Genesis of the watermelon myth: how right-wing popularism shaped climate scepticism for the past two decades

The emergence of the New Right and climate scepticism

Further to the previous post, I thought I’d share an interesting presentation from The Public Eye, a progressive think tank that conducts research on right-wing popularism. It is a very high level overview of the movement, but worth looking at if you have the time (download the copy from the WtD archives here).

It does need to be said the right is not a monolithic entity – it is comprised of various groups, some in broad agreement and others in violent disagreement.

However they share deep commonalities.

My research has lead me to the thought that the climate sceptic movement is an offshoot, or component, of a broad based right-wing popularist movement that has been emerging and growing in political power since the 1950s.

In order to support such an argument I’ve been tracing the genesis of the ‘watermelon” myth – that environmentalism is merely a new form of socialism (Wikipedia definition here):

Eco-socialists are critical of many past and existing forms of both Green politics and socialism. They are often described as Red Greens – adherents to Green politics with clear anti-capitalist views, often inspired by Marxism (Red Greens should be contrasted with Blue Greens).

The term Watermelon is commonly applied, often as an insult, to describe professed Greens who seem to put “social justice” goals above ecological ones, implying they are “green on the outside but red on the inside”; the term is usually attributed to either Petr Beckmann or, more frequently, Warren T. Brookes,[2][3][4] both critics of environmentalism, and is apparently common in Australia,[5][6] New Zealand[7] and the United States[8]

Clearly the watermelon theory has its antecedents in anti-communism – and yes, some socialists and Marxists have written on environmental issues.

And yet despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall it seems many sceptics are still fighting the Cold War.

Not all environmentalists are Marxists, and scientists aren’t socialists simply because they’ve pointed out the globe is warming: is it that some conservatives simply can’t let go of the Cold War paradigm?

President of the Czech Republic (sceptic and advocate for free markets) Vaclav Klaus is noted for his comparisons of climate change science to Marxism, as this 2011 ABC interview demonstrates:

Geraldine Doogue: Could we talk first about your idea, how much the politics of climate change reminds you of the politics of the communist era in the old Czechoslovakia, please?

Vaclav Klaus: Well, I would like to put it in a mild way, that comparison. You know, I lived, I spent almost half a century of my life in the communist era, where I was forced to accept similar arguments. And I was very angry. I protested, I tried to explain it differently and now I again live in a world of political correctness; in a world when you have one idea you are considered a ‘climate change denier’ or you are considered a ‘sceptic’, and I always try to say that I disagree with those terms, labels, as sceptic, pessimist, denier.

I’d suggest there is more to this than simple right-wing paranoia.

There is a deeper story, far more nuanced than simply equating climate change scepticism with either fossil fuel funded disinformation or lingering fears about reds under the bed.

But first we need to look at the emergence of “the New Right” and the ideologies that informs it.

From reds under the bed to watermelons: the 1950s to today

Public Eye provide an good diagram illustrating the emergence of right-wing popularism since the 1950s and the McCarthy era;

Into this time line – around the mid 1980s – the issue of climate change came to the attention of the various right wing movements that form the basis of this movement.

Conservatives immediately began to formulate a response – and counter-movement – to the perceived threats of a) increased government regulation and b) challenges to cherished values and norms.

It is only now, twenty years after the fact, that we are beginning to recognize how climate change became embroiled in the ‘culture war”:

Taken together, these three facets of our existential challenge illustrate the magnitude of the cultural debate that climate change provokes. Climate change challenges us to examine previously unexamined beliefs and worldviews. It acts as a flash point (albeit a massive one) for deeper cultural and ideological conflicts that lie at the root of many of our environmental problems, and it includes differing conceptions of science, economics, religion, psychology, media, development, and governance.

It is a proxy for “deeper conflicts over alternative visions of the future and competing centers of authority in society,” as University of East Anglia climatologist Mike Hulme underscores in Why We Disagree About Climate Change. And, as such, it provokes a violent debate among cultural communities on one side who perceive their values to be threatened by change, and cultural communities on the other side who perceive their values to be threatened by the status quo.

In attempting to understand climate scepticism I believe we have overlooked how it has been shaped by broader cultural forces. As I have often said, “we” were incredibly naive to think it was simply about presenting the scientific evidence in a “rational and logical manner”.

Parallel cultures and counter-knowledge: think tanks and the fusion right-wing popularism and environmental scepticism

As part of this analysis, I believe we need to draw attention to the important role of conservative think tanks.

They are not merely the ciphers of corporate propaganda.

They are the critical formulators and disseminators of counter-knowledge: disinformation packaged as fact and tailored to the world view of cultural groups.

They are cultural institutions (see above), specifically established in the 1970s to produce counter-knowledge and scholarship in opposition to “official” sources such as academia, mainstream media and science.

They are a critical component of a parallel conservative culture which frequently rejects established scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.

We need to rid ourselves of the simple notion that their corporate funders pay them to spout free-market propaganda: many of their funders share the same world view and cluster of conservative, right-wing values. 

Indeed, one merely needs to look at the context and mission of think tanks when they were established in the 1970s.

The famous memo Lewis Powell memo of 1971 urged the US Chamber of Congress to begin building a parallel system of thought and idea generation to counter ‘socialism” and the enemies of freedom:

The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians. In most of these groups the movement against the system is participated in only by minorities. Yet, these often are the most articulate, the most vocal, the most prolific in their writing and speaking.

Moreover, much of the media-for varying motives and in varying degrees-either voluntarily accords unique publicity to these “attackers,” or at least allows them to exploit the media for their purposes. This is especially true of television, which now plays such a predominant role in shaping the thinking, attitudes and emotions of our people.

One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.

Note the broad application of the “enemies”: media, the arts, sciences and politicians.

Powell’s memo did not single-handily create the think-tanks, but it did provide powerful impetus for their creation.

Today, the think tanks are the great “fusionists” of right-wing thought and conspiracy culture.

Over the past several decades they have fused scepticism of environmental issues with a free market ideology and – critically – conservative social values.

One merely has to visit their websites to see the cluster of ideology and values loudly proclaimed: the literature and language of think-tanks abounds with terms such as “liberty”, “freedom” and “democracy”.

Take a closer look, note the language and imagery:


Freedom; liberty; freedom; liberty; freedom; liberty; freedom.

Notice a pattern?

An enormous strategic error has been made: by simply and naively focusing on the scientific arguments promoted and extolled by the think tanks we missed the broader context.

We spoke in facts, they have always spoken of values.

It was always a culture war, and it has been raging for decades.

What do we mean by “right-wing popularism”?

I’ll produce another slide from the Public Eye presentation which illustrates some of the key components of right-wing popularism:

I’d draw the readers attention to two key concepts listed above:

  • Anti-intellectualism – suspicion of elites, including an emphasis on conspiracist allegations of in shadowy forces control the economy and media
  • Producerism – a form of scapegoating that sees attacks from both those above and those below, defining proper identity along very narrow lines.

Sound familiar?

The producerism of climate sceptics: Australia’s Dr. David Evans as an example

The motifs and language of producerism is a common thread throughout sceptic literature.

One has to look no further than the persistent and frequent claims by sceptics that scientists, bankers, government and the media are all engaged in a conspiracy. Public Eye defines Producersim in more detail:

Calls to rally the virtuous “producing classes” against evil “parasites” at both the top and bottom of society is a tendency called producerism. It is a conspiracist narrative used by repressive right wing populism. Today we see examples of it in some sectors of the Christian Right, in the Patriot movements and armed militias, and in the Far right. (see chart of US right). Producerism is involved in the relationship between Buchanan, Fulani, Perot, and the Reform Party. 

Producerism begins in the US with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology. Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.

I’ll be exploring producerism in more detail, but I would draw attention to the fact that bankers and other ‘parasitic classes’ are frequently the perceived enemies identified by parts of the climate sceptic movement.

It also explains the strangely antisemitic strain of thought that finds expression in some climate sceptic literature and expressed world-views (see here and here).

We see echoes of this in the writings of Perth sceptic Dr. David Evans and his partner, blogger Joanne Nova.

Evans and Nova write frequently on the influence of the financial industry and Rothschild family as being the “true powers” in the world manipulating global events.

The genealogy of this form conspiracy first found expression in the United States during the first half of the twentieth century: however it has continued to be influential within conspiracy culture and is a motif frequently recycled and used today.

In one of his recent papers, Evan’s writes about a parasitic class he calls the “paper aristocracy”:

The paper aristocracy has overwhelming wealth. They own or influence all the media – if only because every media organization borrows from banks. They influence almost all the institutions that employ professional economists, by supplying the money for PhDs and providing most of the lucrative consulting jobs for economists. They buy politicians by the truckload. The banksters have even killed the occasional thorn in their side—including, probably, two US presidents, Lincoln and Garfield…”

So when you hear sceptics repeat the oft repeated phrase “follow the money” it is not simply a claim that scientists and environmentalists are motivated by venal self interest: the money is used to exert influence and reshape the political system behind the scene (or so the conspiracy theory claims).

It is a claim to a massive conspiracy that has its roots in a number of strands of right-wing thought.

Again, patterns in thought and conspiracy making can be seen to be emerging.

Eternal vigilance: the existential socialist threat that never fades

I would also add the above the persistent right-wing fear of socialism or Marxism as a resurgent force. The Berlin Wall may have fallen, but the cultural and Cold War warriors have sworn to remain every vigilant to the danger.

This is why the conflict between “freedom” and “tyranny” can never end; it is a holy war, apocalyptic in nature and an existential threat that can never fade.

Again, we see this in a 2012 speech by Vaclav Klaus:

From the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, that is from the establishment of the Club of Rome and its first reports, I became afraid of the green ideology, in which I saw a dangerous alternative to the traditional socialist doctrine. It was evident that it was another radical attempt to change human society. The alleged depletion of natural resources and the so called population bomb were merely a pretence. At that time it was not possible to see the Global Warming Doctrine that arrived later, nor the power and dangers hidden inside it…

The barbarians are always at the gates, waiting to destroy civilisation.

Climate scepticism: the roots of the movement go beyond big oil

One of the most important works on climate scepticism is the Oreskes and Conway text Merchants of Doubt.

I do not intend to challenge the very sound assumptions of that book.

But I did think as I read the work (and I humbly suggest this) it only told part of the story.

Thus I decided to revisit the primary materials from the same periods – the immediate post war years until today.

I also thought it worth while expanding my research beyond the sources listed in Merchants of Doubt and review a broader range of texts, articles and videos by the individuals discussed.

Very quickly I began finding “climate sceptic” materials from the late 1980s and early 1990s demonstrating the sceptic movement is more than simply the product of the right wing think tanks funded by “big oil”.

Their language and motifs echoed the claims of right-wing popularism to a surprising degree.

Indeed many of the arguments we are still responding to today – action on climate will destroy the economy, climate change is a religion or a manufactured hoax etc. – were formulated in the mid to late 1980s and have been endlessly recycled in the decades since.

Conspiracism is a key feature of all these movements, and has heavily influenced the culture of the climate sceptic community.

An argument can be made that in addition to the think tanks funded by “big oil”, a broad based right-wing conservative movement has waged a “war on science”.

For far too long we saw scepticism as the one defining characteristic of the deniers: however their scepticism is merely one component of a much broader world view.

Indeed the attack on climate science has been running for decades on multiple fronts by a broad coalition of conservative forces using the language and tactics of right-wing popularism.

Genesis of the watermelon myth: the religious anxiety and climate scepticism Dixy Lee Ray

Those who have read the Oreskes and Conway book may recall Dixy Lee Ray, the conservative Democratic governor of Washington state (see page 130 ff).

Ray wrote one of the earliest sceptic books titled Trashing the planet: how science can help us deal with acid rain, depletion of ozone, and nuclear waste (among other things).

In this work Ray sang the praises of DDT and dismissed the threat of Ozone depletion, helping establish the sceptic methodology for the attack on climate science.

As Orekes and Conway note, Ray was a practitioner of ‘denial as a political strategy”:

“…We see this narrative first emerging someone we have already met: Dixy Lee Ray. In Trashing the planet, Ray sang the praises of DDT and constructed a set of ‘facts” that have circulated every since…”

Oreskes and Conway examine her role in the early sceptic movement, her scientific misunderstandings (or if you are less charitable distortions) and her legacy. However, Ray’s legacy goes beyond the “DDT is safe” myth.

When I looked at the full extent of Ray’s writings I was curious to find the following interview in the Fall, 1992, issue of Science and the Environment: a Publication of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty (note the title).

In this interview Ray reflects on the original Rio Earth Summit and claims environmentalism is the next big threat to “liberty”:

R&L: With the world-wide decline of socialism, many individuals think that the environmental movement may be the next great threat to freedom. Do you agree? 

Ray: Yes, I do, and I’ll tell you why. It became evident to me when I attended the worldwide Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro last June. The International Socialist Party, which is intent upon continuing to press countries into socialism, is now headed up by people within the United Nations. They are the ones in the UN environmental program, and they were the ones sponsoring the so-called Earth Summit that was attended by 178 nations.

Ray then goes on to make a remarkable series of claims that foreshadows much of the sceptic movements claims about world government, climate change as a religion and the conspiratorial notion the UN Agenda 21 program is intended to usher in a world government:

R&L: Did you see a big influence by the radical environmentalists there? 

Ray: Oh yes. No question about that, the radicals are in charge. One of the proposals that did indeed pass as part of Agenda 21 proposes that there be world government under the UN, that essentially all nations give up their sovereignty, and that the nations will be, as they said quite openly, frightened or coerced into doing that by threats of environmental damage. 

R&L: Much of the current environmental movement is couched in terms of pagan religions, worshiping the Earth, goddess Gaia, equating the value of trees and people, animal rights, etc. Can you account for how this is accepted in the public forum, when traditional Judeo-Christian religious ethics are basically outlawed from policy making decisions? Do you think the general public is just unaware of the tendency to make environmentalism a religion?

On the role of government, Ray is very clear:

R&L: One could argue that the decline of Marxism vindicates Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that the less government does to the complex order of a national economy, the more likely it is that the economy will prosper and the liberty of its citizens will be secured. In the complex order of the environment, what things are appropriate for government to do in order to protect the natural workings of the environment and simultaneously secure liberty?

Ray: I think it’s appropriate for the government to set standards. For example, to describe what is permitted in the terms of releasing waste products into the environment. I think that it’s appropriate for there to be standards with respect to pollution of the air and the water and so on. I do not believe that the government is in any position to say exactly how every single business and every single activity shall reach those performances. The government should set a goal for a clean environment but not mandate how that goal should be implemented.

And there you have it: climate scepticism, religious conservatism, free market fundamentalism and conspiracy ideation.

Ray’s thoughts epitimise the culture war; they also point to the genesis of “the watermelon” myth in context to climate change.

The debate we have been fighting for the last 20 years has been informed by a fusionist mix of social and religious conservatism.

In the Ray interview we see – in its most nascent and earliest form – the contemporary climate sceptic movement born from a culture of right-wing popularism.

Thus when Sen, Jim Inhofe claims in his book The Greatest hoax: how the global warming conspiracy threatens your future about the role of God in climate change:

Well actually the Genesis 8:22 that I use in there is that “as long as the earth remains there will be springtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night.”

My point is, God’s still up there. The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.

…he is not saying anything new.

Indeed his world view and politics is shaped by the sometimes conflicting and at other times overlapping ideology of the New Right.

We also see this with UK journalist and climate sceptic James Delingpole who has devoted an entire work to the concept of “watermelons”. It echos the claims made by Dixy Lee Ray over twenty years ago.

The book, Watermelons: the green movement’s true colors, merely works in an established tradition (form the blurb which says it all):

Watermelons shows how the scientific method has been sacrificed on the altar of climate alarmism. Delingpole mocks the green movement’s pathetic record of apocalyptic predictions, from the “population bomb” to global cooling, which failed to materialize. He reveals the fundamental misanthropy of green ideology, “rooted in hatred of the human species, hell bent on destroying almost everything man has achieved”. 

Delingpole gives a refreshing voice to widespread public skepticism over global warming, emphasising that the “crisis” has been engineered by people seeking to control our lives by imposing new taxes and regulations. “Your taxes will be raised, your liberties curtailed and your money squandered to deal with this ‘crisis'”, he writes. 

At its very roots, argues Delingpole, climate change is an ideological battle, not a scientific one. Green on the outside, red on the inside, the liberty-loathing, humanity-hating “watermelons” of the modern environmental movement do not want to save the world. They want to rule it.

Delingpole, like Ray, warns about vast global conspiracies and the stealth motives of “Agenda 21′ in his text.

Conclusions: climate scepticism as a form of right-wing popularism?

I tend to think the voluminous primary material similar to Ray’s interview supports the assertion the climate sceptic movement is an offshoot – or part thereof – of the right-wing popularism that has been growing in power and influence for the past several decades.

Climate sceptics have utilized the tactics and language of this movement since the late 1980s and early 1990s: I believe the documentary evidence supports this hypothesis.

Indeed, the climate sceptic movement shares many of the same characteristics and traits of right-wing popularism:

  • anti-intellectualism
  • social conservatism
  • conspiracy claims
  • producerism

These topics will be explored in future posts, and I believe it is a hypothesis worth exploring.

Final thoughts

Key message to the environment movement: stop fighting the war over scientific facts; stop thinking climate scepticism is the product of fossil fuel industry disinformation; start speaking of our values; stop being obsessed with “who” funds which think tank, the public is indifferent to this failed strategy. It’s bigger than that: it has always been so.

10 thoughts on “Genesis of the watermelon myth: how right-wing popularism shaped climate scepticism for the past two decades

  1. john byatt says:

    I think that we can tick off all of those traits within the sceptic movement

    Fascinating stuff for anyone who has time to read

    Dr Wes Allen , The weather makers re-examined is the brother of the author of the “god will fix it beware of world domination”, comment on previous post


  2. Nick says:

    You’re spot on: capitalist-worship, anti-intellectualism, and motivated reasoning drive the Delingpoles of this world. When the natural world shows signs of not being the unlimited bounteous backdrop to the mini-operas of their lives,well then,some killjoy must be to blame: The Watermelons! Weather extremes starting to cramp your style/crimp your economy? Recast yourself as a neo-frontiersman,you’ll adapt -climate’s always changed,not me. As I’m exceptional -Delingpole’s unwittingly self-oblivious ‘right about everything’- I’ll survive and the devil take the hindmost.

  3. john byatt says:

    That is not the buggared up painting of jesus by the old Italian women is it?

  4. […] 2012/10/05: WtD: Genesis of the watermelon myth: how right-wing popularism shaped climate scepticism… […]

  5. Hi `Watching`, nice post.
    I particularly like your `components of right-wing popularism` image,
    which has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by the Australian embedded media. (yank media too) It explains why the public get such crap political reporting. Thanks.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Cheers 730.

      I tend to think the argument can be made due to the globalisation of media and the internet we’ve reached a point in time when conspiracy theories have polluted the information landscape.

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