Explaining Slow Violence With Stories

Time slows to an interminable crawl as the explosion blows pieces of the rig into the sea. Disoriented workers feel the metal floor heave as they see others in the air on the draft of the sound wave and outward force of objects and air. No one really knows where they are, what is happening, what they can do, what they cannot do, or how to stop the rapid violence at the moment of the explosion. And for days and weeks and months afterward that single event is remembered as a series of seemingly infinite moments.

The memories of that moment persist and they are intense.  After the period of intensity end the moments of life that follow are slow, mundane, and inconsequential in comparison, as if nothing is happening. When does the explosion end? Does it end? Or is time somehow slowed from a moment of cosmic propulsion to a series of frozen moments . We wait to see what will happen or gradually we become distracted. We begin to think we are safe, that nothing more is happening and we don’t want to remember the brief moment of never ending fear.

 This time phenomena would seem to explain why, according to Charles Goodrich, Director, Spring Creek Project , “News in this country always seems so overwhelming bad or maddeningly irrelevant.”

We are left with the question of when does the violence of the explosion end and the reverberations of “slow violence” begin? The term “slow violence” was coined by Rob Nixon to describe the quiet reverberations of the explosion.

Nixon looked into the outcomes of the dispersal of a toxic dust from our latest weapons. There has been some attention paid to longer term effects on the battlefield, but the same officials that rationalize that a slow death of combatants is better than an immediate crush of life fail to consider that the effects go beyond the battlefield.

As it has been in Vietnam with Agent Orange so it is in Iraq with depleted Uranium.

The Colonel’s statement may seem like a poor rationalization but it does give the reader a momentary pause. The problem is that there is no story to grow from his admission. Slow violence being enacted upon the poor and the environment have what Nixon calls a drama deficit for a society addicted to spectacle. He pointed to several occasions where people and governments have tried to create a sense of impact. The successful walk of indigenous tribes up from the valleys of Bolivia to heights of LaPaz did not make our news, but it did impact their leadership with its message. Another powerful image came out of the Maldives, a country that could disappear with rising ocean levels. The image was one of a government doing business on the ocean floor. But the most powerful transcendence of dramatic time barrier came out of Kenya where the actions of Wangari Maathai gained international attention when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “preemptive act of peace”.

Stories are the way society has passed on knowledge through recorded history. If we are going to expose the effects of slow violence on communities, countries, and the globe, we are going to have to find new ways to infuse reality with visions like Wangari Maathai. Many of these stories will come from the innocent, the marginalized, and the indigenous peoples of the world , from the animals that may leave us forever, plants that are tainted by the genes of genetically modified relatives. The list is endless. The possible stories require preservers, storytellers, writers, watchers…

The clips in this article are from Rob Nixon’s speech at the symposium “Transformation without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet”. The syposium was sponsored by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word.   View his speech in its entirety at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_ItaJ9IrKE&index=12&list=PLmA8N3lTnVI78ZTwKhh3TkGGveebPP-PD.

 All of the presentations from the”Transformation without Apocalypse: How to Live Well on an Altered Planet” conference can be found at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLmA8N3lTnVI78ZTwKhh3TkGGveebPP-PD

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