by Sam Crawley
It is rapidly becoming clear that a range of environmental problems facing society require urgent attention. The UNFCCC, for example, recently remarked that, as a result of climate change “[h]uman health and livelihoods are being devastated, unique ecosystems are being irreparably damaged, and many species have become extinct.” Other issues, such as plastic pollution, do not receive the same level of media attention as climate change, yet are nonetheless having disastrous impacts on the environment. In a paper detailing the problems created by plastic pollution, Roland Geyer et al. concluded: “humans are conducting a singular uncontrolled experiment on a global scale, in which billions of metric tons of [plastic] material will accumulate across all major terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems on the planet”.
Government action is central to any credible response to these environmental problems. While the choices and actions of individuals are also important, government policy is required to ensure environmental action is coordinated across all regions of a country and all sectors of an economy. Action by governments will also need to be sustained over a period of years or decades, and may amount to a substantial transformation of society. Such an extensive and ambitious government programme requires broad public support to legitimise it, especially in democracies.
What the public thinks about environmental action, therefore, matters. Exploring people’s environmental attitudes can help us to get a better sense of the nature of public support for environmental action. In particular, insights can be gained by investigating why people hold particular environmental attitudes. For instance, what is driving the backlash against environmental action seen in some parts of the world? Is it that people are concerned about the economic impacts of environmental action, or is it something more?
There is some evidence which suggests that concern about the economic consequences of environmental action make people less likely to support it. However, given the large-scale changes to society that are likely to be required to address environmental issues, we could expect people’s ideology or worldview to contribute to their degree of support for environmental action. For example, people hold different beliefs about the relationship between humans and nature, the extent to which the government should be “interfering” in the economy, or what constraints should or should not be placed on a person’s “way of life”. These beliefs may strongly influence how much a person supports environmental action.
Consistently, and in a variety of contexts, people who place themselves on the right of politics have been found to be less likely to be concerned about the environment or to support environmental action than people on the left. Similar patterns can also be found among political parties, where left-wing parties are typically more engaged with environmental issues than right-wing parties. This link between left-right political orientation and environmental attitudes is found in the majority of developed countries, suggesting that aspects of conservative political ideology tend to lead people to take a negative view of environmental action.
However, what is less clear is which specific aspects of conservative ideology relate to environmental attitudes. Conservative ideology, although oriented around resistance to change and acceptance of inequality, is not homogeneous. In particular, there are different economic and social aspects of conservative ideology that are not held equally among all conservatives. Some conservatives may orient their worldview primarily around economics (and support for free-market principles), while others may hold strong conservative social attitudes, such as right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes. Moreover, researchers have begun to explore specific environmental aspects of conservative ideology, such as “ecological dominance orientation” (EDO).
In what follows, I briefly expand on what the economic and social aspects of conservative ideology are, and examine what the evidence says about the link between these attitudes and support for environmental action. The insights from this research can help us to understand why we sometimes see a backlash to environmental action, and what the prospects are for an expansion of public support for environmental government policy. I also discuss how expanding research on concepts such as EDO might deepen our understanding of the link between conservative ideology and environmental attitudes.
Support for free markets and opposition to welfare
Since the neoliberal turn of the late 1970s to early 1980s, many conservatives have held a strong preference for free-market economics and “small” government. These preferences tend to manifest as support for cuts in government spending, reduction in social welfare and lowering of tax. Arguments in favour of such preferences are often based on the presumed superiority of free-market approaches to economic management. Additionally, people supporting free markets often appeal to ideas of individual liberty to support their position.
Free markets are not universally supported among conservatives, however. For example, populist right-wing parties and their supporters often endorse some level of government welfare spending. However, on this view, support for welfare spending is usually conditional on the spending being targeted at particular “in-groups”. Any aversion to environmental action among conservatives who do not favour small government may thus be linked to their social attitudes, as explained in the next section.
Support for free markets has an obvious natural tension with environmental action. Taxes and government regulation are generally agreed to be necessary to combat major environmental problems such as climate change, due to the high levels of social coordination and change required to address them. Research in a variety of contexts has backed up the hypothesis that people who support free markets are generally less likely to support environmental action. Studies have examined conservative economic attitudes such as opposition to social welfare, government spending and intervention in the economy, and support for tax breaks and privatisation of state-owned enterprises. Across a range of (mostly developed) countries, the results are consistent: people who hold conservative economic attitudes are less likely to care about environmental issues and are less likely to support action on the environment.
Right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes
Many conservatives hold particular beliefs about how society should be structured, such as right-wing authoritarianism and exclusionary attitudes. Right-wing authoritarianism includes a preference for strong leaders, law and order, and traditional values, while people with exclusionary attitudes may hold anti-minority or anti-feminist views. Exclusionary attitudes can be understood through the lens of “social dominance theory”. Developed by psychologists Felicia Pratto and Jim Sidanius, social dominance theory holds that society tends to be composed of group-based hierarchies. Conservatives are frequently supportive of such hierarchies, or, more precisely, have high levels of “social dominance orientation”.
In contrast to support for free market principles, these conservative social attitudes do not have an obvious link to support for environmental action. On the surface, there is no reason to suppose that a person who prefers strong leaders, strict law and order, and rigid social hierarchies would be less likely to support environmental action. However, extensive survey research has shown that people who hold these conservative social attitudes are substantially less likely to support environmental action than those who do not hold strong conservative social attitudes. As with the link to conservative economic attitudes, these results hold in a variety of countries. Moreover, the relationship between conservative social attitudes and environmental attitudes seems, in general, to be stronger than that between conservative economic attitudes and environmental attitudes.
As I expand on below, further work is needed to understand exactly why this link between exclusionary attitudes, right-wing authoritarianism, social dominance orientation and environmental attitudes exists. However, the evidence suggests that both economic and social aspects of conservative ideology shape people’s environmental views. People who support free-market principles, oppose social welfare, or hold authoritarian or exclusionary attitudes are less likely to support action on the environment than those who do not.
The independent effects of economic and social attitudes, and the wider implications
One possible reading of the evidence described above is that the reason people with exclusionary attitudes or other conservative social attitudes tend not to support environmental action is because most social conservatives also support free market economics. This interpretation seems plausible, given there is no clear theoretical reason why conservative social attitudes should relate to environmental attitudes.
However, in a study published in the Journal of Political Ideologies, I examined both conservative economic and social attitudes, and found that they independently relate to environmental attitudes. In other words, whether or not people support free markets, if they hold conservative social attitudes, they are more likely to think negatively about environmental action. Thus, despite these two central aspects of conservative ideology being independent, and not held by all conservatives, they both seem to have a similar but separate influence on environmental attitudes.
Given these results, the reasons why people with conservative social attitudes are less likely to support environmental action need to be further explored. Three areas in particular could benefit from further attention. First, theoretical work could further explore how and why environmental attitudes and worldviews connect to conservative ideology as a whole, and especially to the social aspects of conservatism. Conservative social attitudes could well be closely related to a set of conservative ecological attitudes that have not been as widely studied as the conservative economic and social attitudes that I have described above. Such ecological attitudes include anthropocentrism, speciesism and ecological dominance orientation (the belief that nature is hierarchical, with humans at the top of the pyramid). It may also be worth considering whether environmental attitudes should be thought of as an independent dimension of conservative ideology rather than a separate, but related, set of beliefs.
Second, while EDO is a promising start, further work could develop and validate indicators of conservative ecological attitudes. Measures for similar concepts (such as social dominance orientation) took decades to develop, and to become widely used and accepted. An enhanced conceptual clarity and improved measurement could help us to understand changing environmental attitudes among conservatives. Not all conservatives reject (strong) environmental action, and concern about environmental issues may be growing among conservatives, as evidenced by the ‘teal wave’ seen in the recent Australian election, where several centre-right, pro-environment candidates were successful.
Third, while these links between conservative attitudes and environmental opinion have been clearly established in many developed countries, less is known about the relationship between conservative ideology and the environment in the developing world. The relationship between left-right orientation and environmental attitudes tends to be weaker in developing countries than in developed countries. Thus, we could expect to see differences in the patterns of environmental attitudes among conservatives when comparing developing and developed countries. Expanding the scope of this research could help to further define the nature of the link between conservative ideology and environmental attitudes.
The link between the social and economic aspects of conservative ideology and environmental attitudes outlined above go some way towards explaining the backlash against environmental action seen in some contexts. While majorities in most countries support action on the environment, substantial minorities do not. The resistance from such groups can pose a significant obstacle to ambitious environmental action. The highly visible “gilets jaunes” or “yellow vest” protests in France were triggered, in part, by a carbon tax on fuel. In New Zealand, the “Groundswell” movement is largely driven by farmers opposed to moving agricultural emissions into the country’s emissions trading scheme. While these groups could well be facing negative economic consequences as a result of environmental policy, it is likely that some members are also motivated by conservative social attitudes. In other words, they see environmental policy as a threat to their conservative values and way of life.
Finding a way to increase the breadth of public support for environmental action is, therefore, no easy task. However, a clearer and deeper understanding of the reasons for any resistance among the public can help provide a way forward. Framing environmental problems in terms of economics (for example, making the argument that the costs of inaction on climate change will far outweigh the costs of action) will find resonance with some conservatives. Others, though, will need to be reassured that environmental action will not leave them in a world that no longer has a place for them.
 UNFCCC, ‘Climate Change Affects Us More Severely than Previously Thought’, <https://unfccc.int/news/climate-change-affects-us-more-severely-than-previously-thought> accessed (2022).
 R. Geyer et al., ‘Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made’, Science Advances, American Association for the Advancement of Science 3 (2017), p. e1700782.
 K. O’Brien, ‘Is the 1.5 target possible? Exploring the three spheres of transformation’, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, Sustainability governance and transformation 2018 31 (2018), pp. 153–60.
 L. Scruggs and S. Benegal, ‘Declining public concern about climate change: Can we blame the great recession?’, Global Environmental Change, 22 (2012), pp. 505–15.
 S. M. Cruz, ‘The relationships of political ideology and party affiliation with environmental concern: A meta-analysis’, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 53 (2017), pp. 81–91.
 F. M. Farstad, ‘What explains variation in parties’ climate change salience?’, Party Politics, SAGE Publications Ltd 24 (2018), pp. 698–707.
 J. T. Jost et al., ‘Political conservatism as motivated social cognition’, Psychological Bulletin, US: American Psychological Association 129 (2003), pp. 339–75.
 K. Stenner, ‘Three Kinds of “Conservatism”’, Psychological Inquiry, Routledge 20 (2009), pp. 142–59.
 R. J. Antonio and R. J. Brulle, ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Politics: Climate Change Denial and Political Polarization’, Sociological Quarterly, 52 (2011), pp. 195–202.
 J. F. Henry, ‘The Ideology of the Laissez Faire Program’, Journal of Economic Issues, Routledge 42 (2008), pp. 209–24.
 F. M. Buttel and W. L. Flinn, ‘The Politics of Environmental Concern: The Impacts of Party Identification and Political Ideology on Environmental Attitudes’, Environment and Behavior (1978), pp. 17–36; A. M. McCright et al., ‘Political polarization on support for government spending on environmental protection in the USA, 1974’, Social Science Research, 48 (2014), pp. 251–60; S. B. Longo and J. O. Baker, ‘Economy "Versus" Environment: The Influence of Economic Ideology and Political Identity on Perceived Threat of Eco-Catastrophe’, The Sociological Quarterly, 55 (2014), pp. 341–65.
 Jost et al., Psychological Bulletin 129, pp. 339–75; K. M. Jylhä and K. Hellmer, ‘Right-Wing Populism and Climate Change Denial: The Roles of Exclusionary and Anti-Egalitarian Preferences, Conservative Ideology, and Antiestablishment Attitudes’, Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy (2020), p. asap.12203.
 F. Pratto et al., ‘Social dominance orientation: A personality variable predicting social and political attitudes’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67 (1994), pp. 741–63.
 T. L. Milfont et al., ‘On the Relation Between Social Dominance Orientation and Environmentalism: A 25-Nation Study’, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 9 (2018), pp. 802–14.
 See also: K. M. Jylhä et al., ‘Climate Change Denial among Radical Right-Wing Supporters’, Sustainability, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute 12 (2020), p. 10226.
 F. Uenal et al., ‘Social and ecological dominance orientations: Two sides of the same coin? Social and ecological dominance orientations predict decreased support for climate change mitigation policies’, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, SAGE Publications Ltd (2021), p. 13684302211010923.
 A. M. McCright et al., ‘Political ideology and views about climate change in the European Union’, Environmental Politics, 25 (2016), pp. 338–58.
'We are going to have to imagine our way out of this!': Utopian thinking and acting in the climate emergency
by Mathias Thaler
In the public debate, the climate emergency has broadly given rise to two opposing reactions: either resignation, grief, and depression in the face of the Anthropocene’s most devastating impacts; or a self-assured, hubristic faith in the miraculous capacity of science and technology to save our species from itself.
But, as Donna Haraway forcefully asserts, neither of these reactions, relatable as they are, will get us very far. What is called for instead is a sober reckoning with the existential obstacles lying ahead; a reckoning that still leaves space for the “educated hope” that our planetary future is not yet foreordained. To accomplish these twin goals, utopian thinking and acting are paramount.
What could be the place of utopias in dealing with the climate emergency? To answer this question, we first have to clear up a widespread misunderstanding about the basic purpose of utopianism. Many will suspect that the utopian imagination appears, in fact, uniquely unsuited for illuminating the perplexing realities of a climate-changed world. On this view, utopianism amounts to the kind of escapism we urgently need to eschew, if we are serious about facing up to the momentous challenges the present has in store for us. Indulging in blue-sky thinking when the planet is literally on fire might be seen as the ultimate sign of our species’ pathological predilection for self-delusion.
The charge that utopias construct alluring alternatives in great detail, without, however, explaining how we might get there, possesses an impressive pedigree in the history of ideas. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels excoriated the so-called utopian socialists for being supremely naïve when they paid scant attention to the role that the revolutionary subject—the proletariat—would have to play in forcing the transition to communism. It is important to remark that the authors of the Communist Manifesto did not take issue with the glorious ideal that the utopian socialists venerated, quite to the contrary. Their concern was rather that focusing on the wished-for end point in history alone would be deleterious from the point of view of a truly radical politics, for we should not merely conjure what social form might replace the current order, but outline the concrete steps that need to be taken to transform the untenable status quo of capitalism.
Marx and Engels were, to some degree, right. There are many types of utopian vision that serve nothing but consolation, trying to render an agonising situation more bearable by magically transporting the readers into a wonderous, bright future. These utopias typically present us with perfect and static images of what is to come. As such, they leave not only the pivotal issue of transition untouched, they also restrict the freedom of those summoned to imaginatively dwell in this brave new world—an objection levelled against utopianism by liberals of various stripes, from Karl Popper to Raymond Aron and Judith Shklar.
Yet, not all utopias fail to reflect on what ought to be practically done to overcome the existential obstacles of the current moment. Non-perfectionist utopias are apprehensive about both the promise and the peril of social dreaming. In the words of the late French philosopher Miguel Abensour, their goal consists in educating our desire for other ways of being and living. This wide framing allows for the observation of a great variety of utopias within and across three dimensions of thinking and acting: theory-building, storytelling, and shared practices of world-making, as paradigmatically enacted in intentional communities.
The interpretive shortcut that critics of utopianism take is that they conceive of this education purely in terms of conjuring perfect and static images of other worlds. However, utopianism’s pedagogical interventions can follow different routes as well. From the 1970s onwards, science fiction writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy and Octavia Butler started to build into their visions of the future modes of critically interrogating the collective wish to become otherwise. Doubt and conflict are ubiquitous in their complex narratives. Social dreaming of this type turns out to be the opposite of escapism: as a self-reflective endeavour, it remains part and parcel of any radical politics worth its salt.
The education of our desire for alternative ways of being and living amounts to an intrinsically uncertain enterprise, always at risk of going awry, of collapsing into totalitarian oppression. There is, hence, no getting away from the fact that utopias can have problematic effects. But this does not mean we should jettison them altogether. The risks of not engaging in social dreaming far outweigh its obvious benefits: any attempt to cling to business as usual, at this moment of utmost emergency, will surely trigger an ever more catastrophic breakdown of the planetary condition, as the latest IPCC draft report into various climate scenarios unambiguously establishes.
The path forward, then, entails acknowledging the eminent dangers in all efforts to conjure alternatives; dangers that can be negotiated and accommodated via theory-building, storytelling, and shared practices of world-making, but never fully eliminated. This insight is aptly expressed in Kim Stanley Robinson’s work:
"Must redefine utopia. It isn’t the perfect end-product of our wishes, define it so and it deserves the scorn of those who sneer when they hear the word. No. Utopia is the process of making a better world, the name for one path history can take, a dynamic, tumultuous, agonising process, with no end. Struggle forever."
If we recast utopianism along Robinson’s lines, what might be its lessons for navigating our climate-changed world? To answer this question, I propose we distinguish between three mechanisms that utopias deploy: estranging, galvanising, and cautioning. All utopias aim to exercise their critique of the status quo by doing one or several of these things. This can be illustrated through a quick glance at recent instances of theory-building and storytelling that grapple directly with our climate-changed world.
Let us commence with estranging. When utopias make the extraordinary look ordinary, they seek to unsettle the audience’s common sense and therefore open up possibilities for transformation. One way of interpreting Bruno Latour’s recent appropriation of the Gaia figure is, accordingly, to decipher it as a utopian vision that hopes to disabuse its readers of anthropocentric views of the planet. While James Lovelock initially came up with the idea to envisage Earth in terms of a self-regulating system, baptising the entirety of feedback loops of which the planet is composed with the mythological name “Gaia”, Latour attempts to vindicate a political ecology that repudiates the binary opposition of nature and culture, which obstructs a responsible engagement with environmental issues. From this, a deliberately strange image of Earth emerges, wherein agency is radically dispersed across multiple forms of being.
In N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, to refer to an interesting case of politically generative fantasy, our home planet is depicted as a vindictive agent that wages permanent war on its human occupants. The upshot of this portrayal of the planetary habitat as a living, raging being, rather than a passive, calm background to humanity’s sovereign actions, is that the readers’ expectations of their natural surroundings are held in abeyance. Jemisin’s work captures Earth and its inhabitants through powerful allegories of universal connectedness—neatly termed “planetary weirding”. What is more, the Broken Earth trilogy also sheds light on the shifting intersections of class, gender, racial, and environmental harms. Hence, narratives such as this unfold plotlines that produce estrangement: they come up with imagined scenarios, which defamiliarise us from what we habitually take for granted.
Galvanising stories casts utopian visions in a slightly different light. These narratives describe alternatives whose purpose resides in revealing optimistic perspectives about the future. In contemporary environmentalist discourse, ecomodernists enlist this kind of emplotment strategy, most notably through their provocative belief that science and technology might eventually expedite a “decoupling” of human needs from natural resource systems.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy inspects this alluring proposition with inimitable insight. In his account of how the American scientific community might marshal its expertise to redirect the entire Washington apparatus onto a sustainable policy platform, Robinson attempts to establish that viable paths out of the current impasse do already exist—if only all the actors involved finally recognised the severity of the situation. The chief ambition behind this utopian frame is thus to affectively galvanise an audience that is at the moment either apathetic about its capacity to transform the status quo or paralyzed by the many hurdles that lie ahead.
Finally, cautionary tales follow a plotline that is predicated on a bleaker judgment: unless we change our settled ways of being and living, the apocalypse will not be averted. Dystopian stories pursue this instruction by excavating hazardous trends that remain concealed within the current moment. Commentators such as Roy Scranton or David Wallace-Wells maintain that there is little we can do to slow down the planetary breakdown and the eventual demise of our own species.
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian MaddAddam trilogy takes one step further when she prompts the reader to imagine how life after the cataclysmic collapse of human civilisation might look like. The main task of this sort of narrative is to warn an audience about risks that are already present right now, but whose scale has not yet been fully appreciated in the wider public.
These three compressed cases show that the utopian imagination has much to add to the public debate around climate change; a debate that is about so much more than just plausible theories or appealing stories. Conjuring alternatives is as much about the modelling of other ways of being and living as it is about spurring resistant action. Social dreaming does not only involve abstract thought experiments; it also prompts a restructuring of human behaviour and as such proves to be deeply practical.
The climate emergency has, among many terrible outcomes, triggered a profound crisis of the imagination and action. In this context, and despite legitimate worries about the deleterious aspects of social dreaming, we cannot afford to discard the estranging, galvanising, and cautioning impact that utopias generate. As one of the protagonists of the Science in the Capital trilogy declares: “We’re going to have to imagine our way out of this one.”
With many thanks to Richard Elliott for the invitation to write this piece as well as for useful comments; and to Mihaela Mihai for productive feedback on an earlier draft. The research for this text has benefitted from a Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust (RF-2020-445) and draws on work from my forthcoming book No Other Planet: Utopian Visions for a Climate-Changed World (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2022).
 For a useful compendium of resources on the rise of (negative) emotions during the current climate crisis, see: https://www.bbc.com/future/columns/climate-emotions
 The best example of this attitude can probably be found in Bill Gates’ recent endorsement of such solutionism. See: How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2021).
 Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
 Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope: Volume 1, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1995), 7, 9.
 For a groundbreaking study, see: Lisa Garforth, Green Utopias: Environmental Hope before and after Nature (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).
 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in Selected Writings, by Karl Marx, ed. David McLellan, 2nd ed. (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 245–71.
 On the anti-utopianism of these so-called “Cold War liberals”, see: Richard Shorten, Modernism and Totalitarianism: Rethinking the Intellectual Sources of Nazism and Stalinism, 1945 to the Present (Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 109–49.
 Lucy Sargisson, Fool’s Gold? Utopianism in the Twenty-First Century (Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).
 Miguel Abensour, “William Morris: The Politics of Romance,” in Revolutionary Romanticism: A Drunken Boat Anthology, ed. Max Blechman (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1999), 126–61.
 Lyman Tower Sargent, “The Three Faces of Utopianism Revisited,” Utopian Studies 5, no. 1 (1994): 1–37.
 Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia, Student Edition (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2011); Ruth Levitas, Utopia as Method: The Imaginary Reconstruction of Society (Houndmills/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).
 On Le Guin and especially her masterpiece The Dispossessed, see: Tony Burns, Political Theory, Science Fiction, and Utopian Literature: Ursula K. Le Guin and the Dispossessed (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2008); Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, eds., The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005).
 Tom Moylan, Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination, ed. Raffaella Baccolini, Classics Edition (1986; repr., Oxford: Peter Lang, 2014).
 Kim Stanley Robinson, Pacific Edge, Three Californias Triptych 3 (New York: Orb, 1995), para. 8.10.
 Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, E-book (Cambridge/Medford: Polity, 2017).
 See also: Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
 The Fifth Season, E-book, Broken Earth Trilogy 1 (New York: Orbit, 2015); The Obelisk Gate, E-book, Broken Earth Trilogy 2 (New York: Orbit, 2016); The Stone Sky, E-book, Broken Earth Trilogy 3 (New York: Orbit, 2017).
 Moritz Ingwersen, “Geological Insurrections: Politics of Planetary Weirding from China Miéville to N. K. Jemisin,” in Spaces and Fictions of the Weird and the Fantastic: Ecologies, Geographies, Oddities, ed. Julius Greve and Florian Zappe, Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies (Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2019), 73–92, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-28116-8_6.
 Alastair Iles, “Repairing the Broken Earth: N. K. Jemisin on Race and Environment in Transitions,” Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene 7, no. 1 (July 11, 2019): 26, https://doi.org/10/ghf4k5; Fenne Bastiaansen, “The Entanglement of Climate Change, Capitalism and Oppression in The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin” (MA Thesis, Utrecht, Utrecht University, 2020), https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/399139.
 Darko Suvin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: Studies in the Poetics and History of Cognitive Estrangement in Fiction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978).
 John Asafu-Adjaye, et al., “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” 2015, http://www.ecomodernism.org/; See also: Manuel Arias-Maldonado, “Blooming Landscapes? The Paradox of Utopian Thinking in the Anthropocene,” Environmental Politics 29, no. 6 (2020): 1024–41, https://doi.org/10/ggk4vj; Jonathan Symons, Ecomodernism: Technology, Politics and the Climate Crisis (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2019).
 Forty Signs of Rain, E-book, Science in The Capital Trilogy 1 (New York: Bantham, 2004); Fifty Degrees Below, E-book, Science in The Capital Trilogy 2 (New York: Bantham, 2005); Sixty Days and Counting, E-book, Science in The Capital Trilogy 3 (New York: Bantham, 2007).
 Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, E-book (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015).
 The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, E-book (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).
 Oryx and Crake, E-book, vol. 1: MaddAddam Trilogy (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003); The Year of the Flood, E-book, vol. 2: MaddAddam Trilogy (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2009); MaddAddam, E-book, vol. 3: MaddAddam Trilogy (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2013).
 Gregory Claeys, Dystopia: A Natural History: A Study of Modern Despotism, Its Antecedents, and Its Literary Diffractions, First edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 In the 1970s, the Swiss sociologist Alfred Willener coined the term “imaginaction” to capture what is distinct about action facilitated through imagination and imagination stirred by action. See: Alfred Willener, The Action-Image of Society: On Cultural Politicization (London: Tavistock Publications, 1970).
 Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, E-book (London: Penguin, 2016), para. 9.2.
 Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting, para. 58.11.
by Peter Staudenmaier
In September 2018, a perceptive article in the left-leaning British magazine New Statesman offered a rare glimpse of the obscure milieu of explicitly racist environmentalism: an anonymous “online community” of “nature-obsessed, antisemitic white supremacists who argue that racial purity is the only way to save the planet.” Made up largely of younger enthusiasts of the far right, this new generation of self-described “eco-fascists” identifies strongly with deep ecology, animal rights, and veganism, opposes industrialisation and urbanisation, and denounces immigration, “overpopulation” and “multiculturalism” as dire threats to the natural world. They celebrate “blood and soil” and look back on Nazi Germany as a paragon of environmental responsibility, casting the Third Reich’s obsession with “Lebensraum” in ecological terms.
Within months, this incongruous ideology burst the boundaries of internet anonymity and made headlines around the world. Two horrific anti-immigrant attacks in 2019, in Christchurch and El Paso, showed that such ideas could have lethal consequences. Both atrocities, which claimed a total of 74 victims, were motivated by environmental concerns. The Christchurch perpetrator declared himself an “eco-fascist.” In the wake of these massacres it became harder to dismiss right-wing ecology as a marginal set of far-fetched beliefs confined to online forums; the combination of environmentalism, nationalism, and anti-immigrant violence proved too virulent to ignore. It nonetheless remains difficult to understand. More thorough consideration of the historical background to right-wing ecology and its contemporary resonance can help make better sense of an enigmatic phenomenon, one that disrupts standard expectations about both environmentalism and right-wing politics.
Though environmental issues have been conventionally associated with the left since the 1960s, the longer history of ecological politics is far more ambivalent. From the emergence of modern environmentalism in the nineteenth century, ecological questions have taken either emancipatory or reactionary form depending on their political context. Early conservationists in the United States often held authoritarian, nationalist, and xenophobic views linked with the predominant racial theories of the era. As a standard study observes, “The conservation movement arose against a backdrop of racism, sexism, class conflicts, and nativism that shaped the nation in profound ways.” Already in the 1870s, American environmental writers blamed “the influx of immigrants” for the decline of natural rural life. For eminent figures like George Perkins Marsh and John Muir, racial biases and hostility toward immigration went hand in hand with protecting the natural world.
Such stances hardened by the early twentieth century. In his 1913 classic Our Vanishing Wild Life, William Temple Hornaday portrayed immigrants as “a dangerous menace to our wild life.” Hornaday, who has been called the “father of the American conservation movement,” was a friend and colleague of Madison Grant, an equally influential conservationist, race theorist, and zealous proponent of eugenics. Racial anxieties were a constituent element in the development of environmentalism in the US. “Perceiving a direct link between the decline of America’s wildlife and the degeneration of the white American race, prominent nature advocates often pushed as hard for the passage of immigration restriction and eugenics legislation as they did for wildlife preservation. For these reformers the three movements became inextricably linked.” This legacy continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, impacting everything from wilderness campaigns to pollution regulation to global population programs. Today, “racial narratives are deeply embedded in American environmentalist approaches to international population policy advocacy.”
In Germany, where the term “ecology” was first introduced, early environmental movements shared a similar history. Sometimes considered the homeland of green politics, Germany experienced rapid industrialisation and urbanisation in the decades around 1900, with attendant forms of environmental dissent. Many of these proto-green tendencies incorporated authoritarian social views along with powerful national and racial myths. From vegetarianism to organic agriculture to nature protection organisations, race was an essential part of the search for more natural ways of life. Proponents of the “life reform” movement mixed appeals for animal rights, natural health, and alternative nutrition with racist and antisemitic themes. This is the tradition that latter-day “ecofascists” hope to reclaim.
For some contemporary advocates of right-wing ecology, Nazi Germany represents the epitome of environmental ideals in fascist form. In light of the Nazi regime’s appalling record of human and ecological destruction, this adulation strikes many observers as grotesque. As paradoxical as it may seem, however, Nazism included several significant environmental strands. Historians of the Third Reich have increasingly come to recognise “the links between antisemitism, eugenics, and environmentalism that became integral to National Socialism.” To admirers, Nazism’s “green” achievements were embodied above all in the figure of Richard Walther Darré, who served as Hitler’s minister of agriculture and “Reich Peasant Leader” from 1933 to 1942. Far right author Troy Southgate characterises Darré as Nazi Germany’s “finest ecological pioneer,” a committed environmentalist who was “truly the patriarch of the modern Greens.” Southgate writes:
"At Goslar, an ancient medieval town in the Harz mountains, Darré established a peasants’ capital and launched a series of measures designed to regenerate German agriculture by encouraging organic farming and replanting techniques. […] But Darré’s overall strategy was even more radical, and he intended to abolish industrial society altogether and replace it with a series of purely peasant-based communities."
Though thoroughly distorted, this tale contains a kernel of truth. Darré did promote organic agriculture during the final years of his tenure; after initial opposition, he became one of the major Nazi patrons of the biodynamic movement, the most successful variant of organic farming in the Third Reich. But he was hardly the only Nazi leader to do so. Rudolf Hess supported biodynamics more consistently, and even Heinrich Himmler and the SS sponsored biodynamic projects. By the time he adopted the biodynamic cause, moreover, Darré had effectively lost power to rival factions within the party.
Organic farming initiatives nevertheless found many backers in various parts of the Nazi apparatus, at local, regional, and national levels, from interior minister Wilhelm Frick to antisemitic propagandist Julius Streicher. Sustainable agriculture offered fertile ground for ideological crossover and practical cooperation. As a Nazi “life reform” official explained in 1936: “Artificial fertilisers interrupt the natural metabolism between man and his environment, between blood and soil.”
Despite his stature among devotees of right-wing ecology today, Darré was not the most effective example of ecofascism in action in the Nazi era. That dubious honor belongs not to the Reich Peasant Leader but to his sometime ally Alwin Seifert, who bore the equally grandiose title of Reich Advocate for the Landscape. Seifert oversaw a corps of “landscape advocates” with responsibility for environmental planning on Nazi public works projects, most famously the construction of the Autobahn system. As with Darré, Seifert’s position has often been misunderstood. A recent account claims that “the barest minima of ecological politics” were “completely missing” from Nazism, offering this description of Seifert’s team:
"A group of designers with Heimat ideals, called ‘landscape advocates’, imagined that they were embedding the motorways in the landscape, drawing the curves gently, adorning the concrete and asphalt with local stone and freshly planted native flora: perhaps the original greenwashers. Their advice was neglected nearly all the time, and Hitler would not hear of valuable forest groves slowing down his roads. If any peacetime project rode roughshod over conservation, it was the autobahn."
This one-sided image simplifies a complex history and misconstrues the political context. Unlike traditional conservationists, Seifert and his colleagues used their work to advance modern principles of ecological restoration, rehabilitating degraded environments and applying organic techniques across a wide range of landscapes.
Their remit extended far beyond the Autobahn, encompassing rivers and wetlands, reforestation projects, urban green space and rural reclamation, military installations, and “settlement” activities in the occupied East. From France to Ukraine, from Norway to Greece, the environmental efforts of the landscape advocates were woven into the fabric of Nazi occupation policy, which aimed to remake Eastern European lands racially as well as ecologically. Under the auspices of the Third Reich, Seifert and his cohort fused environmental ideals with Nazi tenets and put them into practice in hundreds of concrete instances. They were not alone. Endorsing Seifert’s work, German naturalists proclaimed that ecology was “a true science of blood and soil.” The experience of both the biodynamic movement and the landscape advocates between 1933 and 1945, in the shadow of Germany’s war of annihilation, shows that Nazi ecology was not an oxymoron but a historical reality.
In spite of a growing body of research examining the details of this history, many misconceptions persist about the environmental aspects of Nazism and about the political evolution of green endeavors worldwide. The problem is not new. A quarter of a century ago, ecological philosopher Michael Zimmerman pointed out that “most Americans do not realise that the Nazis combined eugenics with mystical ecology into the perverted ‘green’ ideology of Blut und Boden.” It was not merely a historical question, he explained, but crucial for our future: “in periods of ecological stress and social breakdown, preachers of a ‘green’ fascism might once again find a sympathetic audience.” The attacks in Christchurch and El Paso have tragically confirmed his point, demonstrating that some of those inspired by such ideas are willing to turn words into deeds.
But the breadth of right-wing environmental politics is not reducible to the single category of fascism. Many elements on the established right, particularly in the English-speaking world, maintain a stance of climate change denial and denounce green concerns as frivolous, even as younger and more dynamic forces on the far right push for growing appropriation of environmental themes. In this context, ecofascism is best seen as an especially aggressive tendency within the broader continuum of right-wing ecology. Since most of the right is not fascist, there are relatively few outright ecofascists in most times and places. This does not mean we can safely ignore them. When historical conditions change, currents that were previously marginal can quickly become powerful. For societies like the contemporary US, that is a sobering lesson to keep in mind.
How can scholars respond to this challenge? Resisting the revival of blood and soil politics and countering the appeal of anti-immigrant arguments in green garb calls for informed and reflective participation in public debates. This will involve critically re-examining inherited assumptions about ecology and its social significance. The protean nature of environmental politics, viewed in historical perspective, presents a remarkable spectrum of possibilities, and those concerned about the climate crisis and our broader ecological plight will eventually need to decide where to stand. Alongside the legacy of right-wing environmentalism, there has always been a lively counter-current, an anti-authoritarian, inclusive, and radically democratic strand within ecological thought and practice.
That alternative tradition of environmental politics has many proponents within today’s climate movement, and it points toward a promising future in spite of the bleak present. An ecological approach that affirms social diversity across borders and actively welcomes all communities can withstand the resentments and anxieties of the current moment. Against the callous retreat into exclusion, scarcity, and fear, it advances a profoundly different vision of sustainability and renewal, one that offers hope for people and for the planet we share.
 Sarah Manavis, “Eco-fascism: The ideology marrying environmentalism and white supremacy thriving online” New Statesman 21 September 2018. The article signaled renewed media attention to a previously neglected subject. Another thorough analysis was published a month later: Matthew Phelan, “The Menace of Eco-Fascism” New York Review of Books Daily 22 October 2018.
 Natasha Lennard, “The El Paso Shooter Embraced Eco-Fascism: We Can’t Let the Far Right Co-Opt the Environmental Struggle” The Intercept 5 August 2019; Bernhard Forchtner, “Eco-fascism: Justifications of terrorist violence in the Christchurch mosque shooting and the El Paso shooting” Open Democracy 13 August 2019; Susie Cagle, “The environmentalist roots of anti-immigrant bigotry” The Guardian 16 August 2019; Joel Achenbach, “Two mass murders a world apart share a common theme: ‘Ecofascism’” Washington Post 18 August 2019; Sam Adler-Bell, “Eco-fascism is fashionable again on the far right” New Republic 24 September 2019.
 For recent international coverage see Neil Mackay, “Eco-fascism: how the environment could be a green light for the far right” The Herald 18 April 2020; Daniel Trilling, “How the far right is exploiting climate change for its own ends: Eco-fascists have donned green garb in pursuit of their sinister cause” Prospect Magazine 28 August 2020; Emma Horan, “Eco-Fascism: A Smouldering, Dark Presence in Environmentalism” University Times 23 October 2020; Louise Boyle, “The rising threat of eco-fascism: Far right co-opting environmentalism to justify anti-immigration and anti-Semitic views” The Independent 20 March 2021; Francisca Rockey, “The dangers of eco-fascism” Euronews 21 March 2021; Andy Fleming, “The meanings of eco-fascism” Overland 9 June 2021.
 Adrian Parr, Birth of a New Earth: The Radical Politics of Environmentalism (Columbia University Press 2018), 84; see the full chapter “Fascist Earth” (65-90) for her larger argument.
 Dorceta Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press 2016), 9.
 Ibid., 89; see also 213-19 on anti-immigrant resentment as a core feature of the US conservation movement in the early twentieth century. For an influential instance from the latter half of the century see John Tanton, “International Migration as an Obstacle to Achieving World Stability” Ecologist July 1976, 221-27.
 See the fine overview by Carolyn Merchant, “Shades of Darkness: Race and Environmental History” Environmental History 8 (2003), 380-94.
 William Temple Hornaday, Our Vanishing Wild Life (Scribner’s 1913), 100. Similar anti-immigrant passages can be found in Hornaday’s 1914 Wild Life Conservation in Theory and Practice. Scholars from a variety of fields have noted the role of racial beliefs within his environmental worldview: “Hornaday’s conservation was closely linked to his racism and sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority. He viewed Native Americans, Mexicans, blacks, and immigrants as major threats to wildlife, and he began showing disdain for nonwhites early in his career.” Robert Wilson, American Association of Geographers Review of Books 2 (2014), 48-50.
 Miles Powell, Vanishing America: Species Extinction, Racial Peril, and the Origins of Conservation (Harvard University Press 2016), 83. Powell shows that turn of the century conservation leaders “developed racially charged preservationist arguments that influenced the historical development of scientific racism, eugenics, immigration restriction, and population control, and helped lay the groundwork for the modern environmental movement.” (5) Compare Lisa Sun-Hee Park and David Naguib Pellow, The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants vs. the Environment in America’s Eden (New York University Press 2011); John Hultgren, Border Walls Gone Green: Nature and Anti-Immigrant Politics in America (University of Minnesota Press 2015); Carl Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (New York University Press 2016)
 Jade Sasser, “From Darkness into Light: Race, Population, and Environmental Advocacy” Antipode 46 (2014), 1240-57, quote on 1242. Cf. Jael Silliman and Ynestra King, eds., Dangerous Intersections: Feminist Perspectives on Population, Environment, and Development (South End Press 1999); Rajani Bhatia, “Green or Brown? White Nativist Environmental Movements” in Abby Ferber, ed., Home-Grown Hate: Gender and Organized Racism (Routledge 2004), 194-213; Jade Sasser, On Infertile Ground: Population Control and Women’s Rights in the Era of Climate Change (New York University Press 2018); Jordan Dyett and Cassidy Thomas, “Overpopulation Discourse: Patriarchy, Racism, and the Specter of Ecofascism” Perspectives on Global Development & Technology 18 (2019), 205-24; Diana Ojeda, Jade Sasser, and Elizabeth Lunstrum, “Malthus’s Specter and the Anthropocene: Towards a Feminist Political Ecology of Climate Change” Gender, Place & Culture 27 (2020), 316-32.
 Examples include Gustav Simons, “Rasse und Ernährung” Kraft und Schönheit 4 (1904), 156-59; Hermann Löns, “Naturschutz und Rasseschutz” in Löns, Nachgelassene Schriften vol. 1 (Leipzig 1928), 486-91; Paul Krannhals, Das organische Weltbild (Munich 1928); Werner Altpeter, “Erneuerung oder Rassetod?” Neuform-Rundschau January 1934, 8-10.
 Compare Joseph Huber, “Fortschritt und Entfremdung: Ein Entwicklungsmodell des ökologischen Diskurses” in Dieter Hassenpflug, ed., Industrialismus und Ökoromantik: Geschichte und Perspektiven der Ökologisierung (Wiesbaden 1991), 19-42; Ulrich Linse, “Das ‘natürliche’ Leben: Die Lebensreform” in Richard van Dülmen, ed., Erfindung des Menschen (Vienna 1998), 435-56; Bernd Wedemeyer, “‘Zurück zur deutschen Natur’: Theorie und Praxis der völkischen Lebensreformbewegung” in Rolf Brednich, ed., Natur – Kultur: Volkskundliche Perspektiven auf Mensch und Umwelt (Münster 2001), 385-94; Jost Hermand, “Die Lebensreformbewegung um 1900 - Wegbereiter einer naturgemäßeren Daseinsform oder Vorboten Hitlers?” in Marc Cluet and Catherine Repussard, eds., “Lebensreform”: Die soziale Dynamik der politischen Ohnmacht (Tübingen 2013), 51-62.
 See the extended argument in Peter Staudenmaier, “Right-wing Ecology in Germany: Assessing the Historical Legacy” in Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism Revisited (New Compass 2011), 89-132.
 Robert Gellately, Hitler’s True Believers: How Ordinary People Became Nazis (Oxford University Press 2020), 22; cf. Simo Laakkonen, “Environmental Policies of the Third Reich” in Laakkonen, ed., The Long Shadows: A Global Environmental History of the Second World War (Oregon State University Press 2017), 55-74; Charles Closmann, “Environment” in Shelley Baranowski, ed., A Companion to Nazi Germany (Wiley 2018), 413-28.
 Troy Southgate, “Blood & Soil: Revolutionary Nationalism as the Vanguard of Ecological Sanity” in Southgate, Tradition & Revolution (Arktos 2010), 74-84, quotes on 78-79. Southgate’s account draws heavily on the work of Anna Bramwell, whose 1985 book Blood and Soil: Richard Walther Darré and Hitler’s ‘Green Party’ is the source of a number of legends about Darré. Among other fundamental problems, Bramwell’s book downplays Darré’s fervent antisemitism and denies his role in promoting expansionist aims in Eastern Europe.
 Peter Staudenmaier, “Organic Farming in Nazi Germany: The Politics of Biodynamic Agriculture, 1933-1945” Environmental History 18 (2013), 383-411.
 Franz Wirz quoted in Corinna Treitel, Eating Nature in Modern Germany: Food, Agriculture and Environment, c. 1870-2000 (Cambridge University Press 2017), 212. Nazi enthusiasm for organic practices was not as surprising as it may appear. “In early twentieth century Germany,” Treitel notes, “ecological agriculture and its biological approach to farming belonged decisively to the right.” (188) The same pattern can be traced in France, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere, with significant overlap between the early organic milieu and the far right.
 Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism (Verso 2021), 462 and 466. They insist that “no ecological Nazism could possibly have existed” (470).
 For a detailed view of the current state of research see Peter Staudenmaier, “Advocates for the Landscape: Alwin Seifert and Nazi Environmentalism” German Studies Review 43 (2020), 271-90. Some of the existing scholarship on Seifert and his associates displays a curious tendency to portray these figures as either not really environmentalists or not really Nazis, reluctant to acknowledge that they were both at once.
 Karl Friederichs, Ökologie als Wissenschaft von der Natur (Leipzig 1937), 79.
 Michael Zimmerman, “The Threat of Ecofascism” Social Theory and Practice 21 (1995), 207-38, quotes on 222 and 231. “Blut und Boden” is the original German phrase meaning “blood and soil.”
 As Bernhard Forchtner and Balša Lubarda aptly observe, “eco-fascism should not dominate our understanding of the wider radical right’s relationship with nature.” (Forchtner and Lubarda, “Eco-fascism ‘proper’” Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right 25 June 2020) For a range of perspectives on these complex questions compare Efadul Huq and Henry Mochida, “The Rise of Environmental Fascism and the Securitization of Climate Change” Projections 30 March 2018; Betsy Hartmann, “The Ecofascists” Columbia Journalism Review Spring 2020, 18-19; Hilary Moore, Burning Earth, Changing Europe: How the Racist Right Exploits the Climate Crisis and What We Can Do about It (Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung 2020); Sam Knights, “The Climate Movement Must Be Ready To Challenge Rising Right-Wing Environmentalism” Jacobin 16 November 2020; Balša Lubarda, “Beyond Ecofascism? Far-Right Ecologism as a Framework for Future Inquiries” Environmental Values 29 (2020), 713-32.
 On the US see Blair Taylor, “Alt-right ecology: Ecofascism and far-right environmentalism in the United States” in Bernhard Forchtner, ed., The Far Right and the Environment: Politics, Discourse and Communication (Routledge 2019), 275-92; Kevan Feshami, “A Mighty Forest Is Our Race: Race, Nature, and Environmentalism in White Nationalist Thought” Drain Magazine February 2020; Beth Gardiner, “White Supremacy Goes Green” New York Times 1 March 2020; Daniel Rueda, “Neoecofascism: The Example of the United States” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 14 (2020), 95-125; Alex Amend, “Blood and Vanishing Topsoil: American Ecofascism Past, Present, and in the Coming Climate Crisis” Political Research Associates 9 July 2020; April Anson, “No One Is A Virus: On American Ecofascism” Environmental History Now 21 October 2020.
by Eloise Harding
Introduction: the shifting landscape
Environmental scepticism as an ideology has spent the past six years on a political rollercoaster. From a niche political outlook with a moderate public face and a wealth of conspiracy theories hiding in the shadows, it developed a level of prominence in mainstream discourse with the advent of leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. The more extreme forms of scepticism—such as outright denial of climate change—blended in well with the emerging ‘post-truth’ political culture, described by Jane Suiter as one ‘where appeals to emotion are dominant and factual rebuttals or fact checks are ignored on the basis that they are mere assertions’. The public face of environmental scepticism also evolved to incorporate some of the political characteristics of the leaders who embrace it. In the aftermath of the 2020 US election, however, it faces the loss of one of its more powerful proponents.
I will start with a bit of background from the timeline of my 2019 article. As is the nature of such things, the initial submission was slightly longer ago, and in the first instance reviewers were concerned that the article dealt with an ideology too inconsequential to be worth investigation. I mention this, because it did not remain the case. While I was doing the research that would lead to this article, environmental scepticism—usually manifested in public conversation as climate change denial—was moving from a niche political outlook to part of mainstream discussion, thanks largely to the presidential campaign and electoral victory of one Donald Trump. As I write this blog post, Trump prepares to (grudgingly) vacate the White House and hand over the reins to Joe Biden. Early indications suggest that environmental scepticism may suffer a dent to its role in mainstream discourse. The size of this dent depends on the strength of the ideology in its remaining proponents when a powerful ally is removed. However, we should not assume that it is going to fade out of public consciousness any time soon.
In addition to the increased prominence, there was also something of an ideological evolution in the public face of environmental scepticism—what Michael Freeden would describe as a shift in proportionality. As a thin-centred ideology (one without a fully developed conceptual core of its own), environmental scepticism must by necessity graft onto more developed ideologies to survive on the political landscape. Until 2016 or thereabouts, there was some ambiguity about the political leanings of environmental scepticism as an ideology. While the USA had always had undercurrents of outright climate change denial stemming from right-wing think tanks such as the Heartland institute, for the rest of the world the public spotlight tended to be occupied by the more measured approach represented by Bjørn Lomborg.
Lomborg, a left-liberal political scientist with some environmentalist tendencies of his own, has always claimed to be motivated by humanitarian concerns and particularly by concern for people in the developing world. Climate change, he argues, is a far less urgent problem than many environmentalists regard it as, and ranks lower than a range of other concerns when measured with regard to the respective cost in human lives. In short, he portrays climate change as a problem, but not the most urgent problem: it can be sidelined until the more urgent issues have been dealt with. Previously, the more overtly denialist manifestations of environmental scepticism relied on moderates such as Lomborg to give their arguments a veneer of humanitarian respectability, lifting some of the suspicion away from what is often seen as a corporate shill.
For the past four years, however, a serving US President who has variously described climate change as a ‘hoax’ on Twitter and, on acknowledging that it might be real, proceeded to claim on live TV that the climate ‘might change back’, has provided a replacement source of respectability. Indeed, the locus of ‘respectability’ has been moved somewhat by a changing political culture: Donald Trump has no scientific expertise and his political rhetoric has a tenuous relationship with the truth, but he did gain just over half the electoral votes in 2016. As such, the image of environmental scepticism has shifted away from global humanitarianism and towards an insular variety fuelled by right-wing populist and nationalist values and in which outright denialism plays a more central role.
Environmental scepticism today
The basic conceptual landscape has remained largely consistent from 2015 to now. Environmental scepticism has three basic core concepts, the removal of which would significantly alter the nature of the ideology: deep anthropocentrism, a form of Prometheanism, and a suspicious framing of environmentalism and the motives of environmentalists. The most significant adjacent concepts—proximity to which helps to shape the core—are a highly specific framing of science and, maybe surprisingly, climate change denial itself. I say surprising because environmental scepticism and climate change denial are often seen as synonyms, with the latter having more of a public profile. However, while denial plays a key role in how environmental scepticism functions in practice, the ideology of environmental scepticism would not collapse entirely were it removed. For example, it is feasible to accept as Bjørn Lomborg does that climate change is a genuine, but exaggerated and non-urgent, problem (what Stefan Rahmstorf calls ‘impact scepticism’); or indeed to argue as Trump does that the pattern of global warming may spontaneously reverse (‘trend scepticism’).
It is also possible to regard global warming as a real but natural phenomenon (‘attribution scepticism’), not caused by humans and as such not our responsibility to fix. An element of denial does, however, help environmental sceptics reach definitive conclusions on some of the moral balancing acts which arise around climate change and carbon emissions. For example, when faced with a decision regarding whether to restrict human freedoms in order to reduce emissions (the UK’s upcoming ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles being the latest example), the ability to sideline the realities of climate change makes the preservation of freedom seem like the obvious priority.
In economic terms, meanwhile, the costs associated with adopting lower-carbon business practices are usually justified by reference to the associated benefits in terms of mitigating the effects of climate change. Denying or diminishing these benefits again casts doubt on whether the costs are really worth it. So, in brief, climate change denial plays an important role in shaping how environmental sceptics engage with everyday moral dilemmas, but can be classified as helpful rather than essential to the formation of environmental scepticism as an ideology.
With that in mind, let’s look at the core concepts. The first of these is deep anthropocentrism: broadly speaking, the idea that only human interests matter. For example, Bjørn Lomborg’s arguments in The Skeptical Environmentalist hinge on the idea that ‘the needs and desires of humankind represent the crux of our assessment of the state of the world’, because ‘people debate and participate in decision-making processes, whereas penguins and pine trees do not’. Lomborg, I should point out, does not discriminate between groups of humans when making this assessment: if he has distinct priorities, they lie in the developing world. He does, however, create a clear line of division between human and nonhuman interests, which can be construed as a competition for resources.
Other environmental sceptics, more openly intent on politicising the issue and usually (although by no means inevitably) coming from the right, frame this as a direct and immediate conflict between human interests and environmental concerns. When I wrote the original article, my main example of this pattern was UKIP’s Roger Helmer, who regarded green energy policies as a surefire route to fuel poverty for the elderly. More recently, Donald Trump has framed environmentalism as a threat to the ordinary American. Trump’s rhetoric on this topic ties deep anthropocentrism in with the populist conception of the ‘pure’ people (see the work of Cas Mudde for more detail) who are under threat from a ‘corrupt’ elite. In doing so, Trump unwittingly helps to resolve a contradiction in the use of anthropocentric—literally, human-centred—reasoning to sideline phenomena which are having dramatic negative impacts on particular groups of humans.
Leaders such as Trump, Australia’s Scott Morrison and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro are overt and unashamed in identifying a particular anthropos on whose interests their anti-environmental rhetoric and policies are centred. Put simply, the interests of the groups who would allegedly be negatively impacted by increased environmental protection are given greater weight than those currently feeling the effects of industrial water pollution (USA), rising sea levels (Australia’s island neighbours) and forest fires (Brazil). It should be noted that there is also a nationalist dimension to this modified deep anthropocentrism, particularly regarding climate change, with many world leaders dismissing the possibility that their own country will suffer significantly. Indeed, the UK’s Michael Gove has been heard to proclaim that global warming will be beneficial for Britain: it will sweeten our grapes and enable us to produce home-grown sparkling wine that ‘will soon bring a level of cheer to British drinkers greater than that provided by French champagne’.
Gove’s comments bring me to the second core concept of environmental scepticism, namely a form of Prometheanism. Broadly speaking, Promethean outlooks see all problems—including environmental ones—as ultimately solvable through the wonders of human ingenuity. Examples of Prometheanism in action include the large-scale overhaul of agricultural practices in the Green Revolution and the use of genetic modification to produce hardier crops. Some would also put geoengineering in the Promethean category. In itself, it can refer to a pro- or anti-environmental outlook: however, certain forms lend themselves to absorption into the environmental sceptic’s canon of ideas.
Prometheanism is usually seen at the less overtly denialist end of environmental scepticism, since it requires at least a grudging acceptance that such problems exist and require solutions. Milder forms of Promethean environmental scepticism (such as that embraced by Bjørn Lomborg) refer merely to harnessing and gaining mastery over nature, for example the ability to transcend through technology and innovative farming practices the limits on nature’s capacity to provide resources. More extreme versions regard nature as irrelevant. Peter Huber, in a book titled Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Environmentalists, argues that due to human ingenuity we could feasibly and justifiably ‘Cut down the last redwood for chopsticks, harpoon the last blue whale for sushi, and the additional mouths fed will nourish additional human brains, which will soon invent ways to replace blubber with olestra and pine with plastic. Humanity can survive just fine in a planet-covering crypt of concrete and computers.’
Recent developments, however, suggest that the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’ may be being transcended, at least in the case of climate change. Michael Gove’s comments, mentioned above, once more add a nationalist dimension to Promethean environmental scepticism. His overall argument, about which I have written more here, alludes to a peculiarly British ability to turn a negatively-perceived phenomenon such as climate change into a positive through what might (if we want to risk falling into clichéd territory) be termed Blitz spirit. Rather than being demoralised by climate change like our neighbours across the Channel, we gain an advantage by harnessing what Gove terms the ‘opportunities of a changing climate’: in his terms, this ‘is a harbinger of the inventiveness, of the creativeness and the resilience, the imagination and the sheer joie de vivre that you can find here in Britain.’
Meanwhile Donald Trump, while less convinced of the reality of climate change, has spoken many times of America’s ability to transcend the food and fuel shortages feared by others. The common threads are the Promethean tendency to believe that no environmental crisis is insurmountable, and that some may indeed be beneficial; and the belief that the solutions will come not from human ingenuity as a species-wide trait but from the attributes of a particular nation whose collective myth includes a large dose of overcoming adversity.
The final core concept, of which we’ve already seen glimpses, is the highly suspicious framing of the motives behind environmental protection measures. The mildest version merely holds that there is money in environmental campaigning and hence an ulterior motive to exaggerate the extent of the problem. More extreme iterations of this narrative portray environmentalism as a deliberate attempt to limit people’s freedoms: indeed, as a harbinger of outright authoritarianism.
There is some variation in the perceived ideological position. For example, former Republican senator Harrison Schmidt describes climate change and measures to limit it as a ‘stalking horse for National Socialism.’ However, since the bulk of this narrative comes from environmental sceptics on the right of the political spectrum, the usual culprit is authoritarian communism. For example, the former Czech president Vaclav Klaus claims that environmental regulation reflects ‘the ambitions of communist central planners to control the entire city.’ Meanwhile in the USA the Heartland Foundation president Joseph Bast cites climate change as ‘the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.’ (The Heartland Foundation were also behind the short-lived billboard campaign featuring the ‘Unabomber’ Ted Kaczynski alongside the statement ‘I still believe in global warming.’)
This is another area where climate change denial (and occasionally other forms of denial, for example regarding the dangers of certain pesticides) comes into its own. The removal of certain freedoms to mitigate a possible environmental crisis that threatens us all can be justified (if not always implemented) relatively easily. Remove the environmental crisis from the equation by declaring it non-urgent or even non-existent, and suddenly any infringement of liberty appears spurious.
While the suspicious framing of environmentalism is still front and centre in the rhetoric of environmental scepticism, its visible form has adapted to a more favourable political climate. Environmentalism has always been portrayed as a threat to freedom, and possibly to life itself, but there has always been a level of ambiguity about whether it constitutes an enemy within or without. The explicitly nationalist politics of the world leaders embracing environmental scepticism have tipped the balance towards positing environmentalism firmly as a threat from outside, potentially aided by an enemy within in the form of the country’s metropolitan elite.
Take for example Trump’s statement, in his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech, that ‘This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States. The rest of the world applauded when we signed the Paris Agreement—they went wild; they were so happy—for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.’ Here, the push to mitigate climate change is portrayed not as the harbinger of a particular ideology, but rather the acceptable face of a systematic anti-Americanism on the part of the rest of the world.
Trump has previously described global warming as a hoax on the part of China in particular, intended to undermine American industry; since admitting that there may be some truth to the scientific findings, he has maintained nonetheless that any attempt to mitigate the problem has the ulterior motive of disadvantaging America to benefit its rivals. China, while named most often as a beneficiary of the losses Trump sees America sustaining, is not alone in deriving an advantage: his Paris Agreement withdrawal speech implicates the entire rest of the world. The key point, however, is that America is allegedly disadvantaged for ‘the exclusive benefit of other countries’, deriving no benefits of its own from an overall reduction of carbon emissions. Obama, he argues, was duped by economic rivals purporting concern for the environment, while he himself as the ‘America First’ president sees through the ruse.
In this economically-motivated framing of the enemy, we can see a resurgence of the idea of the ‘green scare’ as the natural successor to the ‘red scare’ of the Cold War. Peter Jacques has documented how environmental issues started to enter the public consciousness around the same time Soviet-style communism was on the decline in Europe: to advocates of unbridled capitalism, a new problem was arising as the long-standing one receded. However, until recently, this element was not a key part of the public face of environmental scepticism: it was the preserve of well-funded but not well-known conservative think tanks and somewhat in the shadow of more humanitarian manifestations. In the Trump era, however, this quiet part of environmental scepticism has more frequently been said out loud, with greater concern expressed about the economic effects of environmental protection measures.
The future of environmental scepticism—some speculative points
So, what next for environmental scepticism? From January 20, 2021, it will no longer be part of the ideology of the serving US President. This development suggests a certain decline of influence. For example, the viewpoints outlined in this post and my original article will no longer define American environmental policy to the extent that they have done since the same date in 2017. Leaving aside Biden’s own moves (broadly speaking) towards greater environmental sustainability, such as placing a known environmental regulator with a strong track record in charge of the EPA, there are signs of a wider and more substantial shift towards pro-environmental attitudes. It is worth noting, as just one example, that the attempts to incorporate ‘green’ elements into the Coronavirus Relief Bill are to a great extent a bipartisan effort rather than a purely Democratic one.
Outside the US Government, the more strictly neutral parts of the mainstream media will have less requirement to treat denialist perspectives on climate change with the same seriousness as the prevailing scientific evidence. Furthermore, the loss of Trump as an ally may tip the balance regarding policy change in more environmentally ambivalent nations. For example, the need to build a working relationship with President Biden has been cited as one of Boris Johnson’s key motivations for introducing the sweeping ‘Ten Step Plan to a Green Industrial Revolution.’
However, we should be wary of assuming that environmental scepticism will fade away once Trump has passed through a more-or-less peaceful transfer of power. To begin with, he is not the only environmental sceptic to occupy a position of political leadership. The global environment still has Australia’s Scott Morrison (protector of his country’s coal industry moreso than of their island neighbours), Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro (he who denies the existence of forest fires in the Amazon) and Poland’s Andrzej Duda to contend with, to name the most vocal.
It is also worth remembering the associations which have built up between environmental scepticism and right-wing populism in the past few years. It remains to be seen how strong the connection between the two ideologies is: divergence would be possible, but so would a continued convergence. While Trump’s electoral loss could represent the beginning of the end for this variety of populism, it could also merely represent Trump’s own failures and leave the door open for a more personally competent candidate of a similar political ilk. The resentments which fuelled pro-Trump sentiment in 2016 are real, including the perception that environmentalism is a danger to ‘rust belt’ livelihoods.
The liberal humanitarian iteration of environmental scepticism may also return to the fore. Bjørn Lomborg, the usual public face of this form of scepticism, was positing the respective fights against climate change and pandemics as opponents for scarce resources before the advent of coronavirus; we may yet see a resurgence of this narrative, aimed at the ‘green’ elements of many recovery packages. In the past year, Lomborg has been joined on this ideological stage by Michael Shellenberger, a former environmental activist who is keen to apologise for ‘crying wolf’ on climate change. Shellenberger is the founder of a thinktank named ‘Environmental Progress’, whose London office is fronted by former Extinction Rebellion activist Zion Light. It is feasible that, if the association with leaders such as Trump begins to fade, this more moderate form of bounded environmental scepticism—with some pro-environmental tendencies and a level of scientific awareness—will gain prominence and be more difficult to challenge.
In short, the future trajectory of environmental scepticism is currently difficult to predict due to the sheer range of possible variables in play. It will be interesting to see the prevailing form it takes when the dust settles from the US election, and consequently where it will fit in the wider discourse on tackling environmental issues.
 Jane Suiter, ‘Post-truth Politics’, Political Insight 7(3) (2016), 25–7.
 See Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (London: Allen Lane, 2014) for a more detailed picture of this strand.
 Speech at Countryfile Live, 2018.