As the devastating effects of the climate crisis continue to be felt around the globe – from hurricanes in the Caribbean to wildfires in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest – global warming and its ecological consequences are now being used by fascists to justify acts of racist murder.
This extreme and violent reaction to the existential problem of our time, otherwise known as eco-fascism, is apparent in the manifesto written by the El Paso shooter who murdered 22 people and injured 24 others in early August. His reactionary rant, titled “The Inconvenient Truth”, reveals the nihilistic foundations of this nascent ideology. Through its online origins, eco-fascism ideologically pairs white supremacy with seemingly virtuous environmentalism as cause for a crusade and racial purity as the only means to save the planet:
Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment… If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable… In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.
The manifesto goes on to cite a range of ecological grievances, ranging from pollution, single-use plastic waste, deforestation, and consumerism. Similarly, the Christchurch shooter, who gunned-down 51 Muslims in a rampage last March in New Zealand, described himself as an eco-fascist and referred frequently to immigration as “environmental warfare.” At the core of this ideology is the idea that the natural environment, codified as the exclusive refuge of an imagined civilization based on white racial purity, is threatened by others.
While eco-fascism may seem like a new development born out of the darkest corners of the internet, fascism has long drawn on romanticized concepts of nature to shore up its internal mythmaking. Just think of the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” and the murderous racial colonialism of Hitler’s Lebensraum. These slogans served to promote a re-adoption of rural values and skills, alongside anti-Semitism and racial purity — acting as the “opposite of all that had been lost or ruined by the cosmopolitan, urban, Jewish intellectuals.”
Ideas of racial purity and white supremacy connect with nature and the environment in the lexicon buttressing eco-fascism. In an effort to return to some lost Eden-like past, these movements adopt a logic of scarcity and limits that, as described by Leigh Phillips, “leads inexorably to population control and immigration restrictions.” The fascist project of building an ethnostate thus corresponds with an Edenic “return-to-nature”, conveniently casting whomever is deemed racially impure as simultaneously unnatural and unbelonging.
Eco-fascists aren’t the only ones mobilizing a racist conception of nature and the environment to suit their interests – neoliberal greenwashing does it too. Search online for solutions to the climate crisis, and you will find a certain kind of argument repeated: we must all do our part, we must all tighten our belts and live with less, and we must all buy green ecological products. These proposed solutions to the climate crisis are fundamentally rooted in the logic of consumerism.
The ‘green’ neoliberal project is not designed to return to some lost Eden, but to avoid politics entirely: buy less, or buy differently, so that nothing has to change. Never mind that a few hundred fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, your passive consumerism alone is enough to change the world.
Nature as a theoretical concept
How can the left speak of environmental issues while avoiding the pitfalls associated with the fascist right and the neoliberal centre? It is difficult to talk about nature without summoning a normalizing discourse — and it becomes questionable whether using loaded and slippery language employed by the right is useful for any kind of leftist project. In the midst of the climate crisis, how can one not speak of nature, the climate, and the environment together?
The urban geographer Neil Smith’s concept of the production of nature is useful here. Drawing from Marx and Engels, Smith argues that it is the capitalist labour process that makes nature and transforms it, and that presentations of nature as external — that is, beyond the realm of human agency — obscure this production process.
It is not that the Amazon rainforest is on fire, but that cattle-grazing land, palm oil and soy extraction, as well as the dispossession of Indigenous peoples is being produced. It is not that the climate crisis is dire, but that fossil fuel companies have produced an atmosphere saturated with greenhouse gases. It is not that the Gulf of Mexico has a dead zone, but that agribusiness runoff and untreated sewage produced a dead zone. And on, and on.
Smith readily admits that this production of nature thesis does not imply control: just as a capitalist produces goods but does not completely control production and its externalities (try as they might), capitalist society produces but does not necessarily control nature. Unforeseen or undesirable effects may well occur, but they are linked to human agency and the production process. The production of nature concept is useful because it allows us to ask very important political questions. Rather than ask that people save the environment, get in touch with nature or (more alarmingly) create an ethnostate, we can begin to ask questions critical to imagining a future different than our own. If nature is produced, it means we can produce it in favour of certain interests and rather than continue to produce a certain kind of nature for profit-seeking companies, we might begin to produce a nature that works for both people and the planet. To borrow from Marx and Engels: we should seize the means of (nature-) production.
What kind of nature do you want?
We are at a point in the climate crisis where these are the questions the worlds’ scientists are asking global policy-makers: What percentage of the planet’s population should be exposed to severe heat on a regular basis? How many sea-ice-free Arctic summers would you like? How many meters of sea level rise are you willing to withstand? What level of vertebrate, plant and insect loss is permissible for you? To what extent would you have crop yields reduced to let people go hungry?
Clearly, most people are not consulted about their economic conditions — who would choose poverty or austerity? Similarly, the question of what kind of nature do you want does not see much debate or is subject to democratic choice. Who would realistically choose pollution, waste, and runaway climate change in favour of a sustainable, carbon-free environment? If we assume the production of nature, then any social and economic arrangements must consider nature.
The left needs to present to people that their vision for the future is not merely a political choice about what kind of society they want to live in, but that it is also a political choice about the kind of nature they want. This choice necessarily implies that their own vision for society and nature challenges the envisioned future of the 0.01%, whose interests are inextricably tied to increasing global wealth inequality and the degradation of the natural environment.
The ideal society and ‘nature’ envisioned between a rural farmer, an urban office worker, and a healthcare worker may vary. Nevertheless, those visions for the future should have much more in common than the stratified, planet-roasting vision of the future that fossil fuel executives are actively working to create.
Nature as a part of a socioeconomic program should not be used as a bludgeon to bully people into accepting an argument. The left will not win a rhetorical battle the eco-fascists and neoliberals that way. Instead, nature should get people to think about how their own vision for a better society and better nature for all puts them at odds with other interests. The left can use nature to challenge those destroying people and the environment, and present society with the democratic choice of the nature they want.
It would be a mistake to make arguments about the environment based in nostalgia for some lost Edenic past, as eco-fascists have done. Also, nature should not be some harmonious unifying front. Instead, a thorough debate about what kind of nature-society and for whom needs to occur.
Joël Laforest is a graduate student with a background in philosophy and geography. He currently researches income polarization, organizes local reading groups, and is a researcher and panelist on the Alberta Advantage podcast.