The Rise of Right-Wing Environmentalism

By Olsen, Jonathan | Earth Island Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

The Rise of Right-Wing Environmentalism


Olsen, Jonathan, Earth Island Journal


Throughout Western Europe, the Radical Right has put environmental ideas near: the center Of its political concerns, from the Vlaams Blok in Belgium to the Center Democrats in the Netherlands; to Italy's Northern League to France's National Front.

To be sure, not every radical right-wing party in Europe today puts environmental concerns at the center of its political discourse. Many of the newer populist radical right-wing parties combine a neo-liberal position on the economy with a hostility toward any kind of environmental protection. Such parties as the Automobilist Party in Switzerland, the Progress Party in Denmark and the Progress Party in Norway indeed could be said to represent a materialist and culturally conservative backlash against modern environmentalism.

This anti-environmental agenda is reflected as well in many radical right-wing groups in the United States, where a strong individualistic and anti-government ethos exists. Among many (although not all) radical right-wing groups in the US, environmental protection is viewed as a totalitarian attempt to suppress individual freedom by an illegitimate government in Washington.

Many parties of the Radical Right in Europe today articulate this kind of environmental world-view. Perhaps the clearest example of the harnessing of environmental concerns to radical right-wing politics can be seen in the programs and political activity of Switzerland's far-right Schweizer Demokraten (Swiss Democrats or SD) party.

Founded in 1961 under the name National Action Against the Foreignization of People and Homeland (NA), the party won 3.2 percent of the vote in national elections in 1971. The SD/NA showed some slippage in popularity in the 1970s, but the party bounced back to win 3.3 percent of the vote in national elections in 1991 and 3.1 percent in 1995. The Swiss Democrats now hold only one seat in the National Assembly but they maintain ties with radical right-wing groups, parties, and thinkers in Germany. The anti-immigrant People's Party is now the third largest in Switzerland.

The Swiss Democrats have always combined nationalist, anti-immigrant politics with ecological and social concerns. According to one 1998 study of the electoral support of the Swiss Democrats, protecting the environment was named as the third leading political issue for party sympathizers, after unemployment and law-and-order. Nearly 23 percent of SD party sympathizers thought that environmental protection should be the party's first priority.

Right-wing ecological themes have been reflected in the Swiss Democrats' party programs as well. The SD's first party program in 1963 included passages inveighing against noise, water, and air pollution and decrying growing urban sprawl and development (which the party blamed on the "foreignization" of Switzerland).

Although not significantly different in tone, the current party program has modernized this discourse with more explicitly modern environmental language. Thus, the current party program includes a section on the ecological consequences of immigration, overpopulation, and foreignization, as well as a section linking the protection of the environment to a holistic conception of ecology. The current party program argues against immigration and unchecked economic growth for ecological reasons:

The Swiss Democrats fight for a healthy, stable, and social living-space (Lebensraum) for the people of Switzerland. This goal can only be reached, however, when (1) further economic growth is avoided, immigration kept to a minimum, and environmental damage ... is repaired; (2) the economy is not an end in itself, but rather serves the true needs of the people of Switzerland.

Such ideas have not been limited to Western Europe. In Russia, for example, right-wing ecological ideas have gained greater currency since the fall of Communism and the emergence of a traditionalist-cum-Stalinist Russian nationalism.

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