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Not an official Extinction Rebellion poster. @XR_East / twitter

Beware far-right arguments disguised as environmentalism

Posters in the style of the activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) have appeared in the UK declaring “Corona is the cure, humans are the disease”. A now-deleted tweet from @xr_east had photos of the poster, under the line that “Earth is healing. The air and water is clearing”.

It proved very controversial:

Such “corona is the cure” / “too many people” arguments are ostensibly neutral on the question of race. But in practice, they have long been used to say that the problem is too many black and brown people. Arguments that birth rates should be curbed tend to focus on India or Africa, which lets off countries in the global north that have far greater carbon footprints and infinitely more historical responsibility for climate change.

Extinction Rebellion has steadfastly denied this was an official poster, saying the tweet “in no way represents” the group’s position, and that XR “absolutely, wholeheartedly condemned” the message. A spokeswoman told ITV:

It looks like the account was dormant for a long period of time - and it’s never tweeted anything like this before… We’re trying to make contact with them but they’re not communicating. We don’t know for sure who it is, but it screams of being a fake account.

If it was a fake, then this is not the first time XR has seen its message hijacked in this way. In January 2020, posters appeared in Brighton saying: “Save the Environment: End Mass Immigration” and “Only White People Care About the Environment”.

Although it is true that the UK environment movement is very white, I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of who “speaks” for a decentralised organisation like XR where there will be a variety of viewpoints.

But the tweet and posters give us a chance to consider what Australian thinker Ketan Joshi has labelled “lazy ecofascism”, including some less well-known strands of extremely misanthropic and racist environmental thinking.

A racist history

Such ideas are nothing new, as pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker article by law professor Jedediah Purdy, who traced environmentalism’s racist history. To take one example, Purdy looked at Madison Grant, who was instrumental in creating the Bronx Zoo and the first organisations that tried to save the American bison and California redwoods.

Madison Grant combined conservation and eugenics. wiki, CC BY-SA

Purdy notes that Grant was also the author of a 1916 book titled The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, which Purdy describes as “a pseudo-scientific work of white supremacism that warns of the decline of the ‘Nordic’ peoples”.

More recently, a “Malthusian moment” in environmentalism began with the publication in 1968 of the biologist Paul Ehrlich’s classic book The Population Bomb. Echoing the 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus, Ehrlich worried that the world could not sustain its population growth and mass famines were inevitable.

So-called “deep ecologists” also put forward arguments akin to the “corona is the cure” poster. One prominent deep thinker has said “…the chief cause for the impending collapse of the world - the cause sufficient in and by itself - is the enormous growth of the human population: the human flood”.

What next for XR and the climate movement?

Extinction Rebellion has often been criticised for feeding similar anti-human or racist narratives, and now faces enormous strategic challenges.

Thus far, the movement has relied on mass gatherings to pressure governments, and the next obvious flashpoint was the major UN climate summit scheduled for Glasgow in November 2020. However, given the pandemic, it’s not clear whether this summit will happen at all (in Glasgow or elsewhere). Coronavirus has already caused XR to cancel protests and demonstrations may not attract as many people even when they do become possible again. Time will tell if XR will be able to adapt.

The “corona is the cure” posters may be a sincere expression of misanthropic thought by someone who considers themselves to be part of XR. They could also be an isolated instance of freelance trolling. But perhaps most worryingly, they may instead be part of a more prolonged pushback against XR and the climate movement more generally.

A report in Vice points to lots of circumstantial evidence that an anonymous white supremacist group called the Hundred-Handers is regularly spoofing XR imagery and may be behind these posters. More evidence will be needed, but it seems that far-right groups may be seeing an opportunity post-coronavirus to turn temporary travel restrictions into permanent ones, and temporary surveillance of unwelcome people into a stronger, more racialised state.

Regardless, many environmentally-minded white people would do well to understand that environmental racism exists, and that the rhetoric of “conservation” and “saving the planet” does not only come from what is called the left.

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