It’s not news for anyone to hear that beating the living hell out of our natural environment isn’t a good idea for humanity: a) credible scientists have been saying this for decades and backing up their claims with alarming research into the effects of pollution and b) it just makes sense.
And yet, as a whole we’re surprisingly complacent about the state of our environment. Our efforts at making changes have been, let’s be totally honest with ourselves, a li-i-i-ttle conservative. That could be in part because the scope of the whole thing makes environmental problems seem like a giant train wreck the outcome of which no single person could possibly affect (which is true. And which is why we need to become way better at making the companies that actually have enough reach and power to make a difference more environmentally accountable. I already recycle, agribusiness. Stop telling me to do my part. You stop putting plastic film on every product you want me to buy).
Also tough to take environmental catastrophes seriously when the worst of them seem to happen in far away places and don’t appear to have an impact on us. There are piles of trash in the Pacific about the size of Texas. Texas. This is a real thing that we should probably be scared about, but because it’s far away, we can’t immediately see the effects of that catastrophe on us. The same thing happens on land. The highest pollution-generating activities often take place away from large populations: resource extraction, military testing, waste dumping and industrial operations. Nobody loves that those things are happening, but I for one forget about them regularly because they don’t seem to constitute an immediate crisis for me.
It’s a problem in perception. Pollution-generating industries are creating crises in human communities right now; just not crises that look like what we think crises should look like. Indigenous peoples, who more often live in remote areas of the globe, are exposed to some of the highest rates of toxic contamination of any populations on Earth. In more populated areas, industries that have high rates of pollutants tend to be found in places where poor and marginalized peoples live. This is a total and complete coincidence—wait, sorry—I forgot there’s no font for sarcasm. It’s not a coincidence; it’s what scholars and activists call “environmental racism.” Militaries and commercial enterprises are allowed to set up shop around marginalized communities despite well-documented evidence that the byproducts they create will cause health problems in the surrounding populations.
There’s ample evidence that industrial pollutants disrupt endocrine and immune systems, create neurological, reproductive and developmental problems and lead to extremely high rates of cancer in exposed peoples. It’s not instantaneous and it’s not the result of a single person’s action, but the link between pollution and health issues can be read as a form of violence that people suffer at the hands of governments and corporations. Environmentalist critic Rob Nixon calls it “slow violence” because it’s so gradual and out of sight.
There’s a secondary level to environmental-related violence, too, where environmental crises can put people affected by them at greater risk of other kinds of violence. In this amazing and super short video, women’s rights activist Harsha Walia explains that indigenous peoples in Western Canada are often displaced when resource extraction trumps human rights. When companies gain the right to mine, deforest, drill or build on non-reserve land, First Nations peoples are forced to leave and often find themselves with no place to go but to large cities like Vancouver. Walia tells us that women who are displaced into these urban centres tend to be limited to finding work in informal or “survival economies” like the drug trade and the sex trade, both of which are marked by high levels of violence. Vancouver, in fact, is what Walia calls the “epicentre” of the crisis of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada.
The impacts of environmental disasters aren’t spectacular or sudden. They’re long-term, invisible and insidious. They have spin-off effects that aren’t immediately apparent. Considering pollution as a form of violence is a useful development in how we perceive environmental degradation because it makes the impacts of degradation more real.
Right now we don’t have a way to conceptualize what long-range environmental damage might look like outside of what Hollywood movies offer us. If it’s not a warming-seas-fueled tidal wave taking out the eastern seaboard, it’s not culturally recognizable as a catastrophe. There are documentary images of clear-cut forests and contaminated lakes, but it’s not possible to capture the way that damage will move through an ecosystem and impact all of its life forms, including humans.
When we think about violence, we understand that there’s a relationship and a power dynamic at play; something/one being harmed and something/one doing the harming. That’s important because if we want to protect the whole of our planet, we need to better understand the processes by which some places and beings on it are determined to be worth sacrificing. And we need to understand the factors that make us complacent that beings far away from us (and different than us) are being sacrificed.
Connections are what foster the will to make change. What affects one part of the physical world, or one human community, will affect us all. Calling instances of environmental violence for what they are—deliberate for-profit exploitation and destruction of a region that causes measurable harm to the region’s inhabitants—lets us see that violence against the environment and violence against people are not separate issues. They are one and the same thing.