Book Review: Ecology Contested by Peter Staudenmaier

Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics Between Left and Right

Author: Peter Staudenmaier

Publisher: New Compass Press, September 2021

Review by Blair Taylor

             Longtime ISE faculty member Peter Staudenmaier’s new book on environmental politics, Ecology Contested: Environmental Politics Between Left and Right, was published in September of 2021 by New Compass Press (available here). The book is comprised of five texts which analyze the politically ambiguous nature of environmental politics via a social-ecological lens, examining the history of right-wing environmentalism, the Unabomber, animal rights discourse, and the return of blood and soil politics in Europe and North America. In an era of resurgent right-wing environmentalism and ecofascism, the text makes a timely intervention into contemporary debates and marks an important contribution to the field of social ecological. 

            In the first chapter, “The Politics of Nature from Left and Right,” Staudenmaier draws on his expertise as a historian of German and Italian fascism to give a historical overview of right-wing ecology and how this legacy has shaped contemporary green movements. In many ways, the text builds on the argument and themes from his classic 1994 book co-authored with Janet Biehl, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, updating it for a present moment wherein ecofascism is mentioned in the media on regular basis. Yet the real value of this brief historical survey is to clarify why seemingly obscure historical figures matter, by underscoring the need for a social and emancipatory analysis of ecological problems. Staudenmaier warns, “The discontent and dislocation that capitalism systematically produces can spin off in myriad directions, and many of them are emphatically not emancipatory” (p. 28). In other words, the enemy of one’s enemy is not always your friend. We must be vigilant in countering environmental themes being used to support oppressive political solutions targeting refugees, immigrants, people of color, and Jews.  If we seek “a world that is ecologically vibrant and socially dynamic,” Staudenmaier argues, “we will need to think carefully about how we respond to the ambiguities of environmental politics” (p. 28).

            The second and longest chapter, “A Revolution Against Technology,” examines the political ideology of Ted Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber. While some within the ecology and anarchist movements have heralded “Uncle Ted” as an inspirational figure, Staudenmaier highlights the profoundly conservative assumptions behind his reductive anti-technological worldview and situates them in a longer historical context of right-wing critics of technology and modernity. While such critiques have primarily been lumped in with the left for the past 40 years due to their ecological overtones, Staudenmaier notes that this line of argument has historically been the province of the right, part of a long tradition that rejects urbanism, cosmopolitanism, and political emancipation in favor of tradition and a hierarchical “natural order.” The chapter deftly illustrates how Kaczynski’s simplistic binary between pristine wilderness on one side and a humanity poisoned by technology on the other reinforces the notion that humanity is inherently anti-ecological, and reproduces the colonial mindset that justified dispossessing indigenous people to conserve a “wild nature” devoid of human inhabitants. Staudenmaier in turn critically interrogates why so many in the anarcho-primitivist, post-left, and green anarchist milieux have expressed such affinity for the Unabomber. This analysis recalls Bookchin’s own prescient warnings about problematic tendencies in the “radical” environmental movement, from Malthusian populationism in deep ecology circles in the 1980s to the antihumanist impulses of primitivism and green anarchism in the 1990s. The current popularity of both Kaczynski and deep ecology on the far-right has proven a point many found overstated: that an undifferentiated critique of technology and “decadent” modernity is a reactionary rather than liberatory politic.

            The third chapter, “Disney Ecology,” further problematizes the idea of nature as a place that is defined by the absence of humans. Echoing the previous chapter on Kaczynski, it exposes the patriarchal and racist assumptions undergirding forms of “wilderness conservation” that portray nature as a “virgin” sanctum that must be protected from humanity, including the indigenous peoples who have lived in and shaped such “untouched wilderness” since time immemorial. Countering this pervasive mythos, Staudenmaier proposes that by “building on social ecology’s insights, radical environmental activists can help create a coherent alternative to Disney Ecology: an ecological humanism” (p. 120).

            In the fourth chapter, “Ambiguities of Animal Rights,” Staudenmaier offers a forceful critique of what he argues are anti-ecological and anti-humanist assumptions embedded in animal rights discourse. Despite its disclaimer that “there are a number of legitimate reasons to abstain from eating meat or oppos[ing] cruelty to animals,” the text’s stark rejection of vegetarianism and veganism has generated controversy within social ecological circles since its initial publication in 2003 (p. 122). Staudenmaier’s argument is multifaceted, spanning philosophical and strategic concerns. As the most polemical chapter of the volume, in what follows I will try to briefly summarize the main arguments before offering some critical observations.

            At the most general level, Staudenmaier argues that animal rights discourse offers “simple but false answers to important ethical questions” (p. 122). Firstly, it is fundamentally anti-ecological because it prioritizes individual animal lives at the expense of a species- or system-level ecological perspective. Philosophically, the demand to respect the “rights” of individual animals is predicated on a distinction of sentience he finds unconvincing, and which typically constructs a problematic moral equivalence between humans and other animals. By targeting a generalized human supremacy dubbed “anthropocentrism,” the discourse of animal rights focuses our attention on a monolithic “humanity” that obscures the reality of our differentiated hierarchical social world. Staudenmaier notes how this emphasis on individuals and rights on one hand, and undifferentiated groups on the other reproduces many of the same problems endemic to western liberalism. 

            Staudenmaier also takes aim at the political and strategic limits of the consumer-driven politics of political veganism. This emphasis on diet and ethical consumption, he argues, is an inescapably individualist political strategy which both misunderstands the nature of capitalist power and reinforces its consumerist logic while simultaneously flattering its mostly white, middle-class base. He describes how veganism often exacerbates “the seemingly inherent self-righteousness of food politics, where puritanism is often mistaken for radicalism,” to the point of moralizing against even the subsistence animal-based diets of indigenous people and farmers in the global south (p. 122).

            The last strand of Staudenmaier’s critique centers the political ambiguity of animal rights discourse, describing historical continuities between Nazi enthusiasm for strict animal welfare policies to the embrace of veganism within recent far-right groups. These cases drive home the book’s broader point that environmental politics, veganism included, is not inherently emancipatory. It also serves as a reminder that “animal rights sentiment has frequently served as an entry point for rightwing positions into left movements.” 

            However, one might also turn this formulation around. Staudenmaier begins by targeting the uncritical adoption of the western liberal tradition by animal rights advocates. Citing Marxist and postcolonial critiques of liberalism, Staudenmaier accuses animal rights discourse of promoting a “bourgeois ethics” that is “steeped in capitalist values” and which “reinforces the liberal assumptions that are hegemonic within contemporary capitalist culture” (p. 123). The very first capitalist value listed is the “notion of interests.” This makes it all the more jarring that the critique of animal rights which follows is explicitly grounded in the allegedly irreconcilably opposed interests found in nature. He writes, “conflicting interests are part of what accounts for the magnificent variety and complexity of the natural world; the notion of granting equal consideration to all such interests is incoherent” (127). Much as liberalism pits the individual in eternal conflict with society, this narrative assumes that concern for individual animals and the survival of species and ecosystems must be mutually exclusive aims, where one is subordinated to the other. Here, the Marxist critique of liberalism has been replaced by the penultimate bourgeois trope of nature as competition and self-interest. A few pages later, previous critiques of dualism have been supplanted by a description of nature as a rigid binary consisting of two worlds, “one interhuman and social, and the other interspecific and ecological” (p. 135).

            Although Staudenmaier calls for adopting a dialectical approach to this topic, his critique of animal rights draws on the language of classically liberal, capitalist, and dualist ideas. This reveals that the crux of his argument is not that animal rights is bourgeois, but that it is anti-ecological. In other words, it is unnatural. In hierarchically elevating ecological collectivities over the lives of individual animals, his arguments resonate with the organicist philosophy of the antimodernist right. As a historian of European fascism at Marquette University, Staudenmaier is well aware that the critique of individual rights as contradicting a natural order has been a defining theme of the right since the French Revolution, and carefully restricts this discussion to the nonhuman world. Yet the language of his account—the defense of competition as naturally “conflicting interests,” the “magnificent variety and complexity” of this differentiated natural world, and the characterization of “granting equal consideration” to those competing interests as “incoherent”—is striking nonetheless in its symmetry with classic defenses of human inequality (p. 127). Elsewhere, Staudenmaier approvingly quotes food writer Michael Pollan’s observation that veganism is a “quintessentially urban ideology” that reflects “a detached and distorted relationship to the natural world” – another core trope of right-wing ecology. While discussing veganism as cultural imperialism in the context of Inuit hunting practices, Staudenmaier uses sociobiological terms unusual for a social ecologist, stating the Inuit’s “ecological niche is predicated on hunting animals.” This seems to implicitly downgrade Inuit and other subsistence cultures to the static moral and material realm of animals. Here and elsewhere veganism is presented as a case of “food privilege,” but it could just as easily be asked why greater choice, freedom, and post-scarcity should be reserved solely for western “elites,” as in the case in our current society. Shouldn’t expanded choice of material goods and ethical options be democratized and universalized, and debated in terms that do not surrender to the cultural relativism Bookchin strongly criticized?

            Another strand of Staudenmaier’s critique focuses on the paternalism of animal rights and its presumption to speak on behalf of non-human nature. Yet it is unclear why social ecology’s avowedly anthropocentric environmental ethics—based on the premise that we have no choice but to interpret what is best for nature—is any less paternalistic. Staudenmaier goes on to argue that consideration of animal rights inevitably “degrades … the humanist impulse.” While there are undoubtedly misanthropic versions of animal rights, isn’t it equally possible that the expansion of ethical consideration to non-humans could instead deepen concern for humans? And by this logic, why wouldn’t the consideration of equally mute ecological interests not pose the same risk? The previous chapter on Kaczynski’s terror campaign shows this danger is certainly not unique to animal rights. The idea that considering other species degrades the status of humanity not only mobilizes a common right-wing argument against both environmentalism and animal rights, but it also threatens to undermine the very normative basis of social ecology. Although Staudenmaier’s overarching aim is to argue against the right-wing and antihumanist presumptions of animal rights discourse, along the way he advances arguments for local peoples adapted to their biological niche, the defense of cultural tradition, critiques of “detached” urban life, and a view of nature as a place of irreconcilably opposed interests. These themes contrast awkwardly with the rest of the book.

            The final chapter is the previously unpublished essay “Blood and Soil Revived? Ecological Politics on the Far Right.” Starting with recent ecofascist attacks in Christchurch and El Paso, the chapter looks at the international revival of ecofascist ideas in a wide variety of right-wing movements. It discusses the enduring impact of the Tanton Network of anti-immigration environmentalists in the U.S., and the influence of Garett Hardin, influential author of the Neomalthusian screed “The Tragedy of the Commons.” It examines a variety of right-wing environmental organizations in Europe, ranging from early organic farming groups like the Soil Association, the ecofascist English Array, and Third Positionism in the UK, to the embrace of green nationalism by Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party, the Italian fascist group Casa Pound, the Nordic Resistance Movement in Scandinavia, and the Ringing Cedars movement in Russia. Despite their differences, these groups are united by a constellation of themes that constitute a revived blood and soil ideology that includes a return to a mythic past, an obsession with race and population, a masculinist ethos, anti-urbanism, affinities for pre-Judeo-Christian pagan and esoteric spiritualities, a fear of cultural decline and dislocation, and desires for a cleansing return to nature.

            At just under 200 pages, the book’s analytical and political punch far exceeds its size. As the first book-length ecological treatise from a social ecologist in some years, it should be read and discussed widely. Staudenmaier rearticulates and updates many of the core themes that make social ecology distinct, especially the insight that concepts like ecology, just as much as anticapitalism and antistatism, are not automatically emancipatory but also available for right-wing interpretations. He warns that as ecological crisis becomes more obvious, we must remain vigilant against the false solutions offered by the dark history of ecological movements. The book concludes with a hopeful call to action: to effectively fight the far-right’s dystopian ecological future, we must offer a more attractive political vision of an ecological society that is also democratic, egalitarian, and free. 

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