Within the “crisis in liberal democracy” of the past decade, two issues that have been detrimental: climate change and right-wing extremism (Forchtner, 2019, 11). Interestingly, a small, albeit growing, number of people are seeking to combine the two – they are right-wing extremist preoccupied with environmentalist concerns. Yet right-wing extremist environmentalism, or eco-fascism, is overlooked not only historically, but also by contemporary research. In effort to understand the multifaceted extreme right-wing it is important to examine its roots and contemporary stands. The fact that eco-fascism exists makes it pertinent to find a response to climate change that is inclusive and just – and that does not entail racial hierarchies and genocide as solutions to the climate crisis.
While it sounds like something which older generations would call Extinction Rebellion activists, eco-fascism is nothing like the climate movements on the left. Eco-fascism as a term has gained traction and (re)gained popularity in anonymous online right-wing extremist forums in recent years, especially after the Christchurch attacks in 2019. The terrorist, Brenton Tarrant, wrote in his 85-page manifesto that he was an eco-fascist. He claimed that the case for conserving nature and saving the planet is an inherently fascist one, as the white race cannot survive without a planet to inhabit, and that the white race and its territories are being “polluted” by immigrants.
Later on, El Paso shooter Patrick Crucius would go on to cite ecological degradation as part of the motivation for the US terrorist attack he conducted in 2019. Similarly, the American “pine tree gang”, an online subculture, promotes ideas that “blend a sense of impending environmental catastrophe with themes taken from white nationalism” (Wilson, 2019). None of the mentioned, however, came up with this line of reasoning themselves. Eco-fascism, in fact, has been around since before WW2.
19th-century thinkers and Nazism
In order to understand the worldview that informs the self-described eco-fascists of the 21st century, and why they are named right-wing extremists, it is firstly useful to determine what exactly is meant when referring to fascism in this article. According to Carter (2005, 18), right-wing extremism encompasses most movements on the so-called “far right” (a term that has been popularized in the past years, but that she finds problematic because it implies that the defining feature of right wing extremists is that they are furthest to the right on the political spectrum). She writes that extremism is often conceptualized as the antithesis of democracy, and that it is “characterized by its rejection of the fundamental values, procedures and institutions of the democratic constitutional state” (Carter, 2005, 17).
What separates right-wing extremism from other extremisms is its rejection of the principle of human equality, a principle which arguably has laid the foundation for liberal democracy and that is not rejected by left-wing extremist movements. Fascism, neo-fascism, and thus, I contend, eco-fascism, are according to Carter mere manifestations of the concept of right-wing extremism. All fascists and eco-fascists are right-wing extremists, but not all right-wing extremists are fascists. The same is true for Nazi and neo-Nazi movements. It is also important to note that not all right-wing extremists are violent (at least not in the physical sense), and it is necessary to distinguish between terrorism and extremism (Blackbourn et al., 2019, 184). Though Tarrant and Crucius committed acts of terrorism, and the Nazi party committed atrocities against mankind that will never be forgotten, not all of their sources of inspiration and ideas were or are violent in the same manner.
The right-wing extremists of the 21st century were not the first right-wing extremists to put ecological conservation on their agenda. Staudenmaier writes that the so-called “green wing” of the Nazi movement in Germany is under-researched and analyzed (2011, 14). He calls Germany the birthplace of the science of ecology, “home to a peculiar synthesis of naturalism and nationalism forged under the influence of the Romantic tradition’s anti-Enlightenment irrationalism” (2011, 15). Some of the early environmental thinkers, like the 19th century’s Ernst Moritz Arndt, were harsh condemners of deforestation; however, Arndt’s thinking in particular was “inextricably bound up with virulently xenophobic nationalism” (2011, 17).
The ideas of 18th century social scientist Thomas Malthus were and are also influential, according to Manavis and Wilson (2018; 2019). Malthus claimed that population growth was surpassing the world’s food production capacity, advocating for population control in response. This line of thinking has certainly inspired various historical nature conservation movements more or less on the (extreme) right-wing in the US (Robertson, 2012), and they underpin the totality of the current eco-fascism strain of thought.
Even well-known existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger has, according to Staudenmaier, helped to bridge fascism and environmentalism. Heidegger, who was a member of the Nazi party during its heyday, criticized modern technology, and rejected humanism, the latter being a defining feature of right-wing extremism (Carter, 2005). The Nazi Party passed a law on conservation in 1935 (Uekötter, 2006, 1), and Nazi leaders adapted biological concepts to social phenomena to justify “not only the totalitarian social order of the Third Reich but also the expansionist politics of Lebensraum” (Staudenmaier, 2011, 27). Ecological arguments, according to Staudenmaier, even served as arguments for the Holocaust:
“The confluence of anti-humanist dogma with a fetishization of natural ‘purity’ provided not merely a rationale but an incentive for the Third Reich’s most heinous crimes. Its insidious appeal unleashed murderous energies previously untapped (…) This is the true legacy of eco-fascism in power: genocide developed into a necessity under the cloak of environment protection” (2011, 40).
One can draw a line directly from the ideology and thinkers that informed the Nazi worldview to Tarrant and Crucius’ claim that they were attacking in order to conserve their “people” and their “land”. Putting on “the cloak of environment protection”, the terrorists killed innocent people to, among other things, create space for “their kind”, just like the Nazi Party did. Eco-fascists of the 21st century do not disagree with such a comparison, reflected in their discussions in online forums on where they meet and discuss Arguments such as “the Third Reich was one of the earliest governments to make conservationism a major focus,” and that it “pisses me off how everyone associates deep ecology with Communism and far left ideologies, which are deeply rooted in industrialization. It was Nazi Germany that was environmentally aware,” are common (quoted in Manavis, 2018), though calls for nature conservation preexisted the Nazi Party’s rise to power, without being bound to right-wing extremist ideology (Uekötter, 2006, 4).
The Nouvelle Droite and the alt-right
Alain de Benoist’ Nouvelle Droite movement in the late 1960s is said to share commonalities with the current US alt-right movement (Hawley, 49, 2016). Hawley writes that the Nouvelle Droite drew its inspiration from several prominent Weimar-era German thinkers, most of whom did not end up becoming Nazis, but also included elements associated with the left, such as “strong environmental protections” (37, 2019). The Nouvelle Droite hence could also be considered a predecessor of contemporary eco-fascism. Most of the ideology and motivations of contemporary extreme right terrorists are, in my opinion, not particularly inspired by the Nazi regime. A common denominator for the newer extreme right-wing, for example, is the notion of leaderless resistance, something that directly contradicts the importance of the “strong leader” in earlier Nazi and fascist movements (Fangen, 40, 1998).
Movements such as the alt-right, which is online white nationalism clad in irony and self-loathing (Hawley, 20, 2019; Nagle, 2017), in addition to thinkers such as Bat Ye’or or the Nouvelle Droite and the neo-reaction movement, had a larger influence on Tarrant and Crucius. But said thinkers, apart from de Benoist’s movement, are either in denial of climate change or fail to mention it at all. The alt-right is for example in climate denial, rather than using climate change as an argument to further their racist agenda (Main, 178, 2018). Hence, the ecological strain of thought seems to stem more from 1930-40s Nazism and fascism, than newer extreme right ideology, though de Benoist and the Nouvelle Droite can also be considered a source of inspiration for contemporary eco-fascists.
The merging of right-wing extremism and environmentalism goes against much of the general understanding of both of the two concepts; environmentalism has for long been considered a left-wing preoccupation, and Forchtner finds that there is a link between actors on both the right and the “far right”, and climate skepticism. Hultman et al. (2019) also argue that climate denialism, rather than environmentalism, and far-right nationalism have merged. However, Forchtner does acknowledge that actors on the very edge of the extreme right spectrum – as Tarrant, Crucius and the “pine tree gang” undeniably are – show an inclination towards environmentalism, “due to the significance attributed to the link between ‘the land’ and ‘the people,’ nature and nation” (Forchtner, 2019, 2).
Even the most laudable of causes can be perverted
Regardless of what academics assert, the ecological conservation element of extreme-right thought is found in previously mentioned terrorist manifestos. Indeed, right-wing extremists wish to conserve their own people, or “race”, by protecting their land, viewing humans as not separated from nature but in it. Multiculturalism, eco-fascists say, is destroying the planet, and non-white birth rates are exceeding white birth rates, overpopulating “white territories” and driving the “white race” to extinction.
It should be unnecessary to mention how ridiculous and disgusting eco-fascism is. Not only are ideologies that render human being’s unequal based on race, gender or ethnicity extremely dangerous, but the environmental argument is completely illogical. Though we are aware that climate change must be fought through a global effort, as greenhouse gasses know no borders, the eco-fascists seek only to preserve their own territory – they want to find climate change on a national level, rather than a global one. A nationalist response to climate change is, regardless of the horridness that lays behind it, doomed to fail.
Even “the most laudable of causes can be perverted and instrumentalized in the service of criminal savagery” (Staudenmaier, 2011, 39). Indeed, what eco-fascism serves as a reminder of is that a democratic and just response to the current climate crisis is imperative. The merging of environmentalism and right-wing extremism is not new, and the worldview that recent extremist terrorist attackers further, one which is highly reminiscent of Nazi party environmental thinking, is highly problematic. It could have dangerous consequences if not addressed properly.
JULIA KIRSEBOM THOMMESSEN
Julia is a third year International Relations student at King’s College London. Her research interests include right wing extremism, radicalisation, migration and modern slavery.
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