American Asatru and the Environment: A Dissident Perspective

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

As a longtime observer, occasional participant, and scholarly commentator on the Norse Pagan-Ásatrú-Heathenry movement in America and Europe, I see little evidence that American Ásatrú has been or is likely to soon become a major force for environmental awareness or activism, due to political and social factors that I will explain below. The Ásatrú movements in Iceland and Scandinavia are much more attuned to this issue and better positioned to provide religious leadership in this matter. What I say here, however, is strictly my impression based on communications and encounters with Norse Pagans in America, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway. More comprehensive surveys, interviews, and other forms of research would flesh out the picture and demonstrate whether my pessimism about American Ásatrú's attitude toward environmental issues and my greater sense of confidence about Icelandic and Scandinavian Ásatrú are justified or not. I would be quite happy to be proven wrong in these misgivings.

All Norse Pagans profess a love of nature and a respect for the gods that personify forces of nature. This would seem to provide a "natural" foundation for concern and action to protect the national environment against the many forces that threaten it, but this has rarely been at the top of the agenda for American Ásatrú. This is not to deny that there might be some very committed environmentalists among the Norse Pagans of America, but to point out that other issues seem to be of much greater concern, above all, a devotion to reconstructing and preserving Norse religious practices as a way of connecting to ancestral European religious and cultural heritage. That is to say, the ethic that animates much of American Ásatrú is not essentially environmental, but ethnic. You can easily find a lot of American Ásatrú discourse pertaining to preserving the ways of the ancestors and honoring the ways of the past, with more extreme, right-wing offshoots of American Ásatrú taking these notions into white supremacist, racist rhetoric about defending the white race against pollution by non-white or non-European peoples. But there is little conversation about defending the sacredness of nature, beyond perhaps cleaning up a campsite after a Blót ritual in a state park.

Another theme that tends to dominate American Ásatrú is a love of all things military: war, soldiers, weapons from swords to axes to guns, the glory and honor of battle, the camaraderie of soldiers, and respect for the fallen. The warrior-gods, warrior-heroes, and tales of bloody battle that are so striking in Norse mythology and literature lead some to perceive Ásatrú essentially as a "warrior religion" and may even be a prime motivation for coming to the religion—though the Norse Pagans I know in Iceland and Scandinavia would roundly reject this characterization. Several of the key founders and many members of American Ásatrú are in fact military veterans, and while space is made for other lifestyles and values, there can be no question that a pro-military ethic and ambiance is very prominent in the American Ásatrú community.

I don't doubt that many American Ásatrú members do feel concern about the destruction of nature, but as I see it, their ability to express or act on such concern is muffled, if not muzzled, by the conservative or libertarian political leanings of many American Heathens. In American politics as currently constituted, conservatives and libertarians tend to oppose government or inter-governmental intervention in the economy, and such intervention is exactly what environmentalists call for to save the natural world from pollution and destruction. As one example, it requires governmental action to compel companies to pollute less and to move the economy as a whole away from carbon-based fuels. With most followers of American Ásatrú committed to conservative or libertarian political perspectives, which dovetail with their pro-military sentiments, there is basically nowhere for American Ásatrú members to go with environmental concerns. I have heard more passion expressed for protecting "gun rights" and defending the border against "illegal immigration" than about saving the earth.

I once knew of an internet discussion group for Ásatrú survivalists, whose plan for coping with worldwide environmental degradation seemed to be to live off the grid and grow their own vegetables. Some such Heathens even take Norse mythology to justify inaction to save the world from environmental catastrophe, since, according to the myth of Ragnarok as they interpret it, the world will be destroyed no matter what anyone does, so why bother? Better to enjoy your family, your guns, and your precious jars of pickled vegetables in your backyard Valhalla while you still can!