Ted Kaczynski lived in the wilderness of Lincoln, Montana for 25 years before he was apprehended by federal authorities. His decades-spanning mail bomb campaign found its genesis in his witnessing deforestation efforts surrounding his isolated home. All told, Kaczynski was responsible for three deaths and 23 injuries. At the behest of the FBI, The New York Times and the The Washington Post both published Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and its Future, a searing polemic against everything from overconsumption to leftist failings at conservation.
1989 was the year history ended, when liberalism was affirmed as the political system to end all political systems. It was also the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when 11 million gallons of crude oil spilled from a tanker bound for California. By the time of Kaczynski’s 1996 arrest, much of that oil remained, and the many species affected did not begin to recover until the mid-2000s.
Kaczynski’s bombings started in 1978, a year before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. By the time of his arrest in 1996, America’s environmental nerves were becoming frayed. Bearing witness to an unending stream of global industrial accidents was quickly becoming the norm. Unlike cause celebres forced into the public consciousness by Timothy McVeigh or the Weaver family, like land sovereignty or government overreach, Kaczynski’s appeal was much broader. Liberalism may have bested competing worldviews, but it had exacerbated the tendencies that led to increasingly visible degradation.
As environmentalists are fond of saying, nature preservation ought to be a nonpartisan issue. The tendency toward industrialization, though, supersedes party lines; a force that softer activism has been incapable of slowing, but one that extremity, infrequently tried, might be able to harm.
What’s most notable about Kaczynski was how readily accepted his ideas were. Academics seized upon his anti-civilization musings, lumping him in with the likes of Marx and Rousseau for his revolutionary spirit. Of course, there were the crimes themselves to contend with, and there was much hemming and hawing over the tactical implementation of those ideas. But when the world was, and is, so clearly emitting its dying breaths, perhaps a little radicalism might be just the thing to spur tangible action.
What all this amounted to, though, was not lasting change or even a surge of eco-terrorism, but rather anarcho-primitivism’s fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps John Zerzan gained a few new audience members. But by and large, Kaczynski, (still alive and publishing to this day) had slipped into quiet notoriety. Manhunt, a recent Netflix series, portrayed him in a surprisingly benign manner, solidifying his cultural status: not quite a folk hero, not quite a villain, but rather a figure destined to be framed as the crazed radical with a few salient ideas.
As the world’s ecosystems continue to degrade, however, a resurgence of interest in Kaczynski’s ethos has spurred the development of an increasingly out-and-out ecofascist movement. That term, once a pejorative for everyone from environmental terrorists to college campus leaflet distributors, has taken on a decidedly academic bent since the semi-popularization of the field known as “deep ecology.”
Philosophically speaking, deep ecology centers around the notion that life should not be measured against its utility for humans. Advocates typically argue for a significant restructuring of living conditions, in a manner that privileges no organisms. While this might sound like a kind of radical veganism, a growing contingent have come to advocate for a much more extreme methodology. Overpopulation, it’s argued, is the primary cause of our impending ecological collapse. The solution is simple: decrease the population. The most straightforward means of accomplishing this is some sort of wide-scale genocide.
Placing definitive characteristics on ecofascism and deceleration is challenging given the variety of approaches to preservation. Deceleration can certainly take the form of quasi-left anarcho-primitivism, but given the tidy manner in which concerns about immigration and overpopulation tie together, it’s more popular with the right. It is largely anti-liberal, anti-civilization and tactically pro-terror and violence. These beliefs will often have a fair bit of white nationalism in the mix as well.
Kaczynski was very much a product of his surroundings. States like Montana, Idaho and Wyoming are quite distinct from the rest of the country. Montana, for one, is the fourth largest state and the 44th most populous. It’s mountains, national parks and huge stretches of highway between pint-sized towns.
Conservation truly is a largely bipartisan issue in these parts. While state legislatures are more than willing to sell public lands to developers, environmentalism is a value learned through decades of fishing, hunting and backpacking. It’s a largely conservative area, but everyone unites when it comes to the forests. It extends far beyond universities and center-left advocacy.
Academic deep ecology, too, has ties to Montana; Foundation for Deep Ecology Ecological Projects Director George Wuerthner either once lived or still lives in Helena, the state capital. In that same town, during the 2017 legislative session, the capitol building was literally packed to bursting with activists protesting, among other things, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s perceived efforts to sell off the state’s public lands.
Bureaucracy is far from the only immediate threat. Western Montana is periodically devastated by intense wildfires that last for months at a time. For most of the summer, the air is visibly thick with smoke. Those who travel by foot can be found wearing face masks and respirators. Plenty of those fires are started by humans — at least half of them, according to NBC Montana. Conditions become more desperate each year; the upcoming fire season is expected to be one of the worst yet, due in large part to this past spring’s excessive rainfall.
There’s a history of direct action, too. Two activists from nearby Seattle and Corvallis, OR were arrested in 2016 for shutting off oil pipeline valves. The former was 22, but the latter was a 64 year-old man; far from the stereotypical enviro-justice warrior. In 2013, 4,800 captive mink were released in Twin Falls, Idaho; 12 years earlier, the Earth Liberation Front claimed responsibility for spiking trees in the Nez Perce National Forest in protest of a timber sale.
For those who aren’t activist-minded, protecting the integrity of the upper mountain west means keeping outsiders away. A half-joking disdain for visiting Californians more tangibly came home to roost in recent statewide debates over refugee resettlement and the adoption of sanctuary city policies, which more than a fair share of Montanans decried.
But even beyond this, the throughline is a need for isolation. Montana, in particular, ascribes to a kind of libertarian creed: everyone has the right to be left alone. It’s why abortion is so consistently protected, and it’s why gun laws are some of the laxest in the nation. Historically, its politicians on both sides of the aisle have espoused antiwar rhetoric that is as anti-imperialistic as it is isolationist; Republican Jeanette Rankin and Democrat Burton Wheeler both espoused such ideas, and both were progressive in many respects. Environmentalism is on the same path that suffrage was for Rankin, increasingly compatible with reactionary ideals.
It’s that isolation that also attracts the more extreme. The aforementioned Weaver family called the community of Naples, ID home, and it was there that the infamous Ruby Ridge incident occurred. Randy Weaver, an occasional friend of the Aryan Nations groups that operated in the area, saw his wife and son killed by federal agents in a protracted and messy standoff that also saw the death of a US Marshal. The community rallied around the Weaver family, and the incident quickly became emblematic of the fight against perceived federal overreach.
There are towns like Naples all throughout the upper mountain west. So, too, are there extremist groups like the Aryan Nations. Atomwaffen materials were recently distributed throughout Missoula, MT inside Easter eggs, and white nationalist activity is notorious in the Flathead Valley, where Pioneer Little Europe was founded.
What this means for ecofascism and deceleration is, well, anything. These ideologies are still, by and large, nascent, and neither have exactly entered the public consciousness. But they also just so happen to play off the swath of insecurities held by residents of the upper mountain west and the broader Pacific Northwest. What is to become of this place I consider my homeland? What will I do when my favorite fishing spot is sold to Berkshire Hathaway? Is there anything I can do to stop it?
At the same time Kaczynski was constructing bombs in his tiny cabin, ecofascist Pentti Linkola was growing ever more radical. An erstwhile ornithologist, Linkola’s writing on the environmental crisis started nonviolent and progressed toward genocidal tendencies.
Amerika.org writer Brett Stevens, in his introduction to the 2009 edition of Linkola’s essay collection Can Life Prevail?, notes recurring themes in Linkola’s work, particularly a pronounced sense of nationalism. Linkola’s deep sense of pride in his homeland is a feeling well-known to Montanans in particular, who settle arguments with the simple mention of the phrase “I’m a fifth-generation Montanan.” It’s a pride the borders on nationalism, which quickly turns into hyperlocal protectionism at the mere mention of any outside threat, whether big government, refugees or So-Cal urbanites.
Linkola’s environmentalism, Stevens writes, is inextricably linked to a love for his native Finland; but not, however, for Finland’s culture. As he wrote in the 1989 essay “Humanflood”:
“What essential new contribution is brought forth to the world by hundreds of human societies similar to one other, or by the hundreds of identical communities existing within these societies? What sense is there in the fact that every small Finnish town has the same choice of workshops and stores, a similar men’s choir and a similar municipal theatre, all clogging up the earth’s surface with their foundations and asphalt slabs?”
Quickly moving past comparatively tame screeds like “For the Fatherland and Human,” Linkola adopted an extreme ideology and plan of action, advocating for halting most immigration, introducing rats and invertebrates to human diets, ending most business and instituting birth licenses. He’s notorious in Europe, known for once having said that if had the opportunity to press a button that would kill millions of people, he would. While his methods are perhaps more extreme than they’d take credit for, his motivations are remarkably similar to those outlined by the Foundation for Deep Ecology.
Linkola lives as a model for his own beliefs, having given up his nascent biology career in favor of making a living as a fisherman. As of the English publication of Can Life Prevail?, he eschews all modern technology save for a cell phone. His lifestyle is a deep ecologist’s daydream. No mainstream environmentalist will admit to supporting his work, but he gives voice to a thought that has crossed every green’s mind at some point: Wouldn’t things be better if there were far fewer of us?
Those questions can quickly lead to the answers provided by Latin American ecoterror groups like Individuals Tending Toward the Wild (ITS), who started as anti-civilisation anprims and quickly progressed into something much darker. The ITS has claimed responsibility for its fair share of murders, a far cry from the Zerzan leanings they had only years before. In the group’s eighth communique, whereby they claim responsibility for attacks on Mexican nanotechnology researchers, the group shares a declaration of purpose:
“We deny a life imposed on us by the system that dictates that we must walk mindlessly, obligatorily obeying orders from large organizations … and people outside our inner circle. We negate the artificiality and we cling to our past as Warriors of the Earth who cling to our darkest instincts of survival, and although we know we are civilized humans, we are awake and we claim ourselves as fierce individualists in TOTAL WAR against all that threatens our nature and Wild Nature that is left.”
If the more rural areas of the northwestern United States exhibit one trait, it is a disdain for assimilation. Conforming to modernity would be against the rural values that dominate this landscape. It is where traditionalism reigns supreme, but unlike the American South that traditionalism is centered largely around the landscape. Centuries of robust agribusiness has a nasty way of infusing geography and livelihood.
Ruby Ridge, Ted Kaczynski and, to a lesser extent, the Malheur standoff are far from isolated incidents. They indicate a trend toward right-wing rural uprising, to various degrees of viciousness. These are figures who have a deep familiarity with their environment, ones who, for various reasons, care greatly about the space they inhabit. It’s not so much the motivation that matters — the issues the aforementioned were confronting were more anti-government in nature, and could even be characterized as counter-cultural, if we can agree that liberalism is the dominant cultural force.
But traditionalism has a funny way of ingratiating itself with such concerns. The forces of industrialization and production will always collide with conservation and environmentalism. That schism will only widen as the terms become more dire; those who are committed to a lifestyle of solitude in the nature world will be forced to pick a side before long. All the pieces are in place; isolationist sentiment manifesting in anti-immigration rhetoric, fierce loyalty akin to nationalism and an intense privileging of the natural world.
Ecofascism, more than any other right-wing movement, is destined for a surge in popularity the closer we come to environmental collapse. The earth’s ecosystems may very well collapse before liberalism, and when they do, the effects will be felt much more acutely. The anti-civilisation movement is tapping into dark territory that eco-activists won’t discuss publicly, but will stay up late thinking about. When it’s America’s forests being razed, plenty will start taking those ideas more seriously. There is nowhere in the country where this is more likely to happen than the upper mountain west, a location that borders, and in some cases mixes, with the white nationalist ideal of a Cascadian white homeland. As peaceful protest proves itself increasingly useless, more people will consider taking extreme measures. More politically agnostic environmentalists may find solidarity with the enemy of their enemy, even if that enemy happens to be quite racist.
How this might happen remains to be seen. There are two possibilities: first, existing militia movements might adopt environmentalist rhetoric as a recruitment tactic. Second, a series of Ruby Ridge or Malheur-esque incidents spurs collective action in the more rural parts of these states. If you’re not convinced of the extent to which a Montanan might be willing to go to defend his land, you are clearly unfamiliar with the Castle Doctrine.
The size and respectability of such a movement and such action won’t reveal itself for a small while. But eventually, industrialization will find its way to the Last Best Places in the country. Any resistance is unlikely to stop that process, but it’s guaranteed that some of those immediately affected won’t go down until their gun barrels have cooled.
Michael Siebert is a writer based in Missoula, MT. Follow Michael on Twitter @michaelcsiebert.