One of the first things I noticed when I moved to Slovenia was its easy, unspoken greenness. In Slovenia, you don’t have to be a hippie to drive a Smart Car, a stubby two-seater that slides into the most improbable parking spots. Even trucks and minivans have an efficient Playskool quality. Plastic bags cost extra at the grocery store, and I’ve yet to spot a Styrofoam anything. The state-run garbage service offers separate plastic, glass, paper, and compost bins. Bulk-buying is as unexceptional as the daily vast farmers’ market. What Slovenia doesn’t have, as far as I can tell, is much of an environmental movement.
In the States, environmental consciousness is the indicator species of a liberal, egalitarian society. I’ve always thought that a country with a great recycling program would back it up with progressive social policies. One thing I’ve learned in Slovenia is that this is an American idea and a naïve one at that. Environmentalism has always been an easy sell in this part of Europe but not for the reasons we’d like.
If you frequent upscale Berkeley furniture stores, you’ve probably seen the ultra-precise biological illustrations of 19th century zoologist Ernst Haeckel. The originator of the word “ecology,” Haeckel was one of the founders of 19th century German environmentalism, a movement whose literature sounds weirdly prophetic, especially if you’ve spent time at a Bioneers conference. Here’s a line from Ernst Moritz Arndt’s 1815 treatise On the Care and Conservation of Forests: “When one sees nature in a necessary connectedness and interrelationship, then all things are equally important—shrub, worm, plant, human, stone, nothing first or last, but all one single unity.”
Haeckel was part of the völkisch movement, a bunch of German proto-hippies to whom the Industrial Revolution marked the downfall of civilization. Unfortunately, the völkisch love for the biosphere stopped short of the country’s Jewish population. As Peter Staudenmaier, co-author of Ecofacism: Lessons from the German Experience describes, the völkisch held a mystical reverence for the German forest, the German ecosystem—and by German they meant blond and blue-eyed. It’s that notorious Blood and Soil brand of nationalism whose closest American analog might be the isolationism of Pat Buchanan.
By the time all these back-to-the-landers got together to form the Wandervögel (or “wandering free-spirits”) movement, the Third Reich was on the rise, and most of them happily signed up. Among their heroes: eco-pioneers Ernst Moritz Arndt and Ernst Haeckel. In other words, what looks to me like Berkeley chic is the proto-iconography of Nazi Germany.
Reading Wandervögel and Nazi environmentalist dogma dumped me into a time warp. Hitler—vegetarian, animal lover, champion of homeopathic remedies, and renewable energy sources—waxed philosophical on the subject of “nature’s everlasting law,” while Himmler grew medicinal herbs for SS troops on an experimental organic farm. Save the Whales? The venomously anti-Semitic philosopher Ludwig Klages was calling for such a campaign in 1913. The National Socialists were almost as zealous about reforestation and the protection of wildlife habitat as they were about destroying Jewish businesses. The official anthem of the Second Reich Farmers Congress in 1934: “Keep the Soil Healthy!”
In an effort to woo conservatives, American environmentalists, including those at the Sierra Club, have made the case that environmentalism is patriotic. The Sierra Club’s patriot would be uncomfortable in Germany, where the “Green Wing” of the Nationalist Socialist Party preached a pro-environment, anti-immigrant platform. If environmentalism is a way of expressing love for our country, why not just keep shipping those CRTs to China, so Chinese children can extract the lead with their bare hands?
Slovenia—which suffered under Nazi occupation in WWII—is no stranger to nationalism. Its strongest environmental concerns have been about land conservation, a consideration that often ends at the Croatian border. Invoking the language of a Slovenia for Slovenians, the government continues to devise new ways to shut out foreigners, especially those from poorer Balkan areas. As with contemporary Germany, it’s a reminder of the uneasy alliance between environmentalism and exclusion.
In the States, “nationalism” isn’t quite the dirty word it is here in Europe. But as rhetoric around the recent immigration debates has shown, the politics of exclusion run deep. Environmentalists could exploit this by making the connection between love of country and love of land—desperate times call for desperate measures—but we walk a dangerous line in doing so. Borders rarely work, whether to segregate people or pollution. The only long-term plan is inclusion.