Slow Violence and Short Attention Spans

Literary critic and environmentalist bridges gap between science and public

University of Wisconsin literature professor and environmentalist Rob Nixon delivered the 10th annual Franklin Humanities Institute Distinguished Lecture. Photo by Hannah Jacobs.
University of Wisconsin literature professor and environmentalist Rob Nixon delivered the 10th annual Franklin Humanities Institute Distinguished Lecture. Photo by Hannah Jacobs.

University of Wisconsin literature professor Rob Nixon wants to make addressing environmental problems "sexy."

In his talk last Wednesday, "Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor," at the Nasher Museum of Art, Nixon discussed the public's lack of interest in environmental crises even as the planet marches toward "unavoidable catastrophe." The talk was the 10th annual Franklin Humanities Institute Distinguished Lecture and was co-sponsored by the Nicholas School of the Environment.

Nixon argued that many seemingly spontaneous and "media-sexy" world events such as wars, natural disasters, and mass shootings actually had long-term environmental and social implications far beyond the news cycle. He calls these long-term implications "slow violence," as they continue to reduce the victims' quality of life for decades.

He added that because slow violence often inhabits a permanent place in societies, policymakers always find reasons to push them off the political agenda.

Examples of slow violence include the cancerous diseases contracted by the Vietnamese decades after they were exposed to Agent Orange and landmines scattered around former war zones that still kill thousands each year.

"One of the major challenges of our age is how to adjust our rapidly eroding attention spans to the slow erosions of environmental justice," Nixon said.

Lecture co-organizer and Nicholas School professor Erika Weinthal said inviting Nixon was a way for the Nicholas School to take an interdisciplinary approach to the complex issue of environmental degradation, which includes air and water pollution, soil erosion and climate change.

"We need different disciplinary lenses and frameworks to address complex problems," Weinthal said. "Rob Nixon really provides a different lens through which to look at issues of environmental justice."

Nixon said that artists, filmmakers, and writers have a key role to play. By at least crafting stories to make environmental slow violence more relatable, Nixon hoped that he and other artists could bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public.

"Every crisis generates new opportunities to start a conversation about policy," Nixon said. "Sometimes the most we can hope for is to change a conversation."

First-year student Ukyoung Chang said Nixon's concept of slow violence and the real-life examples he gave during the talk helped her grasp the severity of the environmental crisis.

"We always think about violence as happening in a very vivid, spontaneous instant," Chang said. "We often hear about natural disasters or war in the news but we never investigate the causes or what happens afterwards. That's why this talk was really a wake-up call for me."

For more information about upcoming FHI and Nicholas School events, visit www.fhi.duke.edu and www.nicholas.duke.edu/news