Robert Nixon

Professor Rob Nixon holds the Rachel Carson Professorship in English and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He received his Ph.D. from ColumbiaUniversityand is the author of four books: London Calling. V. S. Naipaul, Postcolonial Mandarin (Oxford); Homelands, Harlem and Hollywood. South African Culture and the World Beyond (Routledge); Dreambirds: the Natural History of a Fantasy (Picador); and Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press 2011). Slow Violence was awarded an international prize for the best work of interdisciplinary humanities scholarship published in 2011 and also received, from the International Studies Association, the prize for the best book in the field of international environmental studies. Professor Nixon is a frequent contributor to the New York Times. He has published over hundred journal articles, essays, and book chapters, with a particular emphasis on postcolonial, environmental justice, and African studies. More information

Abstract

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor

As an environmentalist one must ask: what place for earthliness in Edward Said’s worldliness? In 2003, shortly before his death, Said concluded an essay for Counterpunch with a yearning for a future informed by “alternative communities 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.” Despite this late acknowledgment, one would be hard-pressed to call him, in any conventional sense, environmentally minded. More typical was Said’s dismissal of environmentalism as “the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause.”

But the face of environmentalism has changed radically in the twenty-first century with the resurgence of environmental justice movements, particularly in the global South. I will revisit After the Last Sky and position it as a critical work of environmental literature, one that links environmental justice concerns to the Palestinian plight. Alongside Said’s work, I will read the writings of Raja Shehadeh. Said would surely have endorsed the turn away from a Western-centered environmentalism that was often anti-human and invariably indifferent to the poor and the displaced. For Said’s visionary writings include the core tenets of the environmental justice movement: an insistence on connecting food security with land and water rights; a refusal of unequal access to resources and unequal exposure to risk; and an insistence that the voices of the poor be heard, as they protest the imperial resource capture that treats as disposable both the poor themselves and the ecosystems on which they depend for their survival.