Think of your favorite environmental writers, and names like Henry David Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, and Gary Snyder may come up. But chances are you won’t bring to mind people like Wangari Maathai, Abdul Rahman, Arundhati Roy, or Ken Saro-Wiwa, even though they too have all tackled pressing environmental issues in their writing.
In the Chronicle Review, University of Wisconsin English professor Rob Nixon urges us to widen our reading list when it comes to environmental literature and criticism. He holds out for special disapproval the keepers of the canon—those college academics who teach environmental literary studies with a glaring lack of color in their curriculum, and a seeming lack of awareness of their on-campus kin in the humanities, postcolonial studies.
The distrust and ignorance cut both ways, contends Nixon, who makes his full case in his new book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Right around the time of Saro-Wiwa’s execution in Nigeria in 1995—the steep price of his activism—the postcolonial literary theorist Edward Said dismissed environmentalism as “the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause.” His rancor was no doubt stoked by the fact that Saro-Wiwa’s writing was largely ignored amid the “unselfconscious parochialism” of environmental studies, as Nixon describes it. Writes Nixon:
One might surely have expected environmentalism to be more, not less, transnational than other fields of literary inquiry. It was unfortunate that a writer like Saro-Wiwa, who had long protested what he termed the gradual “ecological genocide” of his people, could find no place in the environmental canon. Was this because he was an African? Was it because his writings revealed no special debt to Thoreau, to the wilderness tradition, or to Jeffersonian agrarianism? Saro-Wiwa’s writings were animated instead by the fraught relations among ethnicity, pollution, and minority rights and by the equally fraught relations among local, national, and global politics.
Teachers—and students—of literature ought to start recognizing the writers who are chronicling the “slow violence” of environmental destruction worldwide, Nixon argues:
To reconfigure the environmental humanities involves acknowledging, among other things, how writer-activists in the Southern hemisphere are giving imaginative definition to catastrophes that often remain imperceptible to the senses, catastrophes that unfold across a time span that exceeds the instance of observation or even the life of the human observer. In a world permeated by insidious, unspectacular violence, imaginative writing can make the unapparent appear, rendering it tangible by humanizing drawn-out calamities inaccessible to the immediate senses.
I hope this call to action finds a receptive audience in academia. In the meantime, I’ve got some reading to catch up on.