With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.
Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.”
With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.
The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.
Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019),Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”
Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.
However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.
In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance
Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020).
Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008).
Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020).
Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”
Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.
— (2020). Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council. United Nations. July 24, 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14260.doc.htm (accessed on May 8, 2021).
Vicedo-Cabrera, A. et al. (2018). “Temperature-related mortality impacts under and beyond Paris Agreement climate change scenarios.” Climatic Change. 150(3), 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2274-3
Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.” “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”
Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.
Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”
Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.
He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”
The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other.In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?
That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.
Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles
Heidi Hart:Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?
Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.
In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.
Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?
Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.
Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.
An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument
Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?
Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.
I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”
So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.
We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.
Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well
Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?
Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.
Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?
Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News? There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.
One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.
When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse
Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?
Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].
Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.
Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?
Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.
Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?
Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.
Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out
Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.
Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.
A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”
Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.
Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.
Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.
Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.
This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result.
If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?
The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.” Sarah Jaquette Ray(2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.
This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.
Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish(2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12).
When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it.
Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future. As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.
Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well? Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that.
We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute.
One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89). We want to learn what we are missing.
Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24).
If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine):
Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up
long-concentrated plankton. Humans
consuming a million summers a day.
Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams.
Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.
Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.
Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.
Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.
Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.
Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.
Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”
Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.
After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.
Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.
The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.
Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?
We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.
When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.
At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.
The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.
Heidi Hart:Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?
Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.
Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?
I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.
‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’
Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?
That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.
Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.
What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.
Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?
I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?
So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.
‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’
Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?
I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …
When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?
But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.
It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.
Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?
That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.
For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.
When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].
‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’
They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.
Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?
Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.
So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.
I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.
Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?
That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.
‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’
However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.
Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?
I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?
I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.
Hart, Heidi. (2021). “Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism.” Populism & Politics. March 9, 2021. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). https://doi.org/10.55271/pp0005X
This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.
In the Netflix series Tribes of Europa, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors has retreated to the forest, where they live “happily” and “in harmony with nature,” to quote the opening voiceover (Netflix, 2021). These “Origines” live protected, or so they think, from the other tribes warring over the former European territories, decimated by an unexplained global and technological meltdown in 2029. The sudden crash of a drone-like object in the forest drives the series’ central conflict, resulting in heavy bloodshed between the Origines and rival tribes.
The Origines call their forest home “Refugium,” fear another tribe called “Crows” (a name that would carry obvious racist overtones in the US), and utter lines such as “We are the voices of the forest, the blood of the earth, and the breath of the wind.” These lines ring painfully close to Blut und Boden Nazi rhetoric. The Origines’ unironic use of the word “Heimat” is also problematic, in light of the Nazi fetishization of that term, for all the critical cultural work around it in the decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung,or reckoning with the past, in Germany (Krug, 2018). In one of the opening scenes, the young protagonists’ dancing to a contemporary indie rap song gives a sense of forgetfulness of that past, as does the series’ Game of Thrones-like aesthetic of violence and torture (see Gjelsvik and Schubart, 2016).
According to series creator Philip Koch, the “shock” of Brexit led him to develop this dystopian-utopian fantasy (Scott, 2021), with its “ruin porn” (Riley, 2017) of abandoned concrete structures and geodesic dwellings in the woods. The idea of a destroyed European Union certainly haunts the series, but on a deeper level, it echoes back-to-nature fascinations on both the political right and left, especially in a time of ecological collapse. The nativist idea of retreating to one’s roots, to an imagined state of Indigeneity, or to an impossibly “virgin” wilderness (see Solnit, 1994: 52) may seem like a 1970s hippie fantasy and is certainly nothing new, but it has gained traction as ecological anxiety and COVID-driven outdoor adventurism have led more privileged humans to bake sourdough, take to the road in converted vans (Anderson, 2020), and watch screen fantasies of a simpler life in the woods.
This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.
The Real Barbarians?
COVID-era Netflix offers another pagan fantasia to viewers more or less confined indoors. Like Tribes of Europa, Barbarians is informed by Game of Thrones and the recent explosion of “Viking TV.” This series also valorizes forest-dwelling as Heimat and, in its real-life historical setting, portrays the Romans as vicious colonialists who not only demand unreasonable tributes from their Germanic neighbors but behead and crucify them as well. Blonde tribal teens appear as innocent, playful, and fierce when necessary. They joke about human sacrifice and fear the wolves on the outskirts of the forest, a repeated motif that comes uncomfortably close to contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming the “wolf” of fairy-tale infamy in Germany (Bennhold, 2019). A key moment occurs when the young heroine Thusnelda takes the heraldic eagle from the Romans, making it a tribal icon – with its inevitable future on the German flag.
The invading Romans come across as the “true” barbarians here, fitting paradoxically into liberal, post-colonial critique as much as they do into nativist, pro-Germanic narrative. Meanwhile, the series’ torchlit ceremonies and marches recall atavistic Nazi aesthetics, as does its “primeval forest” or “Urwald” setting, not far from that of the 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald, or Eternal Forest, which has found a new generation of fans on white supremacist websites. Both that film and the Netflix series focus on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a weighty historical moment for the German far right (see Winkler, 2015). Though Barbarians writer Arne Nolting claims that part of the series’ goal is to reclaim this material, Teutoburg Forest remains a pilgrimage site, and the battle that took place there is “an ideological rallying point” for white supremacists (Rogers, 2020). German Studies scholars have expressed concern, via social media threads (see Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum, 28 October 2020), that this series also promotes essentialist thinking and toxic masculinity.
Some neo-pagans claim that, although their Germanic ancestors (literal or figurative) may have beaten back the Romans in 9 A.D., they have long been a “conquered people” (Lindenschmidt, 2015) under Christianity, and their practices constitute anti-colonial resistance. Combined with the idea that “when they destroyed paganism, Christians made exploiting nature possible” (Kaplan, 2016: 27), a Romantic inheritance with appeal to the ecologically conscious left, especially in light of many evangelical Christians’ support of Trump in the US, neo-paganism’s ideological tangle remains complex.
Roots and Purity
Concepts of ancestral “roots” and “unspoiled” countryside have a long and tangled history, too, especially in German culture, and not just because of these ideas’ appeal in stereotypically xenophobic, rural communities. The still-influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi party, extended his love of the literal forest to ideas of rootedness in language and existence itself, “not simply a rootedness in the soil, in the past, or in the tradition from which one ‘views’ the world” but “something concealed, mysterious, and chthonic whose meaning lies hidden beneath the surface of the earth” and that validates the “destiny of a Volk” (Bambach, 2003: 19). His quasi-poetic wordplay shows a fascination with etymology as a depth-seeking practice: where is a German word’s most profound origin, and what does that mean for a nativist sense of identity? In his 1951 “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Heidegger traces the German verb “bauen” (“build”) vertically back to the Old High German (and Old English) “buan,” or “to dwell in one place;” he then relates this word horizontally to “ich bin” (“I am”), linking dwelling with Being itself (Heidegger, 1977: 324-325).
This close link between home and existence, and the fascination with what lies underneath the ground, continues to surface in German literature and film, and not always with ill-considered tribal forest scenes. For example, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s critically sensitive take on the Heimat problem, Heimsuchung(Visitation or Haunting, 2008), treats historical trauma in a way that reverberates in one piece of land over centuries, with particular attention to the years during and after the Second World War (Goodbody, 2016). The philosophically informed and ecologically terrifying Netflix series Dark invites viewers to askwhy a cave in the woods can have such a strong pull, and how much damage humans can do to each other once inside it.
One writer responding directly to the toxic aspects of Heidegger’s nature-driven thought is Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her unsparing critiques of Austrian “whipped cream” culture and the violence it sugarcoats, for example in her novel Die Klavierspielerin or The Piano Teacher(Hanssen, 1996). Jelinek’s 1991 spoken-text play Totenauberg (its title a play on the name of Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin) includes an “old man” character (Heidegger) and a “middle-aged woman,” meant to stand for Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who was Heidegger’s sometime lover and, in what gave their relationship an excruciating twist, a Jewish antifascist who, with her teacher Karl Jaspers, coined the term “banality of evil” when writing about the Nuremberg trials (Diner and Bashaw, 1997).
Totenauberg is not just a dialogue between these two historical figures, though, as Jelinek also includes skiers and other performance athletes, some hunters and men in Tracht (traditional Bavarian dress), and even a few cheerleaders. As the “old man” laments that nature has simply become an image for those who consume it (in a statement foretelling today’s outdoor selfie culture), the other nature enthusiasts lay their claims to “authentic” enjoyment of the woods and mountains (see Jelinek, 1991: 25). This text shows, uncomfortably, how outdoor recreation can be as much about ego as eco-awareness, and how concerns about the purity of that enjoyment cross conventional political lines.
Current Nativist Tensions
In our present moment, the appeal of purity culture across the political spectrum (from the vegetarian “QAnon shaman” who helped to storm the US Capitol to left-leaning consumers of organic-only foods), can lead to a strange nexus of virtue and violence, onscreen or otherwise. Adherents of “conspirituality,” a blend of New Age beliefs and conspiracy thinking, include anti-vaxxers on the right and left as well. The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements” (Richards, in Haslam, 2021: 8).
Recently in North Carolina, a group belonging to what the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “the neo-Völkisch hate scene” (Ball, 2021) purchased a church building, causing anxiety and pain for their Black neighbors. Claims of “ennobling” pagan practices rooted in white European heritage, along with an ideology of “healthy, active lifestyles” and rules about racial purity (Ball, 2021) are painfully familiar in a part of the US that is deeply split about reckoning (or not) with its own racist past. Fans of Wiccan culture and “Viking rock” bands such as Wardruna may argue that neo-pagan fascinations are not in themselves dangerous, but the agendas of groups like North Carolina’s Asatru Folk Assembly (Ball, 2021) show how thorny such attractions can be.
In Norway, a recent self-examination by a Viking re-enactment blogger has caused intense debate. After years of cultivating craft skills and appreciation of pre-Christian culture in Scandinavia, Ingrid Falch found herself implicated a few too many times in right-wing propaganda. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “blood and swords sell more tickets than cooking and spinning wool. Better keep it speculative, cheap and easy – reproducing the stereotypes making sure that ‘most people’ won’t see the difference between you and the Q-shaman” (Falch, 2021). For all the efforts to puncture too-earnest Norse aesthetics with humor, as in the Norwegian TV series Norsemen and Ragnarok, this “beast I can’t control” has led Falch to leave the re-enactment community. The resulting online repercussions have been brutal at times, often reinforcing ideas of white supremacy and misogyny associated with neo-pagan culture (Falch, 2021).
Problems of Appropriation
What about Indigenous fantasies relating to cultures not one’s own? In the US, wealthy suburbanites have been purchasing Dances with Wolves-style tipis ever since that film appeared in 1990. A recent manifestation of this trend is the use of traditional tipis as “après ski” pods for COVID distancing (see Compass Rose, 2021), which often leads to exactly the opposite effect, as libertarian business owners make free with Native traditions for entertainment. On the other end of the political spectrum, shamanic training groups, Vision Quest trips, and festivals such as Burning Man have long attracted educated, left-leaning whites (Aldred, 2000). “White guilt” over several centuries of Native genocide and oppression may contribute to this phenomenon, but much of the attraction seems to be toward spiritual nourishment in an age when religion is often associated with right-wing politics (Olomi, 2019).
In Germany, a generation raised on Karl May’s Western adventure novels has contributed to ongoing romanticization of Native American culture (Schumacher, 2020) that may seem innocent of right-wing politics but fosters damaging stereotypes. In addition, what many “Indian hobbyists” in Germany may not know is that Nazi researchers studied US discriminatory policy toward Native peoples in order to hone the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Miller, 2019). Meanwhile in southern Sweden, Wild West fascinations have become more complicated, as a theme park called High Chaparral became a camp for 500 Syrian refugees in 2015 (Loewinger, 2017).
White appropriation of Native symbols and rituals is of course different from European seeking of ancestral “roots” in the primeval woods, but it is equally problematic. A drum circle intended for specific cultural or medicinal purposes, for example, can become an excuse for vague trance-like experiences when used in a New Age setting, and shows disrespect to the very Indigenous practices it takes as inspiration (Johnson, 2020). Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations project has created an open call for Indigenous voices to address this issue, with additional attention to cultural practices in the COVID era and in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement (Keene, 2020). As Mark Rogers has put it, “Everyone wants to be an Indian, but nobody wants to be an Indian,” referring to Paul Mooney’s comment about “everyone want[ing] to be Black” without the “experience of being part of that culture” (Rogers, 2014, 2018).
Debate is ongoing in the US about sports team mascots named for Native peoples, or using racist nicknames (National Congress for American Indians, n.d.); traditional clothing imitated in fashion, such as feathered headdresses (Wood, 2017); stereotypes in Hollywood films, from Pocahontas to one-dimensional warrior figures (Little, 2021); appropriations in the classical music world, as in quoting or imitating traditional songs stripped of their cultural purpose (Davids, 2019); and academic writing about Indigenous topics without consulting those who know them best, an issue of concern outside the US as well (Arbon, ed., 2010). With the regenerative agriculture movement gaining traction around the world, Indigenous voices are also speaking up about the need to give credit for soil restoration practices where it is due, and to reconsider value systems driven more by “commodification” than by the land itself (Mangan, 2021).
Ecofascism and “Avocado Politics”
To return to the problem of purity culture, back-to-nature advocates across the political spectrum often cite a wish for “unspoiled” wilderness (Cross, 2018), meaning outdoor spaces free of others except themselves. Especially in the age of COVID, this wish has resulted in what is now termed “wreckreation” in the American West (Wilkinson, 2020), with overcrowding and trash becoming increasingly problematic, though the political stakes for public lands protection are very real (Hart and Soyer, 2021). As an avid hiker in the mountains where I live, I admit to getting up at 5 a.m. to walk my favorite trails without the noisy, selfie-obsessed crowds I have come to resent – and this reminds me, uncomfortably, of Heidegger’s comment in Elfriede Jelinek’s play, about his own resentment of nature becoming only an image. I have felt smug triumph when reading about quieting oceans during the pandemic, and I have laughed at recycled satire about overpopulation and climate destruction (The Onion, 2011).
In a more innocent time, I might have been a deep ecology adherent, following the ideas of Arne Næss about the natural world as more than “natural resources” and about the need to acknowledge human-nonhuman interconnectedness. These ideas do in fact permeate most ecological discourse in academia, with reference to Donna Haraway’s metaphor of tentacle-like entanglements among species. While I draw on this thinking in my own work in the environmental humanities, I am also aware of the dangers of wishing for a post-human utopia, however tempting the overgrown cities Alan Weisman evoked in his 2007 book The World Without Us. For all my own selfish wishes to have a mountain trail to myself, my long study of Nazi nature-cult thinking has made me wary of ideologies that promote purity and idealistic “harmony with nature.”
Ecofascism, the belief not only in racial but also in environmental purity, posits that the world really would be better off without us – or at least without the darker-skinned climate refugees a warming planet will increasingly push out of their homes. This nexus of ecological and racial purity, an ideology that also fosters “deep” connections with the natural world, complicates conservationist thinking, as young activists are discovering amid the hype surrounding COVID-era planetary recuperation (Newton, 2020). What this ideology ignores, too, is that the first wave of climate refugees is the wealthy, who can afford to flee the California wildfires or rising coastlines in Florida (Bakkalapulo, 2018), and as “climate gentrification” (Hu, 2020) pushes marginalized people further away from affordable housing.
Though many deep ecologists disavow far-right, eugenics-driven thinking about population reduction for the planet’s sake (Drengson, n.d.), that movement’s tendency toward oversimplified ideas of purity, depth, and harmony has contributed to ecofascism insofar as it ignores political misuses of “nature” in the past century. Murray Bookchin (1999: 203) expresses it this way: “Vital as the idea of “interconnectedness” may be to our views, it has historically often been the basis of myths and supernatural beliefs that became means for social control and political manipulation.”
Likewise, immersive ecological artworks and “primeval TV” series such as Tribes of Europa can promote a feel-good sense of environmental connection, rather than encouraging activism that takes environmental racism into account, too.
Over the past decade, ecofascism has become a draw in far-right recruitment, linking deep-ecology ideas of humans as “parasites” with its own anti-immigrant sentiment (Lamoureaux, 2020). White supremacist shooters from Christchurch to El Paso have also identified as ecofascists (Lawrence, 2019). In Austria, “avocado politics,” in which brownshirt ideology hides in green political agendas (Gilman, 2020), has led to an unlikely alignment between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens. Austrian agitator Elfriede Jelinek’s work seems as urgent as ever, with its uncomfortably close-to-home portrayals of right-wing immigration policies (Dege, 2016). Her Heidegger- and purity-culture critique Totenauberg would be a timely piece to revisit as well.
Conclusion: Contamination, Curiosity, and Reciprocity
While back-to-nature idealism can certainly foster environmental care, it has a dangerous side, too. Narratives such as the currently popular series Tribes of Europa and Barbarians promote a nativist vision of paganism that veers close to the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazism. Purity culture in eating and recreating, along with the seeking of “unspoiled” nature, however understandable, can feed this ideology across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, appropriating Indigenous cultural practices works as a wishful-thinking kind of nativism that bypasses the real experiences of Native peoples who have suffered oppression and genocide. And as deep-ecology values spill over into ecofascism, this form of environmental activism becomes not only anti-immigrant but also anti-human.
How to untangle the toxic threads that have found their way into ecological consciousness, from Martin Heidegger’s nativist philosophy of “rootedness” to today’s Viking re-enactment controversies? One approach is to allow for what some environmental artists call “contamination,” the practice of refusing purity in one’s work in order to accept that the planet is irrevocably compromised and, at the same time, to salvage what is left. Some artists work intentionally with waste and pollution, as in John Sabraw’s work creating pigments from contaminated streams in the UK (Surugue, 2019), while others, as in the Parallel Effect group’s recent Vigil for the Smooth Handfish, work with rituals for grieving a planet already in collapse (Audrey Journal, 2020).
In more practical terms, many conservationists are becoming less focused on restoring an “ideal” state of nature and more concerned with managing the messes that already exist. Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Gardens (2011) has won an enthusiastic following but has created controversy, too, as it goes against conventional wisdom about removing non-native, invasive plant species. At the same time, Marris outlines concrete practices for rewilding and assisted migration, such as building wildlife bridges over highways. Climate adaptation thinking has its dangers, too, in terms of normalizing catastrophe; as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018: 71) have noted, “simply to claim that ‘society must adapt’ is to represent social responses to climate change […] in a way that makes these adaptations seem natural and functional.” That said, the crisis at hand does not allow the luxury of wishing for a pristine future based on an imagined, “harmony with nature” past.
An ethos of planetary care that does not fall into nativist or purity thinking requires critical evaluation of environmental media (even in the form of Netflix entertainment!) and of one’s own attitudes (the wish to have the forest to oneself, for example). One aid in this can be learning about Indigenous approaches to land and culture without disrespectful appropriation. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), written from her dual perspective as a botanist and as an Indigenous woman learning about her own heritage, has become a guide for environmental thinking that views other species as kin but does not sentimentalize those relationships. Curiosity and humility are key, so that humans can ask, “Who are you?” instead of “What is it?” (Kimmerer, 2013: 42) and can appreciate what we see and hear without needing to own it (see Robinson, 2020).
In many Indigenous cultures, reciprocity is also essential to co-regulation with the land. One way to express this is to ask for consent before entering a forest, logging it, or building a home there, a practice Native communities in the US are now asking others to honor, especially as oil and gas interests threaten traditional lands (Danesh and McPhee, 2019). In more personal terms, reciprocity can be a form of gratitude. As Kimmerer puts it, “What could I give these plants in return for their generosity? It could be a direct response, like weeding or water … Or indirect, like donating to my local land trust so that more habitat for the gift givers will be saved” (Kimmerer, 2020). If nativism is a kind of narcissism, critical curiosity and reciprocity can break the mirror we humans seem to want to project everywhere, and so that we can see the world around us as a subject, not the object of our deep, dark forest dreams.
(*) This article follows up on topics of neo-paganism in the Feb. 3 commentary “Music and the Far-Right Trance,”calling critical attention to nativist themes in entertainment media, problems of cultural appropriation, and ecofascist strains in environmental activism.
Bambach, Charles. (2003). Heidegger’s Roots: Nietzsche, National Socialism, and the Greeks. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Biel, Janet. (1999). The Murray Bookchin Reader. Montréal: Black Rose Books.
Erpenbeck, Jenny. (2007). Heimsuchung. Frankfurt a. M.: Eichborn, 2007.
Gjelsvik, Anne and Rikke Schubart. Editors. (2016). Women of Ice and Fire: Gender, Game of Thrones, and Multiple Media Engagements. London: Bloomsbury.
Heidegger, Martin. (1977). Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper & Row.
Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.
Mann, Geoff and Joel Wainwright. (2018). Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. London: Verso.
Marris, Emma. (2013). Rambunctious Gardens: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World. London: Bloomsbury.
Richards, Barry. (2021). “Leaders.” In: S. Alexander Haslam, Editor, Psychological Insights for Understanding Covid-19 and Health. London and New York: Routledge.
Robison, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.Winkler, Martin M. (2015). Arminius the Liberator: Myth and Ideology. Oxford: Oxford
Open lands foster a sense of community. You gather memories as you hike, hunt, climb, picnic, or drive a truck to work each day, but what happens if, all of a sudden, the federal government decides to expand or restrict the public lands where you live without asking your opinion?
For rural workers in the American West, the phrase “wilderness protection” usually means less “access” – their own key word – to trails for off-road vehicles, less freedom to graze cattle and hunt wild game, and fewer jobs in the energy industry. On the other side of the divide, environmental activists call for government protections of non-motorized trails, water and air quality, and wildlife habitats. Though people in both groups resent development in open spaces, especially as wealthy second-home owners move in (Bowlin, 2021), the fight over how public lands can be enjoyed is often bitter. As Indigenous tribes push back against oil and gas leases and over-tourism, after several centuries of profound loss, the picture becomes even more complex.
One of most pressing Western land controversies is over the Bear Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in Utah. The region contains “breathtaking geological spectacle(s), knife-edged ridges, sleek white domes, lush valleys and cloud shaped rock formations” (Nordhaus, 2018). This dramatic geography is familiar to many Europeans, especially in Germany, where visits to Utah’s redrock country have been a part of popular fascination with the American West since Karl May’s adventure novels, however “unrealistic,” were “the German counterpart to ‘Harry Potter’ or ‘Lord of the Rings’” in the first half of the twentieth century (Spröer, 2016).
But Escalante is more than a rich space for speculation, whether in books or in mineral leases. The region contains many areas that are sacred to Native tribes, in southern Utah and beyond, with Bears Ears an important place in migration narratives of Zuni pueblo in New Mexico as well (McLeod, 2019). The area also includes many archeological sites that contain important cultural resources (Eaton, 2001) “from small lithic scatters to large highly complex village sites” (Enote, 2021). Though exploring the area’s deep sandstone canyons is popular with tourists, “the mesa tops are covered with great houses, ancient roads, underground pit houses, villages, and shrines” that may not be obvious to untrained eyes (Enote, 2021).
Bears Ears National Monument was created under the Obama administration in 2016, giving the region’s famous twin buttes (the “ears”) and surrounding Native heritage areas a new level of protection. This was the first time a coalition of tribes had been able to request and give input into a national monument. These groups have traditionally been underrepresented in decisions about the lands they have occupied for thousands of years. A Ute tribal chairman, Shaun Chapoose, told reporters at the Washington Post, “We knew exactly what was within that geographical boundary. We knew the gravesites, we knew where the artifacts were, we knew where certain plants and herbs grew” (Fox et al., 2019).
Less than a year later, Donald Trump moved to reduce the monument by 85 percent, raising the fury of wilderness advocates and Native tribes, while winning approval from local residents whose populist bent favors limited government if it interferes with hunting, grazing, and mining rights (Ban, 2017). Driving through San Juan County where Bears Ears National Monument is located, you can still see “NO MONUMENT” bumper stickers and yard signs. Although different leadership groups had been included in Obama’s decision-making process, many local residents felt that their way of life and livelihood had been ignored. Some tribal leaders opposed the monument as well, feeling that it would invite too much outdoor recreation in sacred sites (Buhay, 2017).
With Trump’s extreme reduction of Bears Ears, opening it to oil and gas leases, wilderness advocates felt that their own concerns had been completely disregarded. In December 2017, 5,000 people gathered at the Utah State Capitol to protest the Trump administration’s move (Wood, 2017). This protest included scientists, activists, families, students, community leaders, and representatives from a rare coalition of tribes, some with their own history of land disputes: the Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Zuni Pueblo (McLeod, 2019). The crowd fell silent as Carl Moore, chairman of Peaceful Advocates for Native American Dialogue and Organizing Support, danced in a traditional feathered headdress and a gas mask (Leonard and Cortez, 2017).
Though the Bears Ears controversy has been particularly fraught, Utah has been the focus of “divisive unilateral national monument decisions” for the past quarter century (Nordhaus, 2021). In the US, “business and development interests are often privileged” due to a long history of “maximizing production of resources from ecosystems” (Grumbine, 1994: 11). But a new era of public lands protection, with Native voices included in policy making, is taking shape today. The Biden administration is expected to reverse the shrinking of Bear Ears and Grand Escalante national monuments. Supporters of wilderness and Indigenous land protections take particular comfort in Biden’s nomination of the first Native secretary of the Interior, Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico.
Back in San Juan County, local leaders have expressed new willingness to work with the tribal coalition but are still wary of governmental “overreach” (Douglas and Brewer, 2021). As has long been the case in the American West, every community has a strong sense of belonging in the land. Descendants of the white Latter-day Saint settlers in the Utah desert, with their own migration story of fleeing persecution, often resent the “VanLife” nomads and second-home newcomers who do not understand what it cost their ancestors to survive here, or what it meant to them symbolically. “Mormons didn’t mind the desert,” Rebecca Solnit writes. “It reminded them of the Old Testament” (Solnit, 1994: 52)with its story of exodus from Egypt.
At the same time, many desert recreation enthusiasts resent those they perceive as being less respectful than they are. The Bears Ears area’s most recent claim to fame is not actually its “monumental” controversy but the strange appearance of a monolith resembling the one in Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: Space Odyssey. As images of the monolith went viral in December 2020, so did COVID-frustrated tourists’ efforts to find its remote location. Within days, the Martian-looking landscape had been trashed by Instagrammers rushing to document themselves as much as the shiny object that, it turns out, had been there since 2016. Suddenly one night, the monolith disappeared. This was the act of a wilderness enthusiast who could not bear the crowds and left the words “leave no trace” – as, ironically, his own trace in the desert (Wells, 2020).
Perhaps the pain that locals or wilderness advocates feel when the federal government changes public lands policy, or when “outsiders” want to use the land, can serve as a reminder of what Native tribes have experienced for centuries. When white settlers arrived and displaced Indigenous communities, they saw the land as a thing to be owned. They did not appreciate how deeply they violated relationships with a life-giving landscape meant to be known, where, as the Zuni say, “as we live in the present ways of our people, we live also within the realm of our ancestors” (The Zuni People, 1972: 180). As one wave of newcomers disgruntles the next, perhaps some can step back and imagine what has come before and what will remain, or not, for future generations.
Grumbine, R. Edward. (1994). Editor. Environmental Policy and Biodiversity. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.
Miller, Daegan. (2018). This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Solnit, Rebecca. (1994). Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press.
The Zuni People. (1972). The Zunis: Self-Portrayals. Translated by Alvina Quam. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
This commentary considers aspects of populism that Greta Thunberg’s climate movement exposes and transforms. Dr. Hart also considers Thunberg’s “spectrum superpower” and the force of activist community-building in a climate crisis that is already here.
In today’s polarizing politics, xenophobic populism is usually seen as a distant opposite of grassroots progressive movements. The reductive binary of evil twin/good twin is tempting, too, but what happens if we look at ways in which a youthful climate movement mirrors and transforms populist action? The double or Doppelgänger, when it appears in literature and film, is both familiar and other, in Freud’s sense of the uncanny (Glynn, 2016). If viewed through the mirror-lens, Thunberg’s role as an unexpectedly charismatic leader of a viral movement can seem as populist as that of autocrats who whip up nationalist feeling in their followers. What her work does, though, is to reveal the power of soulful activism to transform group dynamics for an outward cause rather than toward self-preservation. Though her position as a white female from a wealthy Nordic country has overshadowed less privileged young activists (Mernit, 2019), Thunberg’s movement is a useful case study in how populist impulses can speak truth to power, to use the old Quaker phrase, rather than sow fear and hate.
Climate populism, which “tends to take ‘the people’ to be a global subject rather than a national project” and has led to the “quick uptake” of projects like the Green New Deal, can certainly risk dilution (Bosworth, 2020) and denial of Black and Brown community concerns (Coleman, 2021). At the same time, it holds potential for what Geoff Mann and Joel Wainright have called “Climate X,” a future vision that does not compromise endlessly for the sake of neoliberal planetary “management” on the one hand or surrender to autocratic oppressions on the other. This vision calls for “a rapid reduction of carbon emissions by collective boycott and strike,”[i] very much in line with Thunberg’s project. Though the authors recognize the “impractical” idealism of transnational, anti-capitalist revolution, from the neoliberal perspective, they hope for class struggles and local, Indigenous-informed efforts to “subtract” communities from damaging power systems,[ii] taking inspiration from the “palpable urgency”[iii] in mass movements like Fridays for Future.
Thunberg’s unexpected “superpower” (Rourke, 2019) in her Asperger’s has been remarkably effective in focusing the Fridays movement on specific, concrete goals rather than on feel-good platitudes. In its “ghost” role as a suppressed aspect of normative European culture,[iv]the autism spectrum exposes gifts buried under assumptions that “human” means “neurotypical” (Morris, 2004). In a recent essay by Thunberg’s mother, related to the family’s new book,[v]Malena Ernman recounts Greta’s years of facing bullying at school while refusing to eat at home. After being diagnosed with “high-functioning Asperger’s” and beginning to talk about her humiliations at school, Greta found her vocation in the very dissonance she experienced, painfully, between modern comforts and planetary disease. “She saw what the rest of us did not want to see. It was as if she could see our CO2 emissions with her naked eye” (Ernman, 2020).
Having been raised in a well-educated family, with an opera singer mother with the luxury of posting “sun-drenched selfies from Japan” – and later regretting this (Ernman, 2020) – Thunberg continues to call attention to the blind privilege of travel as consumption and to corporate powers whose carbon footprints dwarf those of even the most profligate tourists.
Thunberg’s insistence on uncompromising truth about global warming, her sailing to the US for the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019 (Brady, 2019) despite criticism for white yachting privilege (Parker, 2019), and her ability to stare down Donald Trump (Rosen, 2019) have led not only to internet fame but to an equally viral youth movement as well. Online spread via YouTube videos, memes, and tweets is common to both far-right and climate populism, but younger activists disrupting autocratic power structures bring an open, 1960s-like energy to their efforts (Ellis, 2019).
Thunberg has certainly inspired Gen-Z activists to TikTok their way to organizing Black Lives Matter events and embarrassing Donald Trump at a largely empty rally (Herrman, 2020). At the same time, she does not take credit as a sole actor, citing her own inspiration from the Parkland shooting survivors in the US and from earlier activists, many unrecognized because they did not come from the global North and “many of whom had been raising the climate alarm for years.”[vi] Thunberg also recognizes that although the Fridays movement may have started with her lonely, quiet presence outside Parliament with a sign, it has grown through “the work of thousands of diverse student leaders, their teachers, and supporting organizations.”[vii] The recent documentary on Thunberg has received some negative reviews, not because it adds to scoffing from the right or left, but because it valorizes her as one savior figure in a movement that needs multitudes, a critique with which she would agree (Bradshaw, 2020).
The power of the pause – refusing to attend school once a week, holding one’s ground despite the bullying Thunberg now faces on a global scale – has proven inspiring to many in its own right. In a world that runs on an assumption of “endless growth” fueled by extractivism,[viii] simply stopping normal routines can open up a space for questioning what “normal” even is. The COVID year has brought to light what privileged humans deeply fear: failure of the drive for more stuff, more speed, more work, more travel, more development, more corporate comforts. In this very stoppage, though, is hope for a planet already in crisis. In her recent video, released close to the Paris Agreement’s five-year anniversary, Thunberg reflects on how little “big speeches” have done to halt carbon emissions and enact the “system change” the planet needs (Common Dreams, 2020). Her own speeches may be small in comparison, but they serve a crucial role in calling for a halt to the mythology of endless growth.
So, what comes next? A 2020 document published anonymously in France, more radically subverting individualist privilege than Thunberg’s movement does, holds that neither calling out governments on the one hand nor altering consumer habits on the other is enough to address climate crisis at its depth. This text, titled “Re-attachments” (Anonymous, 2020/2021) does call for strikes and direct action (along the lines of Mann and Wainwright’s “Climate X” and Thunberg’s stoppages) but adds another antidote: an ecology of “presence” rather than “absence.”
This means that instead of feeling helpless in the face of mass extinctions and lost habitats, we can mourn these while fostering commitment to new forms of community in an already compromised world. “In order to develop constituent forms of material and political autonomy, we need to communize spaces, land, wastelands, buildings, churches, houses, and parks” (Anonymous, 2020/2021). Learning from Indigenous practices of ecological co-regulation (in a respectful way, without cultural extractivism or appropriation) can aid in developing stronger bonds between humans and other species, too. Greta Thunberg’s model of quiet, searing clarity has been a giant step toward mobilizing climate action; the communities her work continues to form, in contrast to the chat rooms of fear-based populism, may be its greatest gift.
[i] Mann, Geoff & Wainright, Joel. (2018). Climate Leviathan. Verso Books. p. 160.