Fall 2021: Introduction to Resource Conflict and Slow Violence

Jack Harte

Chapter 3 of Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics (2018) builds on the Neo-Malthusian arguments introduced in Chapter 2.  Neo-Malthusians directly correlate rising population with modern environmental concerns, such as resource scarcity and pollution.  They hold a particular concern for population’s effects on resource scarcity, and how scarcity might promote conflict. Chapter 3 takes a critical look at how states, corporations, and other entities attempt to “secure” natural resources, noting Malthusian and determinist arguments regarding resources and their effects on conflict.

O’Lear offers a brief history of resource conflict and security, starting with imperial Europe’s efforts to secure commodities through colonization, up into the proxy wars for nuclear resources fought between the United States and Soviet Union in the wake of World War II.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, the question of what security meant for the nation-state became muddled.  No longer are there clear-cut enemies, allies, and objectives in the fight for resources.  Yet, the State’s concern for resource security remains.  This gap in definition of what “security” means has resulted in a return to Malthus, in which concerns surrounding limited resources (supposedly consumed by an increasing population) will result, deterministically, in wars for those said resources.  The modern narrative of scarcity falls apart upon further analysis, as conflict does not always center around resource scarcity, but can also be caused by resource abundance.  This concept is referred to as the “resource curse” (Lujala, Gleditsch, and Gilmore 2005), in which the existence of overwhelming quantities of a single export has been linked to civil war, separatist movements, and a prolongment of ongoing conflicts.

Conflict resulting from resource scarcity and abundance exists for different resources at different times and different places.  Most importantly, generalizing conflicts as being caused by either the presence or absence of a particular resource neglects major underlying ecological, human, and spatial factors contributing to conflict.  To analyze resource “security” and conflict, we must ask ourselves “what is being secured, and for whom?” (Dalby 2009). Only when we go beyond common discourse can we see the real causes of conflict, and here again it is helpful to view these processes through the lens of environmental geopolitics:

  1. How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified?
  2. What is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?
  3. What is the spatial focus of this particular claim?

These three questions can be applied to various forms of resource conflict to establish a better understanding of how we view conflict and violence.  In this regard, Chapter 3 of the Environmental Geopolitics book recognizes that violence materializes itself through methods other than guns, battles, and bombings.  If violence takes forms other than fast, immediate destruction, one can conclude that this allows for a category of violence characterized by its “longer time horizons, spatial inequities, and uneven distributions of power” (O’Lear 2018).  This invisible, often more dangerous form of violence is referred to as “Slow Violence” (Nixon 2011, O’Lear 2015, 2018, 2021).

Slow violence often goes unnoticed because of how easily communicated “fast” violence is.  Fast violence is clearly measurable, and most often visible: Territory taken, homes burned, ships destroyed, lives lost.  Fast violence captivates and shifts attention away from the more abstract slow violence.  Slow violence shows itself through ecological damage, long-term human health complications, and degraded water and air quality.  These damages often go unnoticed, as they are hard to quantify and unfold over long timescales.  Additionally, slow violence does not usually have a single culprit or entity to blame. If an individual contracts cancer, is it a tragic coincidence, or a result of living downstream from a coal mine or chemical plant?  When the circumstances revolving around violence are unclear, so too are the causes, actors, and solutions.

All of the podcasts in this section specifically focus on conflicts surrounding resources and consumption, or offer perspectives on “Environmental Racism”, which in and of itself is a form of Slow Violence.  Both Lloyd and Schneider, two podcast authors introduced later in this section, directly tackle the concept of environmental racism. Environmental racism was established by Dr. Robert Bullard, who defined environmental racism as “any policy, practice, or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals, groups, or communities based on race or color” (1993, 1).  Environmental racism is an interdisciplinary study, but can most commonly be found in our policymaking and where we place our industrial sites and infrastructure.  Slow violence is linked to environmental racism through the unequal distribution of and exposure to environmental hazards by marginalized communities and groups of people with less power, as demonstrated in Lloyd and Schneider’s analyses of such inequity in Louisiana and Illinois, respectively.

Podcast Perspectives

In “Shein and the Perpetuation of Overconsumption”, Renz Breen highlights the environmental dangers of Shein’s mission to create mass quantities of clothing at bargain-bin prices for consumers in North America and Europe who relish in the opportunity to acquire large amounts of clothing with seemingly no drawbacks.  These consumers are only able to acquire Shein’s clothing in trade for ignoring the environmental and human rights issues surrounding the company.  Breen offers a deep dive into these aspects of the fast fashion industry and offers evidence and alternatives to Shein’s destruction of often foreign, marginalized communities.  In addition to an analysis of production dangers, Breen briefly touches on the dangers of mass waste on the consumer side.  Breen cites: “According to Portola, in 2021 85% of textiles in the United States are discarded and dramatically increase the amount of microplastics ending up in our soil and throughout our oceans.”  What slow, unseen, violence results from the proliferation of microplastics throughout our living environment?

One difficulty in discourse surrounding natural resources is that their existence, usage, and production are taken for granted.  Trees, oceans, oil, and coal are all lumped together as “resources,” even though they have little to no relation to each other in the natural world.  Given such a broad definition, it is important to narrow down what it means for something to be a “resource,” and who is defining it as such.  In most cases, what is or is not a resource is defined by our society; the views and values of which define what is considered a “resource”.

To encapsulate relations between society and nature, we introduce the concept of socionature. Socionature recognizes an unequal relationship between society and nature, and further implies that nature is conceptualized by (and mostly for) humans. Therefore, nature is affected not only through the physical scars of mining, logging, and other methods of extraction, but also through how we talk about ourselves in relation to the environment itself.

My own podcast, “Out of the Wild and Into the Frying Pan: an Analysis of Fire Suppression in the United States,” delves into our perceptions of forests in the United States and, moreover, the role wildfire plays in forest ecosystems.   American society views the forest as a commodity to be inventoried, sold, and logged.  Such a system creates conflict between our constructed notions of a healthy timber stand, and the actual parameters of a healthy forest.  To keep a forest healthy, fire is needed in the landscape: fire clears underbrush, restores nutrients, and is a condition for many native seeds to sprout.  Almost all North American ecosystems have some form of regular period in which a landscape will burn, varying from almost annually in some grasslands, to hundreds of years in the western rainforests of Washington and Oregon (Brown et al. 2000).

Wildfire, however beneficial to the ecosystem, still poses a threat to the timber industry which revolves around American forests.  Since the 1850s, the United States has attempted to exclude wildfire from its woodlands by suppressing almost all wildfire, regardless of size or threat to life and property.  Fire exclusion takes the form of billions of dollars in suppression expenditures and public outreach campaigns such as Smokey Bear.  While the common discourse surrounding wildfire is that we must exclude wildfire to protect the ecosystem, an argument can be made that the true purpose of fire exclusion is to maximize the amount of harvestable timber per acre.

Furthermore, my podcast analyzes the change in socionature in the postcolonial ecosystem.  Prior to the European colonization of North America, Indigenous peoples regularly burned the landscape for increased plant yields, ease of movement, and cultural purposes.  Euro-Americans brought their values and perceptions towards fire with them as they colonized North America, and attempted to separate themselves from the landscapes in which they reside.  No longer was fire a facet of the environment, but an enemy to which Americans must go to war with, to protect nature from itself.

Socionature is a core principle of resource conflict, as our perceptions towards the environment, and its commodification, dictate what we are willing to smuggle, sell, and fight for.  In the case of timber in North America, the cultivation of resource abundance, in the end, creates conflict between those who have a vested interest in preserving timbers stands, and those who seek a return to the pre-colonial order.

Reid Plinsky’s “Electric Vehicles and Cobalt Mining in the Democratic Republic of the Congo” offers a startling intersection between resource conflict and slow violence.  Plinsky analyzes how the recent Western push for electric vehicles has led to immense pressure on the impoverished nations which supply cobalt. Cobalt is a resource necessary for the batteries of electric vehicles and for many other electronics.  Within the realm of cobalt extraction, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is by far and away the largest producer.  The influx of wealth from the export of cobalt has resulted in the “Resource Curse” (Lujala, Gleditsch, and Gilmore 2005) mentioned earlier.

The cobalt exports from the DRC are sometimes utilized to fund separatists and rebel groups, which creates an unstable political environment and a breeding ground for civil war and humanitarian violations.  The DRC’s cobalt industry is plagued by child and slave labor, unnecessary loss of life, rape, and a decimation of the ecosystem in the pursuit of profits, exported through a network of middlemen to the Western consumers demanding these resources for their “green” initiatives.  Western consumers laud electric vehicles as a way of significantly reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. This idea of greenhouse gas reduction is a reasonable idea given that 17% of emissions come from personal combustion vehicles.  But the immense human and environmental costs of cobalt extraction challenge the value of reducing Western greenhouse gas emissions.

Plinsky highlights how the benefits of Electric Vehicles only seem limitless in conjunction with a lack of Western media attention on the environmental, human, and political costs of Western resource consumption abroad.  Plinsky paints a brutal picture of the violence surrounding cobalt extraction often unseen to Western eyes, and asks what the objective of this concealment is and who it is working for.

Continuing the concept of Slow Violence are two closely related, yet locationally different podcasts highlighting issues of environmental racism in Louisiana and Illinois.

Annika Lloyd’s “Environmental Racism in St. James Parish Louisiana” chronicles grassroots efforts to combat the construction of a new plastics factory in St. James Parish, LA.  You won’t get updates about this conflict the same way as the play-by-play stories coming out of the traditional “hot” conflict zones broadcast on your TV and smartphone.  St. James parish lies within Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley”, named for the high rates of cancer caused by the abnormal amounts of air and water pollution caused by industry in the region.

Lloyd notes that St. James Parish has faced repeated attempts by outside corporations to construct high-polluting industrial plants in opposition of the parishes’ residents.  Lloyd looks not only at the ongoing struggle between Rise St. James and Formosa Plastics, but the history of a largely Black parish’s fight for environmental justice against polluting industry’s attempts to degrade St. James’s environment, community, and personal sovereignty.

Lauryn Schneider’s “Environmental Racism in Little Village Chicago” further demonstrates the broad spatial versatility of the Environmental Geopolitics framework.  In her podcast, Schneider analyzes similar environmental concerns to those in St. James Parish, with a focus on the generally impoverished urban core of Chicago.  Schneider effectively uses the Environmental Geopolitics framework to analyze the multifaceted approach taken by grassroots activists in the largely Hispanic Little Village of Chicago.  Schneider highlights the efforts undertaken by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (LVEJO) to fend off major industrial corporations from further polluting the community.

Again, showing the link between environmental racism and slow violence, Schneider highlights the timescale of the damage to Little Village, and how limited the media coverage of this otherwise unseen form of violence truly is.  Mysterious rashes, increased rates of Asthma, and other long-term health complications, all (most likely) caused by the construction of high-polluting industry in the region.  These symptoms of slow violence garner little attention in traditional discourse, but by utilizing the environmental geopolitics framework, one can analyze key factors which work to conceal the damage being done to marginalized communities by corporations and policymakers worldwide.


Brown, James K., Jane Kapler Smith. 2000. Wildland Fire in Ecosystems: Effects of Fire on Flora. Gen. Tech. Rep. RMRS-GTR-42-vol. 2. Ogden, UT: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. 257 p. https://doi.org/10.2737/RMRS-GTR-42-V2.

Bullard, Robert D. 1993. “The Threat of Environmental Racism.” Natural Resources & Environment 7 (3): 23–56. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40923229.

Dalby, Simon.  2009.  Security and Environmental Change. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Lujala, Päivil, Nils Petter Gleditsch, and Elisabeth Gilmore. 2005. “A Diamond Curse? Civil War and a Lootable Resource.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 49 (4): 538–62. https://www.jstor.org/stable/30045130.

Nixon, Rob. 2011. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2015. Climate Science and Slow Violence: A View From Political Geography and STS On Mobilizing Technoscientific Ontologies of Climate Change. Political Geography  52, 4–13. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.polgeo.2015.01.004.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

O’Lear, Shannon. 2021. A Research Agenda for Geographies of Slow Violence: Making Social and Environmental Injustice Visible. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. http://doi.org/10.4337/9781788978033.


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Podcast Perspectives of Environmental Geopolitics Copyright © 2022 by Jack Harte is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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