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Why White Supremacists Are Hooked on Green Living

Eco-fascism is fashionable again on the far right, thanks to a rise in global temperatures and anti-immigrant nationalism.

Illustration by Delcan & Company + Julia Grayson

On Saturdays, Sarah Dye and her husband, Douglas Mackey, sell seasonal vegetables and eggs at a farmers’ market in Bloomington, Indiana. Sarah stands behind a stall piled high with heirloom tomatoes, basil, okra, and acorn squash. With a towheaded baby in her arms, she greets customers and makes small talk. She and Douglas own Schooner Creek Farm in nearby Nashville, Indiana. They’re crunchy—even for Bloomington, a college town with a distinctly earthy vibe. You’d never guess that in private far-right chat rooms, Sarah goes by “Volkmom.” She posts about home schooling, recommends books by neo-Nazis, and complains about the “strife” faced by “Whites” who live in “non-white” neighborhoods. She also occasionally writes about farming.

Fascists have long shared Volkmom’s preoccupation with green living. The past few years have seen a resurgence of eco-fascist and eco-nationalist themes in the rhetoric of Europe’s far-right parties and in the writings of online radicals. Some, inspired by Netflix’s recent thriller about Ted Kaczynski, have embraced the Unabomber’s nihilist primitivism. Others have adopted Norse aesthetics and a radically anti-humanist version of “deep ecology.” Both the Christchurch and El Paso mass shooters included environmentalist themes in their white-nationalist manifestos.

When writing about eco-fascists, the media often speaks of green politics “masking” a darker racial vision. But most eco-fascists are sincere in their environmentalism. “The common theme,” said Peter Staudenmaier, a professor of history at Marquette University, “is this link between a yearning for purity in the environmental sphere and a desire for racialized purity in the social sphere.” For people like Dye and Mackey, the nation is an ecosystem, and nonwhite immigrants are an invasive species.

The Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” ­reentered public discourse two years ago, when torch-wielding neo-Nazis chanted it in Charlottesville. But the phrase actually predates the Third Reich. In the nineteenth century, German romantic writers like Ernst Moritz Arndt and Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl synthesized naturalism and nationalism. “We must save the forest,” Riehl wrote in 1853, “not only so that our ovens do not become cold in winter, but also so that the pulse of life of the people continues to beat warm and joyfully, so that Germany remains German.”

This philosophy later inspired the Völkisch movement, a youthful revolt against capitalist modernity that preached a return to the land, and to the wholeness, purity, and plenitude of rural peasant life. In the 1920s and ’30s, veneration for the earthbound volk—and hatred for its opposite, the rootless, urban Jew—found their way into Nazi ideology, where they were infused with scientific racism and transformed into a rallying cry. “The concept of Blood and Soil gives us the moral right to take back as much land in the East as is necessary,” wrote Richard Walther Darré, the Third Reich’s minister of food and agriculture. He spoke of Jewish people as “weeds.”

Such theories have a long history in American ecological movements, as well. In the early twentieth century, Madison Grant, a Manhattan lawyer, joined the conservationist efforts of Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir, who had founded the Sierra Club in 1892. These men shared an affinity for scientific racism. Roosevelt praised Grant’s 1916 white supremacist tome The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History as “a capital book.” Another fan, Adolf Hitler, wrote Grant a letter, calling the book his personal “bible.”

For these early American conservationists, the frontier was a place infused with, as the environmental historian William Cronon has written, the vigor and independence of America’s “national character.” Wealthy men like Grant and Roosevelt could escape the “feminizing” influence of modernity in these wild places. Native people were merely inconvenient obstacles. As John Muir wrote blandly in 1901, “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” This American Völkisch-ness shared with its German cousin a fantasy of conquered territory as the site of national renewal—“wilderness” as the place where the soul of the nation resides.

American environmentalism has worked hard to exorcise eugenics and colonial conquest from its movements. After years advocating stricter border laws and population control, the Sierra Club, for example, adopted a “neutral” policy on immigration in the 1990s. In the past decade, liberal greens have embraced an “environmental justice” framework, striving in their activism to involve the oppressed people who bear the burdens of capitalism’s effects on the climate, air, and water.

Today, however, eco-fascism is once again gaining purchase. Anders Breivik, the Norwegian extremist who murdered 69 young Labor Party members in 2011, referenced Madison Grant in his manifesto. The Christchurch shooter echoed Riehl, linking the “preservation” of land to the “preservation” of cultural “ideals and beliefs.” Nonwhites from the Global South, he wrote, are overproducing and “invading” Europe and America to despoil the West’s natural inheritance. To “save the environment,” the invaders must be “kill[ed].” His writings inspired the El Paso shooter, who wrote, “If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”

Contemporary eco-fascists see the border as the dividing line between those who deserve protection and those who deserve nothing. Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence, calls this the “politics of the armed lifeboat.” In a 1974 essay on “lifeboat ethics,” the ecologist Garrett Hardin argued that the lucky few aboard the “lifeboat”—a wealthy country in a world with dwindling resources—will only survive if the many drowning in the water are denied entry. Pentti Linkola, a Finnish deep ecologist whose theories are increasingly popular with contemporary eco-fascists, puts this point starkly: “When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”

The U.S. government has already predicted this outcome. In a 2003 study on the likely geopolitical effects of an “abrupt climate change scenario,” Pentagon researchers wrote that wealthy nations will respond by constructing “virtual fortresses around their countries, preserving resources for themselves,” and hardening their borders “to hold back unwanted starving immigrants.” While mainstream conservatives deny that massive climate dislocation is imminent, and liberals hold out hope for tech-managerial solutions, eco-fascists and nationalists are at least being realistic about the future.

These groups perversely lay the blame for climate catastrophe at the feet of the global poor. But liberal environmentalists often make a similar mistake; they blame “humankind” for the impending disaster. In reality, multibillion-dollar extractive industries—and the carbon-spewing corporations of the Global North—bear far more blame than most individuals. The only realistic and moral answer is a global green new deal. Hand-wringing about the sins of “humanity” will never solve a climate crisis created by capitalism. Only an uprising of the global working class can bring the world closer to a solution.