One of the most inspiring and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Rob Nixon (Harvard University Press, 2011). In it, Nixon describes the difficulty of creating compelling narratives around what he deems “slow violence,” which is harm that is happening on a much longer time scale than we typically think of violence happening. Systemic racism and deforestation are a couple of examples, as is climate change.
Historically, it has been difficult to get newspapers and other media to cover these “long-term emergencies” as they tend to not provide spectacles that are easy to latch onto, and in turn, it can be difficult to inspire people to action without a compelling narrative. We’ve seen an uptick in coverage of both systemic racism and climate change in the last year, but think about what it took to flip that switch: the horrific death of George Floyd and a steady stream of natural disasters, both of which are examples of what we would consider the opposite of slow violence, high profile moments that caught the public’s gaze for how quickly something was destroyed.
But to create a livable future, we need to keep our gaze trained on climate change and other, oft-intertwined slow-violence issues even when there is no spectacle to generate outrage. Just because the harm may be invisible to many of us, doesn’t mean it’s not happening, and it doesn’t release those of us who have the privilege of being sheltered from such harms from having a responsibility to do something.
Fortunately, there is a lot of work being done within the climate movement to continue to bring attention to the slow violence being done to our planet and its people. Nixon specifically praises 350.org in his book for drawing Americans’ attention to events like the underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives that took place in 2009. Extinction Rebellion and the Sunrise Movement both came into being after Nixon’s book was published, but their large protests became the spectacles needed to get the mainstream media to pay attention.
You too can help keep climate change on the front burner by participating in actions happening in your area or national ones across the US. Check your local chapters of 350.org or other movements to get some ideas! We’re also particularly excited about the latest actions to Stop Line 3! As Enbridge is nearing completion of the pipeline, it is NOW OR NEVER. Next week is your chance to join this movement at the Treaties Not Tar Sands protest — in DC next Monday, Aug. 23rd; in Minneapolis next Wednesday, Aug. 25th, or by putting together your own sister protest! If you are interested in the latter and need some help, feel free to reach out to On the Level for advice. And if you’ve got some time, I’d highly recommend giving Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor a solid read.