Green Man on the roof of Selby Abbey. Photograph: Holly Hayes

The shapeshifting language of eco-fascism

We won’t find the solutions to our problems in a forced rural fantasia, but in our shared humanity.

Richard Smyth
Richard Smyth

The environment is a battleground.

It always has been, in various ways – there have always been contests fought in and over our wild places – but today the battle is political. The outcomes will really matter; this is no academic difference of opinion.

The far-right has never been entirely absent from the field of environmental thinking. But recently the values of environmentalism have been weaponised anew, old tropes re-tooled in service of a resurgent and social media-savvy strain of fascism.

The idea that the white English are – culturally, racially or economically – a dispossessed people is an old lie. You will hear it, and from all sides, if you dig back through the history of environmental writing. We are “uprooted from our homeland, and sickening, withering in our urban pot,” the rural writer HJ Massingham wrote in 1941.

And today you will hear it from right-wing mobs like Patriotic Alternative (not the ‘new right’: there’s nothing new about this murky ebb tide of send-em-back halfwits), lobbying for “the interests of the indigenous people of the British Isles”.

But no matter where you hear it, the lie is always the same. You, the 21st century human, are lost, displaced, unmoored; you are exiled from paradise, living a half-life in a land that is no longer your own.

Personally, I think it takes some nerve to look at the lives of others and declare them broken; to see ordinary, more-or-less decent people living ordinary, more-or-less happy lives, and say, This? This isn’t living. Yet to so many it comes naturally.

It might be: look at you, in the shops, buying shit you don’t need; look at you, lost in the glow of your smartphone, disconnected from the living world (I was just texting my mum, but okay). Or it might be: look at you, with your metropolitan lifestyle, your globalist worldview, your woke values – whatever happened to the simple time-worn morality that shaped rural England?

In both cases the argument is the same: you are lost. Follow me, and we will find our way back to Eden.

You don’t have to think our modern world is perfect – in many ways, I know, our modern world is awful – to view with deep suspicion anyone who claims that the solutions to our problems are to be found in the land.

Of course we are less involved with non-human nature than we once were – most of us no longer have to break our backs to scrape a living from it – and we are, in many ways, poorer for that.

We are reckless in our disregard for wild places and wild things, hasty and myopic in our unrelenting expansion. We have brought upon ourselves real and grave emergencies: in climate, in biodiversity, in pollution. It may even be true that we were happier, whatever that means, Back Then, whenever Back Then was.

So why do I call it a lie?

Owning a smartphone does not make you a lost soul. Photograph: 9079 images

One reason I get angry with the people who espouse or indulge this sort of rubbish is that they’re talking to me, and they’re talking about me.

I am extremely white. The aboriginal white Briton is a bogus concept, of course, but my Yorkshire family has been extremely white for an extremely long time (in case it wasn’t quite white enough, a century or so ago we shipped in a couple of Belfast Protestants – my paternal grandparents – to further blanch the family tree).

I am the ‘indigenous people’, the ‘native species’, of Patriotic Alternative. The nativists and eco-nationalists talk a lot about me, but I don’t recognise myself in what they say.

Robert Davies of the Rural Conservative Movement, a small far-right, Christian, ‘traditionalist’ group, querulously demands that “the indigenous culture of these islands” be preserved. Patriotic Alternative sets out to defend Britain’s “cultural heritage” in the face of, well, whatever it is we have now.

Each stripe of eco-fascism pictures its own picture of a lush green heaven to come, but all are predicated on the idea that where we live now is hell. Tear it all down, let it all burn – and on its ashes, we shall rebuild Arcadia. My response to this is a blunt two-word dismissal from my own indigenous culture.

We have a culture. The things we do, read, build, write, sing, watch and make, now: these are our culture. You don’t have to like it – in fact you’re free to despise it, though it would take a very good hater to despise all of it – but it’s here, it sprang from this land, a product of our long and complex island history, and to say it’s not ‘real’ is to practise a sort of cultural policing that leads to only one place.

We are not uprooted, we are not unmoored. Of course we are subject to change, often disorienting, sometimes inexplicable, but what in this universe is not? We are rooted not in the soil but in one another – in our shared humanity. We won’t find the solutions to our problems in a forced rural fantasia, a scoured-white theme-park countryside (‘Mosleyland’, perhaps).

I once wrote that fascism is a resourceful parasite – that it seeks to exploit the green movement to further its cause of ethno-nationalism and naked racism. I think that this was a somewhat complacent description: now I’m interested in the extent to which right-wing nationalism is not a bug in environmentalism but a feature.

For all that the history of countryside writing is a chronicle of change, much of its popular appeal lies in a false sense of permanence. The rustic woodcuts, the unvarying shades of green and brown, the persistence of visual, emotional and ideological countryside tropes – through these things, we feel we might find our way back to the light. The attachment to a fabled lost world is fundamental.

Like all mythologies, however, this one is shaped – or warped – by the values of the storyteller. For some, it’s the lost wild we long for: eagles on the crags, beavers in the rivers. For others it’s Morris dancers and Green Man charades; for still others it’s equitable land ownership, pre-Enclosure freedoms of access and agrarian use. And for some it’s a green land of white people, a well-tended heaven of thriving red-cheeked country folk and hard-right social policies.

Modern ecological literature owes more than we might like to think to work that grew out of far-right and Nazi-affiliated politics. Tracking the complicated lineages of ‘nature writing’, we often find our way back to Henry Williamson, the Tarka man and Hitler enthusiast, typically characterised (like many of his literary heirs) as a misguided seeker after truth. While we mustn't forget that Williamson found his truth in ruralist Nazism – and, having found it, stuck to it – his sincerity is not in doubt.

Today’s far-right discourse is very different, being in the main a mire of bad-faith whataboutery, nihilism, shitposting, conspiracism and weak, sniggering irony. Not much here is substantive. But this wearisome discourse turns again and again to a subject of real importance: the environment, or, more accurately, the countryside.

It’s telling that Patriotic Alternative’s main PR wheeze is their propaganda litter-pick: grinning white yeomen in high-viz tabards, tonging carrier bags and crisp packets from the undergrowth and then posing for pics with the PA logo flying high. Litter picking, of course, is welcome and worthwhile; it’s the photo ops in front of a fascist banner that rankle (the RSPB lost no time in disowning PA after the group posted images from a recent litter-pick at Rainham Marsh reserve).

Litter, argues the environmentalist Mark Cocker, is “morally disgraceful”, but “is seldom a real enemy of biodiversity.” But for the Patriotic Alternative, litter-picking is the ideal initiative: a short-term fix, with no requirement for any inconvenient systemic change. The only answer they have is the same one they always have: blame ‘development’, blame ‘overcrowding’, don’t bother with any socio-economic analysis, just head straight to the scapegoating. It’s the immigrants’ fault.

Nigel Farage’s improbable recent pitch for the green high ground, centering on tree-planting initiatives, is similarly simple-minded. No need for any checks on industry, on carbon emissions. Simply bung in a few trees. Farage was never going to be a revolutionary, of course; he occupies the queasy position of loathing his country but at the same time having done rather well out of it. So let’s fix everything by changing nothing.

I no longer think of eco-fascism as a parasite. It’s embedded more deeply than that. Some of the same forces – they need not always be malign – that draw people towards conservation will also draw some towards nativism, nationalism and the far-right.

Do we want, do we need, a greener country, a society that values the non-human, communities with real ties to the natural world? I think we do. But I don’t think these are things to be rediscovered, unearthed in some ancestral vault. If we are to have these things, they will grow out of us, out of who we are now. They are not things we will find in the soil; they are things we will have to build.

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Richard Smyth

Richard Smyth is a writer and critic. His work has appeared in New Statesman, Prospect, Literary Review, the Guardian, and the TLS. His novel The Woodcock is out now.


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