Petrofueled White Supremacy

Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective | White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism | Verso | 2021

reviewed by Mac Loftin

U.S. Americans got a glimpse of a possible future in the fall of 2020. After a summer of civil unrest, wildfires raged across the west coast—five of the largest ten wildfires in the history of California, all at once. The sun hung low and blood-red as ash fell from a darkened sky. Desperate people packed up what they could and set out on the road in search of somewhere, anywhere, that wasn’t burning.

Flames and rumors alike swirled around Clackamas County, Oregon. Law enforcement officers took to social media to warn that more fires were being set by “antifa.” Heeding the call, local militias took over the highways. They set up checkpoints, stopping evacuees, sticking guns in their faces, checking IDs, recording license plates. Everything was on fire, and the social order threatened to come undone. In the name of preserving order, local authorities ceded their monopoly on violence to parastate actors, their fevered imaginations seeing the cause of disaster in familiar faces.

The world is as hot as it has been in 130,000 years. Put another way: the world will not be this cool again for a long, long time. The fall of 2020 was the coolest, the most stable, the most predictable fall that we will see for untold generations. Whatever political developments roil the future will play out in a world that increasingly looks like Clackamas County. The politics of the future are always unpredictable, but it is possible to study the past and present to try to understand how current arrangements of capital and power might react to a warming world.

This is the task Andreas Malm and the Zetkin Collective (a group of European scholars studying “the political ecology of the far right”) have set themselves in their new book, White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. The book moves on two tracks to tell two stories: first, it takes stock of the contemporary Euro-American far right and its relationship to fossil capital; second, it gives a historical account of the imbrication of fossil capital with twentieth-century fascist movements.

Their warning is simple. Fascists have never gained power through a simple electoral majority or an outright coup. Fascist movements have only ever represented electoral minorities, and they have only ever been able to take power in times of deep crisis through shaky alliances with traditional conservative elites and big business (in Germany and Italy, with the fossil barons of the mining and automotive industries). Present valuation of fossil fuel reserves still left in the ground is in the hundreds of trillions of dollars. The more of that we burn, the more the climate will degrade, the more food will become scarce, the more economies will destabilize, the more refugees will flee increasingly uninhabitable zones for the temperate north. These are what the Zetkin Collective calls the adaptation crises that will threaten the global fossil economy. But fossil capital will also face mitigation crises: increasingly forceful efforts to end fossil fuel burning.

White Skin, Black Fuel makes the case that we can already see the beginnings of an uneasy collaboration between the far right and the elites of fossil capital. They trace how climate denial—once a purely American derangement—has in the last decade become integral to the party platforms of the European far right. The Zetkin Collective argues that denial’s journey across the pond was facilitated by the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015. Political instability in the aridity line surrounding Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq, exacerbated by drought, famine, and imperialist jockeying for oil reserves, exploded in 2015, sending over a million people to seek asylum in Europe. In response, the far right preached ever-louder prophecies of Europe’s “islamization.” Immigration is the real apocalyptic threat, they howled, not climate change; we must strengthen the nation by expelling the foreigners and accelerating fossil fuel extraction.

The real threat isn’t climate change, it’s immigration. Fossil capital found in the far right its most vociferous defenders. And it has responded in kind: recall the revolving door between fossil capital and the state that was the Trump administration, or the Bolsonaro administration, or Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party. (One of the most helpful parts of the book, for an American reader, are the receipts it provides documenting this collaboration with a dizzying spread of European far-right parties, from Norway’s Progress Party to Spain’s Vox.)

White Skin, Black Fuel is invaluable for understanding the accelerating collaboration between fossil capital and the far right. But there is one glaring oversight: outside of discussions of Islamophobia, it largely ignores religion. The far right in Europe and especially the United States wants the nation not only white and glutted with oil, but Christian. Today’s fascists seek their uneasy alliances with traditional elites not only by defending the interests of fossil capital but by presenting their imagined ethnostate as a fortress of “Christian values” set against the hordes of Islam, secularism, Marxism, and “gender ideology.”

Christians in a warming world will face—and today, right now, are facing—a choice dispiritingly similar to that presented to us in the twentieth century. In 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that the church’s shameful collaboration with fascism stemmed from its desire for self-preservation; it should have given of itself not only to its neighbors but to “the farthest,” even if that self-gift was so total that Christianity itself faded away. As the climate degrades, food will be scarce, money will be tight, civil society will fray, and desperate millions will come to the borders asking the relatively less desperate to share what is already too thin to spread around. The crises are compounding and an incipient fossil fascism is coalescing. Will Christians once again flock to the siren song of self-preservation? Or will we have the strength to welcome the farthest into our battered and ash-cloaked homes, even if it costs everything?

Mac Loftin

Mac Loftin is a Ph.D. candidate in theology at Harvard University.