Craft Episode 5 Transcript: Rob Nixon

By Wasafiri Editor on May 19, 2022 in

Welcome to Craft. Each month, we bring you one international writer talking about one of their works for about thirty minutes. This month, Rob Nixon details the personal, political, and ecological crises that inspired his book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Rob is the Currie C and Thomas A Barron Family Professor in the Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University. This interview was recorded in late February of this year, only days before a new crisis erupted in Europe. 

So, what I’m going to read is a section from the chapter on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s campaign against the destruction of his people and their environment in Nigeria, in the late 80s and 90s, that led to his arrest and his execution by the Nigerian regime, which was trying at the time to stamp out his ideas.  

Ken Saro-Wiwa’s campaign against the destruction of Nigerian micro minorities, through the devastation of their environment, has proven to be a harbinger of a much broader discontent. Saro-Wiwa seemed to intuit as much at his tribunal before his execution, as he looked back on his life with an otherworldly eye. ‘I will tell you this,’ he said, ‘I may be dead, but my ideas will surely not die.’ The gospel cadences to Saro-Wiwa’s prophecy are consistent with the passion play that 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 inflexible, self-aggrandising, and subject to overweening ambition. The junta took this very mortal and internationally obscure activist, gave him a stage-trial and turned him through execution into a martyr. They thus amplified his cause and, as happens with martyrs, simplified their cause in his favour. 

‘Living people grow old but martyrs grow younger,’ the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti once observed. Saro-Wiwa instantly became larger and longer than life. The word flashed around Lagos and Port Harcourt that he had refused to die, that it had taken five hangings to kill him. As a final 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 crucify ideas. That there are some things which cannot be resolved by show of force. President Sani Abacha and his sidekicks were exasperated by the unruliness of language, by its refusal to submit to military control. In countries like Nigeria, where official brutality and paranoia feed off each other, unofficial writing begins to assume the status of latent insult. Thus, journalists, writers, and intellectuals are singled out for harassment, detention, torture, and execution, often as much as for what they represent, as for anything specific they say. 

By ‘slow violence’, I mean, harms that are incremental and attritional, that are not cinematic or theatrical. To ground that in an example, in the second half of the twentieth century, most people would have regarded the greatest existential threat as nuclear warfare, and we had this image of the illuminated mushroom cloud that is a very powerful and condensed and cinematic image of threat.  

In the twenty-first century, if we consider climate breakdown the greatest existential threat, we struggle to condense it into a compact image of threat. Instead, it’s advancing processes: incrementally rising sea levels, shifts in patterns of drought and excess rainfall. And these are cumulative. What I was trying to do was to broaden our thinking of violence, to include the incremental forms of violence. Even if we look at the contemporary situation now, with Covid deaths, as opposed to say, the catastrophe of 9/11, where you had burning buildings, images of people falling out of buildings. Part of the trauma, I think, for a lot of people who lived through that, is that they had already seen it in the movie house, it was a familiar image. Whereas, something like the spread of a pathogen, and climate change, those are harder to turn into narrative emergencies.  

The Saro-Wiwa case, the execution of Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Eight in 1995, was really the beginning of the book for me, without me knowing that it was going to be a book. It was the first time that I had seen an African writer express the assaults against his people in terms of ecocide. That was really a turning point for me. I was trained as an Africanist and a post colonialist, and the context for environmentalism in Africa, particularly in East Africa and Southern Africa, was overwhelmingly one driven by international tourism and international wildlife NGOs. The common and justifiable complaint was that these foreigners liked animals more than people. They were prepared to displace indigenous people off their land in order to create national parks and wildlife refuges.  

In the context of Africa, the terms that were familiar were ideas of conservation refugees, and as I say, forced removal of people in order to make way for charismatic megafauna. This was a totally different type of environmentalism, focused on the Niger Delta, Shell and the Nigerian national oil company together polluting the waters of the delta and making them uninhabitable for the people who depended on the fish and the mangrove—the fecundity of the mangrove swamps. So that was really, for me, a turning point in my thinking, and also, without knowing it, a launching pad for the book.  

Growing up in South Africa, I had a very ideal childhood, I wanted initially to become an ornithologist. And then when I went to university, I majored in African languages. And it was the context of the 1970s. I grew up in the area of the country where Steve Biko was murdered. I went to his funeral. And I was very involved with the Anglican Church back then. And I made a lot of African friends at the Black-only university through the church, and through my fluency in Xhosa and Zulu. That totally transformed my life. It gave me an entry-point into the emotional textures of what it was like to live in a white supremacist society. 

I sort of abandoned the natural world. I couldn’t make sense of the freedoms and pleasures that I had experienced as a boy. And so when I then left as a conscientious objector in 1980, and I moved to the US, environmentalism was not part of my framework whatsoever. And I became a student and then a scholar of postcolonial studies. I was as deeply skeptical of environmentalism as I think, most postcolonialists would have been—that it was somehow the province of well-off white middle class, kind of hippie-dippie, tree huggers who, again, were perhaps more interested in the natural world than in justice for human communities.  

I was working on my dissertation under Edward Said. It was on V S Naipaul, and then it subsequently became my first book. I really was interested in third-world social movements before I was interested in bringing environmental justice issues to bear on those movements. You know, I’d been involved in the anti-apartheid movement, both in South Africa and then in exile in the mid 80s, as a graduate student, at the height of the divestment and boycott movement in the US.  

During that period, I think, you know, it was very easy to focus on the blunt brutality of the apartheid regime. But at the same time, I was very aware of what I might now call slow violence, like the policy of educational deprivation, that Black people should be educated for manual labour, and things like that. So, in the American context today, you know, in Black communities like Milwaukee and Wisconsin, where I lived for a long time, people talk about the preschool-to-prison pipeline, this idea that the discriminatory denial of access to the fundaments of education becomes a predictor, particularly for black men in a state like Wisconsin, of the narrowing of their options. It’s something that is sort of disguised over time.  

I began to think a little bit more about the relationship in the South African context of spectacular sort of armed violence, versus the tremendous weight of structural inequalities. That type of thinking, I think, was already there before Saro-Wiwa was arrested and detained. But when he was detained in ’95, I linked up with an activist in Nigeria called Claude Ake, who was subsequently mysteriously killed in an airplane crash, and became part of this international movement to free Saro-Wiwa. And I wrote an op-ed in the New York Times and a piece in London Review of Books, but in the Times, particularly, I was saying, you know, ‘America is the major market for this oil from Nigeria, we’re implicated in this. If he gets executed, this is on our watch,’ as it were. I think in that context, I began to recognise that there was this public health link to environmentalism that was the vital missing element in creating some kind of bridgework between postcolonial understanding, or decolonial understandings of injustice, and environmental understandings of a compromised or despoiled environment that wrecked the life chances of those living there. 

I should fess up and say that this was a book that didn’t intend to become a book. And I don’t think I’m a particularly well organised writer. But there were just these moments in my career that got me thinking about issues that I ultimately came to recognise as connected. I tried to generate that connective tissue in the introduction, which was the last thing I wrote. And so the term ‘slow violence’ itself came fairly late in the process.  

I should add that the book I’d written before this, the previous book, was called Dreambirds. And that was a memoir. And I was pulled more and more into public writing. And in the 90s, I’ve thought of abandoning academia altogether. So, after I’d finished Dreambirds, which was a sort of a memoir, I was searching around for another trade book to write, and trying this and that, and I didn’t really find the subject I wanted. Then the Iraq War broke out, or the American invasion happened, and Afghanistan as well. And I decided to write a book on depleted uranium, which I realised that the Iraq War had amped up [the use of] this incredibly dangerous substance that was now permeating bodies and landscapes.  

I went back to the first Gulf War in 1990, and realised that you know, people had depicted it as a very short and successful war, but this was the war in which depleted uranium and cluster bombs started to be used. And so here was a substance that posed a radioactive and chemical threat. Depleted uranium had a radioactive half-life of 4.5 billion years. So that just blew my mind, and I started travelling around the US interviewing veterans whose bodies were falling apart. Some of them had been in what were called Abrams tanks, which had depleted uranium armour. Some of them had just been in the area where these pyrophoric, this fire-loving substance, was ignited and produces toxic clouds. And the more I interviewed these people—my plan was to interview them and then go to Iraq with a Geiger counter and do some research on the long-term exposures in the landscape. But the more I interviewed these veterans, the more absolutely despairing I became. And I thought there isn’t an activist movement around this, the research isn’t happening, no one’s interested in investigating this properly. And I just couldn’t imagine staying with this absolutely devastating material for the length of time it would take to research and write a book. So those filing cabinets of interviews eventually became half a chapter in this book, but it did, again, pick up a thread of my thinking from way back with Saro-Wiwa, which is the toxic permeation of a landscape, and the effect that has on the most vulnerable communities, on their health, their subsistence capacity, and so forth.  

Structuring the book was a bit of a headache, and I still feel it’s a bit random, you know, it’s a very, very wide-ranging book in its geographical interests. But I tried to build some continuity, while also recognising that some parts may be a bit angular to the overall shape. I wasn’t thinking about it as a book probably until about 2008. And then I suddenly was writing about Wangarĩ Maathai, she had fairly recently won the Nobel Prize, Peace Prize, [for] looking at the impact of deforestation and soil erosion on the health of rural women in Kenya and started this tree planting movement. And so, there again, I was thinking more positively about incremental activism, slow activism, as a counter to the slow violence of topsoil loss, and deforestation and so forth. So Wangarĩ Maathai then became a prominent figure in my thinking. And I began, this probably around 2008, to have the inklings that I could put these essays together in a book and somehow find a connecting thread.  

I was very concerned in all of these instances, of thinking through the way in which time camouflages violence. Sometimes this can be deliberate; it can be structurally conceived in advance that these people are less consequential and therefore we can trash their landscapes and their health. And other times it can be inadvertent. I mean, another figure who was very, very influential on me, was Rachel Carson. And Carson was quite clear that after World War II, we had this huge proliferation of the chemical arsenal available to us, particularly in the US, and then Europe and elsewhere. And we had no research at all, for most of these products like DDT and dieldrin, on what the long-term health impacts are, and we didn’t have research, particularly in what the compound effects were; in other words, when these chemicals are interacting in the environment, we know next to nothing about the long-term health effects. So that was another moment, thinking about Carson, when the pattern began to cohere, and I began to see these continuities and the pervasiveness of slow violence across different periods in different geographies.  

I think part of what I was doing, was trying to expose a certain way in which any given landscape has multiple forms of environmental time moving through it and imposed on it. One of the things I talk about in the introduction, is what was then a fairly new term, the Anthropocene. This idea that humans are geologic-scale actors, that readers of the geological and archaeological record thousands of years from now will be able to see the traces of our carbon-intensive lifestyle on the biology, geology, and chemistry of the Earth. That’s asking us to think in these enormous timeframes.  

At the same time, our attention spans are being diced and spliced by more and more screen time. We’re constantly struggling to, you know, deal with the four-year electoral cycle or five-year electoral cycle, the twenty-four-hour news cycle, the the forms of slow violence in the environment, the attritional pace of climate breakdown, flooding, droughts, interrupted monsoon seasons—all of these environmentally impactful activities or phenomena are operating on different timeframes, you know, and so that was part of what I wanted to do, to say there are threats, and some of these threats are avoidable, and we need to embrace the precautionary principle that it’s a terrible thing to unleash these unknown products on the most vulnerable communities, and subject them in many cases to what I would see as intergenerational violence. 

There are not a lot of encouraging things in the contemporary world, but one of the things that has shifted, in the twenty-five years since I’ve been writing about and teaching environmental justice, is that environmental justice has moved from the margins of environmentalism to the centre. I find that very, very encouraging that the question of the burden of environmental harms, of the discriminatory burden of environmental harms, discriminatory access to the commons, to breathable air, drinkable water, green areas to decompress, and the spectrum of voices that get to speak for the environment, all those three things have changed radically in a positive direction. 

Craft is brought to you by Wasafiri magazine and Queen Mary University of London with funding from Arts Council England. Our theme music and sound design are by Josh Winiberg. Our logo is by Ala Alsaraji, Tom Wilson does our editing, interviews and the introduction are by me, Malachi McIntosh, and Afsana Nishat does everything else. See you next month.