What is "ecofascism" — and what does it have to do with the Buffalo shooting?

Social scientist Joseph Henderson on why the Buffalo shooter actually believed he was helping save the planet

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published May 18, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

People gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
People gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Sunday, May 15, 2022 in Buffalo, NY. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

For years, social scientists have warned that mass shootings can be contagious: Intensive media coverage, particularly when a shooter's name and face become widely known, can serve as incentive to would-be copycats seeking the same notoriety. Likewise, the motivations for mass killing events can be contagious as well, particularly when perpetrators leave behind grandiose manifestos that inspire, or directly call on, others to follow suit. 

That's doubly true of the massacre that took place last Saturday, when an 18-year-old white man from New York's Southern Tier traveled to Buffalo to target a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood, killing 10 people and wounding three more. The shooting was only the latest in a series of mass killing attacks in recent years driven by the white nationalist "replacement theory," which holds that there is an orchestrated effort to replace white people in Europe, North America and elsewhere with nonwhite immigrants (or, for that matter, nonwhite citizens). 

It's the same theory cited by the killers who targeted Muslims in Christchurch, New Zealand; Latinos in El Paso; Jews in Pittsburgh; and socialists in Norway. These days, you can readily find the theory reflected on the highest-rated cable news show on TV, or in the mouths of leading Republicans, charging that Democrats seek to "replace" white Americans with immigrants who will fundamentally change the country's demographics and also become reliable Democratic voters. Linked to that is the call for more white babies. As the Buffalo shooter wrote in the manifesto he posted online before the massacre — much of which, it turns out, was plagiarized from the Christchurch shooter's screed — "If there's one thing I want you to get from these writings, it's that White birth rates must change." 

RELATED: What "great replacement"? Right wants us to shut up about Buffalo shooter's ideology

But further down in the 180-page document, a seemingly unrelated idea appears as well: The shooter represents himself as driven by environmental concerns. Alongside genocidal threats to "non-whites on White lands" ("Leave while you still can"), the shooter decries the environmental impact of cryptocurrency mining and laments that the "natural environment" has become "industrialized, pulverized and commoditized." In a section entitled "Green nationalism is the only true nationalism," he declares, "There is no conservatism without nature, there is no nationalism without environmentalism … The protection and preservation of these lands is of the same importance as the protection and preservation of our own ideals and beliefs." 

He goes on to argue: "There is no Green future with never ending population growth," that "Continued immigration into Europe is environmental warfare" and that there can be "no traditionalism without environmentalism." 

As Political Research Associates researcher and Salon contributor Ben Lorber has pointed out, most of these passages were not the Buffalo shooter's own words, but were lifted wholesale from the Christchurch shooter's manifesto. And like the Christchurch shooter, whom he cites as inspiration, the Buffalo shooter declares himself an "ecofascist." 

Alongside genocidal threats against "non-whites on White lands," the shooter decries the impact of cryptocurrency mining and laments that the "natural environment" has been  "industrialized, pulverized and commoditized."

The ideology of "ecofascism" — which combines far-right authoritarian politics with environmental concerns or climate issues — represents an increasingly common thread in incidents of massive right-wing violence. As Alex Amend, a researcher on the far right, noted in a 2020 report in The Public Eye, there has been a "murderous daisy chain" of mass killings linked to both replacement theory and ecofascism, starting in 2011 with the massacre of 77 people in Norway by a man who blamed socialists for enabling "'third-world' overpopulation that was threatening to overtake Europe" and who called for "radical policies" to reduce the global population to less than 3 billion people. 

The Norwegian massacre inspired the Christchurch shooter, who declared that immigration, demographics and environmentalism were all inextricably bound, writing, "they are the same issue…The invaders are the ones over populating the world. Kill the invaders, kill the overpopulation and by doing so save the environment." The Christchurch shooter in turn inspired the El Paso shooter, who explained in his manifesto that he sought to kill "invaders" in order to address a worsening environment and enable a "more sustainable" way of life. 

There's a longer history to this, Amend writes, dating back to 19th-century German nationalists whose naturalist mythology binding the German "soil and volk" led to a version of right-wing environmentalism that tied protection of the land to an exclusionary sense of who should inhabit that land. 

These days, says Joseph Henderson, an environmental social scientist at Paul Smith's College in northern New York, that sort of sentiment is showing up not just in the screeds left behind by mass killers, but also in classrooms and in some mainstream environmentalist rhetoric. As a specialist in ecofascism as well as the anthropology of environmental education, Henderson says he's "deeply worried that we're starting to see fascist responses to climate change." He spoke with Salon this week. 

How did you start researching this issue? 

A couple of years ago I had a student, a young white man, who wrote a paper about how the solution to climate change is essentially genocide: that we need to secure the homeland for whites who have to have access to resources. I had never seen that argument before. And one of the fundamental questions I ask as an anthropologist who studies learning is: What's the ecosystem that produces something like that? Where was he getting these ideas?

I started meeting with him weekly and trying to understand him. He was a member of one of the groups on the ground in Charlottesville, Virginia [during the deadly 2017 "Unite the Right" rally]. He was an alienated young white man in search of meaning, with untreated mental health issues in an area where mental health care is scarce. And he would sit online and get drunk and watch really horrific videos on 4chan and 8chan, mass shooting videos. I have no training in de-radicalization, but I was trying to help him see that he was being taken advantage of, that there were people preying upon him. 

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From that, I started reading about ecofascism and how environmental studies itself is rooted in and perpetuates some of these things. Reading the Buffalo shooter's manifesto, it's disjointed and all over the place, like these things usually are, but the personality type strikes me as very similar.

On a more basic level, what is ecofascism? 

It's an appropriation of nature for reactionary political purposes. It's related to ethnonationalism and authoritarianism because it's about the construction of the nation state as a geographic area. So it makes nation-state claims to nature. If you think about the Charlottesville guys, they were chanting "blood and soil." There's a long history of this: the Nazis had a land ethic related to this. But there's this conception of natural purity and racial purity, or gender purity or ethnic purity, that goes along with that. For me, it's fundamentally about who gets to claim land and for what reasons.

People often assume that environmentalism and climate change are issues only associated with the left. 

In environmental studies, we tend to talk about environmentalisms — that there are different kinds of environmental ideologies and differences even within the left-wing versions of them. In the United States, it has mostly been people on the left, at least since Nixon, who have been concerned with environmentalism as a political project. There's a long history of how the Republican Party turned away from environmentalism and became actively hostile to it as its own counter-movement and political strategy, although that's complicated too, because there are right-leaning conservation groups and things like that. But climate change denial has predominantly been a right-wing phenomenon in this country. 

A lot of people assume that if we teach people about climate change, they will want to create a world that is more just and peaceful. That's really ideologically blinkered.

The reason we are really concerned about ecofascism is that you're starting to see this rise. A lot of people assume that if we teach people about climate change, they will want to create a world that is more just and peaceful. And that's really ideologically blinkered. My student who was an ecofascist fully understood the science of climate change. He got it. But he took it places that were illiberal, authoritarian, anti-democratic. It doesn't follow that if you teach people about climate change, they're all of a sudden going to create a world that is more just. They're going to integrate it into their existing politics. And what we're starting to see, especially among the more fringe elements of the right wing, is that there is an awareness of climate change and they're taking it in these more fascistic, anti-democratic ways. 

If you look at El Paso, there is a through-line between him and the New Zealand mosque shooter. A lot of these guys look to the New Zealand mosque shooter, or the guy in Norway, as oracles. They look to them for education; they're a "community of practice," if you want to use the anthropology term. It's an online decentralized community of practice where they learn these things, seek notoriety and stream their violence. And when you read these manifestos, they take environmentalism seriously, but from a right-wing perspective. 

How does ecofascism relate to the larger focus on replacement theory and ethno-nationalism? 

I tend to see white supremacist movements as materially oriented as much as culturally oriented. If you look at something like the U.S. Constitution, which preferences white landholders, or the system of U.S. slavery, or settler colonial genocide and the destruction of indigenous people and their lands, a lot of that is about the racist control of land. Anthropologically speaking, land is a source of value, a source of production. So what ties these things together is the need to control: the need to control land, the need to control other people in the service of that land, the need to not be controlled. It's about being the people who control others in service of this larger social arrangement and economic system. 

To tie that to climate change, we are in a present, and heading toward a future, where there are going to be really serious contests over resources. That's not new. We've been colonizing lands of Black and brown people for a long, long time. And the more intense climate change becomes, the uglier it's going to get. 

This guy targeted this area of Buffalo because of its racial composition. There is a jargony term in anthropology, "necropolitics," which basically means, who is disposable in a society? Who must suffer in order for others to survive?

Buffalo is a place of intense racial and economic segregation. And we live in a society that treats minority populations as disposable. There's this tendency to look at these events as if they're out of the ordinary. But look how we treat Black life in this country: Heavily policed, more likely to die from COVID, higher levels of environmental pollution, doctors don't take their claims to pain or health as seriously. This is a particularly nasty version of what's a much larger pattern of disposability in this country. 

Elise Stefanik, the representative in my area, is literally out there tweeting this morning the same kind of stuff. You can't draw a direct line between Stefanik's speech and what this guy did, but there are broader social conditions that legitimize it. And there are people doubling down on replacement theory today. There's recent polling that says something like 30% of Americans believe in replacement theory, and 50% of Republicans. I think that's a reflection of the fact that we're becoming a more diverse country. People are tapping into a fear of losing power.

How widespread is this ideology? In the early days of COVID, for example, some people pointed out the ecofascist undertones of memes like "Humans are the virus." 

Environmentalism has a lot of apocalyptic narratives, and that tends to provoke an authoritarian response: People want someone to come in to re-establish order.

My research isn't on numbers or percentages. But I think there are a lot of unexamined assumptions in modern environmentalism that feed into these things. Within environmentalism there are a lot of apocalyptic narratives: The world is ending, we're all screwed. Some scholarship shows that when you surround people with apocalyptic narratives, it tends to provoke an authoritarian response, because people seek out order. And if they feel like the world is being disordered, they want someone to come in — often a kind of father figure — to re-establish order. You see this in societies like Brazil with Bolsonaro, and with Trump as well. So I think some of the apocalypticism coming out of environmentalism can be dangerous. 

One of the huge issues in environmental studies is the fixation on population and population control. When I talk casually to my students about environmental problems and ask "what's the solution?" overwhelmingly they say it's population control: "There's too many humans, we need to thin the herd." What's interesting about that is they're never talking about themselves, even though when you look at who impacts ecosystems the most, it tends to be white Westerners with high incomes. But population control and eugenics have long targeted racial minorities, women, indigenous people.  

One of my students, who's now my co-author, Bronwyn Bishop, did a qualitative analysis of research papers that were handed out at a recent wildlife biology conference. It was all this really nasty population control, anti-immigrant, "invasive species" rhetoric. 

Referring to humans? 

To refer to humans. The broader theme is this very anti-human rhetoric, and you can see that in extremist literature. But the thing I'm more interested in is not the extremes, but how it manifests in everyday contexts. My students, most of whom are not extremists, still have these ideas that are kind of ecofascist-adjacent. There are other ideas, like "purity logics," where nature is sacred and humans are impure. That very quickly goes into things like racial purity logics and race science. 

What needs to be done to start addressing this?

When you think about climate change, you have to also think about things like democracy and how those are related. We need to be honest about some of the root causes of these problems, like settler colonialism, like racial capitalism, like the continued need to dominate nature and other people. You can't address these issues unless you understand those root causes. When I teach climate change, I teach it as an artifact of colonialism: that it's mostly white, wealthy nations building themselves on the back of others. And when you look at where climate denial is, it's in those nations. When I took my students to South Africa, I asked a government minister, "Do you have climate deniers here?" He said, "We don't have the privilege of climate denial." That has sat with me for a while. 

Read more on the Buffalo shooting, and what led to it:

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce was an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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