Slow Violence

Moving on from blue ecology, we have now adopted an energy-centred approach when analysing texts, looking at how our use and abuse of energy has impacted the Earth and focusing on the culture that comes with extraction.

Energy is attached to speed, efficiency and access. As a society we want immediacy and the fastest possible way to travel or obtain things, relating to the way in which we still chose to mine coal and extract oil as opposed to using renewable energy sources. This sense of speed is juxtaposed with its long term consequences, also known as slow violence. Rob Nixon, who coined the term, describes it as ‘a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.’ Slow violence accumulates over time, its invisible to us until it reaches a point of crisis. A perfect example of this would be climate change and the consequences of this.

Oil on Water by Helon Habila can be analysed with the concept of slow violence by looking at his continuous discussion of petroculture. Petrol is surrounded by many types of temporal violence within the text, affecting individuals, small villages and Nigeria as a whole. Oil as a substance can also be described as temporal due to immediacy in which we can access and extract it, opposed to its actual composition. Many people can forget that the oil we use was formed millions of years ago, through an extremely slow process.

Petrol is used as a fast source of violence within the text, demonstrated when Major pours petrol over the captive men he deems as criminals. However, the main part of this punishment is the suspense of waiting to see if he will light a match and throw it at them or not, portraying petrol as more of a threat of violence, rather than a cause. While watching them suffer he says, ‘What, you can’t stand the smell of oil? Isn’t it what you fight for, kill for? Go on, enjoy. By the time I’m through with you, you’ll hate the smell of it, you won’t take money that comes from oil, you won’t get in a car because it runs on petrol. You’ll hate the very name petrol.’ (Habila, 2011:55) Here Major is alluding to the long term affects created by one instant act of violence. This can also link to the slow violence that the culture of oil extraction brings to societies, causing inner turmoil within countries, but also thinking about how worldly conflict can arise through the politicisation of oil.

The novel also looks at links between health and landscapes, relating to the concept of slow violence. Zaq becomes ill as a result of drinking the toxic water that surrounds the village, affecting him instantaneously. A doctor names his condition as ‘dengue fever… a haemorrhagic fever, very dangerous. It kills very quickly if not treated immediately.’ (Habila, 2011:89) This instant effect is a result of underlying slow violence, shown to be the actions made that have caused the water to become toxic, cultivating diseases over time. At one point the doctor solemnly states, ‘Bugs and the water, you know, and if that combination doesn’t kill you, the violence does.’ (Habila, 2011:90) Even here the diseases cultivated in the water are not explicitly named as violence, suggesting that these unseen types of violence are only noticed or taken seriously when the human body is greatly affected.

Ecocriticism and energy narratives, such as this text are purposely created to draw out these invisible effects which are gradually taking place, and explicitly referencing them. By relating all types of violence around the human, it brings awareness to us that our energy usage has consequences, hopefully bringing a sense of change and activism, even if it is out of self-preservation.


Pollution Solution: Install a smart meter in your home to monitor your energy usage and take public transport or car share whenever possible.



Habila, Helon, Oil on Water. (London: Penguin Books, 2011)

Nixon, Rob, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011) p. 2

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