a corrective to
the spatial amnesia of a self-contained, regenerative England pastoral of the
kind evident in, say, E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End.53

“Alien Soil,” Kincaid’s essay on English and colonial nature, captures
her paradoxical position. In England, she is on alien soil; in Antigua, an
island where none of the people and few of the plants are native, the soil
constitutes the historic ground of her alienation. In Kincaid’s words: “I
come from a people with a wretched historical relationship to growing
things.”54 However, despite that relationship, Kincaid retains a huge passion
for botany and gardening—a passion that she recognizes as part of her Eng-
lish inheritance through conquest.55 Yet she turns that inheritance against
itself by insisting that her botanical enthusiasms be refracted through the
prism of colonial history.

This is well illustrated by her response to an entry in the Oxford Com-
panion of Gardens on George Clifford, the eighteenth-century Anglo-Dutch
banker who built a gargantuan glasshouse, fi lled with plants collected
from around the world. That glasshouse proved indispensable to Linnaeus
when “Adam-like [he] invented modern plant nomenclature.”56 K incaid
observes how

[t]he plants in [Clifford’s] glasshouse could only have come to

him through—and I quote from Oxford Companion to Gardens—

“the infl uence of the world trade being developed by maritime

powers such as the Netherlands and Great Britain.” This being

a way of expressing an extraordinary historical event—“trade

being developed,” leaving out the nature of the trade being devel-

oped: trade in people and the things that they possessed, plants,

animals, and so on—never ceases to amaze me. I do not mind

the glasshouse; I do not mind the botanical garden. This is not so

grand a gesture on my part. It is mostly an admission of defeat—

to mind would be completely futile; I cannot do anything about

it anyway. I only mind the absence of this acknowledgment: that

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perhaps every good thing that stands before us comes at a great

cost to someone else.57

We can read Kincaid’s pained refl ections here as echoing, environmentally,
Walter Benjamin’s insistence that “there is no document of civilization
which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”58

Given the cultural force of pastoral and wilderness mythologies, what
kinds of aesthetic activism can reinsert the violence into the view? An espe-
cially powerful approach takes shape in the work of contemporary African-
American painter Keith Washington. “Within Our Gates: Human Sacrifi ce
in the American Landscape,” Washington’s series of mural-sized oil paint-
ings, was partly prompted by responses to the 1995 Oklahoma bombing—
by talk in the American media about “the arrival of domestic terrorism”
on American soil.59 Washington sought to devise an aesthetic response that
could bear witness to a history of domestic terrorism—above all, against Afri-
can Americans and native peoples—that long predated Timothy McVeigh.
Each of the landscape paintings from “Within Our Gates” focuses on a dif-
ferent lynching site: these are lynching sites without ropes or mobs or dan-
gling, mutilated men in them. The tree-lined rural and suburban scenes that
Washington represents have no people in them, but beneath each bucolic
painting, he has inscribed the name of the lynched man and the location. No
date is given: the effect is of a violence that feels open ended, ongoing in its

Figure 4 James Sanders: Road Side Field, Bolton, MS. Oil painting by Keith Morris
Washington, 2001. Reproduced by permission of the artist/photographer.

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

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[ 2 5 0 ]

deep yet incomplete specifi city. The paintings feel eerily becalmed: this is
domestic terrorism domesticated by pastoral convention; by national amne-
sia; and by the overgrowths of time, vegetation, and rezoning. From these
preternaturally ordinary trees hang amnesia’s strange fruit.

Environmentalists sometimes refer to “ghost habitats,” those eco-
logical shadows of a once powerful presence in the landscape, traces from
which one can reconstruct what might otherwise appear to have vanished
entirely.60 The term might well be adapted to Washington’s paintings: rip-
pling through his ghost habitats are the hauntings of a double violence—the
original lynching and, superimposed on that, the quiet, gradual violence of
forgetting, against which the work of art pushes back.

Washington marshals the naturalistic conventions of landscape painting,
but does so with a twist. Some of his paintings have hazy distortions running
through them, like exaggerated renditions of the refl ected heat that rises up
from a broiling summer road. In other paintings, overlapping rectangular
boxes within the view unsettle the perspective. The effect is of a double con-
sciousness—a tranquility simultaneously expressed and exploded through
an ongoing history of the present that is violently, inextricably societal and
natural. To observe these paintings after reading Naipaul and Kincaid is to
feel the convergent impulses behind postcolonial pastoral’s historical double
take and an African-American pastoral that prompts us to see, behind some
immediate bucolic calm, the domestic terrorism in the long view.61

Postcolonial Suspicion, Ecocritical Belatedness

I have outlined some of the primary conceptual divergences between post-
colonial and environmental literary studies, but we need to understand their
parallel development historically as well. That history is partly internal to
the university and partly to do with broader confl icts over the meaning of
environmentalism in American society and in the larger world. Of particu-
lar pertinence here is Ursula Heise’s insight into why the environmental
movement that burgeoned in the United States during the 1970s was slow
to reshape literary studies.62 Heise notes how the civil rights movement,
feminism, the gay rights movement, and the Chicano/a movement all had a
more immediate, powerful impact in recasting literary studies. The environ-
mental movement, by contrast, seemed ill fi tted to the emergent theoretical

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and pedagogical mood of the late 1970s and 1980s in which multicultural
identity politics was transforming the literary fi eld and in which, through
poststructuralism’s ascent, a suspicion of holistic thinking was becoming
widespread. This is a crucial insight. However, in trying to grasp the long-
standing mutual indifference between environmental and postcolonial
studies, one should note that a large body of postcolonial or anti-imperial
work—by fi gures as varied as Edward Said, Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, Anne
McClintock, Mary Louise Pratt, Stuart Hall, Gauri Viswanathan, Ella Sho-
hat, Benita Parry, Timothy Brennan, and Neil Lazarus—evidenced strong
materialist commitments rather than distinctively poststructuralist ones.
Yet apart from a rare aside, none of these infl uential thinkers engaged in any
depth with a socially resurgent environmentalism.

To understand this schism more fully we need to step back from the
university and consider more broadly the post–World War II power strug-
gles within the American environmental movement—the contest over the
movement’s philosophical underpinnings and policy priorities, and the way
those priorities made American environmentalism a cultural and com-
mercial phenomenon while simultaneously rendering its dominant forms
anomalous relative to environmental movements evolving elsewhere, in
the global South and in much of the industrialized West. The most produc-
tive approach to these developments may be to read in tandem the work of
Peter Sauer and Ramachandra Guha. In a series of essays for Orion, Sauer—
the most trenchant contemporary American environmental essayist—gives
historical dimension to his outrage at U.S. environmentalism’s path not
taken, specifi cally, the way “Earth Day ushered in a bio-based environmen-
talism, one that separated human from natural ecology.”63 The history of
what Sauer sees as a betrayal of human ecology, however, stretches further
back than that. In the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a sense of global
urgency informed the 1946 meeting of the American Wilderness Society
at which the members committed themselves to an expansive vision that
sought to integrate America’s environmental priorities into an agenda of
world peace. To that end, the Wilderness Society created a Committee on
Foreign Relations chaired by Aldo Leopold.64

This internationalist outlook was derailed by President Truman’s
announcement in 1949 that Russia possessed the bomb. American inter-
nationalism became starkly militarized and, under the shadow of the cold

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war, American environmentalism incrementally retreated from a vision of
a global human ecology premised on the notion of a viable environment as
a fundamental human right. The 1960s saw a resurgent concern with pollu-
tion and public health, largely catalyzed by Silent Spring, a concern that led to
material legislative initiatives, like the creation of the Environmental Protec-
tion Agency, the Clear Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. Yet the permanent
war footing of the United States repeatedly threatened those gains. As Sauer
notes, at the 1972 International Conference on the Human Environment in
Stockholm, after hundreds of worldwide meetings held over four years, the
delegates committed to “environmental protection [as] an essential element
of social and economic development.”65 In Western Europe and Australia
in particular, public health policy became more integrally bound to envi-
ronmental politics while, during that same period, the United States was
traumatically focused on the divisive Vietnam War and the assassinations
of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Neither the civil rights move-
ment nor the antiwar movement was engaged, to any signifi cant degree, by
the precepts or goals of the American environmental movement.66 During
this period, the social justice concerns enunciated so powerfully by Carson
began to hive off from the nation’s environmental mainstream. The biocen-
tric focus of the inaugural Earth Day in 1970 exacerbated this split, leaving
American environmentalism isolated from trends elsewhere and reducing
the nation’s incipient environmental justice movement to (in both senses) a
minority affair.67

Edward Said’s Orientalism, the most decisive text in the rise of postcolo-
nial studies, appeared in 1978, just two years before Ronald Reagan’s election.
President Reagan oversaw, domestically, a massive rollback of environmen-
tal regulation and, internationally, proliferating cold-war confl icts from
Angola and Mozambique to Nicaragua, from the Horn of Africa to Laos
and El Salvador.68 Crucially, in terms of the postcolonial skepticism toward
environmentalism that was cemented during the 1980s, few American envi-
ronmentalists showed any interest in linking Reagan’s transnational imperi-
alism to socioenvironmental degradation in the global South. Instead, most
American environmentalists became inwardly focused: on wilderness pres-
ervation, on wielding the Endangered Species Act against developers, and
on saving old-growth forests. Given the domestic-cum-transcendental tenor
of mainstream American environmentalism during the 1980s, a Wilderness

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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 5 3 ]

Society with a Committee on Foreign Relations would by then have been
inconceivable. Indeed, in many instances American- and European-based
international organizations, in the name of conservation, became complicit
in paramilitary offensives against native peoples and their resources in the
global South.

All this made it easy for the international Left, including many postcolo-
nialists, to view environmentalism as either irrelevant or complicit in impe-
rialism. It also made it easy to caricature the fi gure of the environmentalist
as a whiter-than-white, hippy-dippy-tree-hugging-dopehead deep ecologist
from an overprivileged background. Said, who in his fi nal writings briefl y
gestured toward a green politics, for most of his career could not envisage
mainstream environmentalism (as then confi gured) as an anti-imperial
ally. More often—for the historical reasons outlined above—he was dismis-
sive of environmental activism as complicit in structures of oppression and
was unable to see environmentalists as playing a productive political role
internationally.69 Although Said never addressed the matter directly, if we
consider the way many deep ecologists were concocting as their philosophi-
cal ally a mishmash of “Eastern” religious thought supposedly attuned to
Mother Earth, that very appropriative gesture can be seen as profoundly
Orientalizing—an extension into the environmental domain of the imperi-
alist thinking Said had dissected and assailed.

I have argued throughout this book that the notion that environmental
politics are a luxury indulgence available only to the world’s wealthy—a bou-
tique politics for the well-off—is utterly untenable. For as one of the fi rst post-
colonial literary critics to allude to ecological concerns, Gayatri Spivak, has
noted, “the local in the South directly engages global greed.”70 Spivak made
that observation two decades after Orientalism appeared: it is a perspective
remote from the dominant version of environmentalism to which Said and
other postcolonial scholars were exposed in the late 1970s and 1980s, namely,
an in-turned environmentalism preoccupied with a wilderness ethic and
largely indifferent to the international relationship between social inequities,
environmental practices, and the cultures of nature espoused by the poor.

The most lapidary exposé of the drawbacks of a narrowly defi ned envi-
ronmentalism appeared in Guha’s brief, yet wide-ranging 1989 essay “Radi-
cal American Environmentalism and Wilderness Preservation: A Third
World Critique.”71 Refl ecting on how traditions of ecological practices and

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[ 2 5 4 ]

thought in India and Germany diverged from dominant American tenden-
cies, Guha gave the idea of environmentalism a genealogical diversity that
was historically, materially grounded. Guha was alive to the range of Amer-
ican environmental thinking, while spelling out the baleful consequences
of the hegemonic rise of deep ecology’s adherents and their scientifi c allies
who anointed themselves custodians of tropical biodiversity. Together these
wilderness crusaders assumed that the United States represented the envi-
ronmental vanguard and that wilderness preservation—as philosophy and
practice—needed to be universalized. In Roderick Nash’s blunt formulation,
hopefully “the less developed nations [will] eventually evolve economically
and intellectually to the point where nature preservation is more than a
business.”72 Here the purportedly selfl ess biocentrism that wilderness adher-
ents advocated surfaces as imperially anthropocentric in its America-knows-
best developmental ideology.

Most deep ecologists evinced a shallow grasp of the consequences of
transferring wholesale an environmental ideology from a supremely rich,
lightly populated, overconsuming, overmilitarized society like the United
States to densely populated countries (India, Nigeria, Indonesia) where sig-
nifi cant peasant communities subsisted off the land. For such communities,
the idea of the wild could never be primarily a recreational counterpoint
to an urban industrialized lifestyle, but was profoundly entangled with
the kinds of threats I have outlined in this book: assaults from slow and
direct violence on increasingly marginal ecosystems on which their live-
lihoods depended, ecosystems vulnerable to resource capture by transna-
tional corporations; by third-world military, civilian, and corporate elites;
and by international conservation organizations. In such peasant communi-
ties environmental sensibilities and practices existed, but they were often
directly entangled with ongoing, quotidian struggles for survival.

Together Sauer, from within the American environmental movement,
and Guha, from outside it, offer a profound account of deep ecology’s dis-
fi guring legacy. Their critiques help clarify why postcolonial and environ-
mental studies have, at least in the literary domain, led such largely parallel
lives. Guha’s writings sharply impacted debates in environmental history,
the environmental social sciences, and the biological sciences, but his ideas
had very little resonance within ecocriticism, and then only belatedly.
For ecocriticism only began to cohere as a fi eld in the mid-1990s (with the

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[ 2 5 5 ]

appearance of Lawrence Buell’s The Environmental Imagination in 1995 and
Cheryl Glotfelty and Harold Fromm’s Ecocritical Reader in 1996), years after
Guha’s essay had sparked controversy in other disciplines. Moreover, fi rst-
wave ecocriticism was skewed toward matters of genre and philosophy at
the expense of environmental justice concerns, and showed scant interest
in either the environmental social sciences or international environmen-
tal history. Only belatedly has environmental literary scholarship begun
to broaden—and reconfi gure conceptually—the parameters of the fi eld in
ways more accommodating of Sauer and Guha’s forceful critiques.

Sea Changes and Tectonic Shifts

Any lingering postcolonial dismissal of environmentalism as marginal to
“real” politics is belied by the proliferation of indigenous environmental move-
ments across the global South. Saro-Wiwa was not some isolated epic hero:
his actions were indicative of myriad environmental campaigns that have
been locally motivated, locally led, and internationally infl ected. Indeed, we
have witnessed on the environmental front something similar to the muta-
tion of feminism, which some thirty or forty years ago was often dismissed
as white, privileged, and irrelevant to the needs of third-world women. Just
as we have seen what counts as feminism change radically through the rise of
social movements that have decentered and diversifi ed the agendas of wom-
en’s rights (in ethnic, geographic, religious, sexuality, and class terms), so too
we have seen a related turn in environmentalism, opening up paths, inside
the academy and beyond, to more diverse accommodations of what counts
as environmental.73 It is in this context that the environmental justice move-
ment is beginning to achieve a more forceful presence within the greening of
the humanities, a development that has immense consequences for our abil-
ity to engage, across multiple temporal and geographical scales, the politics
of slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor.

“All human activity,” William Beinart and Peter Coates have argued,
“alters the composition of the natural world which in itself is never static.
A critique which regards all change as decay begs the very legitimacy of
human survival.”74 Non-Western environmental movements are typically
alert to the interdependence of human survival and environmental change
in situations where the illusion of a static purity cannot be sustained, much

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[ 2 5 6 ]

less exalted. Such movements are also typically aware of how easily out-
side forces (including transnational corporations, the IMF, and the World
Bank) and internal authoritarian regimes, often in cahoots with each other,
can rend the delicate, always mutable mesh between cultural survival and a
viable environment.

In Ecuador, one such locally led campaign, Acción Ecológica, mobi-
lized the nation’s Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities against Texaco,
whose ransacking of the environment echoed the plunder, 10,000 miles
away, that generated Nigeria’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni
People.75 In India, the corporatizing of biodiversity proved a major rallying
point: 200,000 Indian farmers descended on Delhi in the so-called Seed Saty-
agraha to protest transnational efforts to wrest control over the reproduc-
tion and distribution of seeds from traditional farmers. Wangari Maathai
hailed “a new environmental awareness in Africa, [as] the African people
are responding to save the environment,” an overly broad judgment per-
haps, but indicative of some encouraging shifts.76 In a voice that resonated
for many Africans suffering the fallout from kleptocracy, Kenyan student
leader Wycliffe Mwebi spoke of the “moral right to defend the environment
against a corrupt land grab.”77

One productive (if insuffi cient) approach toward integrating these
shifts into the environmental humanities involves narrowing the divide
between the study of America’s minority literatures—a recent growth area
of ecocriticism—and the study of postcolonial literatures from an environ-
mental perspective. Lorraine Anderson et al.’s infl uential collection, Lit-
erature and the Environment, evidences the potential for and problems with
conjoining the two fi elds.78 In one important regard, this is an encouraging
volume—the fi rst environmental anthology to include a signifi cant spread
of minority writers, many of them foregrounding issues the environmen-
tal justice movement has prioritized. By acknowledging what Langston
Hughes, bell hooks, Louis Owens, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, and Marilou Awi-
akta, among others add to environmental debate and testimony, the Ander-
son anthology marks a shift away from wilderness writing and the literature
of Jeffersonian agrarianism. Several of the essays address indigenous land
rights, community displacement, and toxicity, often in the context of urban
or poor rural experience. Encouragingly, these are some of the American
concerns that most readily connect with the environmental priorities that

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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 5 7]

predominate in postcolonial writing. One recognizes here rich possibilities
for a deepening transnational rapprochement.

However, in helping redefi ne the fi eld, Literature and the Environment
(despite its expansive title) restricts itself to an almost all-American cast. Of
the 104 contributions, only one is non-American: a maverick Wordsworth
poem. So while applauding this diversifi cation of environmental literature,
we should be careful not to confuse American multiculturalism with inter-
national diversity or assume the latter fl ows automatically from the for-
mer. The Anderson volume leaves the need for a more global inclusiveness
largely unaddressed.

The geographical distribution of interest in Lawrence Buell’s ground-
breaking study, Writing for an Endangered World: Literature, Culture, and Environ-
ment in the U.S. and Beyond, raises some similar issues.79 Buell’s earlier and justly
infl uential study, The Environmental Imagination, centered on American nature
writing and was written in the shadow of Thoreau. His sequel, however, takes
a more generous and creative view of what counts as environmental litera-
ture, opening up questions of toxicity, biodegradation, urban experience, and
engineered environments.80 This enables Buell to engage, through detailed
readings, a series of American minority writers: Gwendolyn Brooks, John
Edgar Wideman, Richard Wright, and Linda Hogan among them.81

However, the expanded American diversity of Buell’s later work is not
matched by an attentiveness to diversity elsewhere. The limitations of try-
ing to generate a transnational vision from an American-centered account of
environmental writing becomes evident in Buell’s solitary sustained reading
of a postcolonial fi ction, Mahasweta Devi’s “Pterodactyl, Puran Sahay, and
Pirtha,” a Bengali novella translated into English by Spivak.82 After praising
“Pterodactyl” as a trenchant fi ction of environmental justice, Buell remarks
that the novella’s “sometimes esoteric cultural particularism . . . may seem
to make it an odd detour from the U.S.-focused texts I have mainly been
discussing.”83 The image of a “detour” and the reference to “esoteric cul-
tural particularism” foreground the intellectual challenge for ecocriticism
of moving beyond a center-periphery model. The unsettling implication
is that somehow American texts transcend “cultural particularism,” are
always already universalized in ways that postcolonial ones are not.84

What is required is more than simply diversifying the canon: we need
to reimagine the prevailing paradigms. That much is evident from the

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[ 2 5 8 ]

enormous diffi culty Saro-Wiwa had in gaining an audience in the United
States and Europe. When he fi rst appealed to Greenpeace representatives
they said they didn’t work in Africa, that it was off their environmental
map.85 Wherever he went, Saro-Wiwa was treated as an unfathomable
anomaly. An African writer claiming to be an environmentalist? And claim-
ing, moreover, that his people’s human rights were being violated by envi-
ronmental ethnocide? Part of Saro-Wiwa’s problem in gaining a hearing for
the Ogoni was not just economic and political—it was imaginative as well.

Saro-Wiwa campaigned for environmental justice. But he also cam-
paigned, in effect, against a center-periphery paradigm. He had to contend
not just with environmental racism but with prejudicial failures of geo-
graphical imagining. In American intellectual and media terms, a region
like Ogoniland is almost completely unimaginable.86 Yet the writings of
Saro-Wiwa, Devi, and Roy allow us (in crucial ways that the self-perpetuat-
ing national lineage of Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, Berry, and Snyder does not)
to engage environmental politics through confl icts between subnational
micro-minorities, autocratic nation states, and transnational macroeco-
nomic powers.87

In trying to diversify our thinking, we need to insure that we don’t end
up asking an environmental variant of Saul Bellow’s dismissive question:
“Where is the Zulu Tolstoy?” If we go scouting the equatorial forests for
the Timorese Thoreau (or his Cameroonian cousin), we’ll return alone.
Nor can we content ourselves with a nominal international smattering—an
Ishimure Michiko or Wordsworth text decorating the American eco-canon
much as a Virginia Woolf or a Jane Austen once graced otherwise all-male
courses and, later, a Toni Morrison or an Alice Walker were used to “diver-
sify” white courses on women’s writing.

To reject an add-on solution to the challenges of diversity is to refuse
a vision of environmentalism as invented at the center and exported to (or
imposed upon) the periphery.88 Such center-periphery thinking has been,
historically, both a source of postcolonialists’ pervasive indifference to envi-
ronmentalism and, conversely, a source of the debilitating strain of super-
power parochialism that lingers even now among many American ecocritics
and writers. Just as subaltern studies embarked on a project of provincial-
izing the West, so too we need to persist in provincializing American envi-
ronmentalism if we are to regenerate and diversify the fi eld.

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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 5 9 ]

By the same measure, postcolonial studies could benefi t from an infu-
sion of the regenerative public urgency that a fl exible, broadly imagined
environmentalism can offer. Postcolonial studies has recently begun to stall
for several reasons, four in particular. First, an involuted turn toward an
abstruse prose accessible only to disciplinary initiates severed much post-
colonial work from the public, communicative ambitions that, at its best,
had provided much of the fi eld’s anti-imperial dynamism. Second, post–cold
war and pre-9/11, issues of empire fell out of favor in the United States and,
for many, became less pressing. As those issues resurfaced after the onset of
the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a new generation of younger scholars was—
on account of that historical hiatus—unacquainted, in any textured way,
with the anti-imperial work produced during the cold war. Third, especially
since 9/11, in public policy debates and literary studies we have witnessed a
paradigmatic shift toward globalization and world literature, respectively.
As I’ve documented in this book, globalization’s ascendancy, as process and
paradigm, has led to some inspirational, if embattled transnational alliances
among activists opposed to its neoliberal modes, not least among activists
promulgating a grassroots transnationalism from below. My stance on the
rise of world literary studies is ambivalent, as I intimated in my introduction.
On the one hand, we have witnessed a heartening, necessary engagement
by literary scholars with languages and literatures neglected by hidebound
comparative literature departments; we have witnessed, too, some intrigu-
ing conceptual innovations. On the other hand, there is a powerful strain of
world literary studies that, in its obsession with fi eld defi nition, seems con-
tent with a campus-niche orientation: as such, it feels politically bloodless
and, paradoxically, unworldly. Which brings us to the fourth, related rea-
son for postcolonialism’s relative retreat: together, the rise of world literary
studies and the rise of the pro-globalization public intellectual have allowed
many universities to phase out (or greatly reduce) their hiring and course
offerings in postcolonial studies as a purportedly superannuated fi eld. This
would concern me less if I did not suspect this as being symptomatic of a
broader scaling back within the humanities and the social sciences of the
kind of radicalism that anti-imperial and postcolonial work often enabled.

A radically creative alliance between environmental and postcolonial
studies can help push back against administrative and disciplinary efforts to
corral for narrow ends what scholars alive to the power of word and story

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[ 2 6 0 ]

have to offer the wider world. What we can offer includes a belief in the
value of multiple publics as we strive, among other things, to foster imagina-
tive coalitions that may help redress environmental injustice.

Six years ago, in addressing the concerns laid out in this chapter, I
wrote (as did Susie O’Brien and Graham Huggan) about the conceptual
and political value of instilling in postcolonial studies a stronger environ-
mental awareness.89 I noted, for instance, the value of reconfi guring Black
Atlantic studies in environmental terms beginning with Derek Walcott’s
aphoristic assertion: “the sea is history.”90 I also argued for more inventive
transnational comparative work, by bringing into conversation, say, the rich
literatures about nuclear colonialism and nuclear risk from the Pacifi c island
nations, Australia, Britain, the United States, India, Pakistan, and those
areas of the former Soviet Union still shadowed by the slow violence of the
test zone. Crucially, I argued that we needed to rethink what it is we are
looking for—what kinds of texts, what kinds of issues—when we engage
transnational environmental literatures.

At the end of the twenty-fi rst century’s fi rst decade, we are witnessing,
across a range of intellectual fronts, some heartening initiatives that are
starting to change hitherto dominant conceptions of what it might mean
to green the humanities. We are witnessing the beginnings not just of an
environmentally engaged Black Atlantic studies but also of Indian Ocean
and Pacifi c Ocean studies animated by conjoined ecological and post-
colonial concerns.91 Comparative nuclear literary studies is generating high-
caliber work, and we are seeing energetic new inquiry into the literatures
of resource extraction across a range of geographies.92 Caribbean environ-
mental studies has emerged as a particularly fertile domain of interdisci-
plinary inquiry.93 And as I write, the fi rst anthology to bridge the African
environmental humanities and social sciences is going to press, as are the
fi rst two anthologies of postcolonial environmental scholarship.94 New
books engaging, from an environmental stance, areas as diverse as Indian
fi ction, Australian and Pacifi c literatures, and the African novel are breaking
new ground methodologically as well.95

This current of emergent work reminds us that there is no inherent
incompatibility between postcolonial and environmental literary stud-
ies, despite their discrete institutional histories. However, one caveat is in
order. It is tempting to return to infl uential anticolonial thinkers like Fanon,

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en v ironmenta lism, postcoloni a lism, a nd a mer ica n studies

[ 2 6 1]

Césaire, Kenyatta, and Said to unearth overlooked environmental concerns
seaming through their work. While there is value in doing so, we should not
forget the historical circumstances that, almost without exception, made
such thinkers hostile or indifferent to environmentalists and vice versa.
There is a risk of retrofi tting fl exible contemporary meanings of environ-
mentalism anachronistically to earlier eras when anticolonial struggles
over land rights and political independence clashed, again and again, with
colonial legacies of conservation that were invariably racist and became
emblematic of environmentalism in a decolonizing age. The prospects for
postcolonial environmentalism today have been empowered by a spread-
ing awareness among diverse international publics that ecological concerns
are not only gaining urgency but are also less narrowly defi ned than even
a decade ago—certainly less so than when Orientalism fi rst made its mark
or, sixteen years before that, The Wretched of the Earth. Crucially, the cur-
rent, belated engagement between environmental and postcolonial liter-
ary studies does not result from a straightforward two-way conversation
but is part of a broader series of dynamic exchanges, two of which warrant
mentioning in particular. First, the transnational turn in American Studies,
whether hemispheric or more broadly global, is achieving an unprecedented
methodological and curricular authority. Such work, while of course not
wholly new, is becoming a primary catalyst for energizing American stud-
ies, creating an intellectual climate in which questions of empire, global-
ization, and transnational structures of power and resistance are moving
front and center.96 This has clear environmental repercussions: it has the
potential to shift the intellectual centers of gravity away from the in-turned,
American exceptionalist tendencies of wilderness literature and Jeffersonian
agrarianism and toward more diverse environmental approaches that are,
crucially, more compatible with the impulses underpinning environmental
justice movements around the world. Here Camille Dungy’s 2009 anthol-
ogy, Black Nature. Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, marks a
breakthrough initiative, in its historical reach, its transnational resonances,
its engagement with urban environmental literature, and its concern with
the outer and inner landscapes of injustice.97

A second, related shift in the intellectual climate of the environmental
humanities is emerging from within Native American studies. Native texts
have, by now, a well-established history of ecocritical engagement. What is

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 6 2 ]

novel and striking, however, is the gathering interest among Native scholars
in taking up postcolonial studies as a potentially productive interlocutor.98
This turn becomes a second way of deterritorializing American studies by
advancing comparative approaches to settler colonialism, land rights, envi-
ronmental racism, resource confl icts, and the transnational circuits of tox-
icity while drawing on (and reconfi guring) postcolonial studies. Crucially,
from an environmental perspective the emergent dialogue between Native
studies and postcolonialism can help foreground the socioenvironmental
relations between internal colonialisms and offshore imperialisms in all
their historical and geographical variability. This postcolonial-Native turn
thus helps further unsettle the dominant paradigms of American environ-
mental literature and criticism while widening the potential avenues for
comparative work around environmental justice on a global front.

Together these emerging tendencies in postcolonial, American, and
Native studies can help deepen and diversify the dialogue I have sought to
outline here, reframing oppositions between bioregionalism and cosmopol-
itanism, between transcendentalism and transnationalism, between an eth-
ics of place and the experience of displacement. Through such a dialogue we
can simultaneously think through nature-induced states of transport and the
vast, brutal history of humans forcibly transported. In the process, we can
aspire to a more historically answerable and geographically expansive sense
of what constitutes our environment and which literary works we entrust
to voice its parameters. Despite the recent advances toward that goal, ours
remains an ongoing, ambitious, and crucial task—not least because for the
foreseeable future, literature departments are likely to remain infl uential
players in the greening of the humanities.

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Epilogue

Scenes from the Seabed: The Future of Dissent

For God’s sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! Not a
gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man’s blood was spilled for it.

—Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

The island of Atlantis, according to Plato, vanished into the
ocean “in a single day and night of misfortune.” 1 The engulfment threaten-
ing the Maldive Islands is nothing as unambiguously instantaneous as that.
The Maldives face an incremental threat from rising, warming oceans, a
threat diffi cult to dramatize and even harder to arrest—a form of slow vio-
lence that is rapid in geological terms but (unlike a tsunami) not fast enough
to constitute breaking news. In an effort to infuse dramatic urgency into
this incremental crisis, the president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed,
held an extraordinary underwater cabinet meeting in diving gear on Octo-
ber 17, 2009, shortly before the Copenhagen Climate Summit. President
Nasheed and his wetsuit-clad ministers convened behind a conference table
anchored to the seabed, a Maldive fl ag planted behind them. Oxygen mask
in place, the president signed into law a national commitment to becoming
carbon neutral within ten years.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 6 4 ]

President Nasheed’s underwater convocation speaks directly to this
book’s concern with the environmentalism of the poor and the represen-
tational challenges posed by slow violence. The Maldive meeting was an
explicit bid to turn the slow-motion urgency of a nation’s fate into a news-
worthy event and, beyond that, into a symbolic prompt to goad world lead-
ers in Copenhagen to act against climate change. The subaqueous cabinet
meeting put an apocalyptic spin on the global dithering of business as usual:
this was drowning in paperwork with a vengeance. We can read the scene
as an attempt to surmount two vexing dilemmas. First, how does a nation
under climatic threat compensate for the drama defi cit of climate change?
Second, how does a minnow nation like the Maldives—which has contrib-
uted almost zero to global warming and has zero clout on the world stage—
conjure enough agency to render visible the slow violence that poses an
existential threat to it through inundation, through a terminal sea change?

This ghostly sea-bottom scene makes a statement—at once micronational
and planetary—about environmental time. What we enter through photo-
graphs and video is a premonitory landscape prefi guring the consequences,

Figure 5 Maldives underwater cabinet meeting to highlight the threat of global
warming, October 17, 2009. Reproduced by permission of the Maldives govern-
ment media agency.

[To view this image, refer to

the print version of this title.]

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epilogue

[ 2 6 5 ]

on a global scale, of wasted foreknowledge. The scene serves as a preview
of the aftermath.

The Maldives are not wealthy: the nation, assembled from twenty-six
coral atolls, had a per capita GDP in 2008 of $4,967. In terms of population
and land mass, the archipelago constitutes Asia’s most diminutive nation, a
place of precarious postcolonial possibility doubly compromised by small-
ness and by its status as the planet’s lowest-lying nation-state. The Maldives
boast a land mass of only 115 square miles (about 1.7 times the size of Wash-
ington, DC) but possess a disproportionately long coastline that stretches
for 400 miles. The capital, Male, also happens to be one of the planet’s most
densely populated cities. This confl uence of factors—low altitude; high
population density; a long, threatened coastline made more vulnerable by
a dying protective barrier of coral reefs; and ironically, a tourist trade as a
paradise untouched by time—have combined to turn the Maldives into the
canary in the mine shaft of the climate crisis.

Through the compensatory realm of symbolic activism, President
Nasheed sought to distill a narrative of planetary urgency from a crisis so
attritional and so seemingly far-off that it might appear a causeless threat
to an already invisible nation of no apparent consequence. But for Nasheed,
like Saro-Wiwa before him, human rights are indissociable from environ-
mental justice for a marginalized community that doubles as the bellwether
of a broader crisis in transnational responsibility.

The Maldives is on the brink of becoming the fi rst nation where the entire
population would be climate refugees; even with a mere 400,000 citizens,
the prospect of a climate-driven exodus on that scale constitutes a logistical
nightmare and foreshadows an age of insurgent climate refugees on a far
more threatening, chaotic scale.2 Indeed, a 2003 Pentagon report warned of
the security threat posed by millions of climate refugees, predicting that rich
nations like the United States would have to respond by “building defensive
fortresses around their countries.”3 This conventional neoliberal response—
wall off the wealthy, raise the walls of denial—is classic short-termism, a
security strategy built on the illusory, foundational assumption that address-
ing the causes of slow violence can be infi nitely deferred.

The Maldives may be at the forefront of the crisis, but it is not alone: at
the 2010 Cancun climate talks 43 island nations announced that they face
“the end of history” if the rich countries fail to act decisively and in concert

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 6 6 ]

against climate change.4 Those 43 comprise the Alliance of Small Nation
Island States—AOSIS, which sounds like a jumbled oasis, paradise thrown
askew. The fate of the AOSIS nations foreshadows the looming, long-term
threat to wealthier seaside cities everywhere, from Manhattan to China’s
coastal plains, from Venice and Rotterdam to New Orleans, and to the cit-
ies that hug Australia’s shores—where 85 percent of the national population
clings to the oceanic perimeter.

President Nasheed’s underwater cabinet meeting offers an image of
reverse inundation that speaks directly to the environmentalism of the
poor. Here it’s not brown immigrants threatening to “swamp” the neolib-
eral fortresses of the still predominantly white rich, but rather poor brown
people confronting the threat of having their national territory swamped as
a result of a 200-year experiment in hydrocarbon-fueled capitalism whose
historic benefi ciaries have been disproportionately rich and white. This
image strikes at the heart of the debate over climate justice, at the inequi-
ties between those who have grown rich off hydrocarbon culture and the
predominantly poor people—from the Maldives to Niger—who are low-
level hydrocarbon consumers but at greatest initial risk from the climate
crisis. Yet over time, that risk will be passed on, as today’s imperiled island-
ers turn into climate refugees whose desperation will exacerbate the crisis
in the richer, high-consumption nations whose profl igacy triggered it in
the fi rst place.

Before the climate crisis, fl ag planting was associated more with moun-
tain peaks than with ocean fl oors. (Flag planting, one suspects, was not a
historically prominent activity in the Maldives, which boast a highest peak
of seven feet and seven inches—one inch taller than Yao Ming). The Maldiv-
ian fl ag planted at the underwater cabinet meeting is a fl ag of involuntary
conquest, a territorial marker not of national ascent but of national decline,
as a nation-state subsides toward obliteration.

Without the compensatory agency that media images of the meeting
bestowed on it, the Maldivian fl ag would have been left to fl ap invisibly
underwater in the Indian Ocean currents. Yet I cannot observe this sub-
merged fl ag of inverted conquest without thinking of a second submerged
fl ag that might seem unrelated, yet speaks to the planetary feedback loop
between the slow violence of the climate crisis and our transnational fail-
ure to begin to innovate and conserve our way beyond unsustainable

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central,
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epilogue

[ 2 6 7]

levels of hydrocarbon dependency. In 2007, two years before the Maldivian
cabinet assembled underwater, a Russian submarine descended to the sea-
bed beneath the North Pole and planted a Russian fl ag. This fl ag planting
marked a very different, less ironic oceanic land grab. Russian expedition
leader Artur Chilingarov declared: “[T]he Arctic is Russian.”5 Denmark
immediately disputed the Kremlin’s claim to the Arctic continental shelf,
as did Canada. Russia dispatched troop reinforcements to its Arctic edge,
while Canada declared it would follow suit and was strengthening its claim
by building a new Arctic port city. The United States, Norway, and the Euro-
pean Union (whose member states Sweden, Denmark, and Finland abut the
Arctic) climbed into the controversy with claims of their own.6

Global warming was the trigger for this militant rhetoric and these
troop movements. Melting circumpolar pack ice had opened the prospect
of new sea-lanes and was exposing hitherto inaccessible mineral and energy
deposits, especially gas and oil, the so-called Arctic hydrocarbon bonanza.
On May 29, 2009, Science magazine made publicly accessible for the fi rst
time a comprehensive map of the projected circumpolar energy reserves,
indicating that the region’s oceans might harbor 30 percent of the world’s
unexploited gas deposits and 13 percent of its unexploited oil.7 The oil majors
and their political cheerleaders hailed the melting of the fragile circumpolar
pack ice in a frontier idiom, capitalizing on the back-to-the-future mythic
appeal of the Northwestern Passage.

And so we face the prospect of expanded suboceanic carbon reserves
being extracted and burned courtesy of global warming, accelerating the
very processes of slow violence that will drown the Maldives fi rst but which,
unchecked, will ultimately breach the walls that concretize our planetary
delusion that we can segregate secure communities from insecure ones long
term, and separate out orderly societies from those abandoned to destitution
and climate chaos. From the perspective of climatic slow violence, the Arc-
tic oil rush gives a whole new meaning to the race to the bottom.

The two fl ags in these far-fl ung underwater scenes may be geographi-
cally remote from each other yet serve, as it were, as carbon copies of a
common crisis. Together they remind us that the climate crisis is both indi-
visible and unevenly felt, experienced—especially by some of the planet’s
most vulnerable peoples—as climate injustice. One seabed scene, beneath a
disappearing ice pack, serves as a starting gun for the twenty-fi rst-century

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 6 8 ]

scramble by global behemoths to grab even more of the earth’s resources
in another giant colonial carve-up. The other underwater scene, beneath a
vanishing island nation, gives an oceanic environmental twist to the antico-
lonial phrase “the development of underdevelopment.”

Greenwashing and Big Oil Transcendentalism

We can read these two seabed scenes—the Arctic fl ag annexing new hydro-
carbon claims, the tropical fl ag protesting a short-sighted hydrocarbon
addiction—alongside a third, connected scene: the submerged slow violence
triggered by the mile-deep blowout beneath the Deepwater Horizon rig.
The idiom of new frontiers has long been integral to BP’s public relations
spin: in the corporation’s insistence, for instance, that it is at the cutting edge
of “the energy frontier,” exhibit A “the deepest well ever drilled by the oil
and gas industry.” This exuberant frontier idiom is of a piece with BP’s Big
Oil transcendentalism, evident in the greenwashing slogan “Beyond Petro-
leum” and in the clashing perceptual fi elds of Deepwater Horizon (down
below stretches up ahead). Despite the airy transcendentalism of BP’s slo-
gan, according to the Atlas Economic Research Foundation BP spent less
investing in solar, hydrogen, and wind energy over a six-year period than it
did on a two-year advertising campaign to rebrand itself as “Beyond Petro-
leum.” 8 And so the post-carbon, transcendental vision thing is largely reduc-
ible to a self-referential marketing metanarrative. BP did, however, fi nd
plenty of funds to help bankroll the Global Climate Coalition, a consortium
of mainly Big Oil and Big Auto corporations that opposed U.S. ratifi cation of
the Kyoto Protocol to lower greenhouse emissions.9

BP has long sought to exploit the romance of the technological sub-
lime—imagining the unimaginable, venturing into the unknown, confi –
dent that some engineering breakthrough will save the day. The frisson
of the technological frontier wins hands down against more prosaic,
unnewsworthy stories of steady regulatory oversight. President Obama
himself notoriously bought into this technological progress narrative
when, three weeks before Deepwater Horizon went down in fl ames, he
vindicated exposing formerly protected coastal areas to offshore drilling
with the assurance that “oil rigs today generally don’t cause spills. They
are technologically very advanced.”10 In these terms, the bold advances

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epilogue

[ 2 6 9 ]

are material but the unwise risks immaterial. Washington commenta-
tor Llewellyn King took the language of the technological sublime to its
hubristic extreme when, in the explosion’s aftermath, he could still express
“wonder that we can build machines so remarkable that they can lift the
lid off the underworld.”11

That infernal, unlidded underworld let loose what the Keats epigraph
to Silent Spring foreshadowed: “The sedge is wither’d from the lake, / And
no birds sing.” To read those words is to picture the Louisiana wetlands:
the withered marsh grass and the oil-silenced pelicans, robbed of voice and
fl ight, their slimed wings giving them the appearance of evolution sent into
reverse, as if these were the very fi rst birds struggling to extract themselves
from the primordial ooze. And thus the pelicans, like the Exxon Valdez sea
otters, became traumatic, charismatic stand-ins for a microbial and cellular
catastrophe whose temporal and physical dimensions we are ill equipped to
imagine and the science of which we do not adequately understand.

In the twenty-fi rst century, we have crossed over into what Michael
Klare calls the Age of Tough Oil.12 As easily accessible reserves are exhausted,
new fi nds entail heightened extractive costs and heightened environmental
risks; ocean wells become ever deeper, and we become more dependent
on horrendously polluting tar sand petroleum and fracking. Together, the
costs exacted by Tough Oil and the Deepwater crisis ought to be incentives
enough to encourage investment in cleaner alternatives to the hydrocarbon
status quo, yet only a few farsighted nations—like Germany, Portugal, and
Denmark—are making this switch on the necessary scale. Instead, within
weeks of the Macondo wellhead being sealed, Greenland launched the next
phase of the Arctic frontier oil rush by issuing new drilling licenses in far
deeper, far colder waters than the Gulf, conditions under which oil would
be even more resistant to dispersal.

In the Age of Tough Oil, the regulatory climate in the United States has
grown more lax so that, as in the Gulf, we were left to watch 1970s shallow
water cleanup technology being applied to a twenty-fi rst-century deepwa-
ter catastrophe. We cannot reduce the conjoined crisis of environmental
imagination and policy overhaul to something as simple as Republicans
versus Democrats. The Obama administration is recapitulating the regula-
tory laxity that marked its Republican predecessors: critically, it was in 2009
that Obama’s Interior Ministry granted BP a categorical exemption from a

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s l o w v i o l e n c e a n d t h e e n v i r o n m e n t a l i s m o f t h e p o o r

[ 2 7 0 ]

comprehensive environmental impact statement for Deepwater Horizon’s
Macondo wellhead.13 And it was President Bill Clinton who, to appease the
oil majors, rushed through the Deepwater Royalty Reduction Act of 1996,
which accelerated deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico by reducing fees
on oil and gas production. A year later, the Clinton administration, “at the
request of the industry,” halved the frequency with which blowout preven-
ters needed to be tested.14 Clinton’s rationale for such deregulation? Reduc-
ing dependence on foreign oil.

Thus we continue, decade after decade, to seesaw between two nar-
rowly defi ned defi nitions of risk: the risk of relying on foreign oil and the
risk of domestic drilling. What remains interminably deferred is the third
option: increasing neither domestic nor foreign risk but investing, on a
transformative scale, in post-hydrocarbon possibilities (what Beyond Petro-
leum gestures toward only in name). This should be the long-term focus of
our risk management, an alternative option that holds out job-generating
possibilities to boot.

Deepwater and the Lost Horizons of Slow Violence

Ours is an age of shape-shifting transnational corporations; of heightened
corporate mobility; of megamergers; of disappearing problematic brand
names like Union Carbide and Monsanto; and of acrostic subcontracting
that can make it hard to nail down a corporate identity, let alone nail down
blame. Against this bewildering backdrop, how does one ring-fence damage
and culpability? President Obama initially tried to put the genie of neolib-
eral globalization back in the bottle of corporate nationalism through the
populist ploy of calling BP, anachronistically, British Petroleum: the UK as
historic oppressor turned rogue nation. Tony Hayward’s British-accented