Eco-fascism and the myth of overpopulation

Climate denial: a once widespread phenomenon, particularly amongst the far right, of denying the human causes of climate change and the reality of its impacts. For many of us, it now seems laughable to deny the devastating impacts of human-caused climate change. Climate denial has become a marginal approach to the climate crisis, but something even more threatening has replaced it: eco-fascism.

Eco-fascism combines the ultranationalist ideology of fascism with environmental concerns, advocating ethnic nationalism as a response to climate crisis. Like fascism, eco-fascism forms and grows from existing societal dissatisfactions, in this case those relating to the climate-correlated threats posed by environmental degradation and extreme weather. Such an ideology centres on the attitude that, as political analysist Catherine Fieschi describes it: ‘Yes, we will need to protect people, but let’s protect our people.’

Inherently linked to the ideology of eco-fascism is the myth of overpopulation. The overpopulation narrative was popularised during the 1960s and has since entered into common discussion of climate politics. Such a narrative directs the blame for climate change away from affluent countries of the global north onto the growing populations of less developed countries.

The reality is, of course, that wealthy countries in the global north are by far the most to blame for climate crisis: the richest 1% of the world’s population are responsible for the emission of more than twice as much carbon dioxide as the poorer half from 1990 to 2015.

The false rhetoric of overpopulation, a term nearly always used in relation to primarily non-white nations in the global south, contributes to ideas that population control is necessary to mitigate the climate crisis. The notion of controlling largely non-white populations in the global south inevitably feeds into white supremacist ideas of racial superiority.

Such ideas have a long history in the conservationist field. Madison Grant, a leading conservationist and founder of several national parks and Bronx Zoo, was an avowed eugenicist and argued for ‘inferior’ races to be placed in ghettoes. Equally John Muir, known as the ‘father’ of US national parks, described Native American people as seeming ‘to have no right place in the landscape.’

Many of those who describe themselves as eco-fascists today align themselves with Nazi idealism of national purity of ‘blood and soil’, following in the footsteps of German biologist Walter Schoenichen who allied his conservationist career with his strong allegiance to Nazism. These eco-fascists advocate the maintenance of a resource-heavy lifestyle while reducing population through immigration laws and other methods of control, and denying support to the countries in the global south most affected by climate change.

Frighteningly, several recent shootings have been linked to eco-fascism – the shooters of the El Paso and Christchurch shootings of 2019 and the Buffalo shooting of 2022 had all previously identified as eco-fascists and advocated violent ideas of population control to preserve quality of life for a limited number of wealthy citizens.

Even more alarmingly, ideas coming from the overpopulation narrative have increasingly been found in mainstream right-wing politics. Boris Johnson is just one example, with his 2021 pre-COP speech comparing the threat of a climate-related migrant crisis to the Roman Empire, which fell ‘largely as a result of uncontrolled immigration.’ Right-wing parties across Europe have expressed similar sentiments that controlling immigration and intensifying nationalism are necessary in a time of climate crisis, such as the Spanish populist Vox party, the German populist party Alternative for Germany and the French National Rally party.

‘Representatives of this line of thought around the world are, in many cases, echoing eco-fascist ideas that themselves are rooted in an earlier age of blood-and-soil nationalism.’ – Oliver Milman.

A 2021 analysis by academics Joe Turner and Dan Bailey looked at 22 far-right European parties and found that such attitudes of fortified nationalism disguised beneath environmental concerns are rife. Turner claimed that the link between climate and migration is “an easy logic” for politicians as it relates to the longstanding trope that overpopulation in poorer countries is a leading cause of climate change. Combining immigration debates with climate politics also gives the right wing an opportunity to take the initiative on the environmental field most often prioritised in left-wing parties.

Even well-known environmentalists such as the nation’s favourite David Attenborough have been accused of purporting the myth of overpopulation. His patronage of the controversial charity Population Matters, who claim that they campaign to ‘achieve a sustainable human population, to protect the natural world and improve people’s lives’ through ‘positive, practical, ethical solutions’ creates concerns that Attenborough may inadvertently be encouraging ideas of racial purity.

As a migrant crisis caused by climate change looms, so will ideas of eco-fascism grow: we must hold to account the 100 companies responsible for 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions and refuse to turn inwards to a divisive and dangerous nationalism.

(Image: Save the Children via Flickr.)

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