"Slow violence:" Rob Nixon probes media coverage of incremental environmental threats

July 6, 2011

How can we devise arresting stories, images and symbols that capture the pervasive effects of slowly unfolding environmental crises?

Rob Nixon, UW-Madison professor of English and environmental studies

Rob Nixon, a UW-Madison professor of English and environmental studies, explores this fundamental challenge in his new book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.

"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," Nixon writes in a recent essay on the journalism website Niemen Storyboard.

Climate change, thawing polar icecaps, the toxic drift of agricultural runoff and the ongoing chemical and radiological legacies of wars are just a few examples of what Nixon calls "slow violence" - environmental threats "that patiently dispense their devastation while remaining outside our flickering attention spans - and outside the purview of a spectacle-powered media."

"Slow violence often fuels social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions incrementally - rather than suddenly - erode," Nixon explains. "But the long-term emergencies that result are readily marginalized or ignored by hard-charging news organizations in pursuit of quick, eye-catching stories."

An underrepresentation of slow violence in the media exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and injustices of class, gender, race and region, Nixon says.

In Slow Violence, Nixon tracks some of the creative ways that writers and filmmakers have risen to face the storytelling challenges posed by attritional environmental degradation. The use of a narrative vocabulary, striking visual imagery, powerful analogies or individual stories can all help give shape to forms of oblique, slow damage and help challenge media-reinforced assumptions about violence, according to Nixon.

"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," he says.

Read Nixon's full essay on the Nieman Storyboard, "Slow violence and environmental storytelling," and follow the links below to learn more about his book.