‘Eco-fascist’ violence targets old scapegoats for new fears

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Mass shooting suspects, including the man arrested for the recent Buffalo, N.Y., grocery store massacre, are increasingly invoking the so-called eco-fascist movement, which launders racist and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories through the lens of environmentalism.

The Buffalo suspect, who has been charged with the murder of 10 predominantly Black shoppers at a grocery store, identified as an eco-fascist. Similar sentiments can be found in the writings of shooters in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas, who targeted Muslims and Latinos, respectively.

As the climate crisis intensifies and leads to increased migration and political instability, experts say the problem is likely to get worse.

In practice, the term refers to “a kind of political ideology that combines fascism with some kind of environmental or ecological focus,” said Matthew Lyons, author of “Insurgent Supremacists: The U.S. Far Right’s Challenge to State and Empire” and co-author with Chip Berlet of “Right-Wing Populism in America.”

Typically, Lyons said, this equates to scapegoating groups like immigrants and nonwhites for the climate crisis, environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources.

Eco-fascism is at heart simply a rebranding of a much older “murderous political strategy,” said Cassie Miller, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and uses environmental concerns as a sort of Trojan horse for extremist ideas.

“This is a movement that is looking for any avenue that it can get recruits or to enter larger political conversations,” she said.  “And the language of environmentalism, especially at a time of climate disaster, is a very clear way to do that.”

Rough versions of the same idea date back decades. The early 20th century conservationist Madison Grant, an associate of Theodore Roosevelt and the founder of the Bronx Zoo, also promoted an early version of the racist “great replacement” theory in his book “The Passing of the Great Race.”

Grant, a devoted follower of eugenics, saw the theory as part of his conservationism, writing “the laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.”

Later in the 20th century, Ted Kaczynski, who killed three people and injured 23 more with a series of bombings, wrote a manifesto decrying the Industrial Revolution and calling for a return to nature; however, he also railed against feminists, gay rights activists and animal welfare advocates in the same document.

Although Kaczynski also blasts conservative politics in his writings, in recent years, far-right spaces online have semi-ironically celebrated Kaczynski as “Uncle Ted.”

John Tanton, a white nationalist who founded several anti-immigration and pro-eugenics organizations before his death in 2019, was another major player in linking the issues, Miller said.

“He used both environmental organizations and especially the panic in the 1970s and the 1980s about overpopulation to push the anti-immigrant agenda and really to argue that immigrants were the main source of environmental degradation, and therefore they needed to push back against immigration,” she said.

These interpretations frame conservation efforts not as a shared responsibility with universal benefits, but as maintaining an explicitly racial and cultural connection to land, Miller said.

“The way that they package it is the idea that the land shapes a specific culture,” she said.

Adherents of eco-fascism, she added, believe that “culture is biological and culture is shaped by the geographic environment, and so by damaging the environment, you’re also damaging this apparently authentic European or European American culture.”

This worldview, she says, frames sources of environmental degradation such as modernity and industrialization as threats to racial purity, while also placing immigration and individual immigrants in the same category.

Despite the long history of these ideas, Lyons said, many on the far right see particular opportunity as the consequences of climate change become increasingly impossible to ignore.

Conditions like extreme weather, extreme heat and droughts are “a reality that people across the political spectrum one way or another are having to contend with,” he said, and eco-fascism “is a way to speak to people who have fears about climate change and other environmental problems … and then take those concerns and distort them and channel them in a harmful direction.”

“As long as we have these unfolding and intensifying environmental crises, it’s only going to fuel that kind of dynamic,” he warned.

To avoid allowing this framing to take hold, Miller said, it’s vital to emphasize that many of the people most drastically affected by the climate crisis are the same people scapegoated by the eco-fascist worldview and acts of terror committed in its name.

“I think that there needs to be a focus on who is harmed the most by climate change,” Miller told The Hill. “We know that if we allow climate change to get worse, the people who are going to be most impacted are those who are poor and nonwhite [and] living in the Global South.”

The effects of climate change are already driving immigration from those areas, and as it increases far-right extremists will likely cite it as a means of recruitment, she added. While climate refugees themselves are not “inherently negative or harmful,” she said, “there’s an increasingly large wing of the political right that will say it is, and then they’ll use that to create this violent panic.”

“The problem now is that we’ve created this very unstable political and environmental climate and it gives the far-right a big toehold, and climate change getting worse is only going to further that,” she said.

Lyons noted that even against the backdrop of violence with self-proclaimed eco-fascist motives, “the concept of environmental justice is an important principle that’s gained significant attraction or visibility.”

If environmental advocacy emphasizes the particular risk to the very people eco-fascism seeks to blame for the crisis, “it’s both more effective in getting at the roots of the problems and it also makes it much more difficult for fascists and others on the far right to gain entry,” he said.

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