No One Is A Virus: On American Ecofascism

Editor’s note: It’s EHN’s five-year anniversary this week! Like in previous years, we’ll be celebrating all week long by featuring exciting work every day to mark the occasion. Today, we’re sharing another of our Top 3 pieces since 2018, a post by April Anson on the white supremacist vision of nature behind American ecofascism (originally published on October 21, 2020).

In mid-March of 2020, a storytelling strain tore through the internet–what a New York Times reporter dubbed the “Coronavirus Nature Genre.” This genre, comprised primarily of tweeted memes, expressed relief and wonder at lower air pollution, animals roaming urban roadways, and the clearer water of Italian canals. The sentiment found an elevated platform when the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen, claimed that nature was sending us a message. But the genre is most succinctly summed up in Twitter poetics:

Screenshot of tweet.
SA tweet exemplifying the “Coronavirus Nature Genre.”
[Image description: A screenshot of a tweet from user Thomas Schulz on March 17, 2020. The tweet reads: “Wow… Earth is recovering. Air pollution is slowing down. Water pollution is clearing up. Natural wildlife returning home. Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”]

The internet was quick to respond in lolz, parodying the statement’s latent ecofascism. While the above tweet has since been removed, the sentiment it captures certainly remains. I see it in my students’ earnest ire at the Anthropocene epoch. Even as they recognize not all humans have created the conditions which the “era of the human” describes, they still frequently voice their frustration with “us,” we who kill the planet like a virus. In current humanities classrooms at San Diego State University and English majors and environmental humanities groups at University of Pennsylvania, this year I have witnessed a diverse range of students articulating their anger through this universalist language. The impulse likely, and understandably, emerges from a too-rare glimpse of non-human flourishing in landscapes often marked by unmitigated destruction. A reasonable response. However, attributing such phenomena to “healing” continues a murderous intellectual tradition that is at once both global and virally American.

This rhetorical imprecision not only blurs the names on receipts tracking the 100 companies killing the planet, it ignores the policy inaction responsible for the staggering number of American coronavirus cases as well as the successful mitigation of the virus in several countries across Africa and southeast Asia. It is a storytelling problem embedded in American environmentalism, where humans-as-cancer metaphors have dominated discourse for at least the last forty years. The idea that “nature is healing” from “our” viral violences is an insidious instantiation of an ecofascist sentiment that has been with us a long time.

Still, like the evanescence of meme-temporalities, ecofascism can seem to be a term with little substance. Its ideology appeals to the higher laws of nature as justification for state or extra-state violence, but that definition is often flattened in the term’s fearful punch. This semantic squishiness is what partially accounts for its identification across the spectrum of modern American politics. Ecofascism has been variously associated with leftist direct actions like Earth First! tree sits and spikes, deep ecology’s question “Is AIDS the answer to an Environmentalist’s Prayer?” the charge to “save the planet, kill yourself,” as well as the xenophobia trucked in through tales of apocalyptic population bombs and tragic, tautological stories of the commons. Drifting from its derogatory association with leftist movements, the moniker of ecofascism is now increasingly claimed through the self-referential intellectualism of far-right terrorism, a dramatic reversal of the climate denial long associated with right-wing politics. Ecofascism in the United States is not so much a matter of left versus right, but notions of “nature” and “natural law” easily deployed to underwrite violence.

Scholarship on ecofascism regards these instances as recent Americanizations of a political formulation originating in the Green Nazis. Peter Staudenmaier and Janet Biehl’s Ecofascism Revisited is a thorough account of the ways nineteenth-century German natural mysticism and the Volkish movement fed into rise of the Third Reich. They trace the ways Nazi ecologists made organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, and related themes foundational to the Nazi ideologies of Blut und Boden (blood and soil) and Heimat (homeland) and their attendant policies.

Staudenmaier and Biehl’s work on ecofascism complements a range of scholarship on Nazi blood and soil environmentalism documenting the unparalleled influence of American eugenics, conservation, and politics. Such work ubiquitously cites Adolf Hitler’s praise for American eugenicist and conservationist Madison Grant’s Passing of the Great Race as his “bible.” Others have traced Nazi blood and soil logics to the history of American settler colonial capitalism, making clear that environmental history cannot be told without Indigenous genocide and chattel slavery. Indeed, even popular pieces like Jedediah Purdy’s outstanding “Environmentalism’s Racist History” detail the “overtly racist history of American conservation and how management of nature quickly slips into management of the human gene pool.” And yet, despite identifying this transnational exchange with an American nature tradition which has been repeatedly linked to white supremacy, racial hierarchy, and unequal distribution of environmental harms and benefits, scholarship still refrains from using the term American ecofascism.[1]

We must start.

When we ignore the implicit ecofascist logic in much of what is considered the canon of American environmental thought, we continue the conditions of its spread. Ecofascism’s appeals to nature to justify violence can be found in the land logics of John Locke, who provided American environmental thinking with fantasies of “wasted,” “uncultivated,” and “empty” land through which to narrate the genocidal logics of colonial capitalism. They can be read in the white supremacist notes of Thomas Jefferson’s romantic agrarianism. They root the beloved “origin” of American environmental thinking, Ralph Waldo Emerson, as the “philosopher king of American white race theory” (Painter, The History of White People, 151). American eugenicists like Teddy Roosevelt (whose statue is toppled above) are commonly cited in ecofascist genealogies, but they built on a long tradition tied less to swiftly shifting national boundaries or fickle political affiliations than to the circulation of a narrative tradition where violence is a part of the “natural” order, of people and planet. Today ecofascism manifests virally in our most socially mediated forms of storytelling–Twitter, Instagram, and the manifestos posted to 4chan and 8chan.

As a terrifying example, the 2019 manifesto “The Inconvenient Truth” was posted to 8chan moments before its author, a self-identified ecofascist, murdered twenty-three people and injured twenty-three more in El Paso, Texas. The manifesto not only riffs on the title of Al Gore’s climate change documentary, it also cites Renaud Camus’s The Great Replacement (2011). This text updates Wilmot Robertson’s 1992 The Ethnostate, which spins white genocide conspiracy theories from the actual endangerment of the American redwoods in a rhetorical move popularized by Madison Grant. Camus’ title was reused by the ecofascist mass murderer in Christchurch, New Zealand, whose 2019 manifesto was cited as inspiration for “The Inconvenient Truth.” This self-referential intellectualism defines contemporary far-right manifestos but it is made possible by the long and transnational tradition of American ecofascism, where fictions of “natural law” and fears of white genocide form the backbone of the nation’s imagined community.

Rather than arguing over whether driving less will save the planet, we must stop claims that “nature is healing” in the streets. We must be vigilant to identify vested interests who declare that violent measures are necessary, natural, or “inevitable.” We must attend to the ways that America is not only one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, but also the narrative source of an environmental logic which promises immunity to those most responsible for rising and warming seas, water toxicity, food deserts, noxious air filled with carbon dioxide, smoke from high intensity wildfires, and a deadly disease that maps onto inequalities intrinsic to the system hurling us all through its death spiral.

Nature will heal when we heal the white supremacist vision of nature as an object to be extracted, resource to be mined, concept to racialize, sacrifice, make killable. In a time of progressively more intense weather patterns and more documentation of the connections between state and extra-state violence, claims of “we are the virus” appear alongside assertions that “the nation may be better off letting a few hundred thousand people die.” In this space, we must hold two simultaneous truths at once: 1) we are, in fact, experiencing many things together with the entire globe, and 2) our experiences continue to be so divergent and uneven as to render them altogether different worlds. In these simultaneous truths, we connect the topographic and microscopic, the “white geology” of the Anthropocene to its diffuse atomization into the atmospheric, the connections between constrictions of breath.

Here, we find a continuum of American ecofascism shaping the stories we hold, the materialities we ignore, and all that we make and remake in the surrealities swirling into and out of our mediascapes. We locate this genre’s history, building on the immense body of scholarship that already exists at the intersection of Race and Nature.[2] My students have especially liked the Hot Take podcast episode featuring Cherokee journalist Rebecca Nagle and the episode of How to Save a Planet on BLM and climate justice. Together, we see stories that sustain us saying no one is a virus— because, to take a turn at Stuart Hall’s words, “Appeals to ‘nature’ are not explanations, they are an alibi.”[3]

[1] Michael Zimmerman argues for an irreducible difference in U.S. environmentalism and German ecofascism because, “for the former ‘wild nature’ often symbolizes rugged individualism and personal liberty, while for the latter ‘wild’ nature symbolized the instinctual bond between the vital blood of the Volk and its land.” See his article on “The Threat of Ecofascism,” Social Theory and Practice 21, no. 2 (Summer 1995): 224. This differentiation erases the exclusionary function of the “wilderness” in U.S. national identity and its white-masculine nature tradition, well documented by Mark Spence and Carolyn Finney, among many others. For more popular media examples of this same omission, see “Ecofascism: A Reading List,” and articles such as “The Menace of Ecofascism” by Matthew Phelan, “Eco-Fascism: The Ideology Marrying Environmentalism and White Supremacy Thriving Online” by Sarah Manavis, “Eco-fascisms and Eco-Socialisms” by Max Ajl, “How Climate Change is Becoming a Deadly Part of White Nationalism” by Brian Kahn, and “Conservation and Eugenics” by Charles Wohlforth. Nazi Hippies exemplify this common but impoverished genealogy, flashing us with the fear that comes from the Nazi regime and combining it with very recent American countercultural movements as if by aberration or afterthought.

[2] See also: “Ten Books to Contextualize Idle No More,” Active History (January 4, 2013); “Living Writers on Revolution,” Edge Effects (June 16, 2020); “Environmental Justice Resources Online,” Environment & Society Portal; “Climate Justice is Racial Justice: A Reading List,” Environmental History Now (June 11, 2020); “Read Up on the Links Between Racism and the Environment,” New York Times (June 5, 2020); “Ten Books to Contextualize Environmental Racism,” NiCHE (July 8, 2020).

[3] Stuart Hall, “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance,” in Sociological Theories: Race and Colonialism, edited by United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation, 305 (Paris: UNESCO, 1980).

*Cover image: A toppled statue of President Theodore Roosevelt in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Independent Media PDX.

[Cover image description: A statue of President Theodore Roosevelt on a horse lies on the ground, pushed off its pedestal by protestors. Graffiti on the pedestal reads “Murderer” and “Stolen Land.” Yellow caution tape surrounds the scene.]