activism climate change politics

Avoiding eco-fascist creep

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.

In part one of this two-part series, I looked at definitions of eco-fascism, and some past and present examples. In part two, we will look at some common narratives within the climate change movement that lend themselves to co-opting by eco-fascists. By being alert to that potential, we can avoid creating space for a creep towards eco-fascism.

Creating space for eco-fascism

As we saw in part one, fascism relies on notions of land and belonging. It invokes fear and the need for protection, appealing to a united innocent “us” that needs protection from an encroaching “them”. The way that we talk about climate change can inadvertently feed these ideas.

For example, the climate crisis is often portrayed as a challenge for all of humanity, and this is used as a call to unity and cooperation. (See David Attenborough.) In reality, climate change will exacerbate existing inequalities, as it is marginalised and poor people who suffer first and most. The harm from climate change divides along race and class lines, reflecting existing power structures of colonialism, imperialism, and privilege. Talking about a common human experience can lead people with high carbon footprints, who are relatively sheltered from the direct effects of climate change, to nevertheless understand themselves as victims.

This is an idea that can then be appropriated, and facilitate “fascist creep” – fascist ideas seeping into radical political groups and subcultures, as well as into mainstream discourse.

This fascist wave is an accumulation of many tiny droplets. Some of these droplets consist of appeals to victimhood and innocence. Some droplets are declarations of emergency and threat. Ethnic nationalists can easily co-opt fear-based narratives about crisis and victimhood – especially when climate communication neglects the unequal responsibilities for, and impact of, climate breakdown.

If the climate movement is to avoid this fascist creep, it needs to be alert to the little entry points that allow fascists to infiltrate a discourse. Good intentioned ideas can go astray when combined with “blood and soil” fascism, feeding existing sentiments such as racism, xenophobia, and hatred for refugees.

So what sort of messages are we talking about?

Whose time is running out?

Let’s start with XR, one of the fastest-growing climate movements of recent times. Part of their broad appeal is recognisable slogans and symbols that people can rally around. Epitomised in that iconic sand-timer logo, Extinction Rebellion’s analysis of “time running out” is similar to that of the school strikers. Fridays4Future, the movement of high school students on strike to protest politicians’ apathy concerning climate change, are clear in their analysis: their future is being robbed from them.

However, some people are not only robbed of their future but also of their present. The need to act, and the sense of loss and fear of people in the West is clearly communicated in protest placards and memes. The stories of climate change already happening are less visible, as are the power structures that have enabled climate breakdown both in the past and present. Sometimes these are actively avoided to depoliticise the issue.

A focus on the future risks downplaying the fact that many people have already suffered from climate breakdown. It is only from a privileged position that one can frame the destruction of fossil fuel use as a problem concerning the future. A call for panic because the house is on fire is already late: it has been burning for quite some time now, and the servants living in the attic have already lost their lives.

The apocalypse is not in the future; the apocalypse is now. It’s just not on the doorsteps of the global North.

There are notable exceptions of course, and XR is conspicuous in its efforts to include broader narratives and to break out of the perception of it being a white and middle-class space. Nevertheless, centring the experience of white, Western young people risks elevating white, Western solutions above others, which would suit the eco-fascists just fine.

Beyond politics?

In order to gather wide support, climate communications often aim for political neutrality. But communicating climate change in a neutral way both results from, and results in, an unawareness of privilege.

Privilege is a morally neutral term to describe the other side of oppression: when there is injustice, there is also privilege. Your position within an unequal system influences your point of view, which influences what you recognise as just and unjust. What one person considers to be apolitical may be nothing of the sort to someone else. What is described as a ‘neutral standpoint’ is most likely to be the standpoint of the dominant group.

It is privilege that makes it possible to ignore the unequal effect of climate breakdown on different groups of people, and it is privilege that ignores the unequal contribution those people make to global emissions. Not acknowledging that privilege makes it easier for people to rally to the cause, but also leaves the door open for appropriation.

There’s a useful comparison to be made here: the Occupy movement used the phrase “we are the 99%”, which potentially invited 99% of the world to get behind them. But in seeking to be inclusive, the slogan left it open to the imagination what the 1% might look like. The movement thus included anti-capitalists, hippies and communists, but also people who believed the banking system was run by lizard people or a Jewish cabal. Some of these people later turned to the far-right for answers. This is obviously not what the original Occupiers intended, but it’s a clear example of how fascist creep might happen. A watered-down message might keep people comfortable and attract more people to the movement, but it might not do enough to push them forward.

The climate movement thus should be careful with unspecified slogans and images that attract and gather more people – especially when their inviting message could be susceptible to co-option by eco-fascists.

The Anthropocene and the equally innocent

“The Anthropocene” is the proposed name for a new geological epoch – coined in the 1980s by Eugene Stoermer and popularised by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen. They recognised that humankind’s impact on the earth was now visible in the geological record and marked the end of the Holocene. The Anthropocene is a potent mobiliser for the climate movement because it clearly indicates the immensity of the crisis. Although it is yet to be formally recognised, the term is already widely used to discuss the seriousness of climate change.

Anthropos means “human” in ancient Greek: humanity was now so powerful that it could change the course of planetary history. That makes the term controversial. Referencing “the Anthropos” suggests that human existence, rather than a consumer capitalist way of existing, is the problem. By implicating all equally, the idea of the Anthropocene creates an “equally innocent” trope which frames climate breakdown as being caused by all humans, rather than a specific set of profit-seeking fossil-fuel-combusting people.

Like solemn funeral processions where activists carry a casket with the words “our future,” it conveys that something is taken from innocent people. This enables white climate activists in the global North to portray themselves as victims, obscuring how they benefit from current geopolitical structures. It opens the door to the fascistic rhetoric of victimhood.

Furthermore, it makes population control a spearhead for climate change prevention. Depicting the climate crisis as caused by all humans results in the notion that getting rid of some of them might benefit the climate. If people are contributing to climate breakdown, fewer people means less climate breakdown. As we saw in part one, this has directly influenced eco-fascist terrorism.

We’re all in this together

One might question how “we are all in this together” could be a divisive statement, rather than inspiring cooperation and empathy. But this too can enable fascist creep.

An analogy can be made with the slogan #blacklivesmatter. The Black Lives Matter movement introduced this hashtag to call attention to the fact that black people were much more likely to face police violence than white people. The claim that their lives mattered was a radical one in a society that did not always treat them that way. A response to this call was to claim that “all lives matter”: police violence is wrong regardless of the victim’s race. While “all lives matter” sounds more pluralistic, this take on the issue diminishes the suffering of black people. It erases the experiences and realities of people of colour.

The same is true of climate breakdown. Ecosystem collapse does not discriminate any more than a police bullet does. But whether it will hit you, and to what effect, and whether there will be outrage about that fact, sadly, does seem to be influenced by skin colour, socio-economic background, and where on the earth you were born.

This is an Emergency     

The “climate emergency” is another common term we should scrutinise. Invoking “fear of crisis” is an appealing strategy for the climate movement. After all, there is a real threat that will cost many lives. Scaring people, stressing the immensity of the threat, might motivate people to act.

While “now or never” messaging might spur people into action, it is an idea that could prove attractive to eco-fascists. The call to act now, and the fear that motivates it, encourages decisionism. The crisis narrative might circumvent democratic decision-making, preserving what is, rather than rethinking the system that resulted in climate breakdown in the first place. (Eg techno-fixes or border control.)

In times of anxiety, there is little motivation to think about justice, fairness, and systemic causes. Claire Colebrook warns that crisis narratives create a space where it is acceptable to act without taking everyone into account: “just as the 2008 global financial crisis allowed the immediate bailout of banks without questions of justice or blame being allowed to delay what was declared to be a necessary response, so the severity of the Anthropocene presents itself as a justification in advance for executive actions”.

Calling something a crisis is not in and of itself a wrong approach. However, if accompanied by the idea that a strong leader should intervene or that there is not time to hear everyone, it starts to resemble more fascistic decision-making.

Conclusion

The climate movement needs to be alert to how its messaging could be used, and guard against fascist creep. In order to avoid empowering eco-fascists, a good place to start is to acknowledge how privilege influences climate communication, and how a shallow understanding of inclusion and neutrality can leave the door open to appropriation.

Most importantly, the movement needs to talk honestly about it. Sea levels will rise, and how far they rise remains to be seen. A fascist wave is also rising. However unintentional it may be, climate communicators should be careful not to contribute to it.

12 comments

  1. Certainly in Glasgow during COP26 there was very much an emphasis on climate in/justice, XR being part of that, so I’m not sure the accusation of them only being concerned about the future of Western white people is a fair one.

    1. Yes, I saw that in Glasgow too. That’s why the piece said there are exceptions, and as someone who’s been quite involved in XR myself, I can see that there is a lot of effort from the leadership of XR to get this right. Nevertheless, at protest after protest the dominant message is that we should be terrified for our grandchildren.

      1. I have to say that’s not my impression.
        While XR sometimes exaggerate the level of risk posed by immediate climate change, the main message I get from XR is ‘Act Now’ or things will get a lot worse. Which is broadly true. An hour glass seems like a fairly literal symbol to me of time being short; and after decades of complacency is refreshing. If worried about authoritarianism/fascism (whether of eco or more traditional) I would first look to the UK government, and their disregard for both international law and constitutional conventions rather than worrying about an eco fascist bogeyman. The PCSC Bill, for example, targets protestors, primarily those in XR and BLM, I don’t think they’d be doing that if they thought their protests could somehow be turned to their advantage.

        Ultimately, the best way to prevent the rise of an authoritarian government (of any kind) is to take timely action on climate, and avoid the worst effects of climate change that would give governments excuse to bring in authoritarian powers.

        1. Absolutely, and there is nothing wrong with urgency on its own. The key thing is to be alert to its misuse. I’ve seen this for myself a couple of times, which is why I wanted to highlight Harriet’s work. On two occasions, with different groups of people in XR circles, I’ve heard people say that a totalitarian state might be the best way to address climate. Just get it done.

          That’s where the danger creeps in. Not from the leadership of XR, not from the mainstream movement. It comes in the back door, because the sense of urgency has been so ramped up that extreme options now look justifiable. These weren’t comments from neo-Nazis. They’re ordinary people like me who are so worried about climate change that they would be prepared to support ideas they would normally find repulsive.

          That doesn’t mean we stop talking about urgency. The takeaway for me is to be vigilant about those sorts of conversations, and make sure that I push back against that kind of rhetoric. Being aware of privilege is part of that – yes, you might be prepared to tolerate a fascist regime, because we wouldn’t be the victims of its policies.

          In short, yes to urgent climate action – but always with a focus on the disadvantaged and the marginalised, on human rights and democracy.

    2. I would have hoped the acknowledgement that there are notable exceptions and that XR conspicuous in its efforts to include broader narratives, sort of covers your concern here 🙂

      The problem is not with communicating there is little time, or that we have to act now. The problem is with not communicating clearly enough that we should have acted way earlier! Time is running out for white people. Many less privileged people are already the victims of climate breakdown.,

  2. Colombian presidential proposal “Petro+Francia” fight against the environment abuse lead by the industry mainly mining.

  3. Don’t compromise with moderates as that might empower the far right extremists. Sure I’ve heard the tune before.

    1. Not here you haven’t. This is all about language. Build broad coalitions – just don’t lean too heavily on ’empty signifiers’ that allow such broad interpretation that your slogans get hijacked by extremists.

      1. So you read this “In order to avoid empowering eco-fascists, a good place to start is to acknowledge how privilege influences climate communication, and how a shallow understanding of inclusion and neutrality can leave the door open to appropriation.“ as ‘it’s all about communication’? OK

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