Nika Qutelia

The rise of eco-fascism

As seen at the Capitol riots, far-right extremists are increasingly embracing green causes

In the days following the Washington, D.C. riots, online investigators have uncovered the identities of dozens of members of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol. The emerging picture is a patchwork of the U.S. far-right, filled with interconnected extremist groups that most people had previously never heard of.

Shirtless and wearing a buffalo-horned fur hat, Jacob Chansley — also known as Jake Angeli and the QAnon Shaman — perfectly embodied the chaos of the January 6 insurrection. Examination of Chansley’s social media activity appears to indicate his involvement with a set of hardline right-wing environmentalist beliefs known as eco-fascism. Meanwhile, photographs of rioters affiliated with the Proud Boys and the paramilitary hate group The Base, which have both embraced aspects of this school of thought, show that they also played a central role in the unrest.

Having existed on the fringes of the far-right for decades, the ideologies of green nationalism and eco-fascism are on the rise around the world, spurred on by the intensifying climate crisis and the ongoing rise of populist and authoritarian political movements. Instead of deploying the usual anti-immigration rhetoric, certain elements of the extreme right are now attracting new recruits and pushing their broader agendas while promoting a very specific brand of reactionary environmental activism.

The adoption of these positions is not just a cynical ploy, either. Far-right environmentalism is based on beliefs of racial purity and homeland that form the very foundations of white nationalist thinking. As such, it should not be viewed as mere political opportunism.

“We should take what they say seriously,” said Bernhard Forchtner, author of the academic book “The Far-right and the Environment.” “If we simply say, it’s opportunistic, well it might be, but that robs us of a better understanding of what drives these actors.”

Far-right involvement in the environmental movement is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the term “ecology” was first coined in the mid-1800s by the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel, a social Darwinist and dedicated racist whose writings went on to inspire Hitler’s National Socialist movement.

By the early 20th century, racist environmentalists in the U.S. had developed strong ties with European fascists. In 1916 the prominent eugenicist Madison Grant — who helped to found the Bronx Zoo and the Denali, Olympic, Everglades and Glacier National Parks — published a book titled “The Passing of the Great Race,” which Hitler later referred to as “my Bible.” 

According to Cassidy Thomas, who researches eco-fascism at Syracuse University, contemporary far-right discourse has “revitalized rhetoric that was very prominent in the early 1900s.” By way of example, Thomas points to the writings of alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer, which praise the national park system and highlight the importance of wilderness preservation from a white nationalist perspective.

“It’s hard to really get at fascism without understanding the ecological connections,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a professor at Portland State University’s Center for the Analysis of the Radical Right. 

In the mid-2010s, Ross belonged to some of Oregon’s more radical, left-wing environmental circles. After seeing far-right elements creeping into green activist groups, he began to study the ideological roots and spread of fascist environmentalism. 

“I was trying to make sense of some of these entry points where fascists actually join and bind in these movements,” he explained. 

As part of this work, he now monitors Telegram, a messaging app popular with right-wing extremists in the U.S. According to Ross, groups such as the Proud Boys began to promote eco-fascist ideas in earnest last year, using a network of far-right channels known by their users as Terrorgram. Following the Capitol riots, these channels have experienced a surge in new subscribers, some growing by as much as 80% in a matter of days.

Radical right-wing environmentalist ideologies are rooted in a broader framework of racist anti-humanism that foregrounds ideas such as ethnopluralism — the belief that different ethnic groups should remain distinct, separate and restricted to their supposedly native lands — and the perceived perils of overpopulation. However, groups and individuals promoting these positions ignore a number of basic facts.

“Their shared emphasis on population growth directs blame onto the non-white global south while ignoring the outsized consumption of the more static northern populations,” explained Blair Taylor, director of the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont.

Historically, influential far-right environmentalists such as the Finnish deep ecologist Pentti Linkola and the American white nationalist Garrett Hardin have sought to justify extreme anti-democratic measures, up to and including genocide. For instance, Linkola, who died in 2020, advocated for a complete halt to immigration, the reversion to a technology-free way of life and strict controls on birthrates. Dictatorships, he wrote, were better suited to limiting population growth and rolling back the environmental destruction of the industrial era.

Radical-right environmentalism may have been around for a while, but its existence came to widespread public attention in 2019, following the mass shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas. Both gunmen had written manifestos in which they described themselves as eco-fascists. According to Ross, they are now revered by the broader far-right community “literally as saints.”

On a grassroots level, white nationalist organic farmers recently made headlines in the U.S. by showing up at local markets in cities such as Bloomington, Indiana. Meanwhile, in the U.K., former members of the far-right youth movement Generation Identity have been exposed as the organizers of a group promoting local food production and green issues.

Far-right environmentalist ideas are also seeping into electoral politics. In France, Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigrant National Rally party has ditched its denial of human-driven climate change in favor of a carefully branded “patriotic ecology.” 

In Serbia, the far-right environmentalist group Levijatan regularly courts controversy by “patrolling” migrant camps and advocating for the protection of the environment from “unwelcome” foreigners. In May 2020, Filip Radovanovic  — a prominent member of both Levijatan and the ruling populist Serbian Progressive Party — deliberately drove a car into a refugee reception center on the outskirts of Belgrade. Party members then joined him outside to protest against what they referred to as illegal immigration.

Placing emphasis on environmental issues is likely to make the far-right’s reactionary views palatable to a much wider constituency than they otherwise would be. That is why some campaign groups are taking decisive steps to spot and block right-wing incursions into the green cause. 

For the past year, the German chapter of the international organization Nature Friends has been running weekly government-financed seminars on far-right infiltration of the green movement. The meetings examine both the historical and contemporary links between environmentalist thought and extreme right-wing ideologies.

Some are more obvious than others. During a recent Zoom gathering, a group of activists discussed the forgotten origins of nudism. Richard Ungewitter, the early 20th-century pioneer of the movement, argued that German women who were exposed to naked Aryan male bodies would become uninterested in other “exotic” races, which would, in turn, allow white people to flourish and their bloodline to remain undiluted.

However, more contemporary issues tend to take precedence. One example is the far-right party Alternative for Germany’s recent focus on animal rights as a means to attack Muslim and Jewish communities over traditional methods of slaughter used in food production. The people behind Nature Friends recognize that such issues are ripe for exploitation by those seeking to create racial and religious divisions and are determined not to fall prey to such efforts. 

As program director Yannick Passeick explained, “There is a need to teach people how to be for the environment and not against human beings.”

Additional reporting by Oleksandr Ignatenko

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