Ecofascism: Approaches, Problems, Concerns

Over the past few years, ‘ecofascism’ has become an increasingly well-known term. Fair enough — recent history has seen an alarming surge in fascist activism, within which rhetoric about conservationism and sustainability, however twisted or cynical, has occupied a constant place. At the same time, worries have also been voiced about authoritarian trends in contemporary environmentalism. In October 2019, Extinction Rebellion activists got into physical altercations with commuters on the London DLR;[1] One month later, the group’s leader, Roger Hallam, revealed himself to be at least a fatally imprecise thinker when he characterized the Holocaust as ‘just another fuckery in human history’.[2] In light of all this, ‘ecofascism’ merits a more detailed preventative discussion.

How, then, to define ‘ecofascism’? To what extent can we isolate unique characteristics of an ‘ecofascist’ ideology, or at least determine shared features and ‘family resemblances’ across the various ideologies which have been labelled ‘ecofascist’ throughout history? Is the term ‘ecofascism’ a useful category of analysis at all?

At first glance, the answer appears simple: an ecofascist is a fascist who cares about ecological issues. This definition alone, however, is more descriptive than analytical: I do not call a fascist who likes cats a ‘cat-fascist’ or one who enjoys Shakespeare a ‘Shakespeare-fascist’.

Instead, the two areas of focus must exert some sort of mutual influence upon each other so that one ideology can emerge as a synthetic whole. Here, the central difficulty of this enquiry emerges: What does this interaction, this ‘dialogue’ between fascism and ecofascism look like?

“Blood and soil”

Two major inroads have been made into a characterization of ecofascism. The first of these might be summarized by use of the phrase ‘one people in one place’ – the idea that members of one ‘people’ should live within the borders – actual or desired – of the land which ‘belongs’ to that people. By itself, this is not too different from 19th-century doctrines of nationalism more generally. What makes the ecofascist formulation distinct is its emphasis on a people’s connection not just with the land, but with the soil.

The looming figure here is Richard Walther Darré, Hitler’s Minister of Agriculture and developer-in-chief of “blood and soil” ideology. Darré eulogized peasants as the stoic backbone of the nation and saluted their lifestyle as providing a more ‘authentic’ alternative to that of the urban bourgeoisie.[3] More conventional forms of patriotism and nationalism locate humans’ connection to a country in a sense of shared values, community, home, or belonging. Individuals like Darré, however, believe that certain humans belong in certain places in the same way that certain plants grow in certain vegetation zones; natural laws, so Darré would have us believe, dictate that a Dane can live in Denmark but not in Taiwan, just as Oleander can survive if grown around the Mediterranean but not in the Siberian tundra.

These and similar ideas have been worryingly enduring: in 2019, a report by the German broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk revealed the existence of an esoteric cult around the Ringing Cedars of Russia franchise by the Siberian author Vladimir Megre. The ‘Anastasians’, as the franchise’s followers call themselves, believe that every people must return to a state of subsistence agriculture on its ‘native’ land, in order to emulate a primordial, light-skinned race called the ‘wild Russians’.[4]

Enjoying the scenery?

Yet attempts to frame such ideas as the basis for a coherent, ‘ecofascist’ ideology encounter great difficulties. The image of humans ‘being born from’ or ‘growing out of’ the earth predates Darré and the Anastasians by centuries. In the Zulu creation, the first man, Unkulunkulu, emerges from the ground as a reed before assuming human form, and in Greek myth, the first Thebans grow from dragon’s teeth planted in the earth by the hero Cadmus. The slogan ‘back to the soil’, too, is hardly unique to fascism, and similar sentiments can be encountered across radical strands of socialism, anarchism, and even in early Zionist thought. Finally, pedology is not ecology, and a fixation on a people’s relationship with the ‘soil’ does not necessarily imply one with nature or the environment more broadly.

If such a broader connection were to be made, we would find ourselves confronted with a more coherent ideology. If a people’s mystical bond is with the environment as a whole, and not just with a soil, then that people enjoys a monopoly on the subjective appreciation of ‘its’ country’s environment. Others who try to gain access to it are unwelcome, illegitimate trespassers. Expressed in its full cruelty and bluntness, this view holds that ethnic ‘undesirables’ threaten to ‘ruin’ the landscape. Such views do occasionally find expression: In 2017, the Austrian billionaire Dietrich Mateschitz, co-founder of Red Bull and a patron of Martin Sellner, complained that refugees were disfiguring his home country’s national parks.[5]

Such doctrines of racial exclusion we can confidently term fascist; less clear is whether they can be termed ‘ecofascist’. The idea that nature and the environment should be reserved for the enjoyment of a privileged ‘in-group’ tells us little about whether nature is to be conserved for its own sake, and if so, by what methods. Moreover, it reduces humans’ interactions with the environment to aesthetic appreciation, ignoring other ecological concerns like sustainable development.

Malthus redux?

The other major approach characterizes ecofascism as a political response to an intensifying climate crisis. Fascists, this view holds, will exploit ever more severe natural disasters and human migrations to justify the imposition of iron-fisted national governments as crisis managers. Yet this view muddles its terms. What is being described is run-of-the-mill fascism in response to ecological disaster, rather than a synthesis of fascism and eco-philosophy. Fascism is always in search of a civilizational crisis as a source of legitimation, and whether such a crisis is of an ecological nature or not is but a secondary question.

A stronger version of the same argument also raises the concern that ecofascist governments might try to achieve environmental sustainability through authoritarian methods of ‘population control’. Yet this idea is not distinctly ‘ecofascist’, but rather neo-Malthusian, and can be traced back at least as far as the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb in 1968.[6] Again, an ideological synthesis between ‘fascism’ and ‘eco-philosophy’ is not achieved.

A warning 

This piece has not produced a coherent definition of ‘ecofascism’. That is because it does not exist as a coherent ideology. In part, this is down to the ambiguity of the term’s prefix: ‘eco’ is nowhere near as well-developed a term as ‘fascist’; whether it references a scientific interest, a concern for sustainability and conservation, or simply a general aesthetic is up in the air. Thus it remains impossible to determine what exactly ‘eco’-fascism would look like. For the foreseeable future, a coherent synthesis of environmental and fascist ideology will likely not emerge.

But that does not mean that fascism is not a threat. True to its opportunistic nature, fascism has already begun to launder itself through environmental activism and vocabularies, making it more difficult to detect. The fact that fascism can display an affinity for all things ‘eco’ should thus be kept in mind. Moreover, many of the ideas identified in this article — from ‘blood and soil’ ideology to Neo-Malthusianism — remain extremely dangerous even if they are not integrated into an overarching ideological system. We should be wary of them in their own right.

[1] Gayle, Damien and Ben Quinn ‘Extinction Rebellion rush-hour protest sparks clash on London Underground’, The Guardian (17 Oct. 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/17/extinction-rebellion-activists-london-underground (Acc. 23 Feb. 2020)

[2] Connolly, Kate, and Matthew Taylor, ‘Extinction Rebellion founder’s Holocaust remarks spark fury’, The Guardian (20 Nov. 2019), https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/20/extinction-rebellion-founders-holocaust-remarks-spark-fury (Acc. 23 Feb. 2020)

[3] Heberer, Patricia, ‘Science’, in Hayes, Peter, and John K. Roth (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies (Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4] ‘Gefährliche Allianz: Grüne Esoterik und braune Philosophie? | DokThema | Doku | BR’, Bayerischer Rundfunk, (27 Aug. 2019), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k75BqMKAgyM&t=373s (Acc. 23 Feb. 2020)

[5] Leonhard, Ralf, ‘Verständnis für Rechtsextreme’, taz (05 Oct. 2018), https://taz.de/Umstrittenes-Sponsoring-von-Red-Bull-CEO/!5539841/, (Acc. 23 Feb. 2020)

Winkler, Pierre, ‘Er dachte sich RB Leipzig aus: Das krude Weltbild des Red-Bull-Bosses’, focus (14 Apr. 2017) https://www.focus.de/sport/fussball/bundesliga1/wie-dietrich-mateschitz-denkt-er-dachte-sich-rb-leipzig-aus-das-krude-weltbild-des-red-bull-bosses_id_6957696.html, (Acc. 23 Feb. 2020)

[6] Ehrlich, Paul, The Population Bomb (Ballantine Books, 1968).