Ecofascism Revisited: A Brief Interview

German forest swastika

Peter Staudenmaier is a professor of modern European history at Marquette University in Milwaukee. In the mid-nineties he co-authored the book, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, with Janet Biehl. Now New Compass Press has republished the book, with an extensive epilogue that provides an updated assessment of this historical legacy. We asked Peter to explain the continuing relevance of ecofascism.

— First of all, I would like you to explain the impetus for writing the original book. How did you come up with the idea and why did you and Janet see the need for it back then?

In the late 1980s and early 1990s both Janet and I were actively involved in radical green politics in the US (and in my case in Germany as well). Along with other social ecologists, we noticed a number of disturbing trends among some of our fellow green activists. Several of these trends were reminiscent of the tradition of reactionary ecology, a tradition we recognized from German history in particular. Both of us were alarmed by the lack of familiarity with this historical background among North American environmentalists, and we thought it was important to bring the topic to broader attention. At the time we wrote the original texts, there was relatively little public attention to the politics and ideology of the far right, much less its greenish strands.

The book originated as two separate articles. Although Janet and I worked together in the Left Green Network and the Institute for Social Ecology and in other contexts, we lived in different places and did not always consistently keep track of each other's work in the days before email and internet. We only discovered that we were both researching and writing on the same topic after both articles had largely been completed. Janet's article was initially published in 1994 in the journal Society and Nature. She suggested we combine both articles into a book, and arranged with AK Press to publish it. Between the submission of the final manuscript and its publication the Oklahoma City bombings occurred, and the Unabomber Manifesto appeared shortly after the book came out, which gave our text unanticipated relevance as people sought information on both far right thought and on the politics of radical environmentalism.

— How was Ecofascism received? Are you satisfied with the initial responses to your book?

Initial responses to the book varied widely. Radical audiences often found its arguments provocative, and it provided an occasion for a series of overdue debates about ecological politics and their historical evolution. Many deep ecologists, liberal environmentalists,and others reacted indignantly to the history recounted in the book, insisting that there is and never was any such thing as ecofascism. A number of right-wing opponents of environmentalism, meanwhile, mistook the book for an attack on ecological activism. The same spectrum of readings and mis-readings can be found today.

Many of these responses were to be expected. The book was never likely to find a ready hearing among convinced biocentrists or primitivists, for instance, and conservative anti-environmentalists are happy to appropriate whatever seems to suit their aims, however incoherent this may be. In several cases, those who disliked the book's analysis simply refused to discuss it. The late deep ecologist David Orton, for example, who thought of himself as a "left biocentrist," posted a somewhat confused response to the book on the 'ecopolitics' email discussion list in 1999 and then to his 'Green Web' site, and adamantly declined to discuss it in public. (He seems to have begun to change his mind on the topic in the last years of his life.) The book hit a nerve, and not a few readers reacted with bewilderment.

The most satisfying responses came from readers who took the phenomenon of right-wing ecology seriously, as a historical tendency and as a contemporary concern, and tried to grapple with its implications for an emancipatory ecological politics. These sorts of responses generated both appreciation for the book and critiques of its various claims, and have contributed to the more informed debates that have emerged since the book first appeared in 1995.

— Some fifteen years have passed since the book was first published. What has changed since then?

The political landscape has shifted in several significant ways, in North America and in Europe and elsewhere, both within left movements and in capitalist societies generally. To choose two pertinent examples, social anarchist perspectives are a good deal more common within the radical scene than they were in the early 1990s, and the environmental milieu has seen a proliferation of sophisticated reflections on the history of ecological thought. Part of this latter shift is due to the burgeoning field of environmental history, a sustained increase in academic attention to issues of environmental concern. Ecological activists can be thankful for these contributions from the historical discipline, which have begun to re-shape previous assumptions about the relations between humankind and the rest of the natural world. Naive conceptions of 'wilderness', for instance, are much less tenable today than they appeared to be for many green activists at the time the original book was written.

Debates sparked by the book have also deepened and matured in the intervening years. The research that went into Janet's chapter, for example, has been extensively corroborated by several subsequent book-length studies of right-wing environmental tendencies in post-war Germany. The subject of my chapter, meanwhile—the role of ecological ideas and practices in Nazi Germany—remains a lively topic of ongoing historical inquiry and continues to generate productive controversy. This is a welcome change from the situation in which we originally wrote, when few activists or scholars seemed interested in addressing an inevitably contentious question in a critical and straightforward manner. Aside from our German friends and colleagues such as Jutta Ditfurth or Peter Bierl, we knew at the time of relatively few people working on the theme. Today there are a variety of books and articles available on the subject in English as well as German, and readers have the opportunity to inform themselves from a wide range of vantage points.

— What can contemporary ecological activists learn from studying Green trends within historical fascism?

Activists face a lot of challenges in the world as it is today, confronting institutions that are structured to resist fundamental social change. One important obligation for activists is to inform ourselves about the historical dimensions of the struggles we are part of, trying to understand how the issues we work on have developed and transformed over time. This can sometimes seem less important in the pressure of daily demands, but it is crucial to creating a vibrant and self-aware movement. For ecological activists who see their work as part of a broader liberatory project, this process involves coming to terms with the ambiguous past of environmental politics in historical oscillation between left and right. Part of that past includes the vexed legacy of green trends within fascism. If we want to make sense of fascism and its appeal, we need to take account of its unexpected facets.

Studying the history of right-wing ecology can help contemporary activists learn more about the pitfalls their predecessors encountered and the dilemmas they faced. It can help disentangle current difficulties and provide context for problems that seem puzzling. It can shed light on apparently paradoxical aspects of green thinking and practice and contribute to a more critical and informed comprehension of current ecological and social crises and the array of responses to them. Conscientious engagement with the convoluted history of environmental politics can strengthen a radical ecological movement, one that can meet the challenges of the present while minding the lessons of the past.

— Who do you hope will read your new book, Ecofascism Revisited?

I would be pleased if the book found readers both among ecological activists and scholars studying the complex character of fascism and the multifarious strands of ecological politics. The analysis we present forms part of an emerging conversation about the historical roots and contemporary significance of reactionary ecology, and I would like to help push that conversation further in ways that are relevant to activists as well as historians. The epilogue added to the new edition surveys many of these issues, and there is much more work to be done in examining the legacy of ecofascism critically and contextually. I hope that new generations of engaged thinkers and activists committed to building a better world, to creating a free and egalitarian society in cooperation with a renewed earth and its myriad ecological communities, will find rich material for reflection and debate in the book.

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