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Appropriating the 'Legitimate': Far-Right Discourses on Ecology

Final Report Summary - FAR-RIGHTECO (Appropriating the 'Legitimate': Far-Right Discourses on Ecology)

Over recent decades, European (and other) societies have increasingly attached significance to environmental issues and have seen the rise of far-right party and non-party actors. While these areas have been intensively studied, both within academia as well as outside it, surprisingly little work has been done on their intersection. While existing analyses provide important indications, they are often rooted in research from the 1980s, lack a comparative view and/or tend to neglect differences within the far-right. Against this background, the project Far-RightEco (‘Appropriating the ‘Legitimate’: Far-Right Discourses on Ecology’) has analysed far-right environmental ‘risk communication’ (Beck) by various actors along this spectrum in Austria, Germany and Switzerland between 2001 and 2013.

Far-RightEco raises such questions as ‘How do these actors perform environmental risk communication, linking their core issues to do with, for example, opposition to immigration and the European Union to climate change, the loss of biodiversity and nuclear energy?’, ‘Do these interventions change over time; can we observe changes in how, in particular, political parties communicate environmental risk?’ and ‘Do contemporary far-right actors draw actively on historical narratives about the human-nature relation, for example by völkisch actors of the 19th and early 20th century and the 1970s and 1980s?’. In order to answer these questions, the project compiled a corpus of several thousand articles published in party newspapers as well as non-party magazines between 2001 and 2013 in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. These were divided into three sub-corpora on: first, what are commonly referred to as far-right ‘populist’ actors; second, far-right radicals; and, third, neo-Nazis. Starting from the assumption that national communities are imagined as ‘sovereign and limited’ (Anderson) and, furthermore (and generally speaking), that the far-right centres around nativism (and the exclusion of cultural and biological ‘others’), homogeneity (opposition to division/ individualism) and a more or less authoritarian world view, the investigated actors were categorised according to the extent to which their communication was more or less ideologically rigorous. Actors were then analysed individually as well as comparatively. In addition, the project draws on: interviews with prominent members of the far-right who were or are still involved in far-right environmental risk communication. Methods of analysis included quantitative corpus analysis and quantitative network analysis (structures at the level of lexis and the level of relations between actors, concepts, events and objects), as well as qualitative analysis of actual performances via discourse-analytical tools.

Environmental issues discussed by the far-right are widespread; but climate change, energy resources and issues related to food/ agriculture are especially significant matters over both the investigated period as well as the range of actors. The various ways in which relevant actors engage in environmental risk communication – even if sometimes contradictory – are connected to cultural/ ideological assumptions (instead of, for example, categories such as party/non-party and country; this has been confirmed by case studies which deal with non-German speaking countries). For example, the issue of climate change resulting from human activity is characterised by both acceptance and scepticism, or even denial. While some, primarily less radical, actors mobilise almost exclusively monetary arguments, the majority of climate sceptics justify their stance by making reference to ‘international’ or ‘cosmopolitan’ elites which, through hysteria, malice or religious zeal, undermine the national community and the common sense of ordinary folk. Neo-Nazi actors radicalise this thesis, speaking, for example, of ‘Jewish conspiracies’. Interestingly, however, both types of sceptics mobilise common sense (‘It is snowing – where is climate change?’) and abstract, statistical models in the course of their arguments. Here, it becomes clear that far-right environmental risk communication cannot meaningfully be countered by pointing to alternative data and knowledge as their narratives are part of much broader frames.

Concerns regarding energy and the transition from fossil to alternative resources illustrate similar patterns: while acceptance of alternative energy sources exists to a limited extent, there is either populist resistance to the cost or a more ideological argument to do with the destruction of ‘ethnoscapes’ (Smith). Similarly, large sections of the German-speaking far-right, in the post-1945 tradition of Lebensschutz, condemn nuclear energy, while a minority (in particular at the fringes) views it as the only means to uphold national sovereignty.

Discourses about agriculture, across the spectrum, follow a similar logic concerned with purity. Pesticides and, even more so, genetically modified organisms (GMO), are rejected as they appear to endanger that which serves as the ultimate backbone of the far-right: nature (with one major exception: a party committed to nativism which, however, has not replaced its neoliberal economic policies with welfare chauvinism). Secondary literature regularly argues that the opposition to GMO in particular is driven by hostility to foreign producers (Monsanto being the primary point of reference), though Far-RightEco illustrates that such opposition, especially on the radical fringes, is often based on much more fundamental arguments.

Regularly connected to agricultural issues is the loss of biodiversity and the stability of the nation, being viewed as a closed ecosystem which would collapse under the pressure of ‘excessive’ immigration, overpopulation and the changing make-up of this system. However, while these concerns are still voiced, the topic has lost the centrality it previously occupied.

Generally speaking, actors changed little over the period in question. With one exception, where a change in the leadership of the party did result in a move towards scepticism regarding man-induced climate change, positions vis-à-vis the aforementioned major areas of concern, climate change, energy (including alternative, nuclear and fossil resources) and agriculture (including factory farming, the use of pesticides and genetically modified organisms), remained fairly stable.

References to historical predecessors and narratives about nature and the environment, concerning are not particularly frequent but they do exist. As such, while there is historical amnesia and disinterest concerning far-right ecology within the far-right (as interviewees acknowledged), a canon exists across the spectrum. This too illustrates that most environmental risk communication by far-right actors is rooted in a specific understanding of ecology that differs from mainstream ones. Far-right understandings of human-nature relations can thus not simply be assessed as purely strategic or even self-contradictory. Instead, this analysis suggests that understanding (and reacting to) far-right environmental risk communication requires us to take its cultural/ ideological dimension, to do with ‘the natural’, purity, and sovereignty seriously, elements through which far-right thinking is linked to environmental concerns.

The results of this project offer insights into both the research community dealing with the far-right and environmental sociology, as well as the wider public, including relevant non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Concerning the former, the project provides a comprehensive, comparative analysis of a rarely investigated area, thereby offering knowledge about the link not simply between the far-right and nature/ ‘the natural’, but also specific environmental issues. While Far-RightEco has done this by acknowledging substantial differences within the far-right, it has, nevertheless, illustrated communalities across group and state boundaries. As such, the project has also attempted to raise awareness of this particular intersection and the various possibilities contemporary environmental crises provide for these actors. After all, the project has revealed overlaps – even if sometimes only superficial – between mainstream environmental and nature-protection actors and parts of the far-right. While this does not imply that NGOs propagate far-right goals, it does call for an awareness of possible connections, of arguments and of positions which, if not carefully presented, can be taken up by the far-right.

For more information about the project and further results please contact:
Bernhard Forchtner
Department of Media and Communication
University of Leicester