4 min read

The darkest form of environmentalism

Gilead, the fictional Christian state in The Handmaid's Tale, is kind of an ecofascist paradise.
The darkest form of environmentalism

This post contains spoilers for Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale

In Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, inspired by Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, a group of fundamentalist Christian radicals overthrow the US government and replace it with the oppressive theocracy of Gilead. In its early days, the show won praise for its chilling portrayal of how religious extremism can erode women’s rights—a theme that remains all too relevant in today’s post-Roe world.

But a political revolution as dramatic as this one doesn't just happen in a vacuum: It needs a crisis to occur. In the world of The Handmaid's Tale, the crisis is both simple and terrifying: Most people on Earth have become infertile thanks to a mix of infectious diseases, pesticides, and pollution. Gilead is, in other words, a horrific response to environmental calamity—and a stark warning about how far-right extremists known as ecofascists might really try to "fix" our ailing planet.

The first three seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale focused primarily on June Osborn, a woman forced into childbearing slavery as one of Gilead’s “handmaids.” With June finally escaping to Canada and reuniting with her husband and daughter Nichole in season 4, the show begins zooming out to explore the post-America geopolitical landscape, including Gilead’s efforts to gain international acceptance. Gilead’s pitch for itself is simple: It’s the only country on Earth where fertility rates are rising. The reason? According to the nation’s architects, plummeting pollution levels and a return to pre-industrial living have a lot to do with it.

Gilead’s leaders aren’t the first to connect environmentalism with an anti-democratic worldview. That type of thinking is straight out of the ecofascism playbook. Loosely defined as any ideology that embraces violence and bigotry as the solution to environmental problems, ecofascism traces its roots back to 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus, whose writings on overpopulation have been co-opted by generations of white supremacists to justify the need for genocidal population control. The ecofascist idea that Earth’s natural resources must be “saved” for the right (aka white) people animated Nazi Germany and the early US conservation movement alike. Today, it's gaining traction among far-right politicians and mass murderers.

The Handmaid’s Tale has been rightly criticized for failing to grapple with the historical realities of slavery and colonialism in America. But aside from the far-fetched lack of racism in a nation run by abusive boarding school nuns, Gilead is exactly what ecofascists advocate for: A violently repressive society where the right to live well and reproduce belongs to a chosen group. While these so-called “commanders” and their wives enjoy big houses and sports cars, Gilead’s rank-and-file citizens live like it’s the 17th century as farmers and servants. Meanwhile, the “un-women” at the bottom of the social ladder—those who committed criminal offenses like being old or gay—are forced to do backbreaking environmental cleanup work in radioactive labor camps cheerfully known as the “colonies.”

Perhaps what’s most alarming about Gilead is that the brutality is working. Early on in the show’s first season, we learn that fertility rates are rising due to cleaner air and a shift away from industrial agriculture (banning contraception and rounding up fertile women for breeding might have something to do with it  too). In the first three years of the nation’s existence, carbon emissions dropped 78%. And just a few years later, Gilead gets a true miracle: Serena Joy Waterford, wife of Commander Fred Waterford and June’s captor for the first several seasons of the show, becomes pregnant after years of failing to conceive.

By this point in the story, Serena is being detained for war crimes in a Canadian prison. But she soon manages to angle her way out of trouble by letting her husband take the fall for everything. After a series of backroom deals lead to Fred getting murdered in the woods, Serena asks Gilead to repatriate her. Instead, she’s told to stay in Canada as an official representative. Her mission: Sell Canadians, particularly women, on the idea of giving up their freedom to pray and bake bread all day.

Serena sells it like someone who’s drunk on the ecofascist cool-aid. In a conversation with visitors at a Gilead fertility center, she explicitly credits the nation’s environmental progress for her pregnancy. “Clean water, clean air, scrubbing all those horrible toxins out of the environment,” Serena says when asked how she finally managed to have a child. Naturally, the systems of oppression and slavery that make this “progress” possible go unmentioned.

Serena’s overwhelming narcissism, her hostility toward modern amenities—in another episode, she bemoans that her newborn is being given antibiotics and formula while in a Canadian hospital—her love of authoritarianism, and her twisted environmental logic make her the ideal representative of a heinous ideology. If the writers of The Handmaid's Tale were trying to distill ecofascism in a single person, they didn’t go wrong by picking a young, able-bodied white woman either.

At the same time, if The Handmaid’s Tale is a deliberate commentary on the recent upsurge in ecofascist discourse, the show's failure to address racism is even more puzzling. In reality, ecofascism and white supremacy often go hand in hand. And that’s a huge part of what makes the movement so dangerous.

With just one season left, it’s unlikely The Handmaid’s Tale will course correct on race. But in spite of that, Gilead is one of modern TV’s clearest depictions of how environmental crises, left unchecked, can lead society to some very dark places.

That makes The Handmaid's Tale relevant for a reason critics rarely focus on. Ecofascist ideas like closing borders to prevent climate migration are gaining support on the far right; high-profile filmmakers are wrongly fingering population control as the only solution to the climate crisis. Several recent mass shooters, including the man who murdered over 50 people in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019 and the one who targeted Black shoppers in Buffalo, New York, earlier this year, explicitly identified themselves as ecofascist.  

It’s a trend we’d be foolish to ignore. As June points out to her husband Luke in season 5, their biggest mistake was failing to realize Gilead had arrived until it was too late.

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