Category Archives: Age of Paranoia

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

Age of paranoia: exploring the paranoid tradition in times of crisis

Regular readers are well aware I was on a much-needed sabbatical for the last few months of 2013.

Both professional and personal obligations precluded me from writing. I also needed time to recharge and give thought to the direction of this blog. So now that I’m back, what can you expect from WtD?

By the end of 2013 I was exhausted (and disgusted) for what passes as “discussion” about climate change in both media and politics. Sharing a beer with a friend last week they said to me “Well you must be raging about what’s happening now with government policy…”

I could be, but I’m  not. A recent editorial in the Canberra Times sums up the conclusion I reached a several years ago:

“Perhaps it is time to acknowledge publicly that the war is over: apathy and self-interest triumphed over the slim hope that the global community would act collectively to prevent runaway climate change. Australia’s belated and extremely modest efforts – a tiny, ineffective tax and a small renewable energy target – were always insufficient, yet the government wants to dilute even those.”

Without doubt we will see a 2c degree increase in average temperatures by mid-century. By the end of the 21st century we may reach (or surpass, four degrees). All but the most obtuse recognise this fact.

Which is why I feel it is no longer worth the time or energy fighting climate sceptics on a daily basis.

Their victory will result in the suffering of a large section of humanity in the very near future.

There are but two course of action before us:

  • understanding the causes of this looming catastrophe
  • preparing for a hotter, harsher and more uncertain world.

Exploring the question of “How did we come to this”?

Humanity will agonise for millenia over the question of how we failed to address climate change, despite the fact the evidence was so certain and the anticipated impacts well understood decades before being felt.

The campaign of deceit funded by the fossil fuel industry explains some of this, but not all of it. The free-market ideology and libertarian “faith” of conservative politicians and mining billionaires explains some of this failure, but not all of it.

Likewise the difficulty of explaining complex scientific concepts to the general public has contributed to the challenge. However we can’t attribute the present situation to this challenge alone.

I have long argued that the idea that fossil fuel companies have prevented action on climate change is simplistic and only tells part of the story.

It is broader than that: culture, economics, historical forces, politics and vested interest have all played a part to greater or lesser degrees.

Which brings me to the research project I’ve committed myself to this year, “Age of Paranoia.

Age of Paranoia: the focus of 2014

Age of Paranoia (AoP) is a long essay (or short book) I’ve committed to write this year.

It will focus the intersection of science, conspiracy culture, psychology, politics, culture and climate change. WtD will reflect my ongoing research and allow readers to critique and discuss the ideas being put forward.

As a reader you will help me test my ideas and shape the content.

Why this topic you ask?

In examining the claims climate sceptic movement I was stunned to see the same claims made again and again in nearly every decade going back to the French Revolution. At times of financial crisis, war and profound societal change the same identical claims about conspiracies have been made.

Most of the tropes and myths used by conspiracy theorists today were established in the late 18th and early 19th century. It was then that claims about secret banking cabals, progressives working to subvert societies from within and fears of “socialist” plots and “reds under the bed” were formulated.

At first I was bemused such theories so heavily laced with quaint 19th century anachronisms still hdld such sway in the early 21st century.

One could simply dismiss this as a few paranoid types recycling old conspiracy theories.

But the question of why such beliefs remain persistent continued to rattle around in the back of my brain.

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

Why is it to this day that people continue to believe Jews, international bankers and socialists are conspiring to destroy Western civilisation?

How could it be these same myths continue to hold power decade after decade despite the lack of “evidence” for such conspiracies?

Musing upon this I was struck by the thought we may be looking at a tradition within our culture that goes back centuries. At moments of crisis in history this tradition can exert a strange and powerful influence.

Indeed, I will be putting forward the following hypothesis: deeply embedded within political traditions and society is a parallel tradition of looking at the world in a very specific way. 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 seems so irrational. We dismiss proponents of the paranoid tradition as cranks. We call followers of the paranoid tradition irrational. But in doing so we have ignored its importance and its influence on politics and society.

But how could a world view, considered both fringe and inconsequential, have any impact? Consider the climate change debate.

Ask yourself just how central have claims of conspiracies been to arguments put forward by climate sceptics?

It is this paranoid tradition, and how it intersected with the issue of climate change in the mid 1980s, that I will be exploring.

Stepping away from the hype, buzz and daily news cycle

I want to step back from the news cycle and the buzz of social media. WtD will be for those readers hoping to explore issues in-depth, and comment on them in an intelligent way.

Perhaps this change in style will result in fewer hits”, but at this point what is needed (for me at least) is a more contemplative and considered approach.

I will of course continue to post to articles and research of interest, so they’re will be plenty of content on a daily basis. It is my hope it is the unfolding AoP project people come to appreciate.

Coming shortly, more thoughts on the paranoid tradition and what I mean by that phrase.

Mike @ WtD

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