By Ben Heili
Eco-fascism thrives on memes. You’ve likely seen this one: In the middle of pandemic-related social distancing and shutdowns, nature returns to an area previously dominated by humanity, from Venice to Los Angeles to suburbia. After a few serious posts, internet humorists created joke versions of the meme, featuring over-the-top exaggerations like a picture of pink and purple Lisa Frank-designed dolphins “returning” to the Hudson River. The meme’s formula ends with the words “We are the virus.” This is a dangerous and misplaced idea that echoes many genocidal campaigns of the past. In fact, many versions of this meme have been used to poke fun at the macabre thesis. But the past few years have shown it can be dangerous to play with fascistic themes even on an ironic basis. Far-right groups are consciously using online communities driven by irony and cynicism to bring frustrated young men further and further toward their hateful message.
This mixture of fascism, a tongue-in-cheek stance, and ecology was most visible in the actions of the Christchurch mosque shooter last year. He put together a multimedia manifesto including a grisly livestream, and throughout his message were strong strains of both hatred and a
twisted, internet-based form of humor. One of his claims, seemingly not a joke, was that the environment was being wrecked and that non-white outsiders were to blame. “If we get rid of enough people, then our way of life can be more sustainable.” This is the core of modern eco-fascism. It is a correct recognition that humanity’s current way of living is destroying its only home, then a horrifying proposal that aligns with pre-existing racist ideas about who is deserving, who is human, and who must die.
We have not yet seen many explicitly eco-fascist ideas implemented by governments, but we already know that the impacts of both COVID-19 and climate change are distributed unequally along the lines of race and class. While denying the obvious about global warming and mass extinction, the Trump administration weaponizes its effects against political and racial enemies. With the incompetent and callous response to Hurricane Maria, we saw a preview of his stance. He considered Puerto Ricans less-than, and refused to support their rescue and recovery. Now, the administration withholds aid shipments from states or personalities he considers political rivals, and the structures of our society make the virus more deadly for the incarcerated and for already oppressed minority populations. As long as the Repubican Party maintains its deadly embrace with the fossil fuel industry, it is not likely it will outright embrace eco-fascism, which acknowledges man-made climate change. But it can leverage ecological disaster to further dispossess everyone but its wealthy donors.
The eco-fascism seen in COVID-19 memes is mild in comparison to these examples, yet it mimics the pattern seen elsewhere. The response to the issue lies in a culling of humanity, not a change in humanity’s production and consumption. Some of the most successful movies of the past decade, the Avengers series, centered around a villain who wanted to wipe out half of all life in the universe for purposes that mirror real-life eco-fascism. A Reddit community called “Thanos Did Nothing Wrong” gained over half a million subscribers. Again, most participated ironically, but it was a perfect way for online fascists to blur the lines between extermination rhetoric and popular American culture.
Anyone who believes in shared human rights must reject the eco-fascists’ conclusions. Humanity has the capacity to map out, plan, and consciously balance our relationships to all other species and to the earth’s resources. It will take effort and ingenuity to do so, and more to undo the harms that push earth’s species toward extinction. But it is not impossible.
Humans are not the virus. It is capitalism that pushes us to exceed earth’s capacity, to produce for the sake of production. Killing people or letting people die in disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic will not solve the climate crisis, and we must not crush and loot our planet’s diversity to serve this machine. The only just way forward is through organization, technology, refocusing our presence to accomodate the needs of all species, and controlling the damage we have done so far.