There is much to say about The Walking Dead and many people saying it, so I feel there’s room before the upcoming mid-season finale of season 6 to write about something a little bit off the beaten track.
Especially since the beginning of season 6, I’ve been thinking that among the many things the zombies of The Walking Dead connote is the slow lurch of catastrophic environmental damage.
My theory is, no doubt, in large part due to the fact that I’ve been reading Rob Nixon’s excellent 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Nixon coins the term “slow violence” to describe long-term ecological devastation, “a violence that occurs gradually,” a “violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all.” Nixon argues that while sudden cataclysmic environmental disasters (typhoons etc.) are easy to narrativize, it’s harder to tell stories about often almost-imperceptible “slow violence.”[i] I would suggest that one place to look for such stories is the zombie narrative—because, for me at least, the term “slow violence” also inevitably conjures up zombies (the slow kind, anyway!).
Season 6 has offered the repeated shot of Daryl (Norman Reedus) on his motorcycle, cresting the hill of a rural road with a horde of walkers looming behind him, as he tries to lead them away from the community of Alexandria. This image suggests the way in which the consequences of a reckless use and misuse of our planet follows slowly but inexorably behind us.
There’s not necessarily a causal connection between The Walking Dead’s zombies and environmental toxicity: we don’t know what has caused the cannibalistic dead to rise, although an environmental origin has not been ruled out. The connection is, rather, more about visual evocation than narrative logic. Nixon has written that the effects of “slow violence” include the “long-dying—the staggered and staggeringly discounted casualties,” adding that slow violence manifests as “disasters that are slow moving and long in the making.” The slow-moving herd that staggers after Daryl renders in dramatic form what Nixon sums up as the “invasion” of “mass-forms of slow-motion toxicity.”[ii] This phrase—“mass-forms of slow-motion toxicity”—is just about perfectly embodied in the zombie.
There have been other moments in The Walking Dead when the walkers have seemed to literalize a poisoned environment—not least, the walker in the well on Hershel’s farm in season 2. And in season 6, walkers lurk in the sewers beneath Alexandria, continuing the idea of thoroughly contaminated water systems.
We also see, in season 4, zombies fused with trees as Hershel (Scott Wilson) looks for medicinal herbs in the woods (ep. 3 “Isolation”). Indeed, walkers increasingly lurk behind and merge with trees and vegetation, waiting, threatening catastrophic infection and death and manifesting the pollution not just of built water systems but of the natural world itself.
If we think about the walkers as “mass-forms” of slow-moving ecological damage, it seems significant that the entire narrative of season 6 so far has been driven by the threat of thousands of walkers breaking out of the quarry. Quarries are, of course, spaces of profoundly damaging human interventions in the natural world, similar to the dams and flooded villages that originate zombie outbreaks in Max Brooks’ World War Z (2006) and the French drama broadcast on Canal+, The Returned (2012 – ).
Visually, though, this quarry—crammed with swarming, rotting zombies—seems equally evocative of a landfill as a quarry. Its proximity to Alexandria, moreover, highlights the different costs of environmental damage for the wealthy and the poor. Nixon states that it is “those people lacking resources who are the principal casualties of slow violence.” The zombies in the quarry constitute a condensed image, I think, of both the toxic accumulation of waste that threatens especially the poor, who have the landfills in their backyard, and the poor themselves, who have succumbed to the “slow violence” of the toxic environment.
The nearby (but not too close) Alexandria is a clean “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” community (as a lingering shot of a billboard makes clear). As such, it allows its inhabitants to seal themselves off from the consequences of a long history of ecological destruction, the apocalyptic costs of which have been borne by (poorer) others.
In a phrase repeated through season 6, we are told that the Alexandrians have been “living” while those beyond their walls have been merely “surviving”—if they’re lucky. If not, they end up in the local “landfill.” In the first episode of season 6, the camera lingers on a sign that makes it clear that it’s the wealthy—i.e., those who can afford a house that begins at $800,000—who “live.” At worst, everyone else becomes the rotting matter festering in the landfill, sealed outside of sustainable communities that only the rich can afford.
Of course, the end of episode 7 of season 6 makes it clear that in the end nothing can buy sustainability for long in a world that is finally reaping the consequences of centuries of ecological exploitation, and which is now overwhelmed, in Rob Nixon’s words, by “mass-forms of slow-motion toxicity.” As Enid (Katelyn Nacon) tells Glenn (Steven Yeun) at the end of episode 7, “The world is trying to die.” The ever-hopeful Glenn replies that the “world isn’t supposed to die.” But it may be dying nonetheless.
[i] Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011), 2. I’ve also started thinking more about environmental damage and waste thanks to the work of my colleague at Lehigh University, Mary Foltz.
[ii] Nixon 2-3.