Anyone who was ever told to finish their supper because children are starving in Ethiopia has experienced first-hand the way famine in the global south has been rendered banal in American discourse. But if the average American simply paid more attention to the current drought in Ethiopia, would that actually help?
Nurith Aizenman’s recent NPR article “What Happens When A Disaster Unfolds in Slow Motion” discusses this Ethiopian drought as exemplary of challenges to focusing public attention on slow-moving environmental catastrophes: “When a poor country is hit with a sudden catastrophe—say, an earthquake or a tsunami—the world is quick to send aid,” she writes. “But a slow-moving disaster, the kind that unfolds over weeks or even months, is another story.” This drought has been slowly increasing since last winter.
Some international aid has been flowing in, but not nearly as much as requested by Aizenman’s interviewee John Graham, the director of Save the Children in Ethiopia. As Graham sees it, the smaller amounts of funding have improved the short-term situation, but thus made the famine less visible, meaning mass starvation has merely been postponed. From his perspective, this can be avoided only by the intervention of a much larger international aid package.
This mainstream media story initially seems consonant with the concept of “slow violence” recently popularized in the academy. In Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, postcolonial ecocritic Rob Nixon describes a range of environmental disasters as “slow violence,” which he defines as “a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction” whose “temporal dispersion [...] affects the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social afflictions [...] in particular, environmental calamities” (2–3). Like Aizenman, Nixon insists that the slowness of environmental damage to marginalized communities often facilitates inattention.
Of course, one could argue that the slow disaster discussed by Aizenman does not exemplify slow violence because the drought is a “natural” disaster. Leaving aside the difficulty, in an era of anthropogenic climate change, of disentangling human and non-human agents, a serious issue with Aizenman’s article is that it does not address the human causes of famine at all, in particular the problems with international food aid in Africa. Apparently based solely on interviews with Graham, Aizenman’s claim is simply that international donors need to kick in more funding faster, rather than ignoring the drought in its “slow” period until “TV screens [are] filled with images of emaciated kids.”
But a wealth of scholarship demonstrates the ways that international aid programs often make calamities in the global south worse. In Famine That Kills, anthropologist Alex de Waal illustrates the ineffectiveness of emergency food aid, based on his fieldwork in Darfur as well as research by a number of other anthropologists. As de Waal explains, “emergency relief, like development aid, is only truly effective if the recipients have the power to determine what it is and how it is used” (32). Instead, international food aid to Africa is all too often based upon definitions of famine that “leave the affected people as agents out of the causal scheme altogether” (32).
A smarter concept of famine, de Waal argues, would begin from “the understandings of those who suffer famine themselves,” rather than from the assumption that external agencies know what is best (32). While Aizenman claims that we need to recognize slow-moving events as disasters sooner in order to increase aid, de Waal shows that the rhetoric of emergency, encouraged by “disaster tourism” and mass media accounts, and the ensuing relief efforts actually exacerbate famines: “The exaggerated perceived severity of the famine and the inert semantics of ‘emergency’ [...] become reasons for panic and for ignoring the opinions of local people” (30).
In place of a flawed understanding of famine as immediate starvation only correctable by delivering food, de Waal explores a more nuanced concept of famine: “even when people are dying from starvation [...] [t]he experience of a threat to a way of life may be more real than the experience of the threat of starvation” (29, my emphasis). People who have suffered famine understand this, de Waal argues, which is why they might prioritize obtaining seed for the next planting season, for example, over having a meal today. Importing emergency food does not address the complexities of the problem, since it is a further disruption of local food networks that need to be protected to ensure food sovereignty over the long term.
Neither famine nor other examples of “slow” environmental disaster can be properly addressed without a historicized understanding of the relationship between suffering in the global south and impositions from the global north, including aid programs. As historian Mike Davis documents in Late Victorian Holocausts, nineteenth-century famines in colonized spaces were not primarily caused by the weather-induced scarcity of food, but by colonial policy: smallholders were forced into global trade circuits that eroded local food security and set impoverishing terms of trade. Grain was exported to European markets from areas that were experiencing famine.
Davis argues that this history engendered the power imbalance between the First and Third worlds, which remains responsible for much of the poverty and environmental vulnerability in the global south today. Bringing this understanding up to the present, Nixon articulates contemporary slow violence as enmeshed in global power dynamics around race, class, neoliberalism, and neocolonialism. Without these contexts the concept of slow violence becomes useless: indeed, it can be co-opted to pump more funding into aid programs that may worsen the long-term issues.
Our work as distant observers of environmental disaster should point to the ways in which hot topics in environmentalism crisscross academic and mainstream discourses without necessarily carrying their full, and necessary, contexts. Academics must seek out ways to communicate their theories into the public sphere; without this communication, the devastating consequences of misbegotten and unilateral “aid” will continue. Environmental humanists often pride themselves on greater openness to public humanities work than other scholars, but such a process of knowledge integration and transparency is far from complete. We need to actively intervene in mainstream media accounts of environmental crisis if we want our work to have meaningful effects on public opinion and policy.
Aizenman, Nurith. “What Happens When A Disaster Unfolds in Slow Motion.” NPR. NPR, 1 Jan. 2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
Davis, Mike. Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London and New York: Verso, 2002.
De Waal, Alex. Famine That Kills: Darfur, Sudan. Revised ed. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Brooke Stanley is a 2015-16 graduate fellow at the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities and PhD Candidate in the Department of English at the University of Pennsylvania