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The far-right and environmentalism overlap is bigger than you think — and growing

The modern environmental movement and the far-right movement might appear to be on opposing sides of the political ideology spectrum. But overlap does exist and researchers say it's growing.
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The modern environmental movement and the far-right movement might appear to be on opposing sides of the political ideology spectrum. But overlap does exist and researchers say it's growing.

At first glance, the modern environmental movement and the far-right movement – including anti-immigrant and white supremacist groups – might appear to be on opposing sides of the political ideology spectrum. But overlap does exist.

Researchers say this intersection between the far-right and environmentalism is bigger than many people realize – and it's growing.

"As climate change kind of turns up the heat, there's going to be all sorts of new kinds of political contestations around these issues," Alex Amend said.

Amend used to track hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center. These days he researches eco-fascism. He says once you start to look at this overlap, you find two big misconceptions.

"One that the right is always a climate denialist movement. And two that environmental politics are always going to be left-leaning," Amend said.

Conservative leaders – from Rush Limbaugh to former President Donald Trump – have certainly denied climate change in the past.

But today, a different argument is becoming more common on the conservative political fringe.

When environmentalism and right-wing politics align

On the podcast "The People's Square," a musician who goes by Stormking described his vision for a far-right reclamation of environmentalism.

"Right-wing environmentalism in this country is mostly – especially in more modern times – an untried attack vector," Stormking said. "And it has legs, in my opinion."

"Attack vector" is an apt choice of words because this ideology has been used in literal attacks.

In El Paso, Texas, in 2019, a mass shooter killed more than 20 people and wounded more than 20 others. He told authorities he was targeting Mexicans. He also left behind a manifesto.

"The decimation of the environment is creating a massive burden for future generations," the shooter wrote. "If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable."

Abel Valenzuela, local of El Paso, meditates in front of the makeshift memorial for shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 8, 2019.
Paul Ratje / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Abel Valenzuela, local of El Paso, meditates in front of the makeshift memorial for shooting victims at the Cielo Vista Mall Walmart in El Paso, Texas, on August 8, 2019.

He titled that manifesto, "An Inconvenient Truth," which was also the name of Al Gore's Oscar-winning 2006 documentary about climate change.

Anti-immigrant environmental arguments pop up in more official places too – like court filings.

Last July, Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich filed a lawsuit against the federal government. He claimed that the Biden administration's decision to stop building the border wall was a violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

"I wish people like, you know, the environmentalists cared half as much about human beings and what's going on in Arizona as they do, or they supposedly do, about plant and wildlife, Brnovich said in an interview with KTAR News.

Brnovich argued that because migrants leave trash in the desert, a border wall is needed to protect the environment.

"We know that there's information out there that says that every time someone crosses the border, they're leaving between six and eight pounds of trash in the desert," he said. "That trash is a threat to wildlife. It's a threat to natural habitats."

Mainstream environmental organizations take the opposite view — that a wall will harm ecosystems on the border. A federal judge ultimately tossed out Brnovich's case.

Workers reinforce a section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, as seen from eastern Tijuana, Mexico, on January 18, 2019.
Guillermo Arias / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
Workers reinforce a section of the U.S.-Mexico border fence, as seen from eastern Tijuana, Mexico, on January 18, 2019.

Environmental politics are not always left-leaning

This strain of anti-immigrant environmentalism may be growing today — but it isn't new. And that brings up another misconception — that environmental politics are always left-leaning.

The truth is, eco-fascism has a long history, both in the U.S. and in Europe. Blair Taylor is a researcher at the Institute for Social Ecology. He said even the Nazis saw themselves as environmentalists.

"The idea that natural purity translates into racial or national purity – that was one that was very central to the Nazis' environmental discourse of blood and soil," Taylor said.

In the 90s when Taylor started reading books about the environmental movement, he stumbled upon some ideas that seemed very wrong.

"There is this earlier very nativist, exclusionary and racist history of environmental thought," Taylor said. "It was very much based on this idea of nature as a violent competitive and ultimately very hierarchical domain where, you know, white Europeans were at the top. So that's been rediscovered, I think, by the alt-right."

Taylor was kind of horrified to learn that in some ways, the environmental movement was founded on ideas of white supremacy.

The word "ecology" was even coined by a German scientist, Ernst Haeckel, who also contributed to the Nazis' ideas about a hierarchy of races. This history applies to the United States, too.

A view of the Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park on May 11, 2016.
Mladen Antonov / AFP/Getty Images
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AFP/Getty Images
A view of the Lower Falls at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone National Park on May 11, 2016.

The history of the environmental movement is colored by white supremacy

Dorceta Taylor is a professor at Yale University and author of The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection.

Taylor's research helped reveal parts of American environmental history that had not been widely known.

"We see a taking of Native American lands to turn into park spaces that are described as empty, untouched by human hands, pristine, to be protected," Taylor said.

"Environmental leaders are very, very at fault for setting up this narrative around, you know, untouched spaces. And to preserve them, Native people must be removed, the lands taken from them and put under federal or state protection ... so this is where the language of preservation really crosses over into this narrative of exclusion."

Taylor read the notes and diaries of early American environmentalists and learned that the movement to preserve natural spaces in the U.S. was partly motivated by a backlash against the racial mixing of American cities.

"White elites, especially white male elites, wanted to leave the spaces where there was racial mixing," she said. "And this discomfort around racially mixed neighborhoods infuses the discourse of those early conservation leaders."

John Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation. He campaigned for preservation of U.S. wilderness including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and founded The Sierra Club.
Universal History Archive / Getty Images
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Getty Images
John Muir was a Scottish-born American naturalist, engineer, writer and pioneer of conservation. He campaigned for preservation of U.S. wilderness including Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park, and founded The Sierra Club.

Organizations are confronting their exclusionary pasts

The connections between environmentalism and xenophobia in the U.S. are long and deep. In recent years, some prominent groups, including the Sierra Club, have begun to publicly confront their own exclusionary history.

"We're not just going to pretend that the problem's not happening. We're actively going to do the responsible thing and begin to address it," said Hop Hopkins, the Sierra Club's director of organizational transformation.

The organization went through its own transformation. In the 20th century, the group embraced racist ideas that overpopulation was the root of environmental harm.

In fact, in 1998 and again in 2004, anti-immigrant factions tried to stage a hostile takeover of the Sierra Club's national board. They failed, but the organization learned a lesson from those experiences — you can't just ignore these ideas or wish them away.

"We need to be educating our base about these dystopian ideas and the scapegoating that's being put upon Black, indigenous and people of color and working-class communities, such that they're able to identify these messages that may sound like they're environmental, but we need to be able to discern that they're actually very racist," Hopkins said.

It's common to come across people who say they believe in the environmental movement and the racial justice movement, but don't believe the movements have anything to do with each other. That disbelief is why Hopkins said he does the work he does.

That work goes beyond identifying the racism and bigotry in the environmental movement. It also means articulating a vision that can compete with eco-fascism. Because as climate change increases, more people will go looking for some narrative to address their fears of collapse, says Professor Emerita Betsy Hartmann of Hampshire College.

"If you have this apocalyptic doomsday view of climate change, the far-right can use that doomsday view to its own strategic advantage," Hartmann said.

In that way, the threat of eco-fascism has something in common with climate change itself.

The problem is visible now – and there is time to address it, but the longer people wait, the harder it's going to be.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.