Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication. The 15th biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). June 17-21, 2019, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada

Water is Life: Illuminating Slow Violence through Coalitional Movements & Narratives

Nicole Metildi's picture
Metildi, Nicole
Category of presentation: 
Scholarly papers

Unlike “spectacular and immediate violence” (Nixon, 2011, p. 2), the invisibility of slow violence, like the gradual leakage of oil and pesticides into earth and water, poses a challenge to those communicating and representing violence against water wrought over vast temporal and spatial scales. Nixon’s (2011) model of “slow violence” primarily deals with slow violence against terrestrial landscapes and bodies. This model can be extended and applied to how we communicate slow violence exerted upon water bodies and waterways, which is intrinsically difficult due to its invisibility. We can imagine and see pesticides being sprayed on plants, and we know that pesticides make their way into nearby waterways, but we do not actually see this last process. We do not see the impacts of this type of slow violence until several years after the harm began. 

How do we communicate violence against water that spans temporal and spatial landscapes? And how might communicating slow violence against water provide opportunities for uniting activists from different movements, strengthening their messages in the process? 

My paper discusses the problems and opportunities posed in communicating slow violence against water. I analyze the rhetoric of “Water is Life” (Murdoch, 2016), an image and slogan most strongly associated with the resistance and protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline that occurred at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in 2016 and 2017 as a case study of how writer-activists can communicate the unimaginable and unseen pollution and desecration of water and those who depend upon it. 

In my paper, I trace how “Water is Life” traverses movements - environmental and Indigenous rights - and how it is portrayed and used in several different contexts by different actors to present a case study of how slow violence against water can be narrated and how “Water is Life” provides a means to unite voices from different social movements. I explore how the voices of water protectors in South Dakota, Indigenous rights activists, and mainstream environmentalists are encoded within the rhetoric of “Water is Life.” Several movements coalesce in this one narrative representation of slow violence against water. 

“Water is Life” gives people the words and imagery to imagine that which is not spectacular - accretive pesticide runoff into water bodies, the deterioration of Indigenous rights, and, speaking more broadly, the destruction of the earth and its inhabitants. It gives those who work to communicate the sacredness of water a method from which to create new narratives that help us imagine the hard-to-see slow violence against water while combining and strengthening Indigenous rights and environmental activist narratives in the process.