activism climate change politics

The past, present and future of eco-fascism

Guest post by Harriët Bergman, who is studying for a PhD at the Centre for European Philosophy at the University of Antwerp. Her research focuses on how feminist and anti-racist thinking can inform discussions on climate breakdown concerning privilege, guilt, denial, power and social change.

With more extreme forms of politics on the rise, eco-fascism is a term that is growing in importance. In this article, I will look at what eco-fascism is, and some examples from the past and the present. A second article will then look at how we talk about climate change, and how certain narratives around the climate create space for ‘fascist creep’.

What is eco-fascism?

Fascism is an ultranationalist ideology – a strain of nationalism that promotes the interests of one people or state above those of everyone else. Fascism often uses specific techniques to inspire this ultranationalism, such as invoking fear, wishing for purity, harking back to a mythical past, calls for strong leadership to protect the innocent, and the promise of a better future.

Fascism can grow by absorbing and encouraging existing dissatisfactions within society. In the past, this has included economic and political disenfranchisement. Today, environmental degradation and extreme weather events are also proving to be drivers of radicalisation, and this leads to ‘eco-fascism’ – a political ideology that advocates ethnic nationalism as a response to environmental breakdown.  

Of course, concern about climate breakdown is well-founded, and there are many possible responses. Eco-fascism is a hard-right response to climate change, framing it as a threat to national integrity. Instead of seeking a global approach to mitigate climate breakdown, eco-fascism retreats into the idea of a racially pure nation that is threatened by outsiders who want what they have.

A brief history of eco-fascism

Around the turn of the last century, the German scouting group die Wandervögel organised hikes into the woods, retreating into the wild to enjoy the purity of nature. Whilst they considered themselves apolitical, many members of the group would go on to join the Nazis.

The German biologist Walther Schoenichen was one of them. After a successful career in nature conservation, and many publications on protecting German forests, he revealed his conservationism to be firmly aligned with his Nazism. The protection of nature and National socialism were tightly connected for Schoenichen through Hitler’s appeal to “blood and soil”. These were two things that must be pure: the blood of the people and the soil that sustains it. Those born on the land must preserve it – especially against those who do not belong there.

Around the same time, on another continent, American conservationist Madison Grant founded the Bronx Zoo and several national parks. He also wrote The Passing of the Great Race, a book that Adolf Hitler greatly admired. Grant dedicated his life to saving endangered species, a passion which he extended to his own white race – for him, eugenics and conservation were two sides of the same coin, both preserving as much of the old America as possible.

Skipping forward to the 1980s, Karlo Pentii Linkola expressed admiration for the Nazis while addressing the Green Party in Finland. The Finnish Forest conservationists argued that the solution to environmental degradation lay in stopping overpopulation. Linkola is a proponent of “life-boat ethics,” an ethics that prefers to save a few lives rather than trying to get everyone on board because there are only limited resources.

In the same decade, deep ecology emerged as a movement, with a focus on population control that sometimes made the movement susceptible to fascist appropriation. Earth First! founder David Foreman claimed to see famine as a welcome means of depopulation. Similarly, a deep ecologist named Christopher Manes lauded the AIDS crisis as an opportunity for nature to re-balance. Although it is possible to interpret deep ecology progressively, some proponents have certainly used language that leave the movement open to accusations of misanthropy and fascism.

The threat of eco-fascism today

Some eco-fascists actively claim the label, and the most likely place to encounter it is online. On social media and online discussion platforms, eco-fascists often use tree, mountain, and earth emojis in their name. Some use a symbol associated with neo-Nazism, the “life” rune which Heinrich Himmler used to signal Lebensraum – the idealised soil of that ‘blood and soil’ equation.

However, these sentiments concerning racial purity and the destruction of nature are not limited to online forums, and they have been used to justify terrorist attacks, including the recent mass shooting in Buffalo this year, and in El Paso, Texas in 2019.

Also in 2019, a white supremacist shot 51 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. He explained his attack as a wish for “ethnic autonomy for all peoples with a focus on the preservation of nature and the natural order”.

These white-nationalist terrorists all self-identified as “eco-fascist” and used environmental arguments to bolster their white nationalism. They expressed their worries about, amongst other things, the feminisation of society, illegal immigrants, and climate breakdown. “There is no nationalism without environmentalism,” wrote the Christchurch shooter, Brenton Harrison Tarrant. “The natural environment of our lands shaped us just as we shaped it.”

This link between nationalism and environmentalism builds on the idea that climate and environment are a determining factor for a nation’s development. Protecting and preserving the land is therefore equal in importance to protecting and preserving one’s ideals and beliefs. Tarrant’s ideology and his adoption of the label “eco-fascist” are inspired by a growing online community who share memes with texts like “Save Trees, not Refugees” and discuss how to prevent further ecological collapse.

According to this community, the rational response to climate breakdown is making sure the ‘worthy’ can continue their way of living, as the El Paso shooter described in his manifesto:

The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources.

It was this ‘logic’, based on the idea that population growth is the true driver of climate change, and that resources will always be misused, that led him to commit mass murder. Rather than seeking ways to mitigate the effects of climate breakdown, his ideas are fixated on purity, committed to ‘business as usual’, and focused on the needs of people like himself.

From the history of eco-fascism so far, we can discern how right-wing movements might use concern about climate breakdown for their own ends. As climate change causes more mass migration, concerns about a “right to the land” and racial purity are likely to grow. That should be a warning to the environmental movement, to be alert to how their messaging could be co-opted – and that is something we will explore in more detail in part two.

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