Exhibition notes/ transcript:
Around mid-March this year images began to appear of what were said to be the canals of Venice returning to their “natural” state. Crystal clear blue water, so clear you could see tiny fish swimming underneath, white sand, swans floating in pairs nuzzling for food.
Some claimed that dolphins had come back to the city. One of the first tweets featuring these images was liked close to a million times, retweeted almost three hundred thousand times and it gave rise to a new wave of fascination with nature and what happens when people ‘disappear’.
Of course, it turned out that these images weren’t real. The photos of the swans were taken by the nearby island of Burano, which is around 4 miles outside of the city of Venice and a common spot for swans to congregate. The videos of dolphins were actually recorded off the coast of Sardinia, an Italian Island in the Mediterranean over 480 miles away from Venice. And as experts pointed out, the clarity of the water in the canals did not mean that the water itself was cleaner, it simply showed that as the lockdown forced the reduction of boat-traffic, the sand stayed on the floor of the canal, rather than being churned up by the motors which usually made the water murky.
The fact of this fakery did not stop the proliferation of media posts and stories celebrating the purer nature that we discover when the world seemingly is brought to a halt.
What I want to talk about is the cost of this nature, why this cost has always been there, and why, fundamentally it requires the sacrifice of people most minoritized within white supremacist-capitalist systems namely Black people, Indigenous people, brown people, disabled people, poor people, and elderly people, amongst others.
This cost is contentious to talk about because there is also no denying that the lockdown of most industry and travel has changed our environments in ways that are beneficial. For instance, less cars and planes means that air quality is increasing in some major cities, making the air easier to breathe. There has been a noticeable audibility and visibility of birds and other animals in urban spaces which is a sign of shifting ecosystems. The limitations on human movement has also meant that people are becoming more attentive to, and appreciative of, the green spaces in their own areas. It has long been noted that access to green space improves health. Whether or not these changes are short or long term is unknown at this point. But what is for sure is that there is an imaginary that in order for the world to heal, people must be abolished.
So, we are the virus. We are ruining the world. When we die, the world can flourish. Or something like that. Whatever way you want to put it, it’s an eco-fascist take. As an ideology eco-fascism puts the perceived wellbeing of the earth, nature and animals over everything else. It brings together neo-Nazism with environmentalism and is based on this idea that everything was better when everyone stayed in their place – its anti-migration, anti-multiculturalism, pro-racial and ethnic segregation. It is of course totally Eurocentric and bound up with fantasies of parochial Nordic and Germanic histories before industrialisation. Picture the white blonde Aryan children frolicking in the meadows and you’ve pretty much got it. It's based on the idea that nature is something that we are not a part of, its this beautiful, wild, exotic sublime form of life that can only be tamed or succumbed to. That it's somewhere “out there”. Not human. The same mindset that is found in the identification of Black and Indigenous people as antithetical to whiteness. As non-human. But still as less than nature. The nature revered by white supremacy is bound up with the dispossession and genocide of Black and Indigenous peoples, it is not a kinship with the land, it is its possession.
This probably isn’t at the forefront of peoples minds when they say they enjoy hearing the birdsong every morning, they probably aren’t consciously channelling eco-fascist sentiments. But it’s important to think about what kinds of ideas underpin this fantasy of nature “healing”, what are its legacies, so to speak. Fundamental to understanding it is asking the question: who has to die so the world can live? Who must be sacrificed? In all of this, let’s not be ambiguous about the “we” that gets invoked. “We” is not white people, rich people, or healthy people. “We” is whoever it is that is seen as surplus. This is at its foundation an unequivocally racist and eugenicist argument. Eco-fascist movements have been calling for the reduction of populations for decades. To their minds, the less people there are, the less heavy the strain on natural resources. The problem is that the people they want to disappear are not, generally speaking, the people who are using the most. Rather than seeking to eradicate the inequalities of hyper capitalism and colonial extraction, where resource rich countries are mined to destruction by coloniser countries like the UK, Australia, America, Germany, China, Russia, and Canada for their oil, minerals and gas, they want Black, brown and Indigenous people to die. Disabled people, Jewish people, poor people, transgender people, old people. All the people who aren’t “valuable” to society, those are the people who there are "too many" of. Those are the people that need to be sacrificed so that nature can heal.
Eco-fascism is a white supremacist take on environmentalism. It’s the alt-right of environmentalism. Not all environmentalism is eco-fascist but all white environmentalism needs to interrogate the kinds of fantasies it draws from to ensure it staves off the fascist creep. The fantasies that nature is healing, humans are the virus is drawing from are not benign, that is to say, they are not innocent. And there are definitely echoes if not outright sympathies within many contemporary environmental groups today.
As I said, for most people this isn’t what they think of when they see that meme. It's not what they think of when they watch a 24 hour goose cam or videos of sheep overtaking McDonalds or stories about eels in zoos forgetting what humans are. I know this because I also watch those videos and I laugh and I cheer on the sheep and the geese. It's not what I think of when I realise how quiet it is without planes and cars, and I am grateful that the air is clearing up. Its not what I think of when I sit in a tree with my kid. At the same time, though, I know it's there, and you barely have to scratch the surface to find it. I was born on land brutally stolen from Aboriginal people, a genocide in every conceivable way that is ongoing. We all live on lands with histories and for me when I think of those very earnest nature is healing memes, they are haunted by this.
This haunting comes out in other ways. Pretty much right after the Venice canal tweet came out, social media was inundated with counter memes making fun of the original tweet.
While these mainly exist to poke fun at misinformation, to my mind they also unintentionally do a lot of conceptual work. Through parody they highlight what gets to be nature, and what is man-made. By making us think about, even for a moment, hang on what does “nature is healing” even mean, they destabilise the idea of nature as somewhere “out there” untouched by humans, uninhabited by humans. They say “nature is not dolphins swimming in a canal because people have isolated themselves indoors, nature is a bunch of Boris bikes chucked into the Thames”. I don’t know if these responses actually function as a critique of humans, or a comment on the ways in which humans and environments adapt to, and evolve with, one another, but they smear the moralistic narrative that the initial Venice tweet was holding onto. And that’s a necessary response - that moralism needs to be revealed, it needs to be shown for what it is. By pushing us to see nature as totally entangled with humans rather than distanced from us, these ridiculous images of lollypop flowers, or ghosts on the streets, or toilet paper on shelves, or animals doing whatever reminds us of the ways that we are a part of everything around us. And it's fitting that they were born out of boredom during a global pandemic that was most likely caused by humans bulldozing animal habitats for more plantation land. Because everything we do to the world, gets done to us. The histories we live, are the histories we repeat and we haven’t yet figured out how to relate differently to one another and our surroundings. But maybe we will. Maybe we’ll figure out that nature is us, and we are nature and in order for other worlds to be possible we have to break apart the white supremacist logics that tell us that others have to die in order for us to live. It's critical that we do.
Kanngieser A 2020 Ecofascism and Nature is Healing. With For About 2020 Festival, Heart of Glass Annual Conference, UK. 27 May-17 June.