By Julia Stern,
New York City, New York
In March 2020, when COVID-19 was beginning to spread in the United States, many well-meaning environmentalists and casual readers of the news began spreading a seemingly benign message: COVID-19 was, at least in the short term, good for the environment.
NASA published an article in November discussing the dip in nitrogen dioxide levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASA mentioned that as lockdowns began in China, they experienced emissions 60% lower than it expected, and in New York, 45 % lower. In April, Metro UK used photographs of the clearer air to prove that the pandemic had improved air pollution. In June, an article in the US National Library of Medicine said, “Nature pressed the reset button during COVID-19 lockdown,” and the study concluded, “Although coronavirus vaccine is not available, coronavirus itself is earth's vaccine and us humans are the virus.”
The articles published during this time, while seemingly accurate and benign, can espouse rhetoric that subtly substantiates ecofascism.
Ecofascism is an ideology that blames climate change on overpopulation and uses environmentalism as a justification for white supremacy and genocide. According to Sarah Manavis, in an article in the New Statesman, ecofascism can be insidious because its themes include veganism, zero-waste lifestyles and anti-consumerism. But ecofascists also condone white supremacy, anti-Semitism and eugenics as a means of stopping climate change. Manavis wrote, “Underneath the pictures of idyllic country scapes and environmentally-friendly rhetoric, eco-fascists are pushing a murderous, racist ideology in the name of protecting the planet.”
Ecofascists believe in lifeboat ethics and the Malthusian idea that the human population is putting a strain on natural resources. One ecofascist wrote, “The worst enemy of life is too much life: the excess of human life” and “What do we do, when a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship's axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides."
Ecofascists are willing to justify the loss of human life for the ultimate goal of preserving the planet. The media supports these ideas by publishing articles that tell its readers that humans are a virus and that a pandemic that has killed millions of people is ultimately good for the environment.
On March 24, Mikaela Loach, a climate justice activist and medical student, and Josephine Becker, an activist and student studying sustainability and behavior change, produced an episode of “The Yikes Podcast” on The Coronavirus and Ecofascism. They said that, in people’s desperation about the pandemic and the simultaneous climate crisis, it was easy to circulate articles on social media that saw an environmental silver lining to the pandemic.
Loach touched on the insidious nature of ecofascism; it comes across as reasonable in its advocacy for zero-waste and refusing plastics, but it promotes genocide and white supremacy. She said, “It’s quite telling that justice isn’t at the center of it. Ecofascism shows the need for climate justice, and human rights to be at the center of everything we do.”
The myth of nature needing to reset or cleanse itself of humans is rooted in false and racist ideas about overpopulation. On Loach and Becker’s podcast, they frame overpopulation as a myth upheld by capitalism and white supremacy. Loach told The Green Dreamer that “a lot of ecofascism arguments make claims that the cause of the current climate crisis is with vulnerable and marginalized people rather than with those who have power.”
The people advocating the dangers of overpopulation are largely white men who believe that, because of food insecurity in the Global South and nations targeted by colonization, there should simply be fewer people there. Absent from these ecofascist ideas is the acknowledgement that food insecurity is a huge issue in the Global North, and nations like the United Kingdom and the United States have some of the largest carbon emissions per capita, according to Our World in Data.
Susuana Amoah wrote that even in current environmental circles, “The finger is mostly directed towards people [...] in continents such as Africa and Asia.” The people who claim that COVID-19 is good for the environment promote the idea that the number of humans is the problem. Really, it is not that humans are the virus, it is the violent systems in place that allow wealthy nations to hoard resources and just 100 companies to cause 71% of global emissions.
While it is true that air quality improved and vital environmental changes occurred as COVID-19 disrupted patterns of consumption in wealthy countries, perceived and fleeting “silver linings” should not take precedence over the millions of lost lives. If one connection can be made between future pandemics and climate change, it is not only that climate change may cause future pandemics, but also that both issues will take millions of lives if rich nations and billionaires continue to hoard resources. If we truly want to put an end to climate change, the solution should not be to whisper to ecofascist white supremacists, but instead to reform and deconstruct the exploitative system of capitalism that contributed to climate change in the first place.