This January, Austria’s center-right People’s Party entered a new political coalition with the Austrian Green Party. “It is possible to protect the climate and borders,” the new Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz proclaimed, as he announced that the coalition would unite “the best of both worlds” by mandating 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, banning Islamic headscarves, and detaining asylum seekers.
Austria’s new ruling coalition may prove to be a short-lived marriage of convenience for all involved. But it also illustrates that if and when right-wing nationalists accept the apocalyptic climate claims of progressive environmentalists, the results are unlikely to be particularly progressive. For a generation, it has been an article of faith among many progressives that climate denial is a tactic adopted by the Right because to accept the reality of climate science would force them to embrace policies they otherwise loathe. Conservatives deny climate science, Naomi Oreskes has claimed, “because they fear it will be used as an excuse to expand the reach of government.”Naomi Oreskes, “Climate Denialism Is the Real ‘Hoax’: Why ‘Politically Motivated’ Science is Good Science,” Salon, June 17, 2015, salon.com.Climate deniers, Naomi Klein famously argued in The Nation magazine, “did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot.” Rather, she argued, “They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their ‘free market’ belief system.”Naomi Klein, “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” The Nation, November 9, 2011, thenation.com.
This understanding of climate denialism has led to a specific political and rhetorical strategy on the part of many climate progressives: to do everything possible to convince the general public of the reality of anthropogenic climate change on the assumption that anyone convinced of its reality would have to embrace “progressive” climate policies ranging from binding emissions reductions to some version of a Green New Deal.
Bookstores swell with hair-raising titles on climate change, like The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming; On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal; The Green New Deal: Why Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028; and The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future.David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019); Naomi Klein, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2019); Jeremy Rifkin, The Green New Deal: Why Fossil Fuel Civilization Will Collapse by 2028, and the Bold Economic Plan to Save Life on Earth (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2019); Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).Perhaps most conspicuous has been Greta Thunberg’s demand at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2019 that “I want you to panic” because “our house is on fire”; that either “we choose to go on as a civilisation or we don’t”; and above all, that “since the climate crisis has never once been treated as a crisis, people are simply not aware of the full consequences on our everyday life.”Greta Thunberg, “‘Our House Is on Fire’: Greta Thunberg, 16, Urges Leaders to Act on Climate,” The Guardian, June 25, 2019, theguardian.com.
So total is the conflation of the problem of climate change with a progressive response that one even finds the inverse claim — that all progressive social reforms are ultimately climate solutions. Jonathan Franzen recently argued in The New Yorker that “Any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions.”Jonathan Franzen, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” The New Yorker, September 8, 2019, newyorker.com.
Unfortunately, as the recent Austrian case illustrates, embracing a catastrophic view of climate risk — including the threat of creating massive numbers of climate refugees and migrants — is unlikely to provoke “progressive” responses on the Right, but rather quite the opposite. In particular, while the rhetoric of “environmental emergency” may inspire efforts to protect broad-based populations, it may also drive hoarding by the powerful and the exclusion of out-groups. In other words, the barriers that people may want to build to adapt to the realities of rising temperatures may include not only seawalls to hold back the rising tides, but also border walls to hold back the flood of humans fleeing the consequences of climate change, restricting economic development opportunities to white people, or perhaps even outright advocacy of genocide.
This prospect is what for the last decade I have been calling, less descriptively than predictively, “Avocado Politics”: green on the outside but brown(shirt) at the core. The term is an ironic nod to a moniker used in the 1970s and ’80s to describe the green parties in Western Europe: “Watermelon Politics” — green on the outside, red on the inside. This referenced the fact that many first-generation European Green Party leaders, like Daniel Cohn-Bendit, had been prominent members of the New Left student movements. As a term of derision, “Watermelon Politics” suggested that green and environmentalist themes were little more than an environmentalist repackaging of the same old leftist policies these politicians and their followers had favored earlier for other, more explicitly socialistic, reasons.
Avocado Politics is the parallel phenomenon on the Right: just as watermelon politics repackaged the political wish list of the Left on the basis of the environmental crisis, Avocado Politics reiterates the policy agenda of the far right, but now justified on the basis of the environmental crisis. As traditional conservative parties crumble and the far right gains power in many countries, embracing the reality of global warming is likely to be used to provide a powerful new set of justifications for the far-right policy program. Indeed, Avocado Politics is a good example of what people in the scenario-planning business refer to as “an inevitable surprise” — something that seems out of the realm of likelihood right now, a possibility largely off the radar, that in fact is almost certain to happen at some point.Since the summer of 2019, there has been a myriad of articles about “ecofascism.” See, e.g., Luke Darby, “What Is Eco-Fascism, the Ideology Behind Attacks in El Paso and Christchurch?”, GQ, August 7, 2019, gq.com; Dawn Stover, “White Nationalism’s Solution to Climate Change: Fewer Brown People,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, August 6, 2019, thebulletin.org; Bernhard Forchtner, “Eco-fascism: Justifications of Terrorist Violence in the Christchurch Mosque Shooting and the El Paso Shooting,” Open Democracy, August 13, 2019, opendemocracy.net; Susie Cagle, “Anti-Immigration White Supremacy Has Deep Roots in the Environmental Movement,” Mother Jones, August 19, 2019, motherjones.com; Alexandra Minna Stern, “Understanding Ecofascism, White Nationalists’ Extreme Reaction to the Coming Environmental Apocalypse,” Fast Company, August 27, 2019, fastcompany.com; Eve Andrews, “Why Does Environmentalism Have a Dark Side?” Grist.com, August 29, 2019, grist.org; Heather Hansman, “The Environment is Being Weaponized for Hate,” Outside, September 10, 2019, outsideonline.com; Sam Adler-Bell, “Why White Supremacists Are Hooked on Green Living,” The New Republic, September 24, 2019, newrepublic.com; Wen Stephenson, “Against Climate Barbarism: A Conversation with Naomi Klein,” Los Angeles Review of Books, September 30, 2019, lareviewofbooks.org; James Ashford, “What Is Eco-fascism?: The Disturbing Ideology Pairing Environmentalism and Nationalism,” The Week, October 3, 2019, theweek.co.uk; and Jeff Sparrow, “Eco-fascists and the Ugly Fight for ‘Our Way of Life’ as the Environment Disintegrates,” The Guardian, November 29, 2019, theguardian.com.
One reason to anticipate the coming of Avocado Politics is that its likely features have a deep intellectual-historical legacy. Among the lessons offered by this intellectual history is that the rhetoric of environmental emergency, while today uttered mainly among climate “progressives,” has deep roots on the Right and has very often been invoked to justify profoundly illiberal policies.
As is well known, the birth of the modern biological sciences in the 19th century was deeply interwoven with the retrograde racial views and politics of that era. While intellectual historians debate the extent to which Charles Darwin himself subscribed to racist theories, it is certainly true that he never disavowed the appropriation of his theories by so-called Social Darwinists like Herbert Spencer.
Less well known in the Anglophone world is Darwin’s reception and impact in Germany. In 1870, Ernst Haeckel coined the term “ecology,” which took a totalizing, “holistic” view of the relations of animals to their organic and its inorganic environment — a concept that lies at the root of almost all modern environmental thinking.John Passmore, “Environmentalism,” in Robert E. Goodin, Philip E. Pettit, and Thomas Pogge, eds., A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy (Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), 572–592; and Joel Garreau, “Environmentalism as Religion,” The New Atlantis 28 (2010): 61–74.Unfortunately, and not coincidentally, Haeckel was also a committed eugenicist who believed in Nordic racial superiority and militated against race mixing.Richard Weikart, “The Role of Darwinism in Nazi Racial Thought,” German Studies Review 36:3 (2013): 537–556.As Peter Staudenmaier has explained, from its initial conception, “ecology was bound up in an intensely reactionary political framework.… At the center this ideological complex is the direct unmediated application of biological categories to the social realm.” This conflation produced the concept of “natural laws” or “natural order,”Peter Staudenmaier, “Fascist Ecology: The ‘Green Wing’ of the Nazi Party and Its Historical Antecedents,” in Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, eds., Ecofascism Revisited: Lessons from the German Experience (New Compass Press, 2011), 19.to which the social order supposedly must conform or else risk ruin.
Eugenics was, of course, a common feature of politics in the transatlantic world in the early 20th century. But the early German environmental movement also had other features that are not irrelevant to the prospects for Avocado Politics: notably, its pronounced anti-urban bias. In Germany, cultural environmentalism took the form of Wandervögel (“hiking birds” or “birds of passage”) clubs, whose primary organizational focus was hiking expeditions and nature preservation but that were also motivated by a twin contempt for modernity and a romantic conception of the nation’s agrarian past. Purity lay in traversing the land and in working the soil, whereas the city was the site of sin, including the primal transgression of race mixing and miscegenation. Likewise today, much contemporary nativist politics — from the United States to Hungary to Turkey to England — entails a revolt of the countryside against the city. The Nazis would draw very directly on the legacy of the Wandervögel, modeling the Hitler Youth on the Wandervögel aesthetic—including its early use of the swastika and paramilitary look.Matthew Phelan, “The Menace of Eco-Fascism,” New York Review of Books, October 22, 2018, nybooks.com.
Indeed, the Nazis themselves have often been recognized as being “pro-environment” in certain respects: their forestry policies, for example, were the most forward-thinking of their day.Michael Imort, “Eternal Forest – Eternal Volk: The Rhetoric and Reality of National Socialist Forest Policy,” in Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Mark Cioc, and Thomas Zeller, eds. How Green Were the Nazis? Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005): 43–72.The phrase “blood and soil” was coined in 1930 by Richard Walther Darré, who in addition to being one of the chief Nazi “race theorists” and propagandists was also the Minister of Agriculture in the Third Reich and, as such, responsible for the introduction of large-scale organic farming methods, which he referred to as “farming according to the laws of life.”Peter Staudenmaier, “Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933–1945,” Environmental History 18:2 (2013): 391, 392383-411.
An unbending Malthusian view of the limited availability of natural resources shaped the Nazi view of the environment. The infamous term Lebensraum (“living space” or “habitat”), which the Nazis used to justify the need to conquer Eastern Europe, was originally coined in the 1890s as a transposition from the biogeographical theories of Friedrich Ratzel, a follower of none other than Ernst Haeckel.Christian Abrahamsson, “On the Genealogy of Lebensraum,” Geographica Helvetica 68 (2013): 39.The Nazis believed that the resources of the East should be conserved for the German race. Associating environmental destruction with the influence of other races, the Nazis believed that Germany faced an insuperable environmental crisis: it followed directly that eliminating those races was a reasonable measure by a conquering colonial power. As Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke‐Bulmahn conclude, “genocide developed into a necessity under the cloak of environment protection.”Timothy Snyder, Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2015); Gert Gröning and Joachim Wolschke‐Bulmahn, “Politics, Planning and the Protection of Nature: Political Abuse of Early Ecological Ideas in Germany, 1933–45,” Planning Perspectives 2:2 (1987): 138.
The history of American conservationism is likewise overflowing with shameless ethnocentrism. Championed by the administration of Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909) and galvanized politically by mediagenic environmental disasters like the extinction of the American passenger pigeon in 1914 (the most abundant bird in North America in the previous century), the guiding environmentalist philosophy a century ago was not about protecting the environment for its own sake, or even maintaining it in some pristine condition. Rather, it was about “conserving” it — specifically, for the use of white people.Dorceta E. Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press, 2016).
Many environmental preservationists at the beginning of the 20th century were virulently anti-immigration. The most notorious case was Madison Grant, one of the country’s leading’s conservationists in the early decades of the 20th century. The inventor of the concept of “wildlife management” (authoring the first deer-hunting law, for example), Grant lobbied for the creation of Glacier National Park and Denali National Park, and was also a cofounder of the Bronx Zoo — in which capacity he argued in favor of putting Ota Benga, an African of Mbuti (pygmy) origin on display in the Monkey House there in 1906.
Grant was most famous in his own day, however, for his book The Passing of the Great Race: Or, The Racial Basis of European History (1916). Arguably the most influential eugenicist tract ever penned, Grant’s book reasoned that the growing number of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the United States meant that the “Nordic stock” of American Protestants was at risk of being outbred and “replaced” — a term that continues to be echoed in our contemporary far right’s fears of “white genocide” and their slogan, “You will not replace us.”Cynthia Levine-Rasky, “The 100-Year-Old Rallying Cry of ‘White Genocide,’” The Conversation, July 8, 2018, theconversation.com.For Grant, the immigrant situation was nothing less than a “world crisis”: he argued that a failure to stem the immigrant tide would spell nothing less than “race suicide” for the Nordics.“Neither the black, nor the brown, nor the yellow, nor the red will conquer the white in battle,” Grant wrote. “But if the valuable elements in the Nordic race mix with inferior strains or die out through race suicide, then the citadel of civilization will fall for mere lack of defenders.” And the failure to address this racial challenge would spell nothing less than, “FINIS AMERICAE.” See introduction, The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, 4th edition (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), xxxi–xxxii. See also Jedediah Purdy, “Environmentalism’s Racist History,” The New Yorker, August 13, 2015, newyorker.com.Grant chaired the Sub-Committee on Selective Immigration of the Eugenics Committee of the US, whose findings were instrumental in the passage of the Johnson–Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which set immigration quotas based on national origins in proportion to the ethnic mix documented in the 1890 Census. Grant also was instrumental in the implementation of several anti-miscegenation laws, including Virginia’s notorious Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which codified a particularly extreme form of the pseudo-scientific “one drop rule” of race and would lead to thousands of involuntary sterilizations.Mark A. Largent, Breeding Contempt: The History of Coerced Sterilization in the United States (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2011).
As historian Jonathan Spiro has argued, Grant’s environmental conservationism, his racial politics, and his eugenics were all deeply intertwined: all assumed the need for various types of (elite, white, male) stewardship over their charges. Grant’s vision was that natural resources were to be conserved for the Nordic race, to the exclusion of other races. Unsurprisingly, Grant’s work was embraced by the Nazis in Germany, who in general looked to Jim Crow America as a model for many of their new racial laws,James Whitman, Hitler’s American Model: The United States and the Making of Nazi Race Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), 135–136.with Adolf Hitler himself writing to Grant that The Passing of the Great Race “is my Bible.”Jonathan Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2008): 357.
The German tradition of ecological thinking would come together with the American tradition of conservationism in the figure of Garret Hardin, an ecologist best known today for coining the term “tragedy of the commons” in a famous essay of 1968.Garrett Hardin, “Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968): 1243–1248, garretthardinsociety.org.Building on the tragic sensibility of nature he had laid out in that essay, Hardin soon became the foremost advocate of the so-called “social triage” movement, or what he called “lifeboat ethics.” The rapidly overpopulating planet was like a lifeboat, his argument ran, and sometimes on lifeboats, one has to be willing to make brutal decisions about whom to throw overboard. In order for the citizens of the rich countries to survive, Hardin argued, many in the Third World would have to die. “Metaphorically, each rich nation amounts to a lifeboat full of comparatively rich people. The poor of the world are in other, much more crowded lifeboats.… What should the passengers on a rich lifeboat do? This is the central problem.”Garrett Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat,” BioScience 24:10 (1974): 561–568, garretthardinsociety.org.Framed in this zero-sum manner, the answer to Hardin was obvious: rich people had a moral right to protect their own lifeboats by keeping people from poor countries from immigrating or seeking asylum.
The context for Hardin’s argument was the rising sense of Malthusian emergency in the Global North in the late 1960s and 1970s. Spurred by seeming “runaway” population growth in the Global South (at the very moment when population growth rates were flattening out in the North), and merging with growing concerns about resource depletion and pollution, texts including William and Paul Paddock’s Famine 1975! (1967), Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), and the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth (1972) all expressed the widespread concern in the Global North about how to meet the needs of humanity’s rapidly expanding global population. The “social triage” movement argued that, if not now, then very soon, there would no longer be enough resources to meet global human needs and that therefore, “tough choices” were necessary. Instead of giving goods in short supply to the most needy, social triage meant “diverting goods and food from those who have been sorted on social grounds and found wanting for whatever reason,” as one contemporary put it.Stewart Hinds, “Relations of Medical Triage to World Famine,” in George R. Jucas, Jr., and Thomas W. Ogletree, eds., Lifeboat Ethics: The Moral Dilemmas of World Hunger (New York: Harper & Row, 1976): 47.Hardin made the crucial point: “It is a mistake to speak of a passing crisis: it is evidently a permanent crunch… a growing disaster, not a passing state of affairs.”Garrett Hardin, “Carrying Capacity as an Ethical Concept,” Soundings 59 (1976): 120–137.In sum, the rhetoric of environmental emergency would serve to justify policies that in retrospect read, if not as invitations to genocide, then at least as justifications for measures that would predictably ensure millions of deaths.
All of this is not to make some “fruit of the poisoned tree” argument that all environmentalism is tainted by or inseparable from racism. What it does go to show, however, is that environmentalism — especially in its apocalyptic form — is not necessarily a spur to progressive policies but rather just as readily compatible with sharply illiberal politics. In other words, what historian of science Jason Oakes has described as a “tragic view of human nature,” which proclaims the necessity of making “tragic choices,” is just as easily enrolled in a project in which those made to bear the burden of those tragedies are the politically weak and excluded. And this is especially the case when a tragic view of nature is connected to the clarion call of emergency.Jason Oakes, “Garrett Hardin’s Tragic Sense of Life,” Endeavour 40 (2016): 238–247.
Just as progressive environmentalism enacts its environmental agenda in ways consistent with its egalitarian commitments to concepts like redistribution, decentralization, and social justice, so will right-wing environmentalism predictably organize its environmental agenda in ways that are consistent with its nativist and hierarchical beliefs. In a climate emergency that would seem to require an effective state to coordinate action to both mitigate and adapt, the strong state demanded by right-wing environmentalists will not be one that is liberal, tolerant, or inclusive but rather one that prioritizes the welfare of the native born and ethnically pure while enforcing punitive restrictions against foreigners, immigrants, and the ethnically impure — a combination sometimes referred to as “welfare chauvinism.”Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (New York: Macmillan, 1994): 173–174.In summary, a defense of the environment will be represented as an essential part of defending the privileges of America’s and Europe’s “natural” incumbents, that is, their white people.
What specific political framings should we expect from Avocado Politics? Noting that the single fastest way to increase anyone’s carbon footprint is to move a person from the Global South to the Global North, Avocado Politics will be virulently anti-immigrant. In the face of the inevitable rising tide of climate refugees, the response will be to harden or even militarize the border, if necessary by shooting refugees (only in the legs, at least at first) or building a crocodile-filled moat, as President Donald Trump is alleged to have suggested. Faced with resource scarcity produced by overconsumption,Michael Klare, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World's Last Resources (New York: Macmillan, 2012).Avocado Politics will explicitly focus on controlling scarce global natural resources and ensuring that they are conserved for the use of the incumbent North Atlantic middle and upper classes. And in a world in which “not everyone can consume like us,” right-wing environmentalism will view the prospect of billions of Chinese, Indians, and Africans trying to consume like North Americans or Europeans as clearly unsustainable and will attempt to suppress it.A key point of tension for proponents of Avocado Politics will be that keeping people underdeveloped (so that they don’t gobble up resources and the planetary carbon budget) will also create incentives for people there to try to migrate to the parts of the world where such restrictions are not enforced. This tension can be resolved by hardening and militarizing the borders between the Global North and South, and demonstrating a willingness to shoot immigrants.This view will be justified with neo-eugenicist rhetoric about the supposed cognitive inferiority of black and brown people.
Before dismissing these ideas as morbid political speculation, it’s worth observing that many of these notions already circulate in attenuated form within contemporary progressive environmental discourse, ready to be repurposed in the service of the coming Avocado Politics. Consider that until the 1990s, the Sierra Club was one of the fiercest anti-immigrant organizations in America and that the environmental movement has also long relied on statist, militarist, and antidemocratic tropes — from the Green New Deal to various proposals for the Apollo or Manhattan projects, to demands for a World War II-style mobilization to fight climate change. Or listen to left-wing Australian environmental philosopher Clive Hamilton, who has suggested that climate change may require the suspension of democracy.Clive Hamilton, “The Scary Politics of Climate Change,” September 15, 2007, clivehamilton.com.Or look at how some environmental scientists have proposed establishing a global “climate fund” that would act like a central bank and have the power to impose carbon austerity independent from the meddling of elected governments. Or ponder French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent suggestion that the Amazon might not fully belong to Brazil and that the international community might need to intervene militarily to stop deforestation.
Moreover, there is more than an echo of the white man’s burden in the ways the environmental community valorizes indigenous communities and cultures as being closer to the land and traditional agrarian economic arrangements as superior ways to live that are better for the environment. It is not hard to imagine the Right repurposing these claims to justify opposing development in Asia and Africa in much the same way that antebellum defenders of slavery suggested that slaves were simpletons who were happier doing physical labor and being “taken care of” by their masters.
In all these ways, what progressive environmentalists mostly deploy metaphorically, Avocado Politics is likely to deploy more literally.
The prospect for these sorts of “environmental crisis” justifications for far-right policies are not merely notional. As Rajani Bhatia has observed, “Referred to variously as the greening of hate, green nativism, anti-immigrant or population environmentalism, the right-wing environmental movement uses language that conceals an agenda essentially about asserting a white American nativist cultural identity in the United States.”Rajani Bhatia, “Green or Brown? White Nativist Environmental Movements,” in Abby L. Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism (New York: Routledge, 2004), 194.Richard Spencer, who coined the term alt-right, wrote in his 2017 “manifesto” (published in the wake of the right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia) that “We are a special part of the natural order, being in it and above it. We have the potential to become nature’s steward or its destroyer. 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.”Richard Spencer, “What It Means to Be Alt-Right,” August 11, 2017, archive.fo.
Then there is David Lane, a prominent white nationalist often credited with coining the term “White Genocide,” who put an ecological argument at the center of his case for white supremacy: “The environment is a concern to more and more of the folk today, and rightly so.... Fifty to one hundred million Aryans could probably have earth as a permanent paradise, but the industrialization of the third world…will quickly destroy the planet. To be blunt, it is us or them.”David Lane, “Misplaced Compassion,” davidlane1488.com.
Perhaps the most notorious example of such incipient Avocado Politics comes from another far-right manifesto, that of Patrick Crusius, who committed the August 2019 El Paso mass shooting. In his justification for the atrocity, Crusius enrolls a litany of environmental woes that virtually any so-called progressive would likely agree with to justify a very different “policy agenda”:
The American lifestyle affords our citizens an incredible quality of life. However, our lifestyle is destroying the environment of our country.… Corporations are heading the destruction of our environment.… Consumer culture is creating thousands of tons of unnecessary plastic waste and electronic waste…. Urban sprawl creates inefficient cities which unnecessarily destroys millions of acres of land.… [T]he average American isn’t willing to change their lifestyle…[s]o the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.“The Manifesto of the El Paso White Supremacist Killer,” August 4, 2019. Emphasis added. The Manifesto has been largely suppressed by Internet search engines but is currently available at louisproyect.org.
In sum, the sort of ecologically justified neo-fascism I refer to as Avocado Politics amounts to an ideological tendency or possibility that lies dormant in the body politic, a latent infection hibernating in our political DNA, always threatening to return, much as the chickenpox virus can be dormant for decades before reemerging as shingles. Rather than assume that climate change denialism will remain central to the environmental politics of the Right, we are now able to discern what a right-wing politics that takes climate change and the global environmental crisis seriously might look like.
The emergence of a nondenialist right-wing environmentalism is rapidly evolving from mere morbid potential into actual practice. Avocado Politics are already making significant headway in Europe, where climate change denial has never had the same purchase as it has in America. Consider intellectuals like Renaud Camus in France or Pentti Linkola in Finland, who specifically justify their virulent anti-immigrant politics in terms of the need to protect the natural ecology of their respective countries. Camus, in particular, has become a star on the far right by peddling his theory of “The Great Replacement,” his term to describe the process whereby the white French population (and the white European population more broadly) is allegedly being replaced with non-European people via mass migration and divergent birth rates. Likewise, many Brexiteers have combined anti-immigrant politics with the claim that only by leaving the European Union will Britain be able to “fully realise the potential of the UK as an environmental leader.”Owen Paterson, “The EU is the Enemy of Science, Innovation and Technology,” The Telegraph, November 13, 2019, telegraph.co.uk.
German-speaking countries, with their historical legacy of Haeckelist ecology and Nazi-style green politics, present a particularly interesting case for the possibility of Avocado Politics. To begin with, the German Green Party, while steadfastly “watermelon” in orientation, has seen “avocado” defections from time to time, such as the split in 1978 by the Unabhängige Ökologen Deutschlands (the Independent Environmentalists of Germany), whose platform paired ecological goals with a hostility to “ethno-pluralism,” the protection of “cultural identity,” and the maintenance of racial purity.Matthew Phelan, “The Menace of Eco-Fascism”; Lee McGowan, The Radical Right in Germany: 1870 to the Present (New York: Routledge, 2014).Such elements have never gone away. The Bavarian magazine Umwelt & Aktiv (Environment and Active) interleaves articles “offering theories for declining bee populations and arguing against the hunting of dolphins” with unabashed xenophobic rants about the “barbarism” of halal butchering practices and calls for animal rights activists to stand up to “narrow-minded and coldhearted Islamic fundamentalism.”Irina Dumitrescu, “‘Bio-Nazis’ Go Green in Germany,” Politico, July 13, 2018, politico.eu.Most recently, in May 2019, the youth league of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, bucking the climate denialism of the senior members of their party, argued that the reality of climate change justified a mandatory “one child” policy for countries in the Global South that wish to receive development assistance.Kate Aronoff, “The European Far Right’s Environmental Turn,” Dissent, May 31, 2019, dissentmagazine.org.
This isn’t just happening in Europe. Just as right-wing environmentalists in Europe are reprising their historical roots, so too in the United States is the old “conservationist” justification for right-wing politics reemerging. Consider a leading voice of anti-immigrant politics, Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, who recently hosted Justin Haskins, a Research Fellow at The Heartland Institute who explained, with impeccable Avocado logic, that “Climate migrants are essentially a category of people from third world countries, from developing nations who are supposedly suffering as a result of climate change.… But… why are we bringing them to the United States, where we produce CO2 emissions per person at a much higher rate?!” To which Carlson replied, rhetorically, “And also, if you cared about the environment, which I personally do emphatically care... why would you want a crowded country? Isn’t crowding your country the fastest way to despoil it, to pollute it, to make it a place you wouldn’t want to live?”Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight, November 11, 2019, mediamatters.org.
As Casey Williams recently argued, “What far-right climate realists seem to agree on is this: rising global temperatures and changing regional weather patterns threaten to release a flood of migrants from increasingly inhospitable parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East to the US and Europe, causing what [American Renaissance or] AmRen [a white supremacist magazine] describes as a ‘climate-driven demographic catastrophe.’” Williams quoted one Reddit commentator as saying, “If you believe in global warming, the obvious implications are that global migration must be shut down.”Casey Williams, “What Happens When the Alt-Right Believes in Climate Change,” Jewish Currents, August 13, 2018, jewishcurrents.org.
Right-wing environmentalism and climate alarmism are coming, and as they do, the political battle lines over the environment are going to look very different from the ones we have experienced during the past few decades. No longer will the primary battle be between conservative climate change deniers or skeptics, on the one hand, and liberal climate realists on the other. Instead, the primary fight will be between those who treat the reality of climate change as an imperative for creating a more inclusive and egalitarian world, and those who see it as a justification for exclusion and hoarding, retreating into ever-smaller circles of empathy. Indeed, right-wing environmentalism may be how the post-Trump anti-globalist Right repositions itself for broader appeal by reclaiming the impulses that motivated American conservationism to begin with. After all, if globalized neoliberal capitalism is what is both driving climate change and preventing any effective response, then an alliance of green and nationalist anti-globalizers (albeit motivated primarily by different things) seems all too possible.
So, what are we to do to prevent Avocado Politics from becoming the wave of the future? First, we should not assume that convincing the Right of the reality of anthropogenic climate change is likely to make the Right embrace the preferred policies of climate liberals. As bad as the do-nothing policies of the climate change–denying conservatives have been, they may be considerably less bad than the sorts of policies being proposed by the climate change–accepting far right. Climate liberals need to prepare now to counter these arguments.
Second and perhaps most important, we should beware of catastrophism. Just as talk about the limits to growth and a population bomb in the 1970s inspired forced sterilization and other policies of enormous cruelty, rhetoric to the effect that “We only have 11 years!” (or whatever number) in order to avoid catastrophic social and economic collapse is just as likely to end in calls for practicing “lifeboat ethics”Garrett Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat.”as commitments to an inclusive common future. In response to these sorts of apocalyptic warnings, repression of the hopes and ambitions of brown people is probably at least as plausible a response as degrowth or a Green New Deal.
The fundamental challenge is how to maintain a sense of focused urgency in the face of climate change, one that is capable of spurring individual and collective action, without resorting to the rhetoric of environmental apocalypse. As we have seen, such rhetoric can just as easily be (and, in fact, often has been) used to justify and promote deeply illiberal or worse solutions to environmental issues. As the reality of climate change becomes increasingly undeniable, the political battle isn’t going to go away, but the nature and stakes of the combat operations are going to transform and grow. We are going to need to dramatically improve our arguments in favor of humane climate policies if we are to have any hope of building a more inclusive world.