Ecofascism, neo-Malthusianism and COVID-19


As COVID-19 continues to spread across the globe, there have been numerous examples of wild animals thriving, as well as widespread improvement in air quality. You may have seen some expressing the sentiment that #natureishealing. Some do this because they revel in the sight of animals flourishing in spaces that have for so long been life-threatening due to human activities. Others have a darker point of view, shitting out takes along the lines of “we are the virus, COVID is the cure.” These points of view tend to fall somewhere between general nihilism and, more insidiously, neo-Malthusianism (perhaps eco-extremism as well, but this is far less prevalent).

Many on the fragmented left respond by pointing to our wonderful economic system as the true virus: it’s not people, it’s capitalism! While there is obvious merit to this, it occludes an important, obvious fact: capitalism cannot exist without actual humans, for example, excavating the guts of a mountain; without actual humans processing the guts within sweltering factories; without actual humans transporting the finished products across the globe; and finally, without actual humans consuming the products and disposing the resultant waste. All of which necessitates gargantuan amounts of energy, most of which is sucked out of the earth and refined – more activities which require human labor power.

Further, situating capitalism as the prime evil neglects the fact that earth destruction was and can be practiced under communism just as well (a fact that communists and socialists tend to ignore). Moreover, it matters little if any particular factory is run by bourgeois capitalists, authoritarian state communists, or egalitarian anarcho-syndicalists: none of them dare to conceive of a world in which the factory ceases to be. But maybe there is a globalized way of life that includes factories mass producing eventual garbage which isn’t catastrophically destructive – if so, I’m eagerly waiting its widespread instantiation.

This is not to say that we humans as a whole are the disease. For most of human existence we didn’t commit mass extirpations (that we were the primary reason for the Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions is far from settled), clear cut forests, destroy & despoil mountaintops, pollute the seas, damn rivers, etc. Even today, there are many peoples that do not live in ways that entail mass destruction, that resist with every fiber of their being the Leviathanic beast constantly threatening their existence. For this reason, I certainly empathize and express solidarity with venerable persons/groups like the Indigenous Anarchist Federation patiently explaining to settlers that, no, not all humans do this.

Nevertheless, we need to recognize that most of us are complicit to varying degrees, even if we are passive consumers. If we are to assign blame, we can start by placing it on the heads of those who profit the most from the destruction of our only home, but let us not forget most of our comparatively smaller roles.

***

Some, in excoriating gleeful environmentalists, nihilists and neo-Malthusians (inasmuch as they make any kind of distinction), go further: they find them to be ecofascist. While I admit there is a navigable gulf between them, such people misunderstand what ecofascism is. Put simply, ecofascism advocates for totalitarianism combined with “eco-conscious” ethno-nationalism and xenophobia. It co-opts deep ecology in order to incorporate the worst aspects of it into its repellent ideology – perhaps a distant cousin to corporate greenwashing.

By incorrectly and liberally applying the ecofascist label to anyone who’s scared, hopeless, or just happy to see nature thriving, we confuse them with those that actually are. We may risk pushing them in that direction – for there is merit to their knee-jerk denials. Only fascists (though not necessarily all of them) readily accept the label; falsely accused potential allies are likely to view with mistrust those that insist on appending it to them.

I think it more effective to point out the demonstrable fact that there is a class of people that is disproportionately consuming the world’s resource – and it is infinitely more likely to be those in the vicinity of the western Neo-Malthusian or the nihilist than in in the global south. Further, the left needs to fully grasp and not run away from the fact that the planet cannot sustain a population of 8 billion people living Western lifestyles. To believe this is possible is magical thinking: we would need 4 earths for everyone to live like an American. Acknowledging this is not ceding ground to fascists.

I want to make clear that it is categorically bad to advocate for vague population controls and mewl about how there’s too many fucking people. I think that this outlook, while dangerous, is more likely to lead to – and further entrench – myopia and despair rather than ecofascism. It’s shitty and, while it’s not exactly fascism, it might entail people too dead inside to fight the genuine fascists in our midst.

***

I suggest we let what is occurring environmentally be instructive. Let it be a lesson: yes – certain humans and capitalism as hyperobject need to be identified as culprits and meaningfully addressed; yes – the circumstances in which any ephemeral environmental benefits are manifesting are unconditionally bad. But let us gaze upon these benefits and grapple with how we can allow them to continue outside of the context of a global pandemic:

We could tear up roads or even build ways for animals to get around them. There are even more novel approaches, like green cemeteries that double as wildlife corridors. And with the need for a green stimulus in the wake of the pandemic, it could be a way to put people to work while also restoring the planet.

Beyond reducing fear, we can also make places more appealing for animals to hang. That could mean replacing your ecological disaster of a lawn with wildflowers to help pollinators, or fighting to keep park space open so birds have places to chill, particularly along flyways. [ironically, the author does what this blog warns against]

Are these collective panaceas? Of course, not: they are examples of what can be done to maintain COVID-19-related environmental positives. We are in desperate need of a massive suite of solutions applied worldwide as well as to specific locales. Some will work. Some won’t. Some will have mixed results and need adjusting. But we need it all. Time isn’t on our side.

Finally, if you’re too steeped in anthropocentrism to be unable to spare a positive thought for thriving traumatized animals (or feel the need to scold those who do); if the idea of baby leatherback sea turtles scurrying unbothered across a beach doesn’t make you feel something, I don’t know how to respond to that.

For those that do rejoice in clear skies and nature recovering, do not do so without the insertion of a pretty large caveat that recognizes the human suffering that has led to such phenomena. And if you notice a person omitting that important caveat, please don’t call them an ecofascist.

Comments

  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    … it is categorically bad to advocate for vague population controls and mewl about how there’s too many fucking people.

    By any ecological measure, there are too many fucking people. (More celibates would at least slow the problem…)

    Is “Universally-available contraception and abortion, with the education to make good use of them, now!” too vague for you?

  2. says

    By any ecological measure, there are too many fucking people. (More celibates would at least slow the problem…)

    Celibacy? Come on! We are atheists here, we do not have to stick to Christian virtues like chastity and abstinence as a form of contraception.

    The terrible problem is that contraceptives and sterilization/vasectomy still remain inaccessible for people who actually want these things and would prefer to either remain childfree or have fewer children. The current reality is that many people cannot access the birth control they want. And this problem exists also in supposedly developed democratic countries. I struggled to get myself sterilized while living in the European Union where I was legally entitled to have access to this procedure.

    If religions stopped forcing people to breed against their will, the number of people would decrease, because most people do not even want to raise lots of children.

  3. GerrardOfTitanServer says

    To OP

    Further, the left needs to fully grasp and not run away from the fact that the planet cannot sustain a population of 8 billion people living Western lifestyles. To believe this is possible is magical thinking: we would need 4 earths for everyone to live like an American. Acknowledging this is not ceding ground to fascists.

    I’m struggling to understand how this could even be true. It seems obviously wrong on its face.

    Is it about farmland? There’s more than enough farmland on the planet to feed 8 billion people.

    Is it about energy usage? There’s plenty of nuclear fuel.

    Material usage? Then recycle more and reduce low-lifetime products. Note: recycling material typically requires more energy than digging up fresh material in the first place. The way to do less mining is to use more energy, and this is possible with nuclear.

    Moreover, putting it in these units makes no sense. Assuming the basic premise of limited resources, which I highly contest for now, it doesn’t make sense to talk about “4 earths for 8 billion people living Western lifestyles”. One would need to speak about a time length as well. Is “one human lifetime” implicit in this? The claim is setting off my bullshit detectors like crazy. And again, I am failing to see a significant difference between the neo-Malthusians and you. Both doom-and-gloom, short on solutions except for drastic reductions in population sizes, and demanding that the world live in poverty and misery, while ignoring the fact that reducing wealth levels is almost guaranteed to increase birth rates. In almost every western country, we have birth rates per woman that are below breakeven. Rather than reduce the western world into poverty, we need to raise the poor world out of poverty and into material wealth and economic security.

    • says

      “I’m struggling to understand how this could even be true. It seems obviously wrong on its face.”

      I don’t get how you don’t get that extending a Western lifestyle to the rest of the world is bad and probably not possible. I’m cool with agreeing to disagree

      “demanding that the world live in poverty and misery”

      Less consumption doesn’t necessarily equal poverty and misery

      “Rather than reduce the western world into poverty, we need to raise the poor world out of poverty and into material wealth and economic security.”

      I completely agree that I’m short on viable, pragmatic solutions. Similarly, what you say is neither viable nor pragmatic – “material wealth and economic security” entails more consumption. Mass consumption by North America, Western Europe, and perhaps China has led to the Anthropocene.

      Unfortunately for us, the powers that be are interested in neither consuming less nor granting material wealth and economic security to the peoples they exploit.

      • GerrardOfTitanServer says

        I don’t get how you don’t get that extending a Western lifestyle to the rest of the world is bad and probably not possible. I’m cool with agreeing to disagree.

        Switch to nuclear for most of our energy needs, including indirect electrification of transport, including potentially CO2-neutral synthetic gasoline and petrol, plus better recycling. Then what is the problem? We’re not close to running out of farmland. We’re not close to running out of many metals and minerals that we need, excepting offhand a notable exception of phosphorous.

        If it’s so easy to see this problem, then it should be easy to explain the problem to me. What is it? What is the problem? What are going to run out of? What unavoidable negative impacts on the environment will it have?

        Mass consumption by North America, Western Europe, and perhaps China has led to the Anthropocene.

        No, habitat loss and rising greenhouse gas levels have led to the Anthropocene. Mass consumption need not lead to either of those things when we have a clean, cheap, abundant source of energy.