Climate Change is Violence by Rebecca Solnit

This post was contributed by Eric Dean Wilson, Ph.D.

Core Text

Solnit, Rebecca. “Climate Change is Violence.” In The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness. Trinity University Press, 2014. (Alternate version available.)


This short essay by writer Rebecca Solnit is a strong introductory text to some of the geo-political issues around climate change. Clear, concise, full of factoids, Solnit’s piece emphasizes the slippery environmental rhetoric of both corporations and institutions as well as the ways in which the climate crisis is not a coming event but current and widespread violence. This essay could frame a discussion on the environmental effects of climate change as well as the rhetorical strategies used by industry, government, and activists. A focus on Solnit’s rhetoric could form a strong foundation for any first-year writing class.

Teaching Resources

  • Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard, 2013. Nixon’s book focuses on the ways the climate change narrative fails to fit in with the vast majority of the given temporal dimensions of literature—that is, the fast, dramatic narratives of Hollywood. The introduction is an excellent overview of the ways that the climate crisis causes violence for vulnerable populations, and the following chapters explore how this might be addressed in contemporary literature despite the narrative challenges.
  • Malm, Andreas. “The Anthropocene Myth.” Jacobin, 2015. A highly condensed version of the argument found in his book Fossil Capital, Malm argues against the narrative framing / implications of the Anthropocene label, since it erases responsibility and threatens to re-enact exactly what it claims to critique.
  • Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “The Climate of History: Four Theses.” Critical Inquiry vol. 35 no. 2 (Winter 2009), pp. 197-222.
  • Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, 2017. A hybrid form that includes both first-person narrative and theory, Tsing critiques the typical narrative framing of progress-then-ruin and suggests a generative third stage of the narrative: that of life among the ruins. A rigorous antidote to overly apocalyptic climate change literature.
  • Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Picador, 2004. It could be interesting to set this alongside the narrative of climate change. How do we talk about disasters? How does the news mediate our experience of community, of violence toward frontline communities? How do we write about these experiences without exploiting or doing further violence?

Discussion Questions

  1. Rhetorically, how do we frame discussions of climate change? What are the differences between popular framings of climate change and academic framings? How do different disciplines frame the problem of climate change? What metaphors do we use, and what are the implications of those metaphors? (For example, how might talk of “destroying virgin land” point to a vital problem at the same time that it relies on troubling, misogynistic language?
  2. How might we define “violence”, and why does the violence of climate change sometimes fail to count as violence? How do the particularities of the climate crisis challenge the temporal scale(s) of typical Western narratives of violence? The climate crisis affects us all, but it affects us all differently, hitting already vulnerable demographics first and hardest; how does this particularity trouble and deepen the climate crisis’s relationship to violence? In what ways do certain cultural media outlets (print and digital news, documentaries, film, TV, novels, etc.) limit or expand the ways we can talk about environmental violence? Why does a definition of violence matter, in this context? In other words, how is violence typically narrated, and how do our given cultural forms challenge the story of climate change as a story of violence?
  3. Much of the U.S. now acknowledges the reality of violent climate change, but residents within the U.S. often differ as to the causes. Some point to the intrinsic nature of human beings. Others point to the rise of capitalism—or specific moments in the development of capitalism. Still others still see climate change as a natural cycle. Why is this conversation about origins so important in order to address the crisis? Is it? How might a focus on the origins of climate change—or, perhaps, the Anthropocene—shift dramatically the ways in which we address it? How does tracing historical ancestors highlight present action and future imaginaries?