The paranoid tradition and climate change: where crisis, paranoia and politics collide

[See introduction here]

Why is it that people continue to believe Jews, international bankers and socialists are conspiring to destroy Western civilisation? And how is that those beliefs have become entwined with the climate change debate?

Some months ago I was struck by the thought we may be looking at a tradition within our culture that goes back centuries.

That at moments of crisis this tradition can exert a powerful influence on individuals and politics.

Indeed, I will be putting forward the following hypothesis:

Deeply embedded within political and cultural tradition is a parallel tradition of looking at the world in a very specific way. It divides the world into good and evil, and offers a universal explanation for events that satisfies the needs and prejudices of individuals. I call this the paranoid tradition.

It has its own rules of evidence and reasoning, its own rich history and litany of writers and thinkers who have shaped the course of conspiracy culture – and by extension “mainstream” culture.

We have ignored the paranoid tradition in politics, dismissing it because it is irrational to our scientific and “rational” world view. We dismiss the ideas as fringe, and their proponents as cranks. We call followers of the paranoid traditional ignorant and irrational.

But in doing so we have ignored its influence throughout history.

Indeed, look at the climate change debate and ask yourself how central have claims of conspiracies been to the sceptic world view?

So what is the paranoid tradition?

It is the intersection between individual and group psychology, political crisis and culture. These influences create and shape the paranoid tradition. For long periods of time the paranoid tradition it can be safely ignored. However in times of great crisis and profound social, social and political change it can exert an influence on politics and society.

The paranoid tradition within our culture has come alive once again in the climate debate.

The origins of the paranoid tradition

In the late 18th century politicians and ordinary individuals were gripped by the strange fear that the Illuminati and secret societies were behind the revolutions, banking crisis and wars of the period.

They argued there was a pattern behind all these events, and that there were groups looking to profit from the chaos and reshape the world.

Nearly three centuries later we once again find voices arguing that secret societies are behind the wars, banking crisis and climate crisis of today. They also argue there is a grand conspiracy in play, and that there are those working to both create and profit from chaos.

Cycles of paranoia and the shock of the new: climate change made the emergence of the paranoid tradition was inevitable

Looking back we can see the paranoid tradition breaks into the mainstream on 15-20 year cycles, profoundly influencing politics, culture and society.

I would argue the conspiracy laden world view of climate sceptics is merely a recent example of this “cycle of paranoia”.

This is why find it hard to accurately place the sceptics in their proper context.

Are they conservatives who simply fears change, or slaves to ideal of the free market? Do they believe what they say, or are they merely the paid hacks of fossil fuel interests. How did climate change become part of the culture war?

Given the epoch defining nature of climate change, a re-emergence of the paranoid tradition was inevitable.

If we look back we can see the paranoid tradition coming to life at pivotal points of history:

  • the millenarian craze of the 1990s that provoked a rash of apocalyptic conspiracies
  • the McCarthyism of the Cold War
  • the Nazi belief Arians and Jews were locked into a bitter fight for global dominance
  • the infamous Show Trials of the Soviet Union during the 1930s
  • fears of the Illuminati in the 18th and 19th centuries
  • the rich tradition of conspiracy beliefs held in Europe and the US in the 19th century.

As we go in history we see nearly each decade yielding a fresh bout of conspiracy mongering in response to the events of the day.

Consider the ideas being put forward by arch-conspiracy theorist Lord Christopher Monckton:

…the U.N.’s anti-irrigation, anti-pesticide, anti-farming, anti-business, anti-environment, anti-population, anti-human, anti-Western, anti-capitalist, anti-everything Agenda 21 program…

Monckton’s arguments are no different from the same claims put forward over two centuries ago. They’ve been updated to include climate change, but is the same narrative employed by conspiracy theorists for centuries.

I would argue that during moments of crisis that the paranoid tradition flourishes, escaping the political and cultural fringes.

Because of the political and societal crisis climate change is creating, it was inevitable paranoid tradition would once more come to life.

Drivers of the paranoid tradition: the influence of psychology, political crisis and culture

We struggle to find explanations for the strange views of conspiracy theories and the sudden popularity of their ideas.

Are these views the product of a form of psychosis or weird psychological ticks? Does religion play a part?

Do the inbuilt cognitive biases we all possesses somehow shape the world view of a conspiracy theorist?

To all of this, I would say yes.

But it is the intersection between individual and group psychology, political crisis and culture that creates and shapes the paranoid tradition.

It is this fusion of events, human nature and crisis that Age of Paranoia that I’m hoping to explore.

Many thanks for your thoughts and comments on this topic.

Mike @ WtD

10 thoughts on “The paranoid tradition and climate change: where crisis, paranoia and politics collide

  1. john byatt says:

    I think that a lot of it can be put down to their life experiences.

    I have a friend who believed all the rothschilds, illuminati conspiracy theories after he lost everything in very bad investment decisions,

    He spends most of his time searching for conspiracy, which he sees in the GFC and Climate change science, nothing will ever convince him otherwise,

    I think that you will find a lot of failed lives among the sceptics, hopes dashed fortunes lost,
    then of course there are the fundamentalists and their search for the anti christs and signs of the coming Armageddon

  2. I think, for the deniers, fake crises replace the real ones.

    We have all too visible fossil fuel market dominance linked to growth dependent neo liberal economies that present serious risks to present civilizations. Those that benefit or perceive themselves to benefit from the currently harmful status quo are confronted both with reasons to fear and with reasons to find false sources for that fear. Hence the mis-placed paranoia in place of effective action.

  3. Berbalang says:

    For reasons I won’t go into here, I think there are actually two groups involved with any conspiracy belief: the ones who believe in the conspiracy and the ones who keep the belief alive for their own purposes. For instance, belief in the Illuminati conspiracy was pushed by the John Birch Society in order to gain political power.

    • Michael Marriott says:

      I think there is some truth in that.

    • Blair Donaldson says:

      I think there is certainly a subgroup of people who use conspiracy theories to their own ends even if they don’t believe the claims themselves.

      • john byatt says:


        For years, the tiresome back-and-forth has played on like a broken record. Scientists announce new data showing that the global climate is warming, creating potentially devastating changes in the world. Skeptics attack, proclaiming the researchers are lying as part of a conspiracy to gin up research funding. The climatologists respond, calling the detractors anti-science deniers who push their claims at the behest of fossil-fuel companies that stand to lose the most if the research is accepted as fact. And round and round it goes, with no end in sight.

        • Blair Donaldson says:

          Yes it is frustrating. I don’t know what the answer is but nowadays I don’t try to explain why denialists are wrong, I ask them to provide their peer-reviewed evidence. I invariably hear a chorus of crickets after my request. I think denialists are essentially selfish and/or extremely incompetent thinkers.

  4. […] 2014/01/31: WtD: The paranoid tradition and climate change: where crisis, paranoia and politics coll… […]

  5. Cugel says:

    I think the Popish Plot in late 17thCE England is worth a look. Dreamed up by Titus Oates, a nonentity and general failure desperate for attention (the Christiopher Monckton of his day), it was discredited after a few years and more than a few deaths but there are still those who believe in it. The same will, I’m sure, be true of the AGW denial conspiracies, and of course there are still those who’ll tell you that McCarthy was right all along. How else to explain a Kenyan Muslim Communist in the White House, eh?

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