A few minutes before 22 people were murdered in a Walmart in El Paso on 3 August, in a now-familiar ritual of American gun violence, a manifesto was uploaded to the fringe online forum 8chan (tagline: ‘Embrace infamy’). For the most part, the four-page screed parroted standard white supremacist themes, warning of a ‘Hispanic invasion’ while fretting that the 8chan community might find its contents a little ‘meh’. Yet the manifesto’s title, ‘The Inconvenient Truth’, suggested a second fixation. Its opening lines praised the lengthy statement published on the same forum five months earlier by the New Zealand mosque attacker – a self-proclaimed ‘eco-fascist’ – and it name-checked an unexpected source: Dr Seuss’s 1971 environmentalist children’s fable The Lorax.

The link between environmentalism and racism isn’t new. Romantic advocates of pristine ‘wilderness’ often sought to exclude poor and native populations. Madison Grant, who helped to found the Bronx Zoo, Glacier National Park and the Save the Redwoods League, was also the author of the eugenicist tract The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Hitler called the book his ‘bible’. A green wing of the Nazi movement saw vegetarianism, organic farming and nature worship as the natural corollary of the party’s racial obsessions. Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists advocated a return to the land. After the war, the BUF’s agrarian adviser, Jorian Jenks, was one of the founders of the Soil Association.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, overpopulation became an obsession. The Death of Tomorrow (1972) by John Alexander Loraine boasted ‘a foreword by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh’. (Contemplating the human ‘population explosion’ 15 years later, Prince Philip wrote that he was ‘tempted to ask for reincarnation as a particularly deadly virus’.) The notorious opening passages of Paul Ehrlich’s bestselling The Population Bomb (1968) depicted Delhi as a hellscape, and predicted that hundreds of millions would starve to death.

Garrett Hardin’s essay ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ appeared in Science in December 1968. Declaring that ‘freedom to breed is intolerable’, Hardin argued that only coercion could prevent ecological collapse. In a later paper, he coined the term ‘lifeboat ethics’ for the response he urged on the United States: let the poor of the world drown. He went on to lobby for nativist immigration policies and cuts to food aid, regularly publishing in far-right magazines; the Southern Poverty Law Center lists him as a white nationalist. ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ has been cited more than 40,000 times.

Fifty years on, there is once again a flood of books with such titles as The Uninhabitable Earth. In mobilising collective action, the green mainstream has a problem: it has become tied to the ‘rootless ideology’ of globalism, exemplified by the Paris Agreement, as Paul Kingsnorth has argued. Environmental movements may be more successfully powered by ‘a sense of place and belonging’, as with the pipeline protests of the Standing Rock Lakota and Dakota or the tree-hugging Chipko movement in the Indian Himalayas. Left-wing environmentalists increasingly look to Indigenous politics for inspiration, foregrounding authentic attachment to land and place.

An earlier generation of environmentalists rejected such an emphasis on place and authenticity as irrevocably tainted by its links to Heidegger, and by extension Nazism. As they might have predicted, contemporary appeals to land and indigeneity have provided fertile ground for a return to racist lifeboat ethics. Anders Behring Breivik, who murdered 77 people around Oslo in 2011, insisted that the rhetoric of indigenous rights was ‘an untapped goldmine’ for white nationalists: ‘We are no more terrorists than Sitting Bull.’ Breivik himself was a climate denialist, but the nascent eco-fascist movement has found it easy to fuse his ethnic chauvinism with environmental concerns. ‘Green nationalism is the only true nationalism,’ the Christchurch attacker wrote.

Right-wing extremists have seized on the opportunity to claim to speak, like Dr Seuss’s Lorax, for the trees. In some of the dimmer corners of the internet, the Pine Tree Gang – fond of using an arboreal emoji on Twitter, until journalists smelled them out – demands a white separatist homeland in the northwestern United States. Their founding philosopher is ‘Uncle Ted’, the Unabomber; they circulate such slogans as ‘Save trees, not refugees.’ Quoting both Mosley and Heidegger, the alt-right publisher Greg Johnson asserts that saving the ecosystem requires saving the white race. The Ringing Cedars of Russia, a religious homestead movement named after a series of novels, combine racial myths with environmental mysticism.

Most of these are tiny, fringe movements. But there are signs that green and white nationalism is scaling up. In the recent European elections, France’s National Rally claimed that ‘borders are the environment’s greatest ally.’ Marine Le Pen declared that someone ‘who is rooted in their home is an ecologist’, whereas those who are ‘nomadic … do not care about the environment; they have no homeland’. Across the Atlantic, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson has claimed to be against illegal immigration because it ‘produces a huge amount of litter’, while the far-right pundit Ann Coulter has suggested that Americans must ‘choose between a green America and a brown America’. In India, public tree planting and reverence for sacred groves reinforce the government’s majoritarian claim that only Hindus are the nation’s true stewards.

The political left has spent decades urging the right to take climate change seriously. We may live to regret it. Faced with the climate crisis, what kind of political solidarities can transcend the appeal of nativism and nation?