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Eco-fascism: The greenwashing of the far right

May 19, 2022

White-supremacist killers are invoking environmental concerns to justify murder. But what is eco-fascism and why are people attracted to it?

A woman holds a black lives matter sign
The Buffalo shooter targeted Black people, linking mass migration with environmental degradation and other eco-fascist ideas Image: Matt Rourke/AP Photo/picture alliance

At least three far-right massacres in recent years have been allegedly perpetrated by people who identify as eco-fascists.

The accused murderer of 10 Black people in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on Saturday, entwined antisemitic conspiracy theories with a form of natural conservation. In a 180-page racist diatribe the 18-year-old linked mass migration with the degradation of the natural environment as a justification for murder.

The alleged perpetrator appears to share many of the views held by the young men who in 2019 committed racist massacres in El Paso, Texas, and Christchurch, New Zealand. Indeed, the alleged Buffalo killer appears to have copied large sections of his screed from the Christchurch killer.

The Christchurch killer, who shot dead 51 people at two mosques, described himself as an "ethno-nationalist eco-fascist," and called for "ethnic autonomy" as well as "the preservation of nature, and the natural order." In his diatribe, the Australian man linked climate change to overpopulation by non-Europeans, which is one of the central ideas of eco-fascism.

Flowers in front of a police blockade
The Buffalo shooter appears to have plagiarized passages from the Christchurch killer's screed Image: Getty Images/K. Schwoerer

What is an eco-fascist?

"The most simple definition would be (someone with) a fascist politic or a fascist worldview that is invoking environmental concern or environmental rhetoric to justify the hateful and extreme elements of their ideology," Cassidy Thomas told DW.

Thomas is a PhD student at Syracuse University in upstate New York who studies the intersection of right-wing extremism with environmental politics.

Thomas says regular fascists are populist ultranationalists who invoke a narrative of civilizational crisis, decline and rebirth along cultural and nationalist lines. Eco-fascists see climate change or ecological disturbances as the civilizational threat within that equation.

Eco-fascists are tied up in racist theories and believe that the degradation of the natural environment leads to the degradation of their culture and their people, added Thomas. 

They are often radicalized online, as the latest alleged shooter claims to have been, and many believe that white people, along with the environment, are threatened by non-white overpopulation. They often call for a halt to immigration, or the eradication of non-white populations.

"What they envision is the dissolution of mixed-race, liberal democratic states or these very liberal and pluralistic democratic states, and the replacement of that political formation with ethnically defined and ecological states that are smaller in nature," said Thomas.

Their over-simplistic theories fail to address the complex realities of climate change and ecological damage, and ignore the fact that the Global North is responsible for most of the emissions that have caused global heating, for instance.

Are there too many of us on our planet?

Why are people drawn to eco-fascism?

Far-right ideologies such as eco-fascism are attracting young people who have grown up with climate change but see that governments have failed to tackle the crisis properly.

"Unfortunately, as climate change has gotten worse over the past 30 years and more difficult to ignore or to question — even from the most far-right or conservative elements of the political scene — you're beginning to see individuals who have an incredibly nihilistic view and an incredibly bleak view of the future of the world," Thomas said.

Eco-fascist narratives provide believers with a "sense of purpose" and a "call to action," added Thomas. 

 "And that's why these eco-fascist narratives that are cultivated in these online subcultures are so dangerous."

Such theories are often propagated in fringe sites such as 4chan, 8chan, and the now-defunct Iron March forum, as well as more mainstream platforms such as Twitter. 

After each of the previous killing sprees, researchers saw a spike in eco-fascist interest in fringe online communities as well as online search traffic.  

Eco-fascism in politics? 

Right-wing populists have traditionally embraced climate change denial, but are increasingly seeing potential in capitalizing on climate change concerns.

Marine Le Pen
France's Marine Le Pen has invoked environmentalism in her nationalist campaignsImage: Christophe ARCHAMBAULT/AFP

In one notorious example, the attorney general of the US state of Arizona, having previously misrepresented climate science, cited environmental protection when he sued the Biden administration for loosening immigration laws. He claimed that Latin American migrants would use up resources, cause emissions and pollute the environment if they weren't kept out by a wall with Mexico.

In Europe, Marine Le Pen has invoked climate change and environmental protection in her nationalist campaigns, while the youth wing of Germany's far-right climate-skeptic AfD party called on the party to embrace climate change as an effective recruitment tool. 

As Canadian author and climate activist Naomi Klein told the HuffPost: "There is a rage out there that is going to go somewhere, and we have demagogues who are expert at directing that rage at the most vulnerable among us while protecting the most powerful and most culpable."

Nazi origins of eco-fascism

Although made up of various strands of far-right theories, much eco-fascist ideology has its roots in early Nazi movements and the fascist party in Italy.

"In Germany, they would use these environmental talking points to partially justify some of their key initiatives like Lebensraum," Thomas said. Lebensraum was the Nazi settler-colonialist concept of creating "living space" for Germans.

An apple tree
The 'heritage' appeal of organic produce has attracted nationalist communitiesImage: Fotolia/Jürgen Fälchle

"They saw the presence of these non-German peoples as a threat simultaneously to the integrity of the German culture and the German environment."

That ideology led to the 1935 Reichsnaturschutzgesetz, Germany's first conservation laws, as well as a push for organic farming. 

Elements of the far-right scene in Germany and across Europe still champion environmental causes, and things like organic farming. In Germany, environmental groups risk being infiltrated by far-right extremists.

Thomas said there are similarities in the drivers toward eco-fascism today. In Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, people saw that capitalism and industrialism brought with it rapid urbanization and environmental degradation, as well as the displacement of rural populations.

And in the United States, far-right figures have increasingly invoked environmental concerns as justification for their beliefs, including white nationalist leader Richard Spencer. Ahead of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, he included a large section on protecting nature in his online screed.

Previously he said "population control and reduction" is the "obvious solution to the ravages of climate change."

Environmentalists reject far-right ideology

Crowds of people on a street
Overconsumption is a major driver of emissionsImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Koch

The mainstream environmentalist movement, which has largely embraced social justice, has repeatedly rejected eco-fascists, saying the ideology greenwashes hate and is more focused on white supremacy than environmental protection.

They also say that the major perpetrator of ecological destruction are wealthy, Western nations, and not the people the eco-fascists seek to destroy. United Nations analysis has shown that wealth increase, not population growth, is a far greater driver of resource-use

According to the IPCC, the effect of population growth is dwarfed by the rise in emissions per person. People in the world's richest countries emit 50 times more than those in the poorest, despite having much slower population growth.

Environmentalists instead call for a decoupling of population growth and resource use and emissions by reorganizing economies and embracing sustainable practices.

Edited by: Jennifer Collins