Princeton professor plants climate change ideas at Dodd Center lecture

Dr. Robert Nixon, a professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute, is seen during his lecture at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center in Storrs, Connecticut on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Dr. Robert Nixon, a professor at the Princeton Environmental Institute, came to speak on global climate change and how it is perceived at the Dodd Center on Thursday night.

Quoting a Slavic author, Dr. Nixon said, “We are the asteroid [that triggered the K-T extinction],” when referring to how much humans have impacted the natural environment. His succinct presentation was executed in a trio of segments: one about the nature of the anthropocene period, another regarding the concept of defining climate change as a “slow violence” and a segment on predictive history.

In the initial segment, Nixon made a parallel between the rate of extinctions since 1950, and the changes in the wealth gap between the top one percent of earners and the average individual. He then speaks of how there are plans for a sustainable, green city that could feasibly last for millennia, but could end up only being inhabited by the wealthy, and could still undermine the impoverished slums that are near it.

“Who defines ‘green,’ or ‘sustainable?’” Nixon asked. The overall message of this segment was that the largest forces on the environment are also among the wealthiest, such as with British Petroleum’s notorious oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The second segment analyzed the discrepancy between how people react generally with apathy in regards to long-term environmental danger, but are more alarmed by immediate threats such as war. Referring to climate change as a “slow violence,” Dr. Nixon argued that people typically associate the concept of violence as something “that erupts,” and “is immediate.”

Dr. Nixon later said that one could compare the principle of “slow violence” to the popular image of a frog sitting in a pot of slowly boiling water, oblivious to its impending death.

Finally, the third segment of Nixon’s presentation had a particularly fascinating concept, in which the quote, “I can’t breathe,” originally the last words of police brutality victim Eric Garner, had been appropriated into a work of graffiti that refers to pollution.

Nixon went on to explain how the circumstances of Eric Garner’s death at the hands of police officers was widely ignored or mocked for similar reasons that many disregard climate change, in that both involve a long-term system that is insidious and deleterious. It seemed similar to how many people associate racism with more overt actions, such as lynching, rather than more subtle, systematic actions that add up, just as people assume violence is immediate rather than also being something that can progress at a comparatively glacial pace.

Nixon also said Garner grew up in an area that had enough pollution for asthma to become a common malady among its residents, including Garner himself. The entire construction of this parallel also matched up with how the most immediate victims of climate change live in impoverished areas. 

After the presentation had concluded, Dr. Elizabeth Jockusch remarked on Nixon’s presentation.

“It was really interesting,” she said.


Max Engel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at max.engel@uconn.edu.