The slow violence of climate breakdown

| 23rd April 2019
Deepwater Horizon explosion, April 2010.
US Coastal Guard
What is at stake in the power of the image to effect change?


Climate breakdown faces a crisis of representation. We rely hugely on representational models for our understanding of its global manifestations, but this is not without its challenges.

The ways in which environmental violence appears to us in the media is just as capable of inciting passive responses as direct action. More attention needs to be paid to the affective capacities of environmental representations.

The increasing demands of immediacy and spectacle are emblematic of the current attention economy, but climate breakdown does not fit easily within this. It is easier to focus on hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters manifesting in the current climatic condition.

Slow violence

The discipline of art history can be useful for thinking critically about these representational challenges. In many ways, artistic practice operates in a different way and faces different expectations. It exists in a space that allows us to seek alternative methods and highlight that which escapes current attention economies.

Environmental humanities scholar Rob Nixon describes the nature of climate breakdown as “slow violence”. This is violence that operates on a different time scale, occurring out of sight; it is violence that does not hold attention because it does not appear as violence at all. 

Nixon’s text, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, considers ways of using narratives to make unseen environmental violence visible. It epitomises how environmentalism is entwined with politics of vision, of what left unseen. It illustrates the role that the arts can play in making visible, and coming to terms with, the slow violence of climate breakdown.

In many ways Nixon’s descriptions of slow violence – in terms of representations, immediacy, attention spans – refer to theories of the spectacle that have preoccupied academia since the dawn of postmodernism.

Guy Debord’s writes in Society of the Spectacle that: “life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.” In Debord’s spectacular society, images, such as those found in the news, advertising and entertainment, have come to mediate social relations. In other words, images are how we relate to the world. 

Deepwater horizon

Images mediate our relationship to climate breakdown. Just consider the role that TV programmes like Planet Earth play in foregrounding environmental matters in public attention. But what is at stake is the power of the image to effect change.

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill produced a vast array of images that narrated the disaster on a global scale. In 2010, the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing 260 million gallons of crude oil into the gulf.

Eleven workers were killed in the explosion, but the consequences of the spill’s slow violence – it’s impact on the gulf’s marine ecology and the ecology of the coastline – remains unknown. It is, however, considered to be the largest marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

The BP oil spill evidences perfectly how ecological disaster captures public attention for a short period of time only. Images of the explosion, of animals covered in oil, and even BP’s own live spill-cam circulated the media as attempts were made to clean up the spill.

These images were crucial for raising public awareness, but this does not mean that they weren’t politically motivated. 

Public attention

It has been noted that BP’s own spill-cam was used to draw attention away from the disaster to the positive impact of their cleaning-up efforts.

If we depend on the rhetoric of “seeing is believing”, then the clean-up of the oil spill was indeed positive. But this is not the case: a dispersant called Corexit was poured into the spill and the surrounding areas by the gallons, intending to break down the crude oil so that it would sink, and thus not be visible to the naked eye.

While it appears as if the spill has been cleared, only twenty percent of the oil has been contained. The oil is out of sight, thus out of mind.

What remains in public attention is the spectacle of the disaster itself. Art historian T. J. Demos described the resulting mass media imagery as “spectacular images of the industrial-apocalyptic sublime”.

At what point does our admiration of the clean-up effort become a form of entertainment? Is it surprising that the oil spill became the inspiration for 2016 Hollywood disaster blockbuster Deepwater Horizon?

Critical affect

Removed of any real terror, any implications more damaging than the enjoyment it provokes in its audience, the oil spill is no longer jarring. Following this logic, climate breakdown imagery will only hold public attention if it is simultaneously entertaining.

What spectacular imagery lacks is critical affect. The biggest obstacle to environmental representation is the passive acceptance of that which is represented by spectacular imagery.

It does not ask you to respond, to question, to critique. It has no affective force, no intensity that activates you, that drives you into action. 

This is the representational context in which artists concerned with the natural world are situated. Vision is never neutral; there is always power, and a safety net of distance, in vision. Yet vision is also paramount for coming to terms with environmental violence.

So, the question becomes: despite of all this, how do we negotiate representation? How can we bring to the fore artists who worked againstthe spectacle, artists that have worked to make a positive difference to natural world? 

Artistic remediation

There is potential in art characterised as earthworks. This kind of art is site-specific and takes the natural world as its material, location, and subject matter.

It is often disseminated through photography, but the artwork itself does not represent the natural world, it works within it. This kind of practice is typical of the US ecological art movement beginning in the 1960s, in the advent of the environmentalist movement largely inspired by writers such as Rachel Carson.

It took artistic practice to not only bring awareness to environmental issues, but to make a positive, physical difference.

Take Mel Chin’s Revival Field (1991-ongoing). This artwork is a living ecosystem; in the Pig’s Eye landfill site in St. Paul Minnesota, hyperaccumulator plants were bedded in soil, to extract zinc and cadmium leaked from used batteries.

By defining this project as an artwork, Chin had the freedom to intervene in ways that scientists of the United States Department of Agriculture could not; who have tried and failed to receive funding to replenish the land.

They failed because their proposal was not considered to have sufficient academic or economic output. What this suggests is the potential of artistic practice which is not limited by the same societal constraints.

Vital questions

Revival Field not only exemplifies how art can be practical, activist, socially engaged, or ecologically driven; it illustrates how art can break down the divide between humanity and nature. It shows how the natural world isn’t just that which we see mediated through imagery; we are situated within it.

Concerns for situatedness are vital for questions of humanity’s place, of how humanity exists, within the wider scheme of life on earth. 

Representation of climate breakdown must consider how it positions humanity in relation to the natural world. This is the kind of narrative worth foregrounding: one that acknowledges the slow violence of contamination and works from within to remedy this.

It is about cutting through the noise of spectacular imagery by being active in our approach to care, and considering all violence, regardless of its timescale.

This Author

Francesca Curtis is a PhD student in History of Art at the University of York. 

Image: Deepwater Horizon explosion, April 2010. United States Coast Guard, US Federal Government.


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