Brown Shirts, Green Dreams

Those of us who genuinely care about the environment and our neighbors need to discard all hints of far-right “philosophy” that’s becoming popular among a growing, and violent, community of eco-fascists.

Ophélie Paris for Noema Magazine

Leigh Phillips is a science journalist based in Victoria, Canada.

Shortly before he (allegedly) murdered 10 Black people with a modified assault rifle at a Buffalo grocery store, 18-year-old Payton Gendron posted a mostly incoherent, anti-immigrant, racist and antisemitic screed online fulminating against “high fertility replacers” overrunning “European soil.” “I am simply a white man seeking to protect and serve my community, my people, my culture and my race,” he wrote. 

This was the third incident (allegedly) carried out by a self-proclaimed eco-fascist in as many years, after similar massacres in El Paso, which left 23 dead, and New Zealand, where 51 were killed at two mosques. Gendron’s manifesto goes a step further than the usual xenophobic “great replacement” rhetoric that oozes across airwaves and television screens from the likes of Tucker Carlson into eco-fascist territory, blaming the displacement of white people from their traditional homelands for environmental problems and a disruption of the natural order. It was more than a tirade against immigrants arriving in European lands (both the “old continent” and the north of the “new” one) — however muddled, it was also a rejection of overpopulation, consumerism and industrial society. “There is no green future with never-ending population growth,” he wrote. For him, it is “mass immigration and uncontrolled urbanization” that destroys the natural environment. 

Gendron was also obsessed with a kind of neo-Malthusianism. “The ideal green world cannot exist in a world of 100 billion, 50 billion or even 10 billion. Continued immigration to Europe is environmental warfare and ultimately destructive to nature itself. The Europe of the future is not one of concrete and steel, smog and wires, but a place of forests, lakes, mountains and meadows.”

The Christchurch shooter also left behind a manifesto, in which he declared himself three times to be an eco-fascist. The goal of an “environmentally conscious and moral society,” he wrote, is incompatible with “ever-increasing industrialization, urbanization, industrial output and population increase.” The El Paso murderer similarly complained about how overpopulation and consumer culture are destroying the environment; he referenced the Dr. Seuss story “The Lorax,” the titular character in which “speaks for the trees” against the Once-ler, who destroys them. Concluding that Americans must reduce their consumption but are too stubborn, he wrote: “The next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”

“The hard truth is that eco-xenophobia does not in fact conflict with many central ideas within mainstream progressive environmentalism.”

Among people who follow right-wing terrorism, eco-fascism is often considered completely separate from most contemporary ecological philosophy and activism, and that the far-right is painting its usual anti-immigrant, anti-minority positions green to try to attract young followers. It’s the left-leaning climate activists who can often be found protesting fossil fuel infrastructure one week and the next week defending immigrants at a border fence or detention center. The right, we usually think, is an anti-environment, climate-denialist movement. 

But the hard truth is that eco-xenophobia does not in fact conflict with many central ideas within mainstream progressive environmentalism, from Malthusianism and misanthropy to bioregionalism and the unscientific notion of a balance of nature. Leftist and moderate environmentalists have sometimes had a hard time seeing some of their goals (reducing consumption and industrial growth, combatting what they believe to be overpopulation) also championed by heinous terrorists after violent murder sprees. But if eco-fascism and other forms of rightist “environmentalism” are to be defeated by those of us with genuine concern both for the environment and our neighbors, such ideas need to be confronted and excised from our discourse.

Environmentalism’s Immigration Problem

In a 1986 interview, the founder of the eco-saboteur group Earth First, Dave Foreman, argued against giving aid to Ethiopia during a devastating famine: “Let nature seek its own balance,” he said. (Later he tried to walk that back.) The Earth First Journal, which Foreman edited, also published articles in which AIDS was described as “a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population.” Anti-immigration and bigoted positions such as these have been all too common within radical environmental politics. To this day, Foreman continues to campaign against immigration alongside ecological preservation via his Rewilding Institute

It’s not just the radicals. Many mainstream environmental groups have embraced anti-immigrant politics. Lester Brown, the founder of two environmental research organizations who has been recognized around the country for pioneering the early green movement, supported the anti-immigration group Apply the Brakes. The founder of Earth Day, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, said in a 2001 speech: “If [population] stabilization is to be achieved, it will require a substantial reduction in the immigration rate.” Even the Harvard biologist and father of biodiversity, E. O. Wilson, believed that human population growth “is more bacterial than primate” and likewise thought immigration should be curbed to stop population growth. 

The largest environmental organization in the U.S., the Sierra Club, battled for decades over the issue of immigration. In the late 1990s, John Tanton, an ophthalmologist who founded or funded many of the country’s most vociferous anti-immigration groups and had headed up the club’s population committee in the 1970s, attempted to get the organization to adopt an anti-immigration position. He failed, although as much as 40% of the members backed the position. David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth and a longstanding member of the Sierra Club, resigned in 2000 “in desperation” at what he felt was their dilly-dallying over the subject: “Overpopulation is perhaps the biggest problem facing us, and immigration is part of the problem. It has to be addressed,” Brower said at the time. 

Across the Atlantic, the celebrated primatologist Jane Goodall agreed in a 2007 interview that discussion of overpopulation in the developing world is a “taboo” topic because it is “politically incorrect,” and that “mushrooming human population growth that’s led to deforestation … leads not just to harm for the animals in the environment but the people living there too.” Beloved nature documentarian David Attenborough meanwhile is a patron of Population Matters, an organization that campaigns against human population growth and until 2011 backed a policy of net-zero immigration to the U.K. In 2013, its then director wrote that Britain should not “significantly increase” the number of Syrian refugees it accepted. The group has since repudiated his stance regarding Syrian refugees, but still believes that controlled immigration has a role to play in sustainability. At the Tusk Conservation Awards in 2021, Prince William, the future king of England, said that African overpopulation is endangering wildlife, echoing his grandfather’s declaration that the world’s population had reached “plague proportions.” 

France’s Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally party, is perhaps the most prominent of the far-right environmentalists active in the Western world. Le Pen, who made it to the second round of the presidential election in April, launched a “patriotic” environmental movement called New Ecology in 2014, The group backs an ecological localism against a perceived rampant globalism. She has regularly promoted the notion that immigrants are the cause of environmental crises through their alleged increased pressure on resource use. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” the head of the party’s list in the 2019 European elections, Jordan Bardella, said in an interview

In Germany, so-called “brown ecologists” have opposed industrial farming as destructive of Heimat (a romantic word that translates to something along the lines of “homeland”) and genetic engineering as against nature. There is a federal government department focused on preventing far-right radicalization in the environmental and rural communities and, in the 1970s, far-right activists were some of the earliest supporters of what became the German Green Party, although they later left or were expelled. 

“What we are witnessing in the growing prominence of far-right environmentalism of recent years is a revival of an older kind of ecological and political thinking, a traditional attachment to home, to soil, to blood.”

The links between the German far-right and environmentalism actually date back to the founding of nature conservation in the 19th century as a reaction against industrialization and remained a prominent feature of right-wing nationalism as the Nazis came to power. In a 1936 propaganda film, for example, a narrator intones over images of rows of trees morphing into rows of soldiers: “Eternal forest, eternal nation. The tree lives like you and I. It reaches for space like you and I. Its death and creation are woven together in time. The nation — like the forest — stands in eternity.” As the political scientist Jonathan Olsen put it more recently: The “notion of human ‘rootedness’ can have unintended and disturbing political manifestations.”

The völkisch (nationalist-communitarian) ideas of the nationalist far-right in Germany and throughout Europe involve an Arcadian conception of a people connected to the land and the land to its people, governed in harmony by a natural order until it was sullied by industry and democratic modernity. Thus the loss of a bird from a region and its replacement by what some conservation biologists today call “invasive species” is not merely thought of as being similar to the so-called replacement of white Christians by foreigners or other “outsiders,” the two are the same phenomenonThey are a breach of the natural order.  

This explains the confusion over the apparent contradiction between contemporary conservatives’ rejection of climate mitigation policies or even denial that global warming exists, and the radical anti-industrial environmental beliefs of eco-fascism. Climate skepticism is a phenomenon of the free-market right, which believes that companies and industry should be released from government interference and free to do whatever is profitable. Greenhouse gas regulations, industrial policy to support low-carbon technological development and public funding for clean energy infrastructure are anathema to such libertarianism. 

But the far right is not libertarian. It has often been critical of capitalism, though its critiques of the market lean toward the anti-modernist, conspiratorial and antisemitic, distinct from leftist critiques of the market, which instead focus on exploitation, the profit incentive and class structure. The far-right was from the first and at its core a counter-Enlightenment rejection of modernity. Democracy, science and industry — the very notion of progress — had destroyed what these 19th-century romantics believed was the natural order of things. We hear echoes of this call to preservation of a God-made hierarchy even in the Anglican hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” more often thought of as a celebration of birds, flowers, mountains and rivers: “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate / God made them, high or lowly / And ordered their estate.” To change this order is to disrupt the natural balance. The yeoman farmer, the shopkeeper, the local priest and country squire: the bedrock of society.

There are echoes here of the contemporary green left‘s calls for decentralization, localism and bioregionalism — the belief that political, economic and cultural systems will be more sustainable if they are limited to biological borders, such as those of a watershed. This also rhymes with its desire for an end to globalization, as well as the small-is-beautiful ideology of E. F. Schumacher, and the neo-Luddism of the “appropriate technology” movement inspired by anti-modernist theologians Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul. 

What we are witnessing in the growing prominence of far-right environmentalism of recent years is a revival of an older kind of ecological and political thinking, a traditional attachment to home, to soil, to blood. Eco-fascists are not co-opting the left’s environmental struggle, but rather the reverse. It’s the deep ecologists on the left who are embracing aspects of a counter-Enlightenment reactionist movement that’s been around for centuries. 

Blood And Soil

“The person in history closest to my beliefs,” wrote the Christchurch mosque shooter in his manifesto, was Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists (BUF) in the 1930s. 

One of Mosley’s closest associates was the BUF’s agricultural advisor, Jorian Jenks, who was a founder of the Soil Association, the U.K.’s main organic agriculture advocacy group to this day. (They prefer not to talk about their far-right origin story — the history page of the group’s website honors one of the founders, Eve Balfour, but makes no mention of Jenks.) Jenks was a strong critic of modernity and set out to “replenish the bond between man and soil.” Both Jenks and Mosley were deeply inspired by German historian Oswald Spengler’s 1918 bestseller, “The Decline of the West,” which feared Western civilization was experiencing the end times. 

Jenks, also a member of a national socialist club founded by Nazi sympathizer Rolf Gardiner that promoted ruralism and self-sufficiency, was a prime example of the interwar right-wing obsession with catastrophism, antipathy toward industrial society and a nature-loving, back-to-the-land ethos. As the historian Richard Moore-Colyer writes:

Underlying its concerns and anxieties was the belief in a general cultural decline, born of industrialization and urbanization, which was somehow reducing the nation’s vigor and sense of purpose and which, unless countered, would steadily erode the structure of society itself. As the social consequences of economic growth, and more especially urbanization, became self-evident, so the right looked to the countryside as a renewable source of vitality which would serve as a ‘spiritual’ antidote to the perceived dislocation of city life. National regeneration, it was believed, might be achieved by a re-examination of the nation’s rural roots; a sort of revival of the agrarian tradition wherein lay the ‘true’ spiritual strength and cultural and moral virtues of the British people. This rural-nostalgic and usually organicist theme formed a common thread woven into the policies of most ultra-right groupings of the 1920s and 1930s.

Organic agriculture was also deeply entwined with Nazi institutions in Germany under the anti-industrial “blood and soil” doctrine of the agriculture policy leader, Richard Walther Darré. Blood and soil was a creed that idealized “peasant nobility,” who — with their loyalty, morality, sense of community and racial purity — represented in the fascist mind the opposite of all that had been destroyed by the industrial modernity imposed by the cosmopolitan, urban, Jewish bourgeois.

Lifeboat Politics 

There exists a connection, however hard it is for left-leaning environmentalists to see, between right-wing xenophobia and the localism of climate activists. The anti-aviation activists of Extinction Rebellion, Plane Stupid and Stay Grounded, for example, don’t explicitly make calls to eliminate rootless cosmopolitans, but their campaigns, if they were successful, would drastically reduce people’s ability to travel globally, and the humanizing effects of intercultural communication that go with that. If the green left’s much-desired radical retreat from globalization back to the local were to come to pass, trade and migration would necessarily stutter, and the ethnic homogeneity so desired by the far right would be much more achievable.

What is the difference exactly between insisting on a border at the edge of your “bioregion” and a wall at the edge of your nation? As the Deep Green Resistance activist Derrick Jensen argued well before Trump came to power: “I’m all for closing the border to Mexico (and everywhere else, for that matter, all the way down to closing bioregional borders), so long as we close it not only to people but to resources as well. No bananas from Mexico. No coffee. No oil. No tomatoes in January.”

As Olsen concluded after comparing several far-right documents and bioregionalist texts, including Kirkpatrick Sale’s seminal “Dwellers in the Land”: A “defense of particularity can all too easily become a narrow and politically dangerous particularism opposed to one of modernity’s greatest legacies — a commitment to the notion of a universal humanity which, by its very definition, is ‘non-rooted.’”

Eco-xenophobia remains a feature in both the right and the left environmentalist communities because neo-Malthusian, limits-to-growth lifeboat politics leads to population control and immigration restrictions, while bioregionalist, localist, decentralizing calls to return to traditional ways and local economies that retreat from global supply chains and thus from cosmopolitan influence are exclusionary and anti-universalist. 

“What is the difference exactly between insisting on a border at the edge of your ‘bioregion’ and a wall at the edge of your nation?”

Enlightenment universalism offers an alternative. The left, from liberals out to socialists, needs no Malthusian carbuncles, for it already has an analytical language sufficient to understand the root problems of environmental degradation: The market, left to its own devices, is an unconscious, amoral (not immoral) mechanism of allocation that does not necessarily align with democratic society’s goals. Government must therefore step in with its toolkit of economic planning mechanisms — regulation, industrial policy, subsidies, public funding, state ownership and so on, to coordinate the clean transition. 

Economic planning solved the last major environmental existential threat, the depletion of the ozone layer, through regulatory intervention that forced unwilling industries to switch technologies away from chlorofluorocarbons. It didn’t require a limit to growth in the number of fridges or cans of hair spray. (Indeed, had it only limited growth instead of forcing a change in the chemicals used, the problem would only have been ameliorated rather than corrected.) 

The Green New Deal (stripped of its anti-nuclear shibboleth) is similarly an economic package focused on human prosperity, not anti-consumerist finger-wagging at working-class families that supposedly have too much stuff. Eco-austerity, in the end, is unjust. In place of eco-Thatcherism and doom-mongering, green stimulus offers hope to the nihilist, disenchanted and forgotten. It also undermines the very economic conditions that help to give rise to hard-right violence in the first place.

Targeting the lacunae of markets rather than the alleged excesses of growth can deliver unbounded, egalitarian human prosperity, not just as a solution to environmental challenges but also as an alternative to and protection against the lifeboat politics that too easily and too often flip over into reaction and terror.

Crucially, because this set of solutions is predicated on public-sector-led technology-switching instead of limits to growth, there need never be demands for immigration restrictions. It’s an internationalist politics of progressive globalization. It’s a green politics that is immune to xenophobia — and one that will actually solve the many ecological challenges we face.