Explained | History of ecofascism—ideology of the Buffalo shooting suspect

The Buffalo shooting suspect said he identified with ‘ecofascism’, an ideology that blames environmental degradation on immigration and overpopulation

May 22, 2022 02:38 pm | Updated 05:23 pm IST

A man prays at a memorial at the scene of a mass shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York.

A man prays at a memorial at the scene of a mass shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York. | Photo Credit: Reuters

The story so far: Ten people were killed and three were injured when an 18-year-old armed man opened fire at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York on Saturday in a racially-motivated attack that he live-streamed. The gunman was wearing body armour and a helmet and was arrested by the police.

The shooting is under investigation as a hate crime, Stephen Belongia, special agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Buffalo field office told the press.

According to local news media, the suspect—identified as Payton Gendron of Conklin, New York—posted a manifesto online before the attack. In the manifesto, he identified with the ideologies of “ecofascism” and nationalist socialism. The attacker was also influenced by the 2019 Christchurch shootings—another hate crime in New Zealand where 51 people were killed in attacks on two mosques.

What is ecofascism?

Although it might seem that the ideology of ecofascism has gained ground in recent times, historians are of the view that it has existed for centuries. In The Threat of Ecofascism (1995), environmental historian Michael E. Zimmerman defines ecofascism as a radical movement that calls for “ecologically vital private property to be protected from those who despoil it”, and depicts ecological despoilation as a threat to the racial integrity of people. The ideology demands that “society be reorganised in terms of an authoritarian, collectivist leadership principle based on masculinist-martial values”, he writes.

Mr. Zimmerman also adds that if ecofascism were to occur, it is likely that it will be in countries that already have a long-term sense of national identity that could be construed as “racial”.

In other words, ecofascism blames environmental degradation on immigration and overpopulation and wants to preserve natural resources in developed countries for the historically native population only. Ecofascists believe that humans have strained the natural resources on the planet, but some population groups, usually people of colour, marginalised communities and minorities, are less deserving to use these resources. As such, ecofascism becomes a vehicle to carry racism under the garb of protecting the environment.

The origin of the theory of ecofascism is unclear, but some experts believe that the idea of mixing eugenics and natural resources first appeared in The Principle of Population, an essay written by English economist Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798. According to Malthusian Theory, population will continue to expand in geometric progression while means of subsistence will increase in arithmetic progression, and only “vice, misery, and moral restraint” can check the excessive growth of population. The crux of the Malthusian Theory is that food and other natural resources will not be able to keep up with the demands of the ever-increasing human population.

Madison Grant: Father of ecofascism

The American Institute for Economic Research identifies Madison Grant as the father of ecofascism. Mr. Grant was the founder of modern wildlife management and a close friend of U. S. President Theodore Roosevelt. During his term as President of the New York Zoological Society, he founded the Bronx Zoo. In 1906, the zoo caged Ota Benga, a member of the Mbuti tribe of Congo, to live with apes. Mr. Benga was released after an outrage but he was reportedly depressed and died by suicide ten years later. Mr. Grant had supported the caging of Mr. Benga. He also wrote The Passing of the Great Race, a book that advocates racist ideologies and was a favourite of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

Dr. Peter Staudenmaier, an associate professor of history at Marquette University in the U. S., views ecofascism as deeply tied to fascist politics with strong roots in the 1920s and 1930s in Germany, Italy and Great Britain.

“U. S. environmental writers blamed immigrants for the decline of natural rural life as early as the 1870s, and by the 1910s leading U. S. conservationists promoted eugenics and racial ideology. Similar currents can be seen in Britain in the 1920s and especially the 1930s,” Dr. Staudenmaier said while speaking to The Hindu. Dr. Staudenmaier is the author of the 1995 book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, and more recently Ecology Contested.

Nazi ‘blood and soil’ principle

Walther Schoenichen, a German biologist during the Nazi empire, related ecosophy to the local principle of blut und boden—German for blood and soil—a racist ideology propagated during Hitler’s rule. Blood and soil essentially meant to ground Germans in their rural surroundings, since Hitler was not a fan of industrialisation. The expression also conveyed the rightful ownership of land to the “superior race”.

Lebensraum, another Nazi ideology, ties closely with the principle of blut und boden. The word loosely translates to “living space” and denotes land and how Germans were deprived of their land by “inferior races”. The ideology extended to post-war plans of encouraging “superior races” of northern Europe to re-establish their roots in their native soil.

The “Great Replacement” theory is related to ecofascism as well and propagates that non-White populations are replacing Whites from their rightful lands as a result of globalisation and industrialisation. French author Renaud Camus mentioned the theory in his book in 2011. It has been referred to by far-right perpetators of shooting incidents in Christchurch, El Paso and, most recently, Buffalo.

Why the rise in incidents related to ecofascism?

Dr. Staudenmaier is of the view that despite its history, ecofascism was still a relatively marginal phenomenon till a decade ago. “My sense is that such historical strands of right-wing ecology began to emerge more openly again and gained broader notice around 2015, in tandem with the global rise in authoritarian and populist elements on the right. The clearest example is the 2019 Christchurch attack, followed by the El Paso attack, but the environmental dimensions of the radical right have been there all along. It took atrocities like the Christchurch attack to bring them to public attention,” he said.

How do we respond to ecofascism?

“In my view, much of the coverage of the Buffalo attack has failed to look at the longer historical context, which I think is essential to understanding shocking events like these” said Dr. Staudenmaier.

“The environmental passages in the Buffalo perpetrator’s manifesto were lifted verbatim from the 2019 Christchurch manifesto (which was titled “The Great Replacement”), itself an amalgamation of disparate beliefs swirling around on the contemporary radical right. In my view, the best way to respond to these events is to show that any ecological program capable of meeting the challenge of the current global climate crisis must go hand in hand with a commitment to social equity if it is ever going to succeed; nationalist and racialist and anti-immigrant versions of environmental politics are not just inhumane but incoherent at a basic ecological and planetary level.

“The lengthy historical legacy of far-right ecology has nothing useful to offer to today’s world.”

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