UW English professor urges environmental writers to “tell stories no one else can tell”

January 31, 2012

In his new book, “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor,” UW-Madison English professor Rob Nixon asks: how can environmental writers craft emotionally involving stories from disasters that are slow-moving and attritional, rather than explosive and spectacular?

Desperate social crises can fester for decades as a result of global warming, oil spills, deforestation, and other environmental disasters. But, writes Nixon, “if it’s bloodless, slow-motion violence, the story is more likely to get buried…as a result, the casualties incurred often pass untallied.”

Nixon will give a Focus on the Humanities talk — “Slow Violence and Environmental Storytelling” — on Wednesday, Feb. 1 at 5:30 p.m. at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, 333 N. Orchard St., to address ways in which environmental writers and filmmakers can find fresh, inventive ways to devote their imaginative energies to some of the most urgent yet invisible stories of our time.

In his talk, Nixon will describe the techniques and artistry of outstanding environmental storytellers, including:

  • Ken Saro-Wiwa, an Ogoni writer executed in Nigeria for his environmental activism;
  • Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, whose memoir, “Unbowed,” brings dramatic urgency to the incremental deforestation and soil erosion jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of Africans;
  • Josh Fox, whose documentary “Gasland” tracks the poorly regulated, long-term perils that arise from hydro-fracking.
  • Jennifer Redfearn, whose documentary “Sun Come Up” tells the story of the Carteret Islanders, who are about to become, en masse, climate-change refugees due to steadily rising seas.

Nixon, who holds a professorship named for environmental writer Rachel Carson, says Carson and others who chose to expose forms of oblique, slow damage like biomagnification and toxic drift, resorted to a narrative vocabulary to “give shape to amorphous menace.”