Eco-fascism, “Overpopulation,” and Total Transformation

Somebody take away the "kill half of world's population" button away from those dastardly eco-fascists! Quick, before they use it!

from It's Going Down

A critical look at how historically white nationalists and the State have weaponized discussions of “over-population” to intervene in the environmental movement. Proposes that anarchists and autonomous anti-capitalists need new ways of discussing the unsustainability of industrial capitalism without falling into the tropes of our enemies.

by Jessie

For decades, the far-Right has used “overpopulation” as a dog whistle to infiltrate predominantly white environmentalist movements. (I use “overpopulation” in quotes because it is a term I use critically.) Their goals include a push for reducing or eliminating immigration, as with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, founded by former Sierra Club leader John Tanton, and eugenics programs targeting black, indigenous, and other people of color, as proposed by the white nationalist ecologist Garret Hardin.

Garret Hardin, the white nationalist behind “The Tragedy of the Commons” SOURCE: Southern Poverty Law Center

This has led many on the Left to dismiss concerns about human population outright. In an article from 2019, Rainier Shea writes that:

Liberals, who are the main people in the present time that advocate for population control as a climate solution, don’t like to think that their ideas have such sinister implications. They like to think that their statements will only result in increased access to birth control and sex education. But with the way that global capitalism is structured, and the way that reactionary politics is trying to hijack environmentalism, the end result of the ideas they’re promoting will be atrocities on a gigantic scale.

This is an understandable reaction, given both the history of white supremacist/colonialist violence against people of color and the heightened danger that fascism currently poses – in the US and around the world. For example, on inauguration day 2017, I was at the University of Washington’s Red Square when Trump supporter shot and nearly killed an antifascist. White supremacist murderers have gone on politically motivated killing sprees in cities across the US, like El Paso and Charleston. Far-Right violence has claimed scores of lives since Trump’s election, and if fascists are able to consolidate power, they will do far worse.

It also must be mentioned that fascist fantasies of eugenics programs, militarized borders, and genocide are essentially just expanded versions of what has been constant through US history. The current threat of fascism is not a new and unique menace. There’s the popularity of eugenics in the early 1900s, including the 1927 Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which legalized forced sterilization for eugenics purposes. In 1970, the Family Planning Services and Population Research Act became law, and in the six years following, at least one quarter of all indigenous women of childbearing age were sterilized. In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed that almost 150 female prison inmates in California had been sterilized between 2006 and 2010 – they were coerced and the required state approval was not obtained. Since the mid 1990s, US policy on the southern border has funneled migrants into more remote and dangerous crossings. In 2020, immigrant children were held in cages in camps along the southern border of the US. Late last year, news broke of undocumented children being held in hotels by private contractors, with seemingly no oversight or accountability. This long history and current reality of violence and trauma makes statements about population toxic and difficult to navigate.

The Left refuses to talk about “overpopulation” because the far-Right has made it the premise of one of their main arguments, which generally go: (a) environmental destruction is caused by too many people, so (b) in order to stop environmental destruction, we need fewer people. In the fascist vision, (b) this means concentration camps, eugenics, and mass death. The fascist argument that overpopulation causes environmental devastation is obviously deceitful: its only purpose is to justify the violence they propose, not actually address environmental destruction in an effective and holistic way. The premise is fundamentally flawed. Environmental destruction is much more a qualitative issue with our way of life, not a quantitative issue with population.

Only fascists see a problem and say that violence and coercion are the only/best/logical solutions. That’s how fascism works: they take a problem, then find a scapegoat to terrorize, exploit, and kill, thereby deepening the divisions in society and consolidating their base.

What makes this confusing is that fascists use both real and invented problems as the premises for their arguments. For example, increasing inequality in the US that has relentlessly squeezed working families for decades is a real problem. Based on that, fascists blame “illegals” for “stealing jobs” or the “Jewish Illuminati,” or a mix of both, as in the case of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. An invented problem fascists use is the supposed epidemic of undocumented immigrants victimizing US born (read: white) citizens. Even a cursory investigation into criminology and demographics reveals that most crime is localized – e.g., white people are far more likely to be victimized by other white people than any other demographic. This means that to effectively confront a fascist argument, you have to understand whether the issues they say that only they can solve are real or not. If they are proposing a solution to an invented problem, one can simply dismiss the premise of the argument. But environmental destruction is clearly a real problem.

The premise that “environmental destruction is caused by too many people” is essentially a misrepresentation of the biological concept of “carrying capacity,” which is the maximum population size of a species that an environment can sustain indefinitely. Multiple factors contribute to carrying capacity, including available food/resources, prevalence of predators/diseases, and climate. Although you can’t tell by looking at any industrial or post-industrialized modern country, humans are able to live sustainably on a given land base for thousands of years – hundreds of indigenous communities throughout history have shown that. Those communities had an embodied, land-based understanding of exactly what the carrying capacity of their land base was, and how it fluctuated with time.

Despite billions of people around the world going without or struggling to meet their basic needs, we currently have the technology and resources to feed and house everyone on Earth. Through the use of abundant fossil fuels and a massive increase the use of complex technology, we have dramatically – and temporarily – increased the carrying capacity of the Earth. The shortages and inequalities that currently exist are a problem of distribution: a small number of people have disproportionately hoarded the earth’s resources. According to Oxfam, the richest 10% of people produce half of earth’s greenhouse gas emissions, while the poorest half contribute only 10%. Not only that, but much of what is produced by capitalism does not provide for anyone’s basic human needs: it’s frivolous, a luxury/status object, or simply wasted. Think of all the vacation homes and unfilled mansions that sit empty while people languish on the streets or in refugee camps, or the massive amount of food wasted in the United States – estimated at 133 billion tons in 2010.

This incomprehensible level of inequality is why simply looking at population as a number leads nowhere. Modern humanity is not made up of individuals who each consume approximately equal amounts of resources and produce approximately equal amounts of waste products, as with most other species (including many classic examples used to teach the concept of carrying capacity, like deer, cattle, or barnacles).

But we will not always have access to the resources and energy stocks that the world economy uses to sustain us and itself. Fossil fuels are a finite resource that are growing more and more difficult to extract, despite innovations like fracking that have allowed the extraction to continue for a few more years. Climate change demands that we shift to renewable energy sources. We simply do not have access to energy sources or technologies that can do a one-to-one replacement of fossil fuels, despite many optimistic claims to the contrary. I won’t go into detail here, but some major issues include intermittency (as in the case of wind and solar), habitat destruction, and a huge need for rare earth metals. (Hundreds of books have been written about “green energy” and its shortcomings. I recommend the work of Richard Heinberg and the Post Carbon Institute to learn more.) This means that we are entering a future where we, as a society, will have access to much less energy, and therefore fewer resources, than we do currently.

So in order to sustain human life in the future, we will need to both radically redistribute resources and transition to renewable economies. Jasper Bernes, in a fiery takedown of the Green New Deal, specifies “…a rapid decrease in energy use for those in the industrialized global north, no more cement, very little steel, almost no air travel, walkable human settlements, passive heating and cooling, a total transformation of agriculture, and a diminishment of animal pasture by an order of magnitude at least.” Ideally, this means communities that are resilient and mostly self-sustaining, with community control over all aspects of energy and food production, as well as what industry will remain. This will look very different in different parts of the world.

This is a beautiful vision, but it is not likely to come into reality everywhere around the world. Societies that experience shortages, contractions, and collapse do see a lot of cooperation and mutual aid. (I recommend Rebeca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell for an in-depth look at this topic.) We can work to build pro-social culture to make those things more likely to happen. But there will be hoarding and strife and violence, the majority of which will fall on the poorest people, mostly in the global South, who contributed the least to the climate crisis. The more people there are during this time of change, the more challenging it will be to transition to our new ways of life and find a new equilibrium with the world around us. We cannot count on a future in which we have a best-case scenario of equitable distribution of resources and widespread renewable energy technologies.

So what can we do? There is no panacea, but here are three things that would make a difference:

  • Ensure total, safe, and free access to all forms of birth control and contraception, while retaining full bodily autonomy for every person, everywhere.
  • Create a culture that recognizes we must live within the limits of our environment. An important part of this is re-imagining what kinship and family look like, since the Western hegemonic ideal of a heterosexual nuclear family encourages population growth. Create networks of support and community that are more inclusive and flexible.
  • Redistribute wealth and eliminate poverty.

Part of understanding the age we live in is that we are facing problems that have no solutions. There are ways for us to move through the challenges we face with dignity and togetherness, but nothing will make these problems go away. Techno-fixes don’t exist. Politicians won’t save us. In fact, nothing can “save” us. We are all we have.

A desperation for solutions and certainty is part of what propels people towards fascism, but in a interconnected and mind-bogglingly complex world of interlocking systems, easy solutions do not exist. Politicians don’t win elections by admitting that history has led us into a place from which there is no easy escape.

Refusing to talk about population cedes narrative ground to the far-Right and paints anarchists and autonomous movements into an ideological corner. It forces us to implicitly support the hegemonic default: a technocratic vision of the future that does not question the growth cult of capitalism. When we opt-out of discussions about human population and carrying capacity, we are not controlling the terms of the debate, but reacting to what our enemies have proposed. Anyone who looks at the nearly identical hockey stick graphs of fossil fuel use and population growth and then hears a leftist say “population isn’t an issue/we shouldn’t talk about it” is likely to see that leftist as naive and foolish.

I think refusing to engage with this issue exemplifies mistakes that anti-capitalist movements make all the time:

  1. Obsession with purity – refusing to engage with difficult questions and justifying it as a matter of principle. This is dogmatic and counterproductive.
  2. Poor understanding of science and the material economy, making us susceptible to plans that are based in ideology and not reality. Our understanding of the material world is always filtered through culture and ideology, but it exists independent of and beyond our understanding.
  3. Thinking about the challenges we face as dualities, as all or nothing things that we win or lose, rather than something that we can achieve partially or mitigate.

That last point means that we can never achieve victory, but we can also never be defeated. There is never a time to despair. There is always something that can be done.

This essay is meant to be a cultural intervention. I am not proposing any solutions to the questions of limits to growth or the menace of eco-fascism. Instead, it is my hope that people approach these conversations in a more grounded and forward-thinking way.

Further Reading

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photo: Yogesh Pedamkar via Unsplash

There are 20 Comments

Thank you so much for that article. I've been saying it for years that we had to gain a better control of our growth as a species, collectively and voluntarily through incentives, education, redistribution and decentralization. I'm so tired of fools telling me that the issue is only consumption. Based on their idea, we could be 100 billion if we drank dew and ate just enough to keep living without walking or doing anything. We need to stop mass consumption and we need to stop to waste, yes. But there are degrees and a spectrum to it. The more we are, the thinner our margin is. It's that simple. It's not because we can do something under increasingly strict limitations that we should. There's a point at which making space for more humans costs almost everyone in quality of life, and we're beyond that point already.

That's geographical as much as subjective. The Sán people can live off 10 litres per week and 2,500 calories per week. The average Westerner uses 550 litres per week and consumes 250,000 calories per week counting the calorific conversion of their domestic energy consumption.
Thing is though, Sán don't pay rent and their food is free, so any theories fall flat upon the initial premise that conditions can be compared and therefore arguable, because they are not. The Sán must do their part in solving the world's problems by giving up some of their land and food to feed the starving hordes in Western ghettoes.

First off: how are you getting that math? If you had 10% body mass, that's 30,000 calories in reserve. About 12,000 is 5lbs. How are people in the west consuming 35,000 calories a day? On the other side, how can someone already around 10% mass continue (a very stressful) long-term caloric deficit of 2500 calories a week. I'm someone pretty heavily interested in primal health, who regularly intermittently fasts and eats only 1-2 times a day. The numbers don't compute.

Second: not all calories are created equal. The calorie-in-calorie-out theory is discredited. So perhaps trying to impose living by numbers (which is what the western mindset does via economics) is just more of the relations determine the shape of reality and not rationalism.

That is to say: we're not looking holistically at what a life ways is, and instead narrowly focused on projecting western concepts onto life.

agreed. the "western" approach of reducing everything to some set of numbers is absurd. so many folks say "the numbers don't lie". to which i respond, "perhaps not, but they also NEVER tell the whole story".

One could shortcut the whole stupid anti-natalist ideology by just...teaching girls to read.

Turns out that as girls feel empowered from being able to read they form their own decisions about how they want to live their lives, and the end up deciding to have less children.

Now, I realize that my suggestion won't help fragile humans (white male humans) triggered by the very existence of people who aren't them, and other ideologues that take their hatred of life and themselves and project it outward...

>Turns out that as girls feel empowered from being able to read they form their own decisions about how they want to live their lives, and the end up deciding to have less children. Now, I realize that my suggestion won't help fragile humans (white male humans) triggered by the very existence of people who aren't them, and other ideologues that take their hatred of life and themselves and project it outward...

White males are stopping girls from reading? What are you talking about? It's the patriarchs in the global south doing that. Plus the pope, I guess.

IGD realised that whenever they use the word fascism they get shared from the sizable anti-Trump/pro-Biden crowd on social media and so try to squeeze it into every headline they can. This article has nothing to do with fascism, eco or otherwise.

The eco fash boogeyman rears its head again. I’m glad the author at least sees that our situation is largely held up by industrial civ. Unfortunately I don’t see a world effort towards degrowth happening even with the shift to renewables which as the article mentions have problems too.

i think the article does lay some good theoretical groundwork for "eco-fascism", as kinda this diffuse environmentalist tendency that doesn't have anything to do with fascism:

-you got the folks mumbling about the "population problem" like bill gates, and since he's a billionaire we should be creeped out about this. I would argue that there are too many humans in the world and it's not benevolent, but if one takes it on themselves to eliminate them or put limits on the number of babies that people have like they do in china, then yes they are eco-fascists.

-you got those idiots who hate immigrants, who use environmentalist arguments against them. If we reduce it all down to "carbon footprint", they are right but fuck them anyways, fuck borders, fuck reductionism. I hope ya'll get banished to a dirt floor prison cell in mexico where the water is tainted with feces.

-then you got these shitty reformist organizations like the sierra club, which i used to be a part of informally. They pretty much have an "anything to reduce pollution/save the environment" approach, which very well could become Eco-fascism if it already isn't. The thing that really made me angry long after i left is they were pushing for fracking in the state i live in as a way of replacing mountain top removal, but fracking is just as bad or worse. Aesthetically speaking, it also completely decimates everything single living thing in its path. Fuck sierra club, they can barely compromise their way out of a paper bag.

I honestly think anyone who cares about this stuff should also pirate "planet of humans", because Al Gore certainly takes the center stage as an Eco-fascist there, and he deserves it for sure. Renewable energy isn't inherently good, yet i don't see any problem with stealing or buying a couple solar panels to put up on your house. It's not like that would be any worse than starting a fire, yet the issue is that it requires lots of electricity to heat a house...would work good for a few lights.

"that it requires lots of electricity to heat a house.."
Not if the house is a single room with insulated walls and floor and having multiple inhabitants hugging and snuggling together like a clan.

through all my contemplations about how "the ancients" survived in really cold environments, i had to come to the conclusion that there was much snuggling...and yeah insulation in the winter time is great stuff, it's much more promising than renewable energy, the problem in the end is that solar energy also seems to require:

-batteries, ask somebody bolivia about the issues with this

-rare earths, the mining of this totally fucks with Chinese peasants.

In the end, i think local ecology is a much more admirable praxis than "environmentalism", because the environment is basically a complete abstraction and a spook.

You're poor? Get a cheap used wood stove, recycle some wood around your place. Do yourself a hut or long house. Forget yurts; they're an expensive yuppie niche.

Insulate with cob and/or layers of cardboard. The latter is preferable due to being found everywhere in recycling bins, and super easy and fun to work with. Paint or wax for waterproofing. Let the snow accumulate on the roofs during the winter, so provides with extra insulation.

The general trend in house-building through history was people building with what's easily found around. With the advent of the mass production economy it all went to shit, as we grew dependent on industrially-produced materials and shitty prefab designs, with construction parasites driving the markets with mafia money-laundering schemes and waste of taxpayer money.

Texas has shown you how dependence on the State's mass infrastructure (no matter how shitty it is) can turn a house or apartment in a cold, cold grave. Consumer capitalism don't do it. Or get rid of it.

it isn't even as cold in texas as it is where i live, it's just unfortunate that along with all my creative thinking, i have to contend with the consumer capitalism.

i'm not very poor, even though i do struggle with figuring out how to get my finances straight. I was talking about the conundrum of "environmentalism", how it's often not in reference to where you live.

I might have sounded purist or moralist, tho it's really just a suggestion for a "becoming" (rejecting consumer trash), i.e. a direction to take. I ain't a model neither, as many people here.

What are the means to, say, transport over long distances without depending on that industry? Bikes are somewhat better solutions than cars, but this industry's also getting chaotic, due to millenial price-pumping schemes making bikes nearly as coslty as cars, wtf. Still industrial means, depending on manufacturing plants with expensive hardware.

Horses and dog sleds are only more primitive forms of domestication, yet not relying on complex industrial production markets, starting with extractivism.

if i could just walk everywhere, then i would be a little less irritated all the time. But since i live out in the stix, and have many items of adulting to do, i have to have a car, and those things just suck the life out of you. I also don't really like bikes, just because you lose some control over different situations. I used to spend more time just walking/strolling through my neighborhood, but the people just scared the fuck out of me.

First of all, the car drivers like to honk and jeer at you, and they also really suck at driving. I also got accused of burglarizing homes, by two different women. Now to add some context with this, i kinda live in a rough area, and i was angered/shocked because I'm certainly not a fucking burgler, i just steal stuff from supermarkets and franchises sometimes during the day. So in the end i have to limit my range of motion so people can stop almost killing me with their cars and being butt-hurt about the fact i "act funny". Fucking red america.

But can't you imagine how cool that would be, if we could just walk everywhere? Turn those old interstates in to clear fading paths to different villages and cities?

As far as hauling stuff and driving, i just don't see an end to fossil fuels at least for a very long time. Most of those experiments in bio-fuels have turned out to be preposterous failures, and the horse and buggy won't comeback for obvious reasons.

*sighs* commies and their Russian lumpen misery porn... ;)

we have the most MISERABLE and COLD porn EVER.

You do not watch porn in Russia, porn watches you. But try this one: a boiling pot of hot water, with all that you need, only for potato! Now THAT is what i call the old world meets the new!

could always just switch to calling it "eco-necropolitics" or something like that. if you're sick of the F bomb fucking up the conversation

Huh? What does any of that article have to do with "eco-fascism" or "fascism"? Don't get me wrong, i love masturbating over discussing the obsession of the gazillions eco-fascists that exist somewhere. This person must read the washington post and new times all the time leading them to conjure up the gazillions of fascists in their mind

I was reading the other day that the US military consumes roughly 40% of fossil fuels in the US. I thought that was neat. I've been thinking of growing rice because ideally, you can harvest rice twice a year compared to most other grains that can be harvested just once a year. Back in the day like 600+ to 300 years ago, the Chinese calorie intact was about 500 calories more per day than Europeans because of growing rice. If I collect my poop and other animal poop I should be set for fertilizer and rice. This has nothing to do with anything just like that article see eco fascist and fascists everywhere in imaginary land from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. I don't care about sustaining human life on earth in the future

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