The Climate Movement Must Be Ready To Challenge Rising Right-Wing Environmentalism

Right-wing forces have denied the existence of climate change for decades, but we are beginning to see a shift away from crude denial toward a terrifying eco-fascism. We have to oppose any attempt to use the climate crisis to justify racist, reactionary, and authoritarian policies.

A climate justice protest. (Flickr)

Two main crises increasingly characterize the twenty-first century. The first is the climate crisis, which is leading to a dangerous and destabilized world. The second is the crisis of democracy, which is driving the rise of the authoritarian far right. The way in which these two crises intersect will have profound implications for the future of our species. For those of us on the Left, this raises uncomfortable questions that must be taken very seriously.

From Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro, right-wing politicians have repeatedly rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, spread deliberate misinformation, and opposed policies to reduce emissions. This pattern of denial and delay creates a negative feedback loop between these two crises: as trust in democracy is eroded, the climate and ecological emergency grows ever more dangerous.

Climate denial may have started as a far-right conspiracy theory, but today it is a mainstream political project, promoted by opaquely funded conservative think tanks, disseminated online by big tech companies, and written into law by paid lobbyists for the oil and gas industry. Capitalists have tied themselves to this far-right project because their short-term goals increasingly align with those of the far right. Both groups want to protect the profits of big business and shift the blame away from the rich and the powerful.

Right-Wing Environmentalism

As the Right attempts to block action on climate change, it is tempting to think of environmental issues as an exclusively left-wing concern. We know that in order to meaningfully address the climate and ecological emergency, we must democratize the economy, redistribute wealth, and ensure decent living standards for all people. Surely, then, it follows that any real attempt to combat climate change will have much more in common with international socialism than with neoliberal capitalism — or indeed modern-day fascism.

However, there is also a long history of right-wing environmentalism, which we ignore at our peril. Right-wing activists are now cultivating their own ecological philosophies. To conserve the environment, they argue, is a naturally conservative idea. It is therefore quite possible that a right-wing movement will emerge in the years to come that not only acknowledges the severity of the crisis, but also uses the reality of climate change to justify an increasingly authoritarian and reactionary response.

Climate change is an opportunity as much as a challenge, and the authoritarian right has always found it helpful to manufacture a crisis. Is it then so difficult to imagine that climate change, the ultimate threat to civilization, will one day be used to justify conservative politics? When resources are limited and huge portions of the globe are rendered uninhabitable, do we really think that capitalism is going to just give up and admit defeat?

It is not hard to see how environmental concerns can be incorporated into a right-wing ideology. Throughout history, capitalists have pointed to the natural world, which they claim is based upon competition and survival, to justify the systems that we, as humans, have created. This tradition also tends to emphasize the natural hierarchy of any society, contending that the strong will always outcompete the weak.

Thus, the right-wing imagination sees the natural world as a key part of our national identity that we, as patriots, are called upon to protect. In this worldview, the degradation of the living world is inextricably bound to the degradation of modern society. It perceives anything that is considered foreign or alien to be unnatural and unnecessary. This racist philosophy, also used to explain eugenics, is currently experiencing a deadly resurgence.

Blood and Soil

Last year, a white supremacist carried out a terrorist attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. He killed fifty-one people in a barbaric shooting that targeted two nearby mosques. Before carrying out this attack, the killer published a manifesto online proudly referring to himself as an “eco-fascist.” His manifesto railed against water pollution, plastic waste, and a society that is “creating a massive burden for future generations.”

This apocalyptic vision of collapse was intended to gain maximum attention online and should, therefore, be regarded with some skepticism. The “alt-right” has memeified modern-day fascism, and this so-called manifesto is littered with references to video games, social media, and popular culture. It is possible that the references to climate change are another deliberate distraction, but that is not how his supporters interpreted it.

Months later, there was another shooting in El Paso, Texas, directly inspired by the first shooting in Christchurch. The killer referenced similar ecological themes in his own manifesto and declared himself a “supporter of the Christchurch shooter.” Just one week later, another white supremacist launched a failed attack on a mosque in Norway. He described the Christchurch shooter as a “saint” and called on others to emulate the attacks.

For now, proponents of “eco-fascism” are mostly organizing online. However, there have been concerted attempts to take this movement off the internet and onto the streets. Richard Spencer, the man who popularized the term “alt-right,” does not deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change. In fact, he sees it as an important part of his politics.

Spencer once tweeted that population control was “the obvious solution to the ravages of climate change,” and wrote a manifesto for the “Unite The Right” rally in Charlottesville, arguing that “European countries should invest in national parks, wilderness preserves, and wildlife refuges, as well as productive and sustainable farms.” The protesters in Charlottesville picked up this theme, marching through the streets chanting an old Nazi slogan, “blood and soil.”

Fascism is not a new ideology, of course — and neither, for that matter, is “eco-fascism.” The slogan “blood and soil” was originally coined by Richard Walter Darré, a high-ranking functionary in the Nazi Party, to create a mystical link between the German people and their sacred homeland. This ideology stressed that ethnic identity was based on blood and thereby sought to portray Jews, whom Darré referred to as “weeds,” as a rootless race, unable to forge a true relationship with the land.

Fascists have, in the past, been able to synthesize far-right ideology with a kind of basic, unnuanced environmentalism. Indeed, many people in the Nazi Party thought of themselves as environmentalists. In their book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier reject the notion that the “green wing” of the Nazi Party were “a group of innocents, confused and manipulated idealists, or reformers from within”:

They were conscious promoters and executors of a vile program explicitly dedicated to inhuman racist violence, massive political repression and worldwide military domination.

The Nazi “green wing” had, at one point, a significant sway over the movement. Hitler could extoll the virtues of renewable energy in detail, once declaring that “water, winds and tides” were the energy path of the future. The youth movement was also an important recruiting tool: by synthesizing their love of nature with the violent doctrine of white supremacy, the Nazis were able to indoctrinate a new generation of young, patriotic fascists.

Making Sense of “Eco-Fascism”

The term “eco-fascist” is now used so frequently that it has been rendered almost meaningless. It is, for example, often used by right-wing climate deniers in an attempt to smear all environmentalists as authoritarian zealots. In Britain, James Delingpole is the author of The Little Green Book of Eco-Fascism, which frames environmental concerns as a left-wing plot “to frighten your kids, drive up energy costs and hike your taxes.”

Delingpole has previously described climate activist Greta Thunberg as “a 16-year old autistic kid” and stated that “hanging is far too good” for climate scientists. According to Delingpole, climate activists want to usher in “the eco-fascist New World Order,” while actual fascists — like the El Paso shooter — are not “quite the right-wing, Trump-voting, white nationalists that they have been played up to be in the media.”

On the other end of the political spectrum, many left-wing commentators now see “eco-fascism” as one of only two choices ultimately facing us. Rosa Luxemburg once popularized the slogan “socialism or barbarism.” Today, many eco-socialists speak of a choice between “eco-socialism or eco-barbarism.” There is, therefore, an unhelpful tendency on the Left to categorize any right-wing response to the climate crisis as a direct product of “eco-fascism.” Often, what they are actually referring to is a natural product of capitalism. Environmental racism is, after all, not the preserve of fascists.

However, we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be derailed by a futile terminological debate about what constitutes “eco-fascism.” The contemporary far right is not a homogenous entity. It is a complex alliance of individuals, groups, and parties with a wide range of beliefs. Their ideology is constantly in flux, and fascism is just one part of a wider political ecology, which has a way of attaching itself to other movements.

Today, the most pressing concern is not a small subculture of online “eco-fascists.” It is the various ways in which “eco-fascist” ideas are taking root in mainstream right-wing politics.

An Opportunistic Turn

Last year, right-wing populist parties won almost a quarter of the seats in the European Parliament. These parties are generally united on the issues of immigration, defense, and international security, but they increasingly diverge on the question of climate change.

While many parties still engage in the right-wing project of climate denial, others have started taking an altogether different approach. In France, Marine Le Pen claims to believe in climate change. In fact, she says that she wants to turn France into the “world’s leading ecological civilization.”

Marine Le Pen on May 1, 2012 in Paris, France. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images)

This is a very sudden shift in the politics of the far right, which should be approached with great caution. Le Pen supports nuclear power as the energy source of the future and talks about the natural world in a distinctly nationalistic tone. She refuses to engage with other countries in issues of international diplomacy and has nothing substantial to say on the greatest issues of our age. When her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, led the party, the National Front denied that anthropogenic climate change even existed. Today, his daughter is desperate to detoxify the party.

In Britain, a similar pattern is emerging. While far-right parties in the United Kingdom tend to downplay the scientific consensus on climate change, they often speak confidently about protecting the English countryside. The United Kingdom Independence Party has a vision of England rooted in a pastoral vision of old Albion. The British National Party peddles a similar line, but spells it out more explicitly, claiming to be “the only party to recognize that overpopulation — whose primary driver is immigration, as revealed by the government’s own figures — is the cause of the destruction of our environment.”

Right-wing parties frequently present an array of contradictory beliefs about the environment. An older generation often still supports the project of climate denial, while younger activists are much more likely to accept that anthropogenic climate change is real and are keen to use it to their advantage. In a similar way, the alt-right movement is made up of both “climate deniers” and “eco-fascists,” two seemingly disparate groups that happily coexist online. When push comes to shove, they are fascists first and foremost, with any environmental sensibilities distinctly secondary.

Right-wing leaders also understand that the world we live in is increasingly divided. Different messages work on different people and can be individually tailored to distinct subcultures, thanks in part to the internet. It is a strategic advantage if your ideology is adaptable and ambiguous enough to accommodate as many people as possible.

Recently, the “QAnon” conspiracy theory has undergone a deadly resurgence. Right-wing activists have mobilized their networks to spread disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, targeting groups that one might not naturally associate with the far right. A recent survey concluded that one in four Britons now believe in the “QAnon” conspiracy theory.

There are fears that this brand of conspiracism has become particularly widespread among the well-being and wellness community, a subculture that one might expect to lean toward the left-wing politics of the green movement. Could the same thing happen to climate activists? Or is it already happening?

“A Necessary Solution”

In March, an account that claimed to represent a local branch of Extinction Rebellion posted a photograph of a sticker with a dangerous slogan: “corona is the cure — humans are the disease.” A white supremacist group known as the Hundred-Handers produced the stickers and disseminated them. However, many people assumed that it was the work of genuine climate activists. The fact that it seemed credible was a huge part of the problem. In Britain, the climate movement has openly struggled with issues of racial and economic justice.

Indeed, the environmental movement has always had a somewhat confused relationship with the far right. Many of the first people to call themselves “conservationists” were also white supremacists. Madison Grant, for example, was an American zoologist who was a staunch supporter of race science as well. In 1916, he published The Passing of the Great Race, a pseudoscientific work that lamented the loss of the “Nordic” people. This racist tract inspired Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist.

Decades later, Dave Foreman became a controversial figure in the American climate movement. Foreman once said that “the worst thing we could do in Ethiopia is to give aid — the best thing would be to just let nature seek its own balance, to let the people there just starve.” His colleague Christopher Manes welcomed the AIDS epidemic as “a necessary solution” to the “population problem.”

Earth First! cofounder Dave Foreman.

Foreman’s most recent book, Man Swarm, argues that human overpopulation is the primary cause of the climate and ecological emergency. He describes the United States “as an overflow pond for reckless overbreeding in Central America and Mexico.”

The vast majority of environmentalists would, thankfully, find these views abhorrent. However, concerns about population growth and immigration have often been foundational to the modern green movement. To ignore that history would be a dangerous mistake.

In Britain, for example, the modern Green Party, originally known as the PEOPLE Party, was founded by a right-wing councilor, Tony Whittaker, and his wife Lesley after they read an interview in Playboy with Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb. Ehrlich’s book sounded the alarm about the growing population of the Global South and presented population control as the most important component of climate action.

Ehrlich recounted his experience of “emotionally” understanding the concept of overpopulation while looking out across a Delhi slum through the window of a taxi, and seeing “people, people, people, people” who were “begging” and “defecating” at every turn.

Authoritarian Fantasies

The European climate movement has always had a problem with racism. In the 1970s, Herbert Gruhl was a key early player in the German Greens, the most successful ecological party in Europe. Gruhl had previously been involved in far-right groups and called for “an end to immigration for ecological reasons.” He eventually left the party, claiming that the Greens had given up their “concern for ecology in favour of a leftist ideology of emancipation,” and went to establish a right-wing party instead, but his views remained influential in the European climate movement.

The dissident East German Marxist Rudolf Bahro expressed similar concerns. In his 1987 book The Logic of Salvation, he wrote: “The ecology and peace movement is the first popular German movement since the Nazi movement. It must co-redeem Hitler.” The opportunity, according to Bahro, was that today, “there is a call in the depths of the Volk for a Green Adolf.”

There is something about the enormity of climate change that can change people. Just ten years earlier, Bahro had identified himself as an eco-socialist, saying “red and green, green and red, go well together.” In Socialism and Survival, a book written nearly forty years ago with a very contemporary feel, Bahro put forward a persuasive argument on the need to combine socialism and environmentalism.

Murray Bookchin publicly debated Bahro and Dave Foreman, reproaching both men for their authoritarian approach to climate change. Bookchin argued that environmentalism without socialism was sure to end in disaster. When Bahro accused him of ignoring the “dark side” of humanity, Bookchin replied that the “dark side” of human nature emerges from a social foundation that we choose to indulge. A would-be ecological dictatorship, Bookchin told Bahro, “would not be ecological — it would finally finish off the planet altogether.”

Today, there are still some environmentalists who turn toward authoritarianism as a solution to ecological breakdown. James Lovelock, the scientist who developed the Gaia theory, has argued that democracy must be suspended to deal with climate change:

Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war.

Another scientist, Mayer Hillman agrees:

Can you see everyone in a democracy volunteering to give up flying? Can you see the majority of the population becoming vegan? Can you see the majority agreeing to restrict the size of their families?

This worrying trend of thought appears to be growing. It is, we should note, particularly prevalent among old white men living in wealthy Western countries.

Lifeboat Ethics

This is what happens when environmentalism gives up. In the years to come, the Right are going to offer more “pragmatic” and “realistic” solutions to climate change, based on piecemeal change and fantasy solutions. They are going to demonize climate refugees and tell us that left-wing environmentalists want the citizens of rich, developed countries to give up everything they now possess.

One of the dreadful solutions they offer will surely be “population control.” Right now, it is something they only dare whisper about, but this idea will inevitably spill out into the public sphere in the not too distant future. Unlike other solutions to climate change, this one has been a part of far-right ecological politics from the start.

Any modern history of population control could start with Pentti Linkola, another proponent of “eco-fascism.” Pentti Linkola called for a severe reduction in the human population in order to tackle climate change. He developed his own ethical framework, which he dubbed “lifeboat ethics”:

When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.

Demography is obviously a factor in the climate change calculation, but it is by no means the most important one. Population growth is now flattening out, while other, more important parts of the calculation are growing exponentially. Consumption and inequality are far more pressing concerns. Even taking into account the current trend in population growth, we have enough wealth and resources to provide a decent standard of living for every person on Earth while still reducing emissions in line with the Paris Agreement.

Pentti Linkola. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Right has managed to successfully depoliticize the climate crisis. It was reportedly Herbert Gruhl who coined the slogan “we are neither left nor right — we are in front.” Environmental movements elsewhere have taken up this slogan; Andrew Yang even used it in his bid to become the Democratic presidential nominee. For too long, the mainstream environmental movement has thought of climate change as something “beyond politics.” History shows that this approach can lead to devastating and barbaric consequences.

Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier give us a stark comparison with the youth movement in Nazi Germany:

The various strands of the youth movement shared a common self-conception: they were a purportedly “non-political” response to a deep cultural crisis, stressing the primacy of direct emotional experience over social critique and action. This posture lent itself all too readily to a very different kind of political mobilization: the “unpolitical” zealotry of fascism. Its countercultural energies and its dreams of harmony with nature bore the bitterest fruit. This is, perhaps, the unavoidable trajectory of any movement which acknowledges and opposes social and ecological problems but does not recognize their systemic roots or actively resist the political and economic structures which generate them. Eschewing societal transformation in favour of personal change, an ostensibly apolitical disaffection can, in times of crisis, yield barbaric results.

The dangerous and violent philosophy of far-right environmentalism is slowly being normalized. After the El Paso massacre, Jeet Heer noted “how banal” much of the killer’s manifesto now seemed, “echoing many of the nativist passions of mainstream Trumpism.”

A System in Decay

Fascism has often been described as capitalism in decay. The ecological emergency is surely the clearest proof of this. Our political and economic elites either do not understand the ramifications of their actions, which have driven the climate crisis, or simply do not care enough to stop it.

Take the Conservative Party in Britain. Just five years ago, Boris Johnson openly engaged in climate denial. Today, Johnson is prime minister, and like many right wing-leaders across Europe, he has been forced to accept the scientific consensus on climate change. The Tory politician now claims that he wants the United Kingdom to become the “Saudi Arabia of wind power,” and calls himself a “complete evangelist” for as yet unproven technologies such as carbon capture and storage.

The British government is betting on technological fixes to solve the climate crisis. Thus, one form of extractive industry will simply be replaced by another. We will continue to extract minerals from the Global South and turn a blind eye to human rights abuses in the global supply chain, pursuing infinite growth on a finite planet. At the same time, we will continue to drift ever more rightward.

Over the last year, the Conservatives have stepped up their racist rhetoric on immigration, demonizing refugees and threatening to deploy warships in the English Channel. They have considered sending asylum seekers to offshore detention centers while pushing legislation through parliament to limit the prosecution of British soldiers for war crimes and allow state agents to commit crimes like murder and torture. The British authorities have classified climate protesters as “domestic extremists” and banned books that are critical of capitalism from schools.

These violent and barbaric policies, pursued by the dominant political forces throughout Europe and North America, will ultimately lead to the death or displacement of hundreds of millions of people. Therefore, the struggle for climate justice must also be a struggle for economic and racial emancipation.

The two great crises of our age — the climate emergency and the decline of democracy — stem from a much bigger crisis: the ongoing crisis of capitalism. In order to address that, we need to oppose far-right environmentalism and build a climate movement that is both anti-fascist and anti-capitalist. We have to be ever vigilant against the threat of “eco-fascism,” and ensure the climate movement is not susceptible to the violent and dangerous solutions of the Right.