How can environmental writers craft emotionally involving stories from disasters that are slow-moving and attritional, rather than explosive and spectacular? This is a particularly pressing question for our age, as the news cycle spins ever faster, as the media venerates spectacle, and as public policy is increasingly shaped around what are perceived as immediate needs.
Think of the narrative challenges posed by these examples of what I call “slow violence”: climate change; the thawing polar icecaps; the slow toxic drift of agricultural nitrates from the heartland down the Mississippi to the Gulf’s deep delta, creating a vast dead zone larger than New Jersey. Think of oil spills, deforestation, and a host of other slow-moving environmental disasters, like the ongoing chemical and radiological legacies of wars that officially have been concluded. Under such circumstances, slow violence often fuels social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions incrementally – rather than suddenly – erode. But the long-term emergencies that result are readily marginalized or ignored by hard-charging news organizations in pursuit of quick, eye-catching stories.
I believe we must address our inattention to environmental calamities that have staying power, calamities that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans – and outside the purview of a spectacle-powered media. To that end, I have tracked some of the creative ways that writers and filmmakers have risen to face the narrative challenges posed by such attritional environmental disasters.
The insidious workings of slow violence derive largely from the unequal power of spectacular and unspectacular time. In an age that venerates instant spectacle, slow violence is deficient in the special effects that fill movie theaters and boost ratings on TV. Chemical and radiological violence, for example, is driven inward, into cellular dramas of mutation that remain difficult to narrate. From a writing perspective, such invisible, mutagenic theater is slow-paced and open-ended, typically eluding tidy closure.
To address the storytelling challenges that slow violence poses is to confront the dilemma that Rachel Carson faced almost half a century ago as she sought to dramatize what she called “death by indirection.” Carson’s subjects were biomagnification and toxic drift, forms of oblique, slow damage that, like climate change, pose formidable imaginative difficulties for writers and documentary makers alike. In struggling to give shape to amorphous menace, both Carson and reviewers of “Silent Spring” resorted to a narrative vocabulary. One reviewer portrayed the book as exposing “the new, unplotted and mysterious dangers we insist upon creating all around us,” while Carson herself wrote of “a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure.”
To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give shape to formless threats whose fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The storytelling 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.
If anything, such challenges are even more formidable today than they were in Carson’s time. For in our age of degraded attention spans it becomes doubly difficult to focus on the toll exacted over time, by the slow violence of ecological degradation. We live, writes Cory Doctorow, in an era when the electronic screen has become an “ecosystem of interruption technologies.” Or, as former Microsoft executive Linda Stone puts it, we now inhabit an age of “continuous partial attention.” Fast is faster than it used to be and story units have become ever shorter. In this cultural milieu, the intergenerational aftermath becomes a harder sell. So to render slow violence visible requires, among other things, redefining 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.
How, then, have environmental writers and documentary makers used their craft to bring home threats that take time to wreak their havoc, threats that never materialize into one focal, explosive, cinematic scene? This year’s academy award nominations for best documentary included two highly creative, very different responses to environmental slow violence as narrative dilemma.
Use striking visual imagery. Josh Fox’s “Gasland” tracks the poorly regulated perils that result from the rise of fracking, the Halliburton-developed technology that uses voluminous amounts of chemically-saturated water to blast open gas deposits sealed in shale. The long-term contamination of the aquifers and the chronic health problems that ensue are testing to dramatize. But, in a brilliant move, Fox creates an iconic image that gives those calamities an emotional focus. As he moves from one afflicted household to another, he gets the homeowner to take a cigarette lighter to the water coming out the faucet. Time and again, we watch the tap water catch fire. That’s the memorable take-home from the film: flames pouring from the kitchen faucet, a scene that offers us an emotional shortcut through an incremental calamity.
Reconfigure big stories on a human scale. Jennifer Redfearn’s documentary, “Sun Come Up,” depends on a different dramatic strategy, as she tells the story of the Carteret Islanders, who are about to become, en masse, climate-change refugees due to steadily rising seas. The challenge facing Redfearn is how to make audiences identify with the fate of a remote people (the Carterets live in the South Pacific) and with a threat that we’ve been led to believe is severe but not imminent. “Sun Come Up” makes climate change personal and tangible, by focusing on the individual journey of a Cartenet Islander who travels to neighboring islands in an effort to buy a homeland for his people who are about to lose theirs. The islander’s quest gives the longue dureé of the climate violence that ultimately threatens us all a palpable, individual, and immediate urgency.
Tell stories no one else can tell. Writers, not least many environmental writers in the global South, have also sought to give narrative shape to the long emergencies that afflict their societies. Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni writer executed in Nigeria for his environmental activism, became a nimble, rhetorically versatile proponent of the rights of the minority peoples who inhabit the Niger delta. The delta provides 11 percent of America’s oil needs, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to put it on the map. Yet we are party to an ongoing ecological calamity: For over half a century the Niger delta has suffered the equivalent of an Exxon-Valdez sized spill every year. Saro-Wiwa – in his essays, memoirs, documentaries, and journalism – took it upon himself to become the teller of stories that before him scarcely ever reached the outside world.
Find powerful analogies that resonate. In her memoir, “Unbowed,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, infuses a dramatic urgency into one of the most undramatic story lines: the incremental deforestation and soil erosion that have accumulatively jeopardized the livelihoods of millions of Africans. As Maathai observes,
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 invading enemy. And indeed, if any country were so threatened, it 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.
Maathai’s memoir offers the story of a quietly determined group of women, the Green Belt Movement, who draw attention to – and begin to reverse – the damage done by decades of brutally damaging environmental practices.
Refuse conventional narrative frameworks. Maathai’s approach to slow violence is to recast the question of urgency in a different time frame, one that challenges the dominant associations of two of the early 21st century’s most explosive words: “preemptive” and “terror.” The Green Belt Movement focuses not on conventional ex post facto conflict resolution but on conflict preemption through nonmilitary means. As Maathai insists, “Many wars are fought over natural resources. In managing our resources and in sustainable development we plant the seeds of peace.” Through her storytelling and through her movement’s collective example, she has sought to reframe conflict resolution for an age when instant cinematic catastrophe has tended to overshadow insidious violence. 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.”
As the journalistic chestnut goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” And as a corollary, if it’s bloodless, slow-motion violence, the story is more likely to get buried. In the long arc between the emergence of slow violence and its delayed effects, both the causes and the memory of catastrophe readily fade from view. As a result, the casualties incurred often pass untallied. Such discounting makes it far more difficult to secure effective legal measures for prevention, restitution, and redress. The long dyings – the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties, both human and ecological – are underrepresented in strategic planning as well as in human memory. Finding the stories that will break through such silences is inevitably demanding, not least because there are potent forces invested in preventing such stories from gaining emotional traction. Yet whether they make use of striking visuals, powerful analogies, or individual stories, I remain encouraged by the intrepid writers and filmmakers who, despite the odds, keep finding fresh, inventive ways to testify by devoting their imaginative energies to some of the most urgent yet invisible stories of our time.
Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin. He has been a contributor to The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review and The Atlantic, among many other publications, and has written four nonfiction books. His latest, “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” arrives from Harvard University Press this month.