‘So long, and thanks for all the fish!’: Urban dolphins as ecofascist fake news during COVID-19
In the most recent Covid File, Marcia Allison considers the ecofascism of the lockdown dolphins. The piece was originally published in the special free COVID supplement of the Journal of Environmental Media.
The captive human versus the finally free fauna
Douglas Adams’ ( 2017) science-fiction series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with an upside down familiar tale. Inverting the traditional narrative of humans destroying nonhuman life, in the Hitchhiker’s Guide, it is the nonhuman Vogon alien race who is eradicating humanity by razing the earth to accommodate a hyperspace bypass. Whilst the humans remain in blissful ignorance to their impending destruction, the far superior dolphin makes their leave with a final message of gratitude for their human companions. Humanity thus becomes one more species endangered by another. Adams’ satirical tale on interspecies living may be fictional, but it also holds unusual parallels to human–nonhuman relations during the COVID19 pandemic. The discovery of Coronavirus 2 (SARS-Cov-2) has played into cultural narratives of the consequences of unfamiliar pathogens erasing humans and the resulting dystopian future – crumbling urban infrastructures, overgrown flora, empty supermarket shelves, deserted urban centres, large predators roaming the streets and the remaining few humans reduced to prey. The 2020 global lockdowns have made these fictions a limited reality by forcing humans to relocate from a real to a digital public life, and as it happened, futurist imaginings of deserted streets taken over by fauna have become realized across digital media platforms. In Wales, sheep amuse themselves on a children’s merry-go-round. The suddenly clear Venetian canals have swans, dolphins and fish occupying these iconic waterways. Elephants stroll through a village in Yunnan in China, get drunk on corn wine and consequently pass out in tea gardens. Such videos, with quippy supporting texts and amusing hashtags, have spread with a virality normally reserved for screaming goats, LOL cats and other humorous short-form videos that have come to define the twenty-first century (Kietzmann et al. 2011). These digital vignettes have become an antidote to sombre pandemic reporting. Digital sketches of unusual animal activity without the pesky human provide a well-needed frivolity during these dark times. Semiotically, their support by the digital platforms’ provision of an accompanying text both primes the reader’s own conclusions whilst offering identifying clues to the rhetor’s own ideological beliefs: from emotive comments lauding the humanless beauty of nature to animal and/or COVID 19-based hashtags to capture social media traffic. In particular, one viral tweet by @Thomasschulz’s on 17 May took this trend off to the next level:
Wow… Earth is recovering
– Air pollution is slowing down
– Water pollution is clearing up
– Natural wildlife returning home
On first glance, Schulz’s sentiment appears to capture the spirit of contemporary environmentalism in this climate emergency’s sixth extinction of species (Kolbert 2014). Schulz’s text uses a set of rhetorical heuristics to attempt to create consubstantiality (Burke  2013) between left- and right-wing environmentalists and thus should have been the catalyst for a larger conversation about human responsibility, overconsumption and overpopulation. But on a second reading, Schultz’s text reveals a far more sinister foundation: a far-right ideology that marries environmentalism with white supremacist ethnonationalism. This is the re-emergence of ecofascism. Ecofascism builds on scientific arguments of the planetary boundaries at which the planet can no longer sustain current life. However, ecofascism rhetorically twists such evidence to support a race science that posits white Europeans as the top of a natural Homo Sapiens aristocracy. Any sacrifice that needs to be made for the good of the whole species must be made by the non-white ‘other’. The concern of the non-white other continues through ecofascist ideology. Nazi ideologist Richard Walther Darré’s notion of blood and soil is conjoined with Lebensraum – living space – to portend a mystical nationalist connection of peoples to the land of their ancestors. Mass immigration and overpopulation of non-white populations in white spaces are seen as the prime cause of climate change for ecofascists, which must be rectified by sending peoples back to the ethnic homelands in order to restore a natural balance of limits (Hardin 1993). Many ecofascists thus idolize Finnish deep ecologist Pentti Linkola as a self-proclaimed climate truther who speaks against this ‘multicultural experiment’ on the European continent via his analogous ‘lifeboat ethics’ – that when a lifeboat is full, you must sever the extra hands that cling to the side. As an anonymous ecofascist argued in his interview with Kate Aronoff (2019), ‘borders are the environment’s greatest ally’.
The illegitimate urban dolphin
Lifeboat ethics and enemy borders may seem controversial concepts for the mainstream, but combined with viral visuals of frolicking fauna, can become easily legitimated. And yet, the legitimacy of Schultz’s tweet began to rapidly fall apart as soon as it began. The same day Schulz’s tweet went viral, the United Kingdom’s The Evening Standard revealed the falsity of these humanless vignettes. The swans had always been in Venice. There were never any drunk elephants. The urban Venetian dolphin was actually in a port in Sardinia: a newsworthy happenstance in itself, having been three years since dolphins were last seen so close to the shore (Anon. 2020). And yet, despite left-wing environmentalists and journalists denouncing the claims that lead to the deletion of Schultz’s tweet and entire digital media footprint, these viral videos accompanied with variations of Schulz’s text have continued to spread. The dolphin, with its high cultural value in western culture for intelligence and human companionship – as depicted by Adams’ fictional, leave-taking dolphin – brings a joy to a joyless situation. Just as Adams’ sarcastically argued that humans have always considered themselves smarter than dolphins because they achieved so much to be proud of – such as war – in real life, humans find joy in animals ‘returning’ to a space that humans made inaccessible to them in the first place. Furthermore, the specificities of Venice overrun by humans due to its geography as an ‘island’ parallels Linkola’s lifeboat ethics metaphor. Such metaphors of recovery and return thus imbibe an emotional, cultural spirit that overshadows the concerns of reality. The concern with reality has become inherent in recent years with the rise of fake news (Lazer 2018). The digital revolution of user-generated content that can hold polysemic meanings in both self-directed and self-selected sources, thus does not rely on the traditional editorial norms of print media that filter for authenticity (Grinberg et al. 2019). A 2017 Reuteurs survey found that only 24 per cent of people trusted social media news stories as opposed to 40 per cent trusting the mainstream media after learning about the concept of fake news (Fletcher and Park 2017). This continues with the current pandemic, where 48 per cent of Americans claim they have been exposed to some sort of COVID-19-related fake news (Mitchell and Oliphant 2020). This fake news is then inherently supported by Twitter’s platform (Fabrega and Paredes 2013) where validity checks are often reduced to the numbers of likes and retweets. The proliferation of the urban dolphin, the relaxing swan and the drunk elephant thus become their own validating evidence of truthiness. This role of truthiness and validation is a key. A National Geographic interview with Venetian swan tweet originator Kaveri Ganapathy Ahuja revealed that she would not delete her fake news tweet (with almost 1,000,000 likes) because it ‘brings her joy’ whilst acting as a reminder and virtual award of her likes and retweet record (Daly 2020). This virtual award is Kietzmann et al.’s (2011) social media reputation that goes beyond ethos and instead looks towards content production as evaluated through likes, retweets and views (2011: 247). In pinning this tweet to the top of her profile page, Ganapathy Ahuja thus proudly displays her online social capital (cf. Bourdieu 2010) as a badge of honour whilst creating further rhetorical consubstantiality through key words, hashtags and emojis (Qi et al. 2018: 98). Simply put, here the truthiness comes from the validating likes and retweets by strangers that recognize her own truthiness as an environmentalist.
Ecofascist social media rhetoric
Whilst anyone can claim environmental inclinations in their profile, it is the liking, sharing and/or retweeting of specific tweets that creates online social capital. In a contemporary version of Goffman’s ( 1990) presentation of self via social media, a user constructs their identity in relation to how the individual believes they appear to others. The rhetorical motives of the ecofascists did not begin with Schultz’s text but has been supported with differing semiotic presences for years. A popular modern articulation of ecofascist ideas is the slogan ‘Save Trees Not Refugees’, where ‘members of the subculture often call themselves “the pine tree gang” and have pine tree emojis in their Twitter bios’ (Owen 2019). Ecofascists also use harmless-looking environmentally themed emojis – a pine tree, an earth and a mountain – often supported with a Norse/Proto-Germanic rune Algiz, ‘ᛉ’. These both lure naïve environmentalists to their page whilst also functioning as visual and linguistic dogwhistles – semiotically dense messages designed to be noticed only by the audience that shares your ideological and political values (Poynting and Noble 2003). Nature-attributed colours, emojis, imagery, rhetoric, hashtags and key words act as polysemic cues both familiar enough to be easily retweeted by the passing viewer, whilst also unwittingly spreading their ecofascist message. As Fraser (2020) argued, social media makes it easy ‘to stumble into spreading ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish!’ www.intellectbooks.com 4.5 fascist adjacent ideas without ever really meaning it’. Thus, more brazen ecofascists may decide to upgrade to linguistic references with the hashtags #MakeEcologyDeepAgain, #EcoFash and #EFDS (Ecofascist Death Squads), acting as hyperlinks by which to draw traffic and allow disparate ecofascists to find each other, to create a community and to cement an identity based on this heuristic presentation of their ideological and political beliefs. The videos are thus not false once but twice. The fakery of ecofascism is not only a concern in social media circles. Whilst 1970s Unabomber sought to fight against apocalyptic industrial societies, the more recent El Paso and Christchurch shooters claimed ecofascist arguments in their manifestos shared on the social media site 8Chan: the former referencing Al Gore’s 2006 climate change documentary in his manifesto title (Darby 2019), whilst the latter outrightly claimed an ecofascist identity. More recently, white supremacist group the Hundred-Handers begat such identification trickery through a poster campaign using Schulz’s rhetoric under the name and logo of the radical yet ethical protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) in an attempt to infiltrate mainstream environmentalism. Using XR was no accident. With the consideration of XR as a radical expert in environmental issues and protests, creating an ecofascist argument under their banner was to give a false pathos, truthiness and validity to their ecofascist argument. Moreover, as the non-expert audience saw this poster, they would unknowingly take on board a fascist environmental argument through the social capital XR possess. Such identification work is thus the means by which to uncover the rhetorical motives in a text that might otherwise go unrecognized or unseen (Burke  2013). This ecofascist rhetoric has continued to pervade media, political and public intellectual circles in recent years. The argument of borders as the greatest ally of environmentalism has been latched onto by many anti-immigration parties and peoples and thus become a key facet to ecofascist rhetoric. The United Kingdom’s British National Party’s (2005) manifesto claimed to be the only true green party due to their anti-immigration stance. In her 2017 column entitled ‘Choose between a Green America and a Brown America’, Ann Coulter (2017) argued that immigrants do not share America’s love of cleanliness. More recently, the publication of a set of articles regarding COVID19 entitled ‘Sopa de Wuhan’ (Wuhan Soup) inherently fuels racist rumours of ‘unnatural’ eating as the catalyst for COVID-19, written by several left-leaning public intellectuals including Slavoj Žižek and Judith Butler (Fraser 2020). With their co-optation of viral social media videos and dog-whistles through mainstream mass media discourse, ecofascist ideology has begun to pervade the public sphere.
The Kairos of the urban dolphin
The case of the urban dolphin ecofascist fakery is an inherently Kairotic event: a specific time of tension, conflict and crisis that also brings opportunity for problem-solving (Smith 2002: 52). COVID-19 has wrought into being human desires for a fresh start in regards to climate change, where reduced emissions bring hope to finally resolving the climate crisis. And yet, climate researcher Alexander Koch argues that COVID-19 ‘will have basically almost zero impact’ (Koch, cited in Cummins 2020) as any decrease in emissions will be eaten up by the likelihood of the market rebounding to make up for its lost productivity. Marcia Allison 4.6 Journal of Environmental Media Thus, climate mitigation will not be as simple as just a six-month break from normal living, but an unprecedented permanent lifestyle change. Whilst COVID-19 may not offer the solution to the climate emergency, I argue that these analyses of social media fakery for ecofascist gains present an opportunity to unpack ecofascism as a vehicle for white supremacy in the larger concern of the inherent racism pervading western environmentalism. Turning the rhetoric of COVID-19 as a war on its head, we can turn the pandemic into a different type of war: a war of far-right ideology; of defeating racism; and ending climate change. COVID-19 shows what a difference in human behaviour can make in just a few months, thus highlighting Anglosphere capitalist consumption and fossil fuel use as the main contributor to climate change: not immigration. If, as professor of psychology and environmental studies Susan Clayton argues, people are desperate to believe in nature’s recovery to absolve guilt (Daly 2020), such guilt can be harnessed to see how it is less the number of people but how populations live with, rather than against, the rest of the natural world. Like with indigenous communities, COVID-19 highlights the need to start thinking of longer-term plans where we live more ‘harmoniously’ within natural limits, with privileged majority populations the first to make changes and sacrifices. Just as Kairos posits a question that can only be answered at that very moment, perhaps COVID-19 is the new frame by which to understand what even a small difference can make to the climate crisis.
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