Worse Than Climate Denial

Climate denial is giving way to an even uglier monster: eco-fascism. Here’s how we can combat it.

Photo by  Ye Jinghan .

Photo by Ye Jinghan.

For years, political will to address environmental concerns has struggled against public apathy. This apathy has entrenched widespread denial of the most pressing threat to society, the climate crisis. Indeed, the stubborn influence of climate denial in American politics and discourse has been so overwhelming that it often dominates any conversation between climate activists, scientists, and journalists.

But climate denialism is starting to waver as the grim predictions set forth by climate change “alarmists” just a few years ago have started to come true ahead of schedule and with terrifying force. With wildfires sweeping California, flooding in the Midwest, tornadoes in New Jersey, and the other generalized spasms of bizarre weather affecting every part of the country, it’s getting harder for anyone to ignore climate emergencies. Or, as Republican consultant Whit Ayers bluntly put it to the New York Times: “Denying the basic existence of climate change is no longer a credible position.” To those in the environmental movement who have struggled vainly against the impenetrable wall of climate denial for years, any departure from denialism on the right may seem like a miracle. But the embrace of conservation and the realities of climate change on the right has not, and likely will not, translate into new converts to ecosocialism or the Green New Deal. Instead, the right has begun to slide toward ecofascism.

The impact of the word “ecofascism” has been diluted by using the term to describe any type of conservation-minded liberal or centrist, which is a shame because ecofascism is a coherent ideology with real implications. European far-right movements have seamlessly integrated environmentalist language with their xenophobic and reactionary tirades. In France, for example, the far right party Front National, now known as National Rally, rolled out a “New Ecology” program that doubles down on anti-immigration rhetoric and a devotion to nuclear energy, tying concerns for the environment with the interests of a French racial identity. In Switzerland, an old environmental advocacy group became a vehicle for far-right talking points, identifying its supporters as “green patriots” and similarly railing against immigration. And they’re far from alone; Greece and Hungary have also birthed their own “econationalist” movements while the Five Star Movement in Italy has also sought to marry xenophobia with environmentalism and is rapidly gaining power in the government. They have also begun to align themselves with the openly fascist Lega Nord party. As American conservatives begin to recognize the political futility of climate denial—and the political utility of ecofascism—they may begin to adopt the talking points and strategies of their transatlantic friends.

Like fascism as a whole, ecofascist thought is constructed as a series of rebuttals meant to shift blame for capitalism’s ills away from those truly responsible. Posing as radically revolutionary, it is in fact deeply conservative—its only true aim is to protect the existing social order by any means necessary, so it will adopt any rhetoric and tactics to endear itself to the masses. Nonetheless, ecofascist ideas are connected by historical and philosophical threads. At the core of ecofascism, like historical fascism, is vehement misanthropy and a fixation on purity.

Ecofascism leans heavily on Malthusian ideas, particularly the perils of a growing population. Just as Malthus warned about the “iron law of wages”, Hitler wrote about the dangers of rebelling against the “iron laws of nature”. These analyses, of course, always concluded that the problem was with the existence of specific types of human. By this framework, genocide on an unthinkable scale is the only real way to avert ecological collapse. The main concern of ecofascists is not if genocide is necessary, but how to enact it and on whom.

Ecofascists are concerned about the human impact on the environment in general, but no topic inspires them more than overpopulation. This is one of the reasons why ecofascism is so in danger of being legitimized by the mainstream. Scientists and environmentally-minded citizens may not believe in genocide, but they do have fears about overpopulation. Carrying capacity—the idea of an upper limit to what an ecosystem can provide to its inhabitants—is one of the most intuitive concepts in ecology and it is certainly true that any species, humans included, may exceed it through sheer numbers and overconsumption. But a single-minded focus on overpopulation encourages a mindset that views birth rates or numbers of people as the cause of poverty and environmental destruction, despite shaky evidence and warnings from scientists themselves about assuming such causation. When made the central focus of policy, the idea of overpopulation tends to have brutal consequences for marginalized people. Even in times of relative stability, we have seen that bodily autonomy and human dignity are too often forgotten. Consider, for instance, the ongoing assault on abortion access or the prevalence of forced sterilization in the US long after the eugenics movement faded from the mainstream. As long as people are willing to accept that humans may one day need to be culled like game, ecofascism lurks just out of sight, ready to take charge at the first sign of a truly massive climate disaster.

The ideology of ecofascism gains new animus in the face of the climate crisis, which offers the perfect urgency required to make ecofascist solutions seem plausible or even reasonable. We must seriously contend with the possibility of ecofascism infiltrating or even dominating our future climate decisions. It can take the form of an openly ecofascist takeover—not difficult to imagine given the current administration—but it can just as easily seep into the discourse of other groups and fester until some ecological crisis forces those ideas into practice. Today, we are faced with a landscape where both of these scenarios could develop, perhaps even simultaneously. Federal agencies like DHS are erecting concentration camps at the southern border in which migrants and refugees are dying of neglect and abuse. Already, GOP lawmakers are proposing draconian sentences of up to 20 years for pipeline and fossil fuel protesters, labeling them as “ecoterrorists” that disrupt “critical infrastructure”. Ecofascist attitudes are frighteningly compatible with the evangelical dispensationalism that permeates American politics, which holds that God’s select elite will be saved while the heathen others are left to die in the end times. Meanwhile, billionaires, fascist gangs, and the suburban petty bourgeoisie have shown that they are willing to use violence to protect their status and comfort even in the best of times. Neither the moral blight of homelessness nor its public health impacts, for example, have swayed real estate developers, police, or NIMBYs from brutalizing homeless people by any means necessary. In times of crisis, they have been known to do far worse. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006—and the vigilante terrorism that white Orleanians inflicted on their black neighbors in “dry” neighborhoods like Algiers Point—shows that white supremacy is emboldened, not humbled, by disaster. Despite the gains socialists and marginalized people have made over the years, the balance of power and influence are still overwhelmingly tilted in favor of a fascist response to climate emergencies.

Ecofascism leans heavily on the supposed “laws of nature”, particularly ones that conveniently map onto capitalist parables. For instance, ecofascist imagery and rhetoric prizes the sanctity of “natural” hierarchies of lives and their value, pointing to the brutal calculus of nature to justify brutal policies in the name of protecting nature. The rich, they proclaim, are rich because they are genetically superior and deserve to stand at the top of the economy’s hierarchy, not because they got lucky. Perhaps one of the main ideas that binds fascists and capitalists is this mind-melting moral tautology suggesting that all the inequalities and injustices in the world are there because that’s right and natural and they should be there.

But we must recognize that these “laws” are not laws at all, and they certainly are not the only way to see the world. Indeed, all of these ideas are defined within a colonial language that only has words for extraction and exploitation. Many indigenous cultures have found ways to live within the real world, outside of such mythologies, and do so sustainably within natural cycles of energy transfer within their native ecosystems. Their stewardship must be central to climate repair. But they cannot simply be paid concessions by a beneficent  settler government. They must be able to govern their lands outside of the colonial structure that has been imposed on them by violence. Moreover, indigenous people continue to hold the front lines in the struggle for environmental justice. They are defending water resources, old-growth rainforests, and entire mountain ranges from exploitation, and face brutality from private capital and the state. Our survival depends in large part on solidarity with their efforts.

Another vital antidote to ecofascism, one which is gaining traction in the mainstream, is the rejection of apolitical environmentalism. Fascist ideas draw a great deal of power from their appeals to the “natural” order of society, but omit discussions about the very deliberately engineered violence that built this order. We must address the colonial language that has made ecofascism possible and make it clear that the hoarding of private capital, fossil fueled-extraction, and gross incentives to overexploit are almost entirely responsible for the environmental crisis.

Fascism of any kind thrives in a crisis situation, and the growing likelihood of natural disaster in many communities means it may be necessary to organize more around this danger. Even if fascists do not take advantage of the chaos following a natural disaster to exert their power, there will be other existential threats: leaking sewage, ruptured gas tanks, a disrupted food supply, to name a few. Organizers who are interested in preparing their communities for the worst should ask themselves about how they might provide sanitation, food, drinking water, and other resources in the event of environmental emergency using democratic means. Normally, disaster preparation is a resource-intensive and fairly technocratic endeavor, but it doesn’t need to be this way. The most versatile tool available to us today is not a technology, but a set of design principles. Permaculture, for example, is a practice of designing systems with attention to how humans and nature reinforce each other’s needs. From an ecosocialist standpoint, it is by far the most exciting tool at our disposal. It also has real strategic and tactical value in protecting vulnerable people against all kinds of environmental threats from ecofascism or otherwise. Ideally, the goal is to build a model that resists co-optation. The growing interest of bona fide ecofascists in permaculture shows that they are certainly interested in doing just that, but whether or not they will be successful remains an open question. Permaculture is intrinsically bound up with respect for indigenous knowledge, sovereignty, and labor, and any version of it that omits these practices will come up short of its goals and founding vision.

The true material reward of permaculture is the maintenance of local food production chains that aren't dependent on capital. The world today relies heavily on shipping, but these long, thin supply lines are easily disrupted and controlled by a fascist state and even more so in a natural disaster scenario. The flooding in the Midwest has already disrupted grain production in the US on a scale that could trigger a genuine food crisis. It is therefore essential to decommodify and return the means of producing food to the masses. Permaculture, although far from solving all of our problems, is the first step in creating communities that don’t require outside input to survive. With permaculture, all the features of a landscape, from its topography to its unique flora, can be manipulated to improve human life. It can even form the basis of community self-defense by designing landscapes to be strategically advantageous to their residents and disorienting to intruders. Organizing using permaculture as a guide may also help the formation of bioregions where power is shared across a watershed, which places natural resources—and the power that comes from controlling them—in the hands of people, a direct counter to the centralized authority at the heart of fascism.

Improving the capacity for people’s local environments to feed and protect them will also reduce the likelihood of displacement, the unspoken killer in any natural disaster. In New Orleans, for example, those who died at the hands of white vigilantes were seeking out necessities that they could not find in their home neighborhoods that were not only blighted by floods, but had already been lacking in basic resources even before the hurricane. What amounted to a food desert in peacetime became a wellspring for violence in a crisis. Not only that, but displacement often means people will be abandoned, and capitalists—to say nothing of fascists—have already made clear whom they will leave behind. Inmates, disabled people, and undesired minorities of all stripes will be left to die without remorse, justified by a perverse view of survival as a privilege, not a right. The best way to truly combat this possibility is to resist displacement.

Organizing around a need as fundamental as disaster preparedness is a great way to build a strong foundation for solidarity that carries true political power for the working class. Here, we may look to the example of the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast programs, and the feat of organizing and labor that made them possible. Every day for nearly five years, members of the Portland chapter of the Black Panthers woke up at the crack of dawn to begin the work that fed some 125 children free breakfast before school. If our organizations aren’t capable of pulling off something similar for even a few weeks, perhaps we should take steps to change that. Filling children’s stomachs frees them, and their parents, from the ugly work of fighting over scraps and forms the baseline of more stable, empowered lives. In a disaster situation, this type of framework will be essential to restoring sanitation, nutrition, and security, the three most potent determinants of life or death in communities affected by disaster. If the goal is to prevent deaths from climate chaos and directly combat the influence of fascism, our organizations should consider how they answer these needs for our communities. Organizations that are capable of giving more than they receive in a disaster are the ones that save lives.  

The phenomenon of ecofascism shows that fascists can appeal to climate anxiety just as well as they do economic anxiety. An end to denial is not necessarily the promise of a better world, particularly when fascists are openly co-opting fears for the environment to push their ghastly agenda. Let us be the ones to show that our words mean something. Our promises are better than theirs.

Lynn Wang is an environmental and marine scientist based in Los Angeles, CA. Her work has led her to Cape Eleuthera Institute, Wrigley Institute of Environmental Studies, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science. She is a founding member of Asian American Feminists of Los Angeles. She tweets @lynnspiracy.

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