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Content Warning: The following essay contains material some people may find disturbing, including gun violence, mass shooting, the mention of the name of the El Paso Shooter, and a link to his manifesto.
n August 3, 2019 Patrick Crusius opened fire in a crowded WalMart, killing 22 people and injuring 24 more. The killer left behind a manifesto in which he justified his actions as a defense against the “replacement” of white Americans by Latinx people, a threat exacerbated, he explains, by climate change.
Crusius writes: “I just want to say that I love the people of this country, but god damn most of y’all are just too stubborn to change your lifestyle. So the next logical step is to decrease the number of people in America using resources. If we can get rid of enough people, then our way of life can become more sustainable.”
This is a chilling line of reasoning, an explicitly genocidal defense of a white supremacist notion of which humans matter – his “fellow Americans” – and which are callously disregarded as a dangerous and expendable threat.
So here we are, forced to reckon with the imminent possibility of a violent, white nationalist environmentalism emerging in the United States. It sickens me to think that this man justifies his murders on such coldly calculative grounds; at one point he flatly suggests that “ambitious” programs such as a universal basic income and universal health coverage “would become far more likely to succeed if tens of millions of dependents are removed.”
The environmentalism of this manifesto begins with an assertion that is not unique to the far-right: Americans are not willing to change their ecologically destructive way of life, therefore any viable climate solution must proceed accordingly. It has been more common, both in mainstream environmentalism as well as the growing techno-optimistic side of the left, for this foundational premise to lead towards hopes for technological fixes that can “decouple” the American way of life from its negative climatological impacts. The ecomodernist Jonathan Symons, in a recent article in The Breakthrough Journal, provides a good example:
“The fundamental feature of our dilemma is that climate change is produced by the same technologies that enable human development. If rich-world people like me and Naomi Klein spend our time endlessly critiquing the wealth, power, and consumption of the hyper-privileged, then we’ll continue to neglect our own privilege — privilege that we have no right or grounds to deny to the rest of the world. Worse, we’ll continue failing to mobilize around a political program of technological innovation that might finally decouple emissions from human development — surely the only just response to the twin challenges of global inequality and climate change.”
For thinkers such as Symons, as well as a handful of high-tech optimists identifying with the socialist left, renewable energy figures central to visions of ecologically and politically viable futures, followed by a panoply of lesser though still important clean technologies. So for instance, were solar power and electric vehicles to replace coal and internal combustion engines, it might allow for growth in material prosperity that does not come at the expense of additional emissions. The problem of course, is that these technologies don’t exist in a vacuum; they still depend upon extracted resources, they still enable a wide range of resource- intensive activities and related technologies. In other words, whether you charge your cell phone with solar power or coal power doesn’t change the amount of extracted and refined metals inside the device, or the economic relations planning for its obsolescence in as short a time as possible.
In this regard, these clean technologies simply expand (in cleaner, greener ways) what already exists, as opposed to representing any fundamental or transformative shift away from an unsustainable world-ecology. When used to justify these sorts of ecomodernist futures, clean technologies are meant to improve, but never to replace, what remains a fundamentally resource-intensive, waste-producing economy, which has only ever been possible due to the abundant availability of energy dense fossil fuels and a wide range of petro-chemical feedstocks that support environmentally destabilizing patterns of mass industrial production.
This approach to tech-fix environmentalism amounts to what I’ve written about elsewhere as a commitment to planetary improvement, an environmental logic that centrally places its faith in “non disruptive disruptions,” or technologies that promise to change everything while effectively changing nothing, so that someone like Symons can espouse a climate politics that doesn’t risk unsettling his preferred way of being. Symons rather explicitly makes this clear, admitting that, “Personally, I find the idea of global convergence on a low-energy future depressing.”
As the failures of decoupling through a renewable energy expansion of what remains a fundamentally fossil-fueled form of abundance mount, an ecofascist alternative is likely, dangerously, to make more sense to more people struggling to preserve their fragile, heteropatriarchal, white petro-subjectivities.
Here then I wonder: will the callous Malthusian “truth” of Crusius’ manifesto – that there are too many people who want access to too few resources – be uniquely associated with a far-right fringe so as to distance the much broader liberal public from the already-unfurling implications of techno-optimistic inaction? At stake here is a politics that accepts the reality of climate catastrophe while remaining unwilling to address the ecocidal (and inequitable) social structures of capitalism. While Silicon Valley rolls out new forms of impossibly realistic meat, promising a continued future of fast food indulgences decoupled from the unsustainability of industrial-scale animal slaughter, a recent IPCC report details global food and water insecurity at catastrophic scales. There is a reason that the indigenous scholar Kyle Whyte calls climate change “intensified colonialism.” It is not to mark a future made possible if explicitly genocidal ideas take hold, but to name the violence of a settler futurity in which implicitly genocidal ideas have been, for centuries now, the accepted norm.
Crusius tells the world that the American way of life is unsustainable, and therefore we need less Americans. This, for him, justified the mass murder of people of color - most of whom were Americans - he admits - but just not his kind of Americans. His actions were vile and extreme, even more so for their racist justifications, and the gap between this man and the politics of US environmentalism is incredibly wide, to say the least. However, and I recognize I’m at risk of making an overly general statement here, but any environmental politics that holds onto and tries to maintain and improve this American way of life leaves the door open for the Crusiuses of this world to offer their murderous sociotechnical solution. This is not to conflate the two, but to more humbly suggest that we all must actively acknowledge and grapple with a through line of settler colonialism, or what Denise Ferreria da Silva calls the “transparent subject of whiteness,” that must be recognized and rejected as a toxic presence in environmental struggle.
We don’t simply need to wait for technologies that can clean and green this fossil-fueled way of life, we need politics - social and technological, utopian and pragmatic - that are willing to work against and beyond this petrocultural configuration, and to acknowledge its deep commitments - or even inseparability - from the violent abundance of colonial extractions and the promises of settler futurity.
Already, alternative visions of an ecosocialist future are putting forth indigenous land repatriation, alternative paradigms of sociotechnical development and visions of abundance built around reciprocity and care that move us well beyond the possessive individualism, techno-utopianism and fragmented individualism of late capitalist culture. Faced daily with the unavoidable reality of accelerating climate disruption, these are the voices that offer me some semblance of sanity and hope that once settler futures are off of the table, a just future remains possible.