Today marks 50 years of Earth Day, one of the most successful environmental movements in history. For decades, millions of people have celebrated Earth Day by promoting recycling, picking up litter, learning about climate change and advocating for environmental protection policies.
This year, all Earth Day events will be held virtually—but that isn’t the only way the pandemic is changing how we interact with environmental issues. With millions of people worldwide staying home to flatten the curve of COVID-19, people are turning to social media to stay connected and entertained.
But recently, seemingly innocent posts about the pandemic have revealed a darker side of environmentalism.
There’s been a swell of posts on Twitter and Facebook about how animals are taking over cities, pollution has decreased and the environment is starting to recover from decades of human impact, thanks to people staying at home. One tweet, which has almost 300,000 likes, claims “Coronavirus is Earth’s vaccine. We’re the virus.”
Unfortunately, many of those posts are flat-out wrong. Those canals are a forty-minute ferry ride away from Venice, and the swans have lived there for years. Clearer water in harbors indicates a lack of boats stirring up sand from the bottom, not a lack of pollution. And more importantly, any environmental changes that are occurring are temporary, and would only become permanent if a significant percentage of the global population died.
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This rhetoric, which claims that the pandemic is having a positive impact on the world, comes dangerously close to promoting ecofascist ideas. At its most basic, ecofascism describes a society where individuals are sacrificed to benefit the environment. Deaths are ignored for the sake of the “greater good” of combating overpopulation and declining resources.
Ecofascism has roots in Nazi ideology, and has recently been adopted by the alt-right and white supremacists. The mass shooters in El Paso and Christchurch last year were both ecofascists, who thought that immigrants were causing environmental problems. They believed a common narrative about climate change—which blames people in the Global South—especially women of color, for having too many kids and taking up too many resources.
While tweets about water pollution are nowhere near the severity of mass terrorism, they do have a very real impact. When people start to believe that “humans are the virus,” or that humans are inherently bad for the environment, it can lead to them adopting ecofascist ideas.
Ecofascist ideas are inherently flawed, because they blame individuals, not industries, for environmental problems.
Individual impacts don’t even scratch the surface of the damage corporations do to our planet. In fact, 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions. While there are things we can all do to lower our carbon footprint, it’s unfair to say that individuals are responsible for environmental problems.
Industrialization and the fossil fuel industry—not individual humans—are the real issues this pandemic has shone a spotlight on. Pollution has not decreased because people are dying; it has decreased because unregulated industrialization has ground to a halt.
The danger of ecofascist ideas becomes clear when you take into account what groups of people are blamed, and who bears the impact of environmental issues. Overpopulation has historically been blamed on women of color, and limiting their fertility has been treated as a way to fight climate change.
Poor people and people in the Global South have also been singled out as a “drain on resources.” Marginalized groups are turned into scapegoats to hide the fact that there actually are enough resources, but they are distributed unequally. Wealthy people hoard disproportionate amounts, leaving marginalized communities without basic necessities. As a result, the groups that are often blamed for environmental issues are actually more likely to be severely impacted by climate change.
The recent resurgence of ecofascist rhetoric echoes this frightening pattern. In the U.S., Black people, Native Americans and the poor are already dying at disproportionate rates. If we continue to spread ecofascist narratives about these same groups, it could reinforce common biases and lead to dangerous results.
Ecofascist ideas have inspired violence in the past, and the current rhetoric about COVID-19 could result in governments and individuals ignoring or even supporting the deaths of people of color, in order to gain environmental benefits.
This Earth Day, feel free to promote recycling, protest virtually against fossil fuels, and contribute in other ways towards environmental movements. But be wary of falling into ecofascist traps. Combating environmental issues is important—but it cannot be prioritized over the lives of marginalized people. We can and should work together towards systemic change and a government that prioritizes protecting our environment.
But no matter how much pollution decreases during this pandemic, hundreds of thousands of deaths is not a climate plan.
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