Tag Archives: Rob Nixon

Environmental Histories: Love Canal and Lois Gibbs

AP781221099While surfing the web recently I came across a really nice article on Lois Gibbs, the founder of the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice, and one of the primary protagonists of the battle against the poisoning of a working class community at Love Canal in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Gibbs and her friends fought against lying chemical companies and conniving government bureaucrats. They even held two members of the EPA hostage in order to get the attention of President Carter.

Their story is a key one in the annals of the US environmental movement, but it’s not nearly well known enough. In fact, it seems to me that the environmental movement in general is not nearly as well remembered as contemporaneous movements such as feminism and civil rights. Why is this?

Perhaps it has to do with the different institutional impacts of these movements. I’m generalizing wildly here, but it could be said that the environmental movement achieved a string of political victories that led to the creation of government organizations such as the EPA and inside the beltway NGOs like the Natural Resources Defense Council. It quickly stopped being an insurgent grassroots movement, and made little impact on enduring Leftist enclaves such as academia.

By contrast, feminism and civil rights both established toe holds in US universities through women’s studies, Black and Latin@ studies programs, and remained more organically linked to grassroots struggles (even if this sometimes was a result of problematic identity politics). In fact, it took a fusion of civil rights and environmental struggles to kickstart a more grassroots avatar of environmentalism in the 1980s: the environmental justice movement.

These reflections are far less accurate when one turns to environmentalism in the global South. As Ramachandra Guha and Rob Nixon have shown, environmental movements in the South are generally linked far more closely to struggles to preserve the commons and to survive than those in the North. Nonetheless, the history of movements such as the Chipko anti-logging protesters in India and the rubber tappers in Amazonia are not very well recorded.

Thinking about Lois Gibbs made me wish there was more public awareness of the history of environmentalism, both within the US and globally. While looking through online materials linked to Gibbs, I came across the trailer for a new film, A Fierce Green Fire, that seeks to tell precisely such stories. It is, the producers claim, the first big picture exploration of the environmental movement, and it was just released. Pretty hard to believe that it’s taken this long!

Here’s the trailer for the film:

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Uneven Geographies

uneven 2In his important book Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Rob Nixon discusses the efforts of writer-activists to document what he describes as forms of “attritional violence whose effects are scattered across time and space.” How, he asks, do such intellectuals made visible the otherwise hidden, imperceptibly gradual but nonetheless deadly impact of environmental toxins such as depleted uranium.

I’ve been thinking about these questions as I write an essay for an edited collection focusing on the visual arts and critical landscapes. My piece looks in particular at artists such as Allan Sekula, George Osodi, Ursula Biemann, and the World of Matter collective.

My argument is that these artists are intent on documenting the forms of accumulation by dispossession that uneven 1characterize contemporary capitalism. One of the most interesting questions that I have come across while working on this essay has been the issue of how the visual arts can engage in forms of what Fredric Jameson called cognitive mapping while avoiding simply reproducing the soul-crushing landscape of exploitation that characterizes uneven development today. How, in other words, can you document without enervating?

It seems to me that this is a crucial question which many on the left are asking today. I think, for example, of Judith Halberstam’s recent The Queer Art of Failure and Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, each of which in its own way grapples with the pessimism of our current historical moment.

In thinking through these questions, I found the catalog essay by TJ Demos for Uneven Geographies, a show he uneven 3co-curated at the Nottingham Contemporary Art Museum, particularly useful. Demos puts the issue in the following terms: “in focusing on uneven development today we risk simply reaffirming its existence in the realm of representation.” How are visual artists, curators, and intellectuals more broadly to respond to this dilemma?

Demos argues that we may respond to the dismal moment in which we find ourselves by engaging with creative work that does not simply document but also responds to the uneven geographies of capitalism in a variety of modes and genres. We also need, he suggests, to document movements which are intent on articulating alternatives to the present suicidal state of affairs. Here is Demos from the exhibition catalog:

The exhibition’s ambition has been to highlight numerous aesthetic approaches—sociological as well as affective, documentary as much as performative. These approaches not only record, map, and explore forms of inequality related to neoliberal globalisation, but also reveal the power of oppositional and creative energies that are already directed against its economic-political arrangements, and open up other modes of globalisation. They thereby complicate and challenge the analysis of uneven geographies as an otherwise potentially disempowering fatalism.

Demos’s argument resonated for me in particular in relation to environmental issues. As Eddie Yuen argued recently in Catastrophism, “the politics of failure have failed.” While we need to be clear about the extremely grave future we face as a result of anthropogenic climate chaos, trying to galvanize public opinion through further displays of environmental catastrophe is a losing proposition. We need to concentrate our intellectual energies on viable alternatives to the grim present, as well as on articulating plausible alternative futures.


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