“It may seem like a ridiculous idea but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”
– Dr Rieux in Albert Camus’s 1947 novel, The Plague.
We live in strange times. The drastic but necessary measures taken to curb the spread of Covid-19 have impacted every facet of life on this planet in one way or another. Therefore it is no surprise that these measures have had a note-worthy effect on the planet too. As the regulations surrounding work and travel strengthen to reduce the risk of transmission and as countries extend lockdowns, reports of lowered air pollution over Italy and lowered nitrogen-dioxide and carbon emissions over China as well as pictures of Venice’s canals with much clearer water and with small fish visible swimming around have made their rounds on social media. Even global carbon emissions have fallen.
This has sparked a discourse, largely online about how these changes are indicative of how humans are the real “virus” and that this pandemic is nature’s way of healing itself. People have gone as far as to call this pandemic a blessing and a lesson for humanity. While a lot of these conversations are seemingly harmless, it gives us a glimpse into the darker side of climate conservation, that of ecofascism.
What is Eco-fascism?
Eco-fascism is a longstanding political ideology that is currently undergoing a revival in the contemporary extremist right culture. It models an authoritarian government that requires its citizens to sacrifice their own interests for the “organic whole of nature”. While no such government is in existence, elements of this ideology are present in our society. Eco-fascists have lamented the destruction of nature, which they associate with modernity and an industrial society. But the most disturbing of their objectives are their concerns over human overpopulation and the migration culture and the solutions that they offer to rectify these concerns. Eco-fascism relies heavily on a concept called “deep ecology,” the idea that the only way to preserve life on Earth is to dramatically—forcefully, if necessary—reduce the human population. Eco-fascists today believe that the size of the human population is not only putting a strain on natural resources, but also that masses of displaced people will be a threat to state and cultural stability in a seemingly inevitable post-climate change world.
Eco-fascism over the ages
Eco-fasciscm has been argued to have begun with Nazism. The Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil” was invented by Richard Walther Darré, the Third Reich’s minister of food and agriculture who developed the concept of the nation having a mystic connection with their homeland, and as such, the nation was dutybound to take care of the land.
“The concept of Blood and Soil gives us the moral right to take back as much land in the East as is necessary,” he wrote. He spoke of Jewish people as “weeds.”
American ecological movements have had instances of eco-fascism too. Madison Grant, a wildlife zoologist, was instrumental in creating the Bronx Zoo, and founded the first organizations dedicated to preserving American bison and the California redwoods. He also was the author of ‘The Passing of the Great Race’ or ‘The Racial Basis of European History’, a book that Hitler described as his personal bible. Thus neo-Eco Fascists cite the Nazi Party as an origin point of ecofascism.
Two figures influential on the Eco-fascist thought are Garrett Hardin and Pentti Linkola, both of whom were proponents of what they refer to as “Lifeboat Ethics“. Both men used versions of the following analogy to illustrate their viewpoint:
“What to do, when a ship carrying hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”
This is one of the lasting viewpoints of Eco-fascism and has been used to advance the eco-fascist ideological debates over overpopulation and immigration.
More recently, eco-fascism also has been associated with the perpetrator of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting in New Zealand, who in his manifesto described himself as ethno-nationalist and eco-fascist as well as the suspect in the 2019 El Paso shooting, who in a manifesto published on 8chan shortly before the shooting, he blames immigrants to the United States for environmental destruction, saying that American lifestyles were “destroying the environment”, invoking an ecological burden to be borne by future generations, and concluding that the solution was to “decrease the number of people in America using resources”.
Overpopulation & Climate Change
Eco-fascism is not the only strand of environmentalism that has pointed to overpopulation as being the driver of climate change. This line of thought can ultimately be traced back to figures such as Thomas Malthus, who at the end of the 18th century claimed that population growth was outstripping the capacity for food production, and advocated population control as a solution. But the most impact was brought about in 1968 by Paul Ehrlich in his book, The Population Bomb, in which he argued that ecological destruction—and, indeed, almost all social problems—could be attributed to overpopulation. Ehrlich wrote: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.” This was clearly not the case but his work still remains popular even today.
But this argument assumes that all human beings consume the same amount of natural resources and creates the same emissions and pollution. But this is far from true. In fact, the poorest half of the global population, some 3.5 billion people, are responsible for only around 10% of global emissions (while living overwhelmingly in the countries most vulnerable to climate change). The richest 10% of people in the world are responsible for around 50% of global emissions. Therefore a decrease in the population will not solve climate concerns.
In India’s case, we have been taught to blame overpopulation as the default cause of every problem we face, from climate change to poverty. However, rarely do we blame our current troubles on the fact that we were once a colonised country, looted of centurys’ worth of knowledge and other goods to aid the development of the now developed countries. Even now, crises such as Covid-19 and the climate crisis make it only too easy to blame the vast mass of the “useless class of people”. We are programmed to think of poverty as the cause and not the consequence of India’s “developing” status and to blame global crises such as climate change and the spread of viruses on the same section of people. However, even if we eliminate the amount of carbon footprint by the world’s bottom half, it will just reduce the carbon footprint by 10%. Hence, overpopulation is not the enemy, greed and inequality are.
Eco-fascism in times of Corona
With humans being referred to as the real virus and people applauding the beneficial effects of the pandemic, what we need to keep in mind is that this is not a trade-off that should be celebrated as a possible solution to the climate crisis.
Industries that are a major contributor to pollution and the economy that necessitate actions that worsen climate change have taken a hit over these two month, but the real victims of this will be the economically and socially marginalised sections of society. The virus is deepening these already existing inequalities. These sections are at a higher risk of loss of income and health care as a result of quarantine. Research done on pandemics have shown that socio-economic inequalities have also contributed to the spread of the virus, the obvious logic being people willing to risk their lives for a paycheck. This was true in the early weeks of the pandemic, with a lot of informal sector workers opting to work rather than practice social distance, with work from home out of question. A recent ILO report released in Geneva said. “In India, with a share of almost 90 percent of people working in the informal economy, about 400 million workers in the informal economy are at risk of falling deeper into poverty during the crisis.”
This along with the fact that human beings are at a risk of dying from this disease adds to the social cost of this pandemic. The pandemic’s death toll has already reached 125,748 as of April 14th. Research suggests that those in lower economic strata are likelier to catch the disease.
They are also more likely to die from it. Health organisations have stated that people over 70 are at a greater risk of dying from the coronavirus, but research has lowered the threshold to 55 for people from low income backgrounds. This is because people at the lower ends of society are about 10 percent likely to have a chronic health condition, which makes them more vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus.
Developing countries with already high levels of socio-economic inequalities too will be experiencing the adverse economic effects of the pandemic on a larger scale.
In Brazil, science scepticism and political dogma have contaminated the debate about COVID-19. With 6.3 billion people descending into poverty in just the last 4 years, instructions of staying at home and practising social distancing instead of working, have been to no avail.
The Brazilian Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has predicted that the country’s fragile health system, already depleted by severe budget cuts in recent years, will collapse by the end of April.
According to the UNDP: “Without support from the international community, developing countries risk a massive reversal of gains made over the last two decades, and an entire generation lost, if not in lives then in rights, opportunities and dignity”.
This is a clear indication of the fact that even during a pandemic of a virus that can affect anyone, the ones that bear the brunt of it are the socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society, which are the most vulnerable to climate change. Therefore any trade-off involving the lives of people for the sake of the environment is without question, eco-fascist. Especially even more so when we take into account the fact that the cost and benefits of this trade-off is disproportionately distributed. Precautions to be taken during this pandemic and after include not being an ecofascist.