The Union environment ministry’s draft Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) notification 2020 drew significant flak from environmentalists. EIA is a legal process to assess the impact of any project on its natural surroundings.
While pro-industry groups in India criticise it as a bureaucratic hurdle, the EIA is an important instrument to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples, to conserve ecosystems and ensure these interests align with each other.
But when the environment ministry sought to weaken the EIA’s protections, it became complicit in the industrial exploitation of natural resources as well as an unlikely participant in the socio-ecological phenomenon called ecofascism.
Ecofascism is rooted in the Nationalist Socialist ideology of the “purity of races”. In the early 20th century, a geographer named Friedrich Ratzel introduced the concept of lebensraum – German for ‘living room’. It stood for the ecological system in which a civilisation could flourish. This idea influenced Adolf Hitler, soon to be head of the Nationalist Socialist party, a.k.a. the Nazi Party.
In the decades that followed, Nazis and then neo-Nazis around the world hijacked environmentalism and pressed its ideal into the service of their own twisted interests. In their worldview, environmentalism was stretched from the innocuous claims to conserve nature and preserve people’s ecological roots, and promoted the occupation of ecological spaces by “original” races, effectively opposing multiculturalism and cross-border movement.
Ecofascists believe that environmental damage is the product of displaced populations, especially of minority groups. At its core, ecofascism upholds the rights of one race over others to the environment and its riches. While a large number of far-right conservatives deny climate change, ecofascists acknowledge it, but promote xenophobic and racial solutions. Both the El Paso and the Christchurch mass-murderers included ecofascist ideals in their manifestoes.
First world hypocrisy
Even though ecofascists renounce imperialistic industrialisation, their ideas are inherently colonial in nature.
For example, many people in economically developed countries harbour a historical amnesia – blaming developing and underdeveloped nations, and the practices of their peoples, for ecological damage. They forget that developing economies are still en route to economic and social prosperity, which their own countries achieved by exploiting the developing world’s resources.
As Jeff Sparrow pointed out in his 2019 book Fascists Among Us: Online Hate and the Christchurch Massacre, conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt in the US liked to preserve big game they liked to shoot but admonished impoverished “pot hunters” from eastern Europe for doing the same thing to feed themselves.
Even when western businesses champion a shift to organic farming and clean energy, they import a large number of products from South America, Africa and Asia, where such practices aren’t current. Punjab, for example, cultivates gherkin over 1,795 hectares and almost all of the produce is exported.
Another ecofascist trope is the imaginary ‘population problem’. The American author Charles Eisenstein has observed that overpopulation “plays into a colonialistic narrative that the fecund masses of the global south are to blame for the environmental crisis”. But what this narrative mistakes for overpopulation is mostly poverty – the way these “fecund masses” live – as a direct result of debilitating economic inequality and social oppression.
As Nayantara Sheoran Appleton, of the Victoria University of Wellington, has written for The Wire Science, India’s political élites have repeatedly tried to revive this phantom. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did it most recently: in his 2020 Independence Day speech, he said small families are more “patriotic”.
India’s environment policies
In a 2014 report entitled ‘Evolution of Environmental Policy and Law in India’, the author has categorised India’s environmental policies into distinct phases. In the colonial phase – exploitative in its essence – the state used legislative measures to collect revenue on forest resources. The post-colonial stage was based on the same laws, until around the 1970s.
From 1972 to 1980, the author writes, there were “a large number of legislations being enacted, aimed at forest conservation, protection of wildlife and a framework for abatement of water pollution”.
But this ecological awareness was paralleled by a deeply ecofascist measure. In 1976, during the Emergency, the Indian Gandhi government launched a programme to forcefully sterilise 6.2 million men belonging to the margins of society – men the state had deemed ‘resource-exhaustive’.
The rise of Hindutva politics in India in the last decade has encouraged the rise of ecofascists as well. But while individual awareness and education are imperative to reverse ecological damage, only the government can effect large-scale changes in a short period of time. So as reports surface of the government itself proposing to ease environmental safeguards, it seems likely that we are only headed into a time when green narratives will be subsumed by classist, casteist and communal ideologies.
Sangya Chatterjee is an immunologist doing a PhD at the University of Freiburg.