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Is coronavirus leading to a rise in eco-fascism?

The aim of the ethnonationalist movement isn't to make everyone an eco-fascist. It's to make some version of eco-fascism worth entertaining. 

At the end of March, just days after the UK lockdown began, a grim coronavirus story started to spread across the internet. Stickers sporting the logo of Extinction Rebellion (XR), the well-known climate activist group, were appearing on lamp posts, bus stops, and postboxes all over Britain – reading “Corona is the cure, humans are the disease”. The images of these stickers quickly went viral on Facebook and Twitter, appearing in local UK Facebook groups as well as some parts of Europe. Users thought it was unbelievable to see a group dedicated to prolonging human life championing the effects of a virus that has already killed more than 250,000 people. 

What made it feel so unbelievable was probably the fact that it wasn’t true. As it turned out, these stickers weren’t from XR at all, but from far-right activists simply trying to discredit them. XR tweeted that they were aware of the stickers and were trying to get them, and the fake XR Twitter account that had emerged, removed (as well as reiterating that they did not agree with the sentiment). However, what made this mix-up so readily viral is that its message is becoming eerily familiar – celebrating the impact of the deadly coronavirus on the planet. 

Over the past two months, people have shared fake images of animals returning to cities, spoken of how “nature is healing”, and made suggestions similar to the fake XR stickers, suggesting that there are some upsides to the Covid-19 outbreak. And as this ethos has grown, people have begun to ask: is this eco-fascism? The ideology that is effectively dressed-up ethnonationalism; valuing the preservation of the planet over human life (and, in particular, black, Asian and minority ethnic lives). 

While it’s hard to say that anyone who has used some version of “we are the virus” is themselves an eco-fascist, it’s less hard to detect the influence of that mentality. And while eco-fascism remains relatively niche in the grand scheme of racist, right-wing ideologies, coronavirus discourse could catapult it into the mainstream. 

Eco-fascism in its purest form essentially promotes the racist, ethnonationalist idea that the planet could be saved by everyone returning to their “land of origin” – ie white people should stay in Europe and any black or minority ethnic people should leave. I first wrote about the ideology in September 2018 and noted its defining characteristics:

“Although eco-fascism can manifest in different ways (just like any umbrella ideology), there are consistent sets of beliefs that crop up among eco-fascists. They include veganism, anti-multiculturalism, white nationalism, anti-single use plastic, anti-Semitism and, almost always, a passionate interest in Norse mythology… Another way to identify an eco-fascist is their tendency to use phrases associated with the Third Reich, but interspersed with references to the earth – such as the infamous ‘Blut und Boden’ or ‘Blood and Soil’. The language captures the eco-fascist desire to have nations that are only full of people they claim are indigenous to that region (blood) and the demand for a geographically-bounded home that is preserved through environmentalist principles (soil).” 

Eco-fascism, in the autumn of 2018, was defined by this largely unknown set of beliefs – but six months later the ideology grew in prominence. The Christchurch gunman, who killed 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, uploaded an online manifesto before the shooting in which he (likely ironically) called himself an eco-fascist. This helped to increase the visibility of eco-fascism beyond its previously small, mostly online audience. While it was still tied to white supremacy and ethnonationalism, the ideology was watered down to be less explicitly Norse-loving and Nazi-esque, and to encompass anyone who believed in human sacrifice as a means of saving the planet. 

As we examine eco-fascism a year later, in the context of coronavirus, it’s hard not to see parallels. Many of the people at risk during lockdown are those working in low-paid service roles, which statistically BAME people are more likely to occupy. That disparity will only increase with the government’s murky plan to get more people back to work, which will inevitably impact working-class people more than the home-working middle and upper classes. Even more serious is the impact of coronavirus itself on BAME people, with black and Asian doctors and nurses dying at above-average rates compared to their white counterparts (not just in the UK but in the US too). It’s an undeniable fact that this pandemic is hitting non-white people harder – its “silver linings” will be disproportionately enjoyed by white people. 

It’s easy to argue that remarks such as “it’s good the planet is getting a break from people travelling” don't amount to full-on eco-fascism. But suggesting that statements like this don't strengthen eco-fascism's appeal is to fundamentally misunderstand how such ideologies creep into the mainstream. Many trolls, 4Channers and alt-right ideologues are mainly concerned with shifting the “Overton window” – the spectrum of ideas deemed acceptable by voters and the political class. Policies in the middle of the metaphorical window are those that are spoken of positively, or that are seen as sensible, such as democracy, the NHS and taxes. Those outside the window are ideas viewed as radical or unthinkable, such as Nazism or racial segregation. The name of the game is to make the previously intolerable worthy of discussion. 

In recent years, we’ve seen how digital culture can help stretch that Overton window little by little. Five years ago, jokes about sexual assault would have been career-ending for a presidential candidate; now now they won't bar anyone's path to the White House. People openly identifying as Nazis were social outcasts at the start of the last decade; now they can become social media icons. 

Through memes and normal people adopting their catchphrases, eco-fascists can, in much the same way, make their previously obscure ideologies into national talking points. Meanwhile, online trolls who think it's funny to trick “normies” into believing in ideologies like eco-fascism, will actively encourage people to parrot messages such as “we are the virus, coronavirus is the cure” just to watch the window shift. The aim isn’t to make everyone believe in eco-fascism, or even to make everyone know it by name – it’s to make a version of eco-fascism acceptable or, at the very least, an idea worth entertaining. 

While most people posting eco-fascist coronavirus memes are doing so ironically, the danger lies in the fact that all ironic posting originates from source material. In this case, the notion that a large number of disproportionately BAME lives can be sacrificed for a slight delay in the impact of climate change has become mainstream.  And although not everyone who suggests that there’s an environmental “silver lining” to this pandemic may identify as an eco-fascist, for dedicated eco-fascists it doesn’t matter. What they want has ultimately already been achieved: not making us answer “yes”, but simply getting some people to ask the question. 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.