How the right wing co-opts the lexicon of social justice

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon, Harvard University Press, 2011.

The 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change recently held in Durban (mercifully shortened to COP17) seemed to pose a something of a challenge for journalists. Much newsprint space was set aside in advance for supplements and special reports, but when the time came it seemed that those covering the event were casting about a little, struggling to make the gathering and all it meant (or didn’t mean) writeable and readable. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, a "narrative" of sorts offered itself, or was concocted: the South African foreign minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane drawing certain fractious nations into a dignified huddle in the early hours and salvaging … well, not a deal, but a "platform" promising "a legal instrument or an agreed outcome with legal force" and the possibility of a deal, somewhere, somehow (next time around) …

Like the many environmental crises of which it is the godfather, climate change is very difficult to write about: to represent, in the fullest sense. It eludes our ready-made narratives for disaster. Schooled by blockbusters into expecting either apocalypse (6 degrees, The Road) or last-minute, plucky rescue (nuclear fission, Matt Damon), much of the online audience surely tends to switch off, or click away, at the first mention of another climate change summit. It conjures images of unilateral people (with lanyards) fussing for weeks over the wording of a paragraph, as if possessed of child-like belief that the vagaries of the planet’s atmosphere will somehow correspond to their wording, obey their diktats.

As Al Gore remarked in his Power Point-heavy attempt to make climate change conceptually visible, it is all too easy to flip 180 degrees from denial to fatalism. It allows one to remain passive, and to avoid thinking through the complex process of diminishment, compromise and contraction that global warming requires: a re-examination of everything that our modern industrial lives are premised on – lives that exhale, as do our bodies, carbon dioxide with every move we make.

Nonetheless, it gets harder and harder to watch a political and economic world system wired for short-term gain attempting to grapple with this perfect storm of a planetary crisis. As global warming meets global apartheid, it becomes an ever more lethal cocktail of stark simplicity and ferocious complexity: the relentless upward graph of CO2 ppm in the atmosphere combined with the convoluted, uneven way it poisons the biosphere, most affecting those who are least visible, and least responsible.

It is a complexity, and a representational challenge, that has allowed those with vested interests and deep pockets to stall, obfuscate and greenwash for many years. One of the most galling things of the last decades has been watching the lexicon of social justice (and even critical theory) being co-opted by right-wing think-tanks and hyper-capitalist quangos. When a Bush-era report suggests that anthropogenic climate change is only one ‘narrative’ among others; when Big Oil begins talking about historical carbon emissions and telling us that developing nations must be allowed to industrialise, one has the sense that progressive lines of argument have been hijacked by reactionary, market-driven forces committed to the status quo. As with those young (white) South African men who persist in having late middle-aged (black) women cleaning up after them because it creates employment, one enters a zone where self-interest, redistributive ethics and a relentlessly economistic vocabulary become increasingly confused and contaminated by each other.

It is such challenges – of giving dramatic visibility to the complex politics and "attritional lethality" of environmental crises – that Rob Nixon addresses in his recent book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. In a work of (the cliché really is applicable) remarkable scope, he examines the political strategies and rhetorical tactics of environmentalists and writer-activists from the developing world, among them Wangari Maathai, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Arundhati Roy, as well as figures who are less well known in the anglophone world: Indra Sinha, Abdelrahman Munif and Adriana Petryna.

In each chapter, a crisis is married to a literary genre: Bhopal and its aftermath are explored through the "environmental picaresque" of Sinha’s Animal’s People ; US petro-imperialism in the Gulf is seen through the lens of Munif’s novel cycle, Cities of Salt (1984); Saro-Wiwa’s and Maathai’s protests against oil drilling and deforestation respectively are considered in terms of the ‘movement memoir’ and its difficulties – how an autobiographical text is also required to function as the ‘biography’ of a social collective.

As the second half of the book’s title suggests, these examples are intended to bury forever the idea that environmentalism is the preserve of middle-class Westerners (another apparently "radical" position that, I have always thought, often camouflages a reactionary stance – at least when voiced by middle-class Westerners). Yet at the same time, Nixon’s book is alert throughout to the uneasy relationship between environmentalist and postcolonial methodologies, particularly as they have evolved in the Anglo-American academy.

If postcolonial theory cut its teeth on ideas of hybridity, cross-cultural mixing, displacement, migrancy and the recovery of silenced histories, then green-minded cultural critique (ecocriticism, if we must) has often been concerned with their opposites: discourses of purity, conservation, regionalism and solitude – moments of timeless communion with nature.

One of the main charges Nixon levels against American environmentalism is that it has remained scandalously parochial: obsessed with discussing and deconstructing images of the wild (or not-so wild) West while remaining almost entirely un-engaged with the long-term consequences of American foreign policy: the "offshore histories" of nuclear testing in the Pacific, Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in Iraq. The troops have now gone home, but the toxic particles they left behind, blowing from spent shells and burnt-out tanks, have a half-life 4.51 billion years. That’s slow violence.

So how can writers plot and give figurative shape to "formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time", the "long dyings" and "disasters that are anonymous and star nobody" (3)? In South Africa, one can think of the difference between rhino poaching and acid mine drainage, or fracking. The first is spectacular, gory, shocking to game reserve goers, easily blamed on people over there. The latter are subterranean, invisible, incremental, capillary – they blur the lines between colonial dispossession and national self-determination, between natural and human ecologies. How, asks Nixon, have writer-activists tried to make real these "calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans – and outside the purview of a spectacle driven corporate media" (6)? Writing post-Deepwater Horizon but pre-Arab Spring, he asks: what chances for digital activism when the electronic screen has itself become "an ecosystem of interruption technologies" (13)?

Shuttling between vast planetary timescales and close textual analysis, the result is a genre-defying book that is by turns an exercise in comparative reading; an enquiry into the modes and possibilities of contemporary non-fiction; a series of case-studies on the most inspiring public intellectuals of our time; a short history of the American imperium; a call to activism. It is dense but always stylish, and it is (as Frantz Fanon called for) an act of passionate scholarship. It is, in fact, an academic page-turner (that rare thing), and one that would surely have earned the admiration of the author’s one-time teacher and mentor at Columbia, Edward Said.

In the preface, Nixon remarks that Said is one of three towering figures to whom he often looked for inspiration. (The others are Rachel Carson – who is honoured in the named Chair in the environmental humanities that the author occupies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison – and Ramachandra Guha, a self-described "methodologically promiscuous" sociologist, activist and environmental historian.) Nixon’s tribute to Said is worth quoting at length, since it surely articulates the style that his own book aspires to, as well as a belief that style itself is not merely a decorative flourish. In a deeper sense, it might be fundamental to one’s political stance and way of being in the world:

He thrived on intellectual complexity while aspiring to clarity; he taught and wrote as if – and I know this should sound unremarkable 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" … He understood that it is far more difficult 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 insurrectionary outwardness. (x)

This sensitivity to different strains of academic prose allows Nixon to make some telling observations about the way courses on postcolonial literature have begun to morph into modules on "global studies" and "world literature". I think that he puts his finger on something important when asking if the jargon of the latter – with their talk of the "transnational", of "mediascapes" and "global flows" – might be too close to the vocabulary of the neo-liberal economist for comfort.

On which note: the other passage worth quoting at length is the epigraph to the first chapter, simply because it beggars belief. It comes from a leaked memo of 12 December 1991 by Lawrence Summers, then Chief Economist of the World Bank:

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 under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City ... Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging MORE migration of the dirty industries to the LDCs [Least Developed Countries]?

Utterly technocratic, effortlessly managerial, totally "logical" – it is a language that is effectively beyond parody. The language of (as some aboriginal peoples dubbed the colonisers of Australia) "the future eaters". And it’s worth remembering that Larry Summers, having presided over the 2008 crash, was then appointed to the White House National Economic Council in 1999, becoming one of Obama’s key advisers. As The Social Network reminds us, he was also once President of Harvard University, the institution now publishing this book. All of which leaves one with the anxiety that the 21st century university might just be letting an academic or two blow off some steam, with no threat to business as usual.

Against this, however, we can set Carson and Roy, both of whom wrote polemically, brilliantly and influentially against a world in which only a handful of (male) "experts" are qualified to pronounce on matters that affect millions of people (India’s mega-dams alone have displaced perhaps 60 million.) Taking aim at the World Bank feasibility study or the environmental impact report – its ponderous diction, tone and length, its strategically passive voice – Roy deployed the personal essay. As a "small, nimble form", it "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" (168). Her prime contribution as a writer-activist, Nixon suggests, was "to expose the insidious, traumatic violence inflicted on the most vulnerable, human and nonhuman, by the affectless language of technospeak" (169). In Power Politics (2001) she writes memorably of visiting a conference on water privatisation:

Language is the skin of my thought … At the Hague I stumbled on a denomination, a sub-world, whose life’s endeavour was 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.

In moving beyond the emotionally miniaturist tradition of the English essay – while still harnessing its lyrical and personal qualities for polemical force – she joins (in one of Nixon’s idiosyncratic, international genealogies) the very different figures of Edward Abbey and Jamaica Kincaid.

Given that the author is a teacher, devotee and practitioner of literary non-fiction (see his essay in the current issue of Safundi), it is unsurprising that his treatment of the novels is less compelling than what follows. He defends Munif valiantly, but not always convincingly, from a damning review in which John Updike dismissed him as "a campfire explainer". It would have been interesting to see a more sustained grappling with the naïveté and earnestness which attaches to novelistic texts that enter the realms of environmental advocacy (Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide springs to mind here.) The book really comes alive when shifting from a rather dutiful account of Sinha and Munif’s fiction to Saro-Wiwa’s multi-genre approach. And also, interestingly, the case of Ken Saro-Wiwa Jr., who wrestles with the responsibility of being the heir of a secular saint, and writes of visiting the children of Biko, Mandela and Aung San Sui Kyi, carrying with him a copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter all the while. It is aptly symbolic of the strategic shuttling between fiction and non-fiction that Nixon clearly finds compelling in many of the figures he considers (again, Roy’s transition from world-famous novelist to social campaigner is exemplary here.)

Perhaps the most intriguing demonstration of this contrapuntal, mixed genre approach is the chapter on South African game parks. It is essential reading for anyone who has felt that there is something deeply suspect about these hallowed national spaces. Or to put this in more scholarly terms: that South Africa is a site where "the segregations of humans from non-humans have long been implicated in the violent segregations of humans from humans". That is to say, 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 labour" (176).

The contrast that the whole book turns on – between the spectacular and the everyday – may well have already called to mind the work of Njabulo Ndebele. In this chapter, we see his uneasy account of visiting a game park as a black tourist read alongside three other journeys: Nixon’s own, Gonzo-esque account of visiting a canned lion hunting reserve in the Eastern Cape in 1994, where he meets the owner J. P. Kleinhans (subsequently mauled to death) and his son (Adolf); James Baldwin’s classic essay "Stranger in the Village"; as well as Gordimer’s "The Ultimate Safari", where the protagonists are not leisured tourists but migrants and border-jumpers, struggling to exist in the harsh environment of the Kruger Park beyond the "rest camps".

Nixon develops a reading of the contemporary South African game reserve as a deeply paradoxical space: one which capitalises on the expanded, globalised tourist industry enabled by the "new" political dispensation, while simultaneously reinstating a "timeless" Africa that is racially exclusive and possibly hostile to social transformation. As such, it risks becoming (and I wanted to give a cheer of recognition at this point) a site where "a provincial whiteness is fortified by white pilgrims from abroad" (180-86). Yet at the same time, he asks how such spaces might be repossessed, imaginatively and experientially, within a shared, post-apartheid imaginary.

The last question signals how this is a book that is not content to remain within the predictable shapes of postcolonial critique. Rather, it carries a sense of taking debates in the environmental humanities into new and energised directions, pushing at the boundaries of existing models. Over the last years, having tried to work towards a less compromised way of imagining the relation between natural and social histories in southern Africa, I have often found myself thinking back to the last lines of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India – "Not here, not yet". Nixon’s work leads me to return instead to the incomparable Roy, as she balances the constant threat of rhetorical exhaustion with the need to keep writing, and fighting. Even if there is nothing new or original left to be said about nuclear weapons, or deforestation, or climate change:

let’s pick our parts, put on these discarded costumes and speak our second-hand lines in this sad second-hand play. But let’s not forget that the stakes we’re playing for are huge. Our fatigue and our shame could mean the end of us.



Works cited

Flannery, Tim. The Future Eaters: An Ecological History of the Australasian Lands and Peoples. New York: Grove Press, 2002.

Munif, Abdelrahman. Cities of Salt, trans. Peter Theroux. New York: Vintage 1984.

Ndebele, Njabulo. "Game Lodges and Leisure Colonialists", in Hilton Judin and Ivan Vladislavić (eds.), blank_: Architecture, Apartheid and After. Cape Town; David Philip, 1999.

Nixon, Rob. "Non-fiction Booms, North and South: a Transatlantic Perspective", Safundi, Special Issue: Beyond Rivalry: Fact | Fiction, Literature | History (2012).

Roy, Arundhati. "The End of Imagination", Frontline, (1-14 August 1998). Power Politics. Cambridge Mass.: South End Press, 2001.

Saro-Wiwa Jr., Ken. In the Shadow of a Saint. London: Doubleday, 1999.

Sinha, Indra. Animal’s People. London: Simon, 2007.


On the Summers memo, see as well as the website of The Whirled Bank, which states:

...After the memo became public in February 1992, Brazil's then-Secretary of the Environment Jose Lutzenburger wrote back to Summers: "Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane ... Your thoughts [provide] a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional 'economists' concerning the nature of the world we live in ... If the World Bank keeps you as vice president it will lose all credibility. To me it would confirm what I often said ... the best thing that could happen would be for the Bank to disappear." Sadly, Lutzenburger was fired shortly after writing this letter.



Timothy Twidle says:

Wonderful review and Rob Nixon has clearly written a most thought provoking book. The talk that the author will give at The University of Cape Town in May of this year, should be fascinating.

Anneke says:

Sounds great! Was sad to miss panel discussion on the Cambridge History of SA Literature… hope I can make this one.

Hedley Twidle says:

PS Rob Nixon is coming to UCT in May to talk about his book, and we will be on a panel discussing the fiftieth anniversary of Carson’s Silent Spring…should be interesting.

Hedley Twidle says:

Thanks Anneke!

Anneke says:

Thank you so much for this.
Fascinating discussion and the thoughts on game reserves cut close to the bone!

Great end quote.