For many, climate change is an issue that concerns everyone but mostly voiced by progressives. Under the influence of that perception, far-right environmentalisms go unnoticed but a probing into the history of ecology helps break that perception and bring attention to the serious opportunities ecofascism has to re-emerge. Meanwhile, the effectiveness of such a re-emergence will be conditional upon their appeal towards social groups like the youth. In that context, this article tries to re-emphasize the politics in climate change politics, highlight traces of ecofascism in the contemporary world and evaluate possible far right conceptualizations that might appear in the future.
Keywords: Ecofascism, green politics, far right, climate change, ecology, racism.
The year of 2021, so far, has been a year of ever intensifying natural disasters from extreme floods in Western Europe to wildfires in the Mediterranean while global temperatures continue breaking records in their upwards trend. Correspondingly, climate change is becoming more salient in the political realm. But most of the time the political aspect of climate change goes unnoticed either because it is seen as a fundamentally a “progressive/leftist” agenda or as an “apolitical” common ground of all political parties. This article tries to re-emphasize the politics in climate change politics by evaluating the possibility of ecofascism becoming the mainstream approach of the EU towards climate change and the dangers it will bring along.
1. Europe’s Increased Demand for Climate Action
Green politics is one of the political movements with the highest amount of upwards momentum in current European politics. This might be somewhat expected since the green movement as we know it today was also born in Europe during the 1970s as an environmental movement against nuclear energy and its destructive capacity (McBride, 2021). Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, the green movement kept on rising and achieved national-level governments for the first time in Finland and Germany (ibid.). Today, voters of Green parties are represented in 21 European countries and are a part of the governing coalition in 5 of them. Although green parties still constitute smaller parts of the voter base in many European countries, they’ve been especially influential in energy policy where they’ve advocated for abandoning nuclear energy and setting more ambitious national net carbon emissions targets and deadlines (ibid.). Greens are not only on the rise on national politics but EU-level as well. The last European Parliament elections saw the Greens/EFA group gain about 10% of the votes, making them the 4th largest political group (Rankin, 2020). This increasing demand of voters was also reciprocated by the European Commission adopting the 2050 long-term strategy, which includes the aim to achieve net-zero GHG emissions, and the European Green Deal (Harvey & Rankin, 2020). Nowadays, according to Special Eurobarometer 513, Europeans rank climate change as the single biggest problem of the world (18%), alongside two equal runners-up: poverty (17%) and infectious diseases (17%) (Special Eurobarometer, 2021: 9). Not only that, but 75% of respondents support the statement that “their national government is not doing enough to tackle climate change” and 90% of respondents agree that GHG emissions should be reduced to a minimum while making emissions in EU net-zero by 2050, suggesting that there is a significant gap to be filled by green parties/policies and broad public support for drastic climate action (Special Eurobarometer, 2021: 73).
2. Is the environment a reserved domain for leftists? A history of ecofascism
In his study, Carter argues that Green parties still form a family of political parties that subscribe to leftist/progressive opinions while some reject the traditional left-right divide (Carter, 2013). Indeed, climate change activists and political groups have often situated combating climate change as part of an agenda to bring social justice both domestically in their respective countries and globally while rightists have mostly denied the existence of the problem. However, progressives limiting their response to right-wing positions on climate change to proving it exists, has “depoliticize[d] climate change, framing it as an empirical problem instead of a contest over competing visions of the future” (Williams, 2018). Furthermore, this apparently depoliticized image has led to recent right-wing environmentalist upsurges being overlooked under the broad banner of environmental politics (Bhatia, 2004). In fact, the right and environmentalism have quite a substantial history together, stretching all the way back to the end of the 19th century and the emergence of “ecology” as a field.
The person who first used the term “ecology” in 1867 was Ernst Haeckel, a German zoologist and philosopher whose work was influenced by eugenics and social Darwinism. Haeckel viewed the natural order as the harmonic relationship between organic life forms and their inorganic environment, similar to what is understood today when we talk about “ecology” (Gilman, 2020). What made the difference was the eugenicists and social Darwinist emphasis: classifying humans according to their races and arguing that they live in harmony with their homelands and that this is the “natural” order. With so much theoretical common ground, it should come as no surprise that far-right movements of the 20th century were influenced by ecology and found success in combining the two together. In this context, Malthus’s idea that population will always outgrow the speed of production, the problem of sustainability, sealed the deal. Population came to be seen as an aggressive force, a means by which races compete against each other to occupy and control space and land, and thus resources as well (Bhatia, 2004: 195). That aggressive force was instrumentalized through movement. For early ecofascists, however, neither the term population nor the problem of overpopulation include people of the “white” races because as natural parts of the environment, they could not be held responsible by harming ecological balance (Bhatia, 2004: 197). Instead, the blame was on colored, underprivileged people of the global south, who immigrated to countries that “originally” belonged to the whites and disrupted the balance of the world through overpopulation. The problem was not just overpopulation but also “race-mixing”. For early ecofascists, the movement of populations was causing a somewhat assimilation of races where “natural purity” and biological diversity (i.e., the existence of different races) was being lost. Additionally, race-mixing brought by large industrial centers, metropolises and globalization were damaging the “racial purity” and lifestyles of “white” races that were historically in harmony with nature. Therefore, for a 19th century German far right ecologist, Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, the environment needed protection “not only so that [their] ovens do not become cold in winter, but also so that the pulse of life of the people continues to beat warm and joyfully, so that Germany remains German” (Staudenmeier, 2012: 3, emphasis mine).
Ecofascist views inspired the Nazis in the first half of the century who put them into practice. One of the main pillars of Nazi thought and policy, Lebensraum, was based on the idea that is to provide a “living space” for Germans to continue their way of life, they would have to take control of other parts of the world and use their resources for their own ends (Gilman, 2020). Furthermore, the Nazis implemented many environmental measures including creating the first wildlife protection sites in Europe and implementing organic farming methods, environmentally friendly industry planning and growth, etc. (Bhatia, 2004: 195). The resulting synthesis between the far right and environmental politics was one of environmental protection as a tool for pursuing racist politics based on exclusion and framed in a context of racial purity, species competition, and ultimately scarce global resources. Unfortunately, ecofascism is still adopted by political movements and parties within Europe and has the potential to become more widespread with green politics, xenophobia and racism all being on the rise at the same time.
3. Ecofascist legacy in present day European politics
Traces of ecofascism are still subtle but nevertheless present in the discourse and program of political parties in Europe. Often, parties frame the problem of environmental sustainability as the extension or part of problems of identity and culture. For example, in 2020, the Austrian People’s Party and the Greens cut a deal to form a coalition government in the Austrian parliament, which included a very ambitious step of pulling the net-zero emissions target year from 2050 to 2040 as well as the age limit on the veil ban for girls from age 10 to 14. The leader of the coalition government, prime minister Kurz stated that “it is possible to protect the climate and borders”, probably implying the possibility of doing them at the same time (Sheftalovich, 2020). Other parties are somewhat more open about their rightist ecologism. Marine Le Pen, who leads the National Rally in France, views environmental preservation as an inherently nationalist act. It is the duty of members of the nation to protect the motherland because individuals are rooted in their land (Mazoue, 2019). This is contrasted with ‘nomadic’ people who ‘do not care about the environment’ because ‘they have no homeland’ and potentially migrants, who are not “rooted in the land” the way which natives are (Hanley, 2021). Le Pen, like early ecologists, is claiming the existence of a special connection of members of the nation to the homeland. As a result of this thinking, individuals who are not “properly integrated” into the society and its culture become regarded as threats to societal balance. Camus, an expert on the French far right, notes the social Darwinist roots in that thinking by saying “many right-wing voters see society as like a biological organism that should be kept in its original state [and therefore] when a foreign body [i.e., an outsider] is introduced, it causes disorder” (Mazoue, 2019). National Rally’s thoughts share a lot in common with essayist Hervé Juvin who called for a joint European effort to maintain that “‘Europe is the land of the Europeans’ through a strong but exclusionary welfare program that will encompass only white Europeans in protecting them from the effects of climate change” (Aronoff, 2019).
Not everyone is subtle with their references to ecofascism, however. One of those is the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) which is a Neo-Nazi political movement located in Scandinavian countries. In their manifesto, “the NRM identifies multiculturalism and ‘mass immigration’ (also repackaged as ‘invasions of foreign species’) as causes for environmental degradation” (Szenes, 2021: 161). They argue that multiculturalism and environmentalism are not only incompatible, but they are “polar opposites” because immigration entails an “invasion” of “foreign species” to ecosystems and an interruption of the natural balance or even harming biological diversity by causing a genocide of the Nordic races (Szenes, 2021: 162). What should be noted however, is that all these examples present environmentalism, or protection of the homeland and its natural balance, by connecting it with the protection of national/cultural/ethnic identity. The fundamental idea is that “natives” and their identity need to be protected because only they have a special connection to the land and ecosystem that has developed over centuries of sedentary living.
4. European youth and ecofascism: prospects for the future
Even if ecofascism still exists as a political option in Europe, we still cannot be sure whether it will become popular and influence European climate change policies or stay as a fringe position that only the marginal parts of society will embrace. To have an idea, the relationship between the youth and ecofascism should be analyzed since mostly the youth are the ones that will bring dynamism to a political movement and are the key to making them last for decades.
Both environmentalist and far-right tendencies are more popular among the youth than in older age groups. Polls conducted in countries like Italy, and Austria following national-level elections found that the vote share of far-right parties are on the rise (Hinnant, 2019). In addition, in Austria, the far right FPÖ gained the highest share of votes from people aged 16-29, and the least from those aged 60 and above (Zandonella & Perlot, 2017). Supporters for climate action have also been getting younger in recent years, marked with the participation of school children in climate protests and strikes in 123 countries and the leadership of individuals like the now-18-year-old Greta Thunberg (Aczel, 2019). Thus, climate change politics is mobilizing individuals that are traditionally thought to be too young to engage in political debates.
Although currently the climate action movement does not carry any racist or nationalist undertones, the factors that drive support for the two political movements are surprisingly compatible. Mierina and Koroleva found that “resource stress” (jobs, money, status, etc.) and experiencing poverty increase “xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and exclusionism, especially if immigration rates are high”, due to an atmosphere of “insecurity and perceived competition for scarce resources” (Mierina and Koroleva, 2015: 199-200). Climate change will not alleviate those factors but only exacerbate them as economic crises and social crises deepen and ecofascism will become an “convenient” solution to a very complex and sensitive problem. With youth unemployment being 17% on average among EU countries (O’Neill, 2021), immigration driving up perceived competition with a lack of protective welfare mechanisms, and phrases like “mass extinction”, “loss of biological diversity” and “scarcity” dominating environmental discourse, it would not be too unrealistic to imagine a far right turn for the climate action movement (NPR Staff, 2019). The Wandervögel were a similar environmentalist youth movement that constituted a “a purportedly ‘non-political’ response to” industrialism and its effect on nature in the Weimer Republic whose leaders later integrated into Nazi ranks. Staudenmeier adds that it’s “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” (Staudenmeier, 2012: 6). Only time will tell how the environmentalists of today stand up to that challenge.
Throughout history, many nationalist programs have incorporated environmentalism and ecological concerns into their agenda but the incompatibility of nationalism with the requirements of environmental issues like climate change as a global problem have only contributed to delaying proper climate action (Marguiles, 2021). In such a context, ecofascism appears as a threat, not only to colored people and the people of the global south by the racism it promotes but to the entire globe, with the ineffective environmental policies it can lead to. Any effort aimed to prevent the success of far right ecologism should understand its history, the legacy it has passed down to far-rightists of today and the social groups it draws power from.
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