We tend to assume that America’s environmental movement has clear analogues in other countries and cultures, but it might really be closer to an aberration. Forged in the crucible of Vietnam- and Civil Rights-era protest movements, and melding the traditions of Henry David Thoreau and Teddy Roosevelt with the ideals of the 1960s counterculture, American environmentalism bears little resemblance to some of its presumed allies abroad.
Across Europe, for example, a longstanding cultural relationship between Nature and Nation permeates environmental debate with a nativist sentiment stronger than is typically visible in the United States. In Germany, beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, die Wandervögel (the hiking birds) began to coalesce around a disdain for modernity and a romantic conception of the nation’s Teutonic agrarian past. The Hitler Youth eventually appropriated a lot of the Wandervögel aesthetic—including its early use of the swastika and its militant Boy Scout look—and the movement’s ideological obsessions; the way it tied local ecology to ethnicity in a “Blood and Soil” mythology is still echoed today by many on the far right. (The German Green Party has been periodically plagued by this tension, sometimes leading to the creation of splinter groups such as the Unabhängige Ökologen Deutschlands, the Independent Environmentalists of Germany, whose platform pairs ecological goals with the protection of “cultural identity” and racial purity.)
Russia today is seeing the rise of a similar eco-nationalist homesteading movement, sometimes dubbed “Ringing Cedars” after a series of fantasy novels by the Siberian author Vladimir Megre, whose mysticism and Old World nostalgia inspired readers to go “back to the land.” The catalyzing force of a popular fantasy series is oddly something that the Ringing Cedars communities share with the United Kingdom’s mid-century Green movement, which arose in tandem with a largely conservative longing for the English countryside, rekindled by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.
Anyone who has a passing familiarity with environmental activism knows this intuitively. Limited parochial concerns and self-interest motivate significant segments of nearly all local Green coalitions; there are always people who get the “act locally” part, but don’t particularly care to “think globally.” The trouble is that there is a significant risk that these tensions between the progressive-inclusive and the conservative-exclusive wings of environmentalism could finally rupture in the era that has brought us first Brexit and Trump, and more recently the neo-Nazi days of rage in Chemnitz and this past summer the white nationalist violence in that bastion of hippie-progressivism, downtown Portland, Oregon—this latter clash mere walking distance from an electric vehicle charging station, a yoga studio, and an estuary conservation nonprofit.
We live in a multivalent political atmosphere, vertiginously complex despite the tired observation that public debate has become too polarized. The old ideological axis of left-right—which had managed to reflect political reality since the end of World War II—has broken apart, and new, improbable coalitions are forming, particularly around issues promoted as populist. Some of these unpredictable realignments have drawn a great deal of commentary and attention, but they have been little discussed as manifested within the environmental movement.
“We have the potential to become nature’s steward or its destroyer,” Richard Spencer, the white supremacist organizer and coiner of the term “alt-right,” wrote in his August 11, 2017, manifesto inaugurating the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. “Putting aside contentious matters like global warming and resource depletion, European countries should invest in national parks, wilderness preserves, and wildlife refuges, as well as productive and sustainable farms and ranches. The natural world—and our experience of it—is an end in itself.”
In that disturbing and carefully calibrated statement, Spencer clearly hoped to bridge the divide between those on the far right who believe that climate change is a hoax, that the environmental movement is a crypto-socialist bid for state intervention (effectively, the Koch-funded Tea Party line), and those who actually find the science undergirding environmental causes persuasive (even if they ultimately care more about intrusions into their own personal sphere, like GMO crops and fluoridated water, than international problems like rising sea levels and ocean acidification). Spencer’s goal here is to build a consensus on preserving the natural environment—for the privileged ownership, use, and pleasure of Western ethno-states.
Albeit without the alt-right’s explicitly exclusionary, tribalist agenda, this romantic-reactionary tendency in environmentalism has fertile ground in US Green Party coalitions, if only because many pragmatic environmentalists have self-selected out of these marginalized third-party engagements. Concerted efforts by anti-Semitic authors David Pidcock, Michele Renouf, and Matthias Chang to insinuate their ideas into the Green Party’s defense of Palestinians, and its critique of international finance, plagued the campaign of Green Party presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney in 2008, and this example is not unique. In general, what has been left is an activist community that, while far from being a full-fledged “green–brown” alliance, is dangerously susceptible to eco-nationalist positions and premeditated infiltration by like-minds from the far right.
Canada’s Green Party has also been forced to spend the past several years aggressively distancing itself from similar intrusions, among them its former federal candidate in Alberta, Monika Schaefer, who ran on the party line in 2006, 2008, and 2011, and now describes the Holocaust as the “biggest and most pernicious and persistent lie in all of history.” Schaefer is a former music teacher whose long gray hair is draped in two braids, one on each shoulder, like Willie Nelson’s. She was arrested in Germany this past January while attending the trial of a fellow Holocaust denier.
More recently, here in the US, there’s the unlikely journey of Tea Party organizer Debbie Dooley, whose Green Tea Coalition has brought right-wing groups into close collaboration with liberal stalwarts like the Sierra Club and the Nature Conservancy. Together, they have successfully lobbied for solar power subsidies in Georgia and Florida. As Dooley told The Guardian, “I believe being good stewards of the environment God gave us should not be a partisan issue.”
The sheer novelty of Dooley’s existence has proven irresistible to journalists—netting her gawking profiles in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and on National Public Radio—but that coverage has tended to obscure her extremism. Alongside advocating for sustainable energy, Dooley’s other pet issues are opposing amnesty for undocumented immigrants and increasing border security. She endorsed Trump early in the Republican primary, writing a Breitbart News editorial in which she praised his strong belief in “American exceptionalism” and his willingness to “put American interests first.”
Looking for a closer appraisal of Dooley, I reached out to the conservation chair for the Sierra Club’s Florida chapter, Tom Larson, who had spoken alongside her (and Al Gore) at a 2015 climate event in Miami. Larson had a strong sense that even more pernicious variations of the Dooley phenomenon had existed within the American environmental movement for decades.
“Folks that were getting into anti-immigration issues fifteen years ago had some interest in trying to tap the Sierra Club’s concern about worldwide resources-use patterns,” Larson told me. “It was an interesting affair for a couple of years where they tried to get their people elected to the [Sierra Club’s nonprofit] corporate board… There was a nativist lurch at times that was hidden behind ‘population growth’ language.”
Carl Pope, then the executive director of the Sierra Club, was careful not to say at the time that he believed all of these upstart candidates were necessarily racist. (One, in fact, was a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation who had joined this anti-immigration push because he sincerely felt that the influx of migrant workers was undermining the livelihoods of working-class African-Americans.)
Yet Pope reached for a graphic metaphor to describe the overall situation to reporters in 2004, saying that it was hard to separate a candidate’s personal views from his backers “if somebody who isn’t a Nazi is put on the ballot by the American Nazi Party.” This wasn’t mere mudslinging, unfortunately. One Sierra Club member, according to coverage in The New York Times, was found to be encouraging the readers of VDARE—an anti-immigrant site that promotes race science and is today squarely affiliated with the alt-right—to join the Sierra Club and vote for these outside candidates.
John Tanton, a Sierra Club official from Michigan with extensive ties to white nationalists and eugenicists, had written up a secret memo planning the takeover years earlier, in 1986, as the Southern Poverty Law Center uncovered. (“The issues we’re touching on here must be broached by liberals,” Tanton’s memo reads, “conservatives simply cannot do it without tainting the whole subject.”)
Tanton is in assisted living now, but the multimillion-dollar network of anti-immigration groups that he helped will into being, including the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and the Center for Immigration Studies, has had an outsized influence within the Trump administration. Tanton’s philanthropic pitches to his network’s wealthiest benefactor, Mellon family heiress Cordelia Scaife May, were routinely packaged in their shared affinity for the American traditions of naturalism, transcendentalism, and conservation. A typical correspondence could see Tanton planning a trip for Scaife May on which she could admire both Arizona’s “acorn woodpeckers, and the half dozen species of humming birds” and later visit the state’s brave INS agents busy rounding up “the illegals.” (Perhaps running a similar gambit, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke spent some time in Austria in the late aughts running a birdwatching business near the Eastern Alps.)
These intentionally subversive episodes are disturbing by themselves. But then there have also been some strange recurring bloopers in which environmental activists have haplessly stumbled into casual alliances with dangerous members of the far-right radical fringe. One example was longtime environmental activist and lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr.’s brief, baffling dalliance with President Trump last year over their mutual vaccine paranoia. There was the 2013 incident in which Australia’s Greens accidentally invited the nation’s leading Holocaust-denier, Frederick Töben, to a gala fundraising cruise. And the time that America’s 2016 Green Party VP candidate, Ajamu Baraka, accidentally allowed one of his political essays to be published in an anthology edited by September 11 conspiracy theorist and Holocaust “skeptic” Kevin Barrett (after Baraka had also appeared on Barrett’s radio program, twice).
Both by happenstance and design, sadly, these intersections will continue. Indeed, they’re likely to occur more often as the right’s faux-populist critics of “globalism” come to realize the simple empirical fact that we live on an Earth ravaged by increasingly high-speed global commerce. During the United Nations International Year of Biodiversity in 2010, the UN published a report that tied the accelerating rate of species extinction to a variety of economic factors: urban sprawl, deforestation, overfishing, climate change, and the careless mixing of disparate ecosystems.
That latter factor is of special rhetorical significance here. Global trade has allowed humanity to intermingle countless species—each evolved to unique regional circumstances, oceans apart—pitting these confused strangers together with alarming frequency and unpredictable results. Take, for example, the case of Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, a fungal passenger on South African clawed frogs that has come to decimate the populations of other frog species worldwide. In the 1930s and 1940s, this species of frog traveled the world rather innocently as a natural form of pregnancy test. (Hormones in a pregnant woman’s urine, it was discovered, were sufficiently potent to make the female clawed frogs ovulate.) Despite a purpose that sounds so wholesome and unobtrusive—a rare bit of folk medicine that doctors and homeopaths could agree on—it brought on a devastating extinction-level event in a way that no one could have anticipated.
The world is full of stories like this, freak conflicts between raw biology and global trade: bird flu outbreaks that originated in the Dickensian conditions of industrial chicken farms; Burmese pythons, imported as exotic pets, suddenly escaping into the Florida Everglades to savagely disrupt the food web. Every academic journal article and government study on one of these incidents has the potential to be recast with a sickening xenophobic subtext, a gross reactionary gloss.
And, to an extent, that’s already happening. Florida’s Burmese python problem appeared in a 2014 listicle posted to Alex Jones’s Infowars site designed to goad undecided readers into a life of doomsday prepping. (“The signs of collapse are all around us.”) He and his editorial team have woven these kinds of stories—“supercolony” infestations of fire ants from South America, Hawaiian American bees endangered by invasive plants, transgenic Kentucky bluegrass escaping as a superweed—into their brand’s rolling, improvised narrative of national degeneracy and impending apocalypse. It’s instructive to keep in mind that one of Jones’s most instantly recognizable and endlessly memed rants, the one about “chemicals in the water that turn the frickin’ frogs gay,” ultimately distills genuine concerns about pharmaceutical waste disrupting marine life into pure, reactionary sex panic.
Jones’s moppety Sheffield protégé, Paul Joseph Watson (not yet banned from Twitter, with 923k followers and counting), has also proven to be an adroit repackager of nuanced ecological debates, transforming them into inflammatory clickbait for his audience of culture warriors. When a sociologist at the University of Westminster suggested that the Radio 4 panel show “Gardeners’ Question Time” had become a crypto-nationalist hotbed of seething racial resentments, Watson spun it to his audience as a left-authoritarian academic calling technical terms like “soil purity” and “invasive species” inherently racist. Earlier this year, he and Breitbart London manufactured a controversy over an off-handed comment made by an environmental reporter, Fred Pearce, who had said that the language used to describe these invasive species is “very xenophobic.” The barely veiled subtext in both instances is the idea that the self-described environmentalists on the left are so fundamentally enmeshed in their own multicultural delusions as to be wholly incapable of protecting the natural world. This tactic of termite punditry around the cleavages between environmentalists and the rest of the modern left probably isn’t going away—particularly since the alt-right has decided that it no longer wants to entrust protecting the fatherland to a bunch of dirty hippies.
“In terms of the discourse about nations,” says Peter Paul Catterall, a professor at the University of Westminster who edits the historical journal National Identities, “people on the far-right tend to be primordialists; they tend to see the nation as a natural community rather than an imagined community.” (Here, again, the Wandervögel, who in their Teutonic mysticism saw an essential pure Germany stretching back into an idealized past, as opposed to the reality: a German nation-state that had only become formally assembled in 1871.)
“And in that same way,” Catterall continues, “they’re hostile to the eruption into that community of species and influences from outside, which can undermine or affect the health of that community.”
There’s a strain within environmentalism that shares this primordial outlook, holding fast to a belief in “climax” or “deep ecologies”—perfectly balanced states of nature that would be enduring and eternal were it not for the interference of man. The unresolved tension surrounding this concept has been a feature of ecological debates since at least the early twentieth century, when the English botanist Arthur Tansley sparred with American ecologist Frederic Clements over the latter’s view of the ecosystem as organism, striving for total symbiotic balance. Finally putting this to rest, with the help of decades of continuing research, will probably be an essential step toward saving the cause of environmentalism from one of its more dangerous foundational myths.
But it will not fully eradicate the threat that some nascent form of right-wing nationalism might successfully co-opt the environmental movement, in whole or in part, in the near future. It isn’t inconceivable that a few Silicon Valley tech billionaires, alarmed by the specter of anthropogenic apocalypse (but uninterested in any egalitarian impingements on their capital flows), might cast their philanthropic largess behind ever more right-leaning and reactionary environmental groups.
“There is an opportunity there,” Catterall says, “which the far-right parties have not yet spotted, and there is a risk that they could spot this, and they could use it very effectively because, after all, there is a lot of hostility to science—which goes far beyond the sort of small constituency that the far-right can normally trawl within. You can see these as being wedge issues that can give them a broader reach.”
As former Trump strategist Steve Bannon told Real Time host Bill Maher last month, “Look in Italy right now… The Five-Star Movement is so Green they even want to do a bullet train, okay? They’re the populist movement and they’re even saying, ‘Hey we gotta stop the migrant issue,’ because they’re the ones that want to give a guaranteed income.” (Four of the five policy issues—or “stars”—around which the difficult-to-classify Five-Star Movement is organized are, in fact, essentially green concerns: public water access, sustainable transportation, sustainable development, and environmentalism. The fifth is a right to Internet access.)
Much of what the German émigré critical theorist Theodor Adorno had to say about fascism and democracy in 1959 applies equally well to fascism and environmentalism today: the survival of these tendencies within environmentalism could be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against environmentalism. For most of our lives, we’ve lived with the persistent threat of extreme-right movements backed by capital invested in historical dead-ends such as fossil fuels and the freedom to pollute. But far-right movements backed by new sectors of the economy could threaten to be something far worse. They could be sustainable.