The road to ecofascism is paved with green intentions

Why fusing nationalism and naturalism is a bad idea.


By the early 20th century, many Germans believed there was something magical, or mystical, about them — and the landscape they inhabited — that infused the nation’s youth with a sense of purpose. “In all German souls the German forest lives and weaves with its depth and breadth, its stillness and strength, its might and dignity, its riches and beauty — it is the same source of German inwardness, of the German soul, of German freedom,” proclaimed a circular for recruitment into the League for the Protection and Consecration of the German Forest in 1923.

In the coming years, this romantic populism bolstered the Nazi Party’s “blood and soil” mantra and became a strong recruitment tool through its “green wing.”

In Ecofascism Revisited, a brief, chilling book first published in 1995 and reissued in 2011, historian Peter Staudenmaier points out that the Nazi Party’s “incorporation of environmentalist themes was a crucial factor in its rise to popularity and state power.” I fear something similar is happening in the United States today, as it grapples with the dual challenges of ethno-nationalism and ecological anxiety.

In an example of how iconography can be co-opted, an altered National Park Service graphic supports Greenline Front, an international neo-Nazi organization.

In the United States, and particularly the West, naturalistic nationalism abounds. In a forward to American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau, for example, former Vice President Al Gore contends that environmentalism is “inherent in our national character, a fundamental part of our heritage as Americans.” Gore is just one of many writers who attach natural beauty to the national character, a rhetorical step that can lead in a dark direction.

In an essay published in 1988, Edward Abbey railed against “the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled and culturally-morally-generically impoverished people. … because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful — yes, beautiful! — society. … The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.” In a letter to The New York Review of Books in 1981, Abbey similarly denounced immigration from Mexico as something that would “degrade and cheapen American life downward to the Hispanic standard. Anyone who has made a recent visit to Mexico, or even to Miami, Florida, knows what I mean.” A beautiful society. You know what I mean. Abbey’s racism cannot be separated from his nationalism, and each informs his environmentalism. 

That’s just Cactus Ed, you say, writing long ago. But Abbey is Trumpier than some might admit, and echoes of his attitude can today be heard in the rants of Fox News polemicists like Tucker Carlson. In an interview with The Atlantic last year, Carlson claimed that the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C., “has gotten dirtier and dirtier and dirtier and dirtier” due to litter “left almost exclusively by immigrants.” A local conservation group, Potomac Conservancy, quickly condemned Carlson’s remarks as both factually incorrect and “racist, plain and simple.” Still, millions of his viewers are being exposed to hateful reasoning: White Americans keep the country clean (pure, even); immigrants make it dirty.

While environmentalism need not lead to ecofascism, the kind of rhetoric that elevates “American” landscapes above all others
can open the gate to it.

These are the makings of an ecofascist stew: romantic ideas that blend national identity with natural splendor; vitriol that excludes some people as inherently “un-American”; exceptionalism that argues for the protection of America from invaders; and the once-unthinkable: an autocratic regime that rallies the masses around the glory of a beautiful (great) ethnostate and that recruits from an impressionable green movement.

So what can a person do? Vigilance is the first defense. In these complicated times, when events seem overwhelming and the world under threat, be watchful. While environmentalism need not lead to ecofascism, the kind of rhetoric that elevates “American” landscapes above all others can open the gate to it.

A hard-headed approach is needed. To be part of the solution, check your exceptionalism and adopt a truly anti-racist approach to environmental ethics. Ask who is welcome where, and why. Work to incorporate inclusive ideas of civil and human rights into environmental discussions, and push against racism, environmental or otherwise, whenever possible. Those who blindly follow their romantic inclinations are as vulnerable to fascists as the Weimar youth. Please don’t let that be you.

Brian Calvert is the editor-in-chief of High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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