The paranoia infecting a broad swath of the American right-wing can be comical at times—think about Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers. But we laugh at our own peril, because what Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics” poses a serious threat to our future: the right’s snowballing conspiracy theories could ultimately lead to disaster.
Consider what’s happening in Virginia’s Middle Peninsula on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay, among the areas in the U.S. most vulnerable to climate change. Earlier this month, Darryl Fears, reporting for the Washington Post, offered a glimpse into the madness that city planners have faced in recent months as a local Tea Party group, convinced that a nefarious plot by scientists and city officials is afoot, have disrupted their work trying to mitigate the potential impacts of rising sea levels.
“The uprising,” wrote Fears, “began at a February meeting about starting a business park for farming oysters in Mathews County.” He continued:
The program to help restore the Chesapeake Bay oyster population was slated for land owned by the county, but it was shouted down as a useless federal program that would expand the national debt. The proposal was tabled.
As the opposition grew over the summer, confrontations became so heated that some planners posted uniformed police officers at meetings and others hired consultants to help calm audiences and manage the indoor environment, several planners said.
In James City County, speakers were shouted away from a podium. In Page County, angry farmers forced commissioners to stop a meeting. In Gloucester County, planners sat stone-faced as activists took turns reading portions of the 500-page Agenda 21 text, delaying a meeting for more than an hour.
“Agenda 21” is one of a number of silly but dangerous conspiracy theories sweeping through the fever swamps of the right. Although admittedly sinister-sounding, Agenda 21 is just a blueprint for sustainable development, especially in emerging economies. It outlines how wealthier countries can contribute to smarter growth through technology transfers and public education. It stresses the importance of fighting deforestation and conserving bio-diversity—all things that normal people would consider wise.
The important thing to understand about Agenda 21 is that there is absolutely nothing binding or compelling member countries to implement any part of it. It’s not a treaty—it is entirely voluntary and certainly doesn’t have any connection to local governments. Yet for the right, with its long John Birch Society undercurrent of paranoia about international institutions, Agenda 21 represents some kind of dark UN conspiracy to impose socialism on the “free world.”
That craziness lies at the heart of Michele Bachmann’s quixotic war on energy-efficient lightbulbs. Tim Murphy reported, “The Minnesota congresswoman is part of a movement that considers ‘sustainability’ an existential threat to the United States, one with far-reaching consequences for education, transportation, and family values.”
Last year, during the Denver mayoral race, Tea Party candidate Dan Maes argued that a local bike-sharing program, a popular initiative among city residents, was a “very well-disguised” part of a plan by then-Denver mayor (and now Colorado governor) John Hickenlooper for “converting Denver into a United Nations community.” Alex Jones constantly hawks the conspiracy. Glenn Beck warned it would lead to “centralized control over all of human life on planet Earth.” And in September, Newt Gingrich, hoping to burnish his wingnutty creds, told a group of Orlando Tea Partiers that, if elected, his first order of business would be “to cease all federal funding of any kind of activity that relates to United Nations Agenda 21” (Currently, no federal funding of any kind is used for implementing Agenda 21).
It’s causing uprisings like that seen in Virginia at ordinarily dull city planning board meetings across the country. As Stephanie Mencimer reported for Mother Jones, “Agenda 21 paranoia has swept the Tea Party scene, driving activists around the country to delve into the minutiae of local governance… they’re descending on planning meetings and transit debates, wielding PowerPoints about Agenda 21, and generally freaking out low-level bureaucrats with accusations about their roles in a supposed international conspiracy.”
Agenda 21 is inextricably linked to the most dangerous conspiracy theory going: that 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists are lying when they say human activities are contributing to global climate change. This, too, is supposedly in service of the goal of destroying capitalism, which means one has to believe that climatologists around the world are not only all very political—enough to conspire to deceive the entire world—but they also all share the same largely discredited ideology.
Back in Virginia, the Coastal Zone Management program is struggling to “help prepare for the predicted effects of climate change, especially sea-level rise on Virginia’s coastal resources.” The area is uniquely imperiled; in June, Darryl Fears, a science correspondent, reported that Hampton Roads is especially vulnerable because several rivers run through it on their way to the Chesapeake Bay. He continued:
Unfortunately, this crowded, low-lying area also has long-term geological issues to deal with. Thirty-five million years ago, a meteor landed relatively close by and created the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater. Hampton Roads is also home to a downward-pressing glacial formation created during the Ice Age. Scientists theorize that these ancient occurrences are causing the land to sink—and together account for about one-third of the sea-level change.
Fears notes that “the water has risen so much that Naval Station Norfolk is replacing 14 piers at $60 million each to keep ship-repair facilities high and dry,” but “this geology is lost in local meetings, where distrust of the local and federal governments is at center stage.”
And their harassment is having the desired effect of “freaking out low-level bureaucrats” trying to prepare the area for the changes to come, preparations that have absolutely nothing to do with the United Nations, Agenda 21 or “socialism.” According to Fears, Shereen Hughes, a former planning commissioner, is “worried that some officials are giving ground to fearmongers. The uprising against smart growth ‘is ridiculous’ and ‘a conspiracy theory,’ she said. But it’s effective.”
Planners aren’t saying this is wrong, Hughes said, because “most are afraid they won’t have a job if they’re too vocal about this issue.” Tea Party members have political allies who “might stand up” against planners who complain, Hughes said.
In his excellent book, Collapse, scientist Jared Diamond looked at a number of societies that had seen their physical climates change. He tried to determine what made some cultures die out while others persevered. According to Diamond, it wasn’t the severity of the change, or its speed that was the determining factor. One important variable was the foresight of those societies’ leaders—their ability to properly diagnose the problem and adapt, to come up with proactive solutions to the problems they faced.
Diamond, in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, said, “one always has to ask about people’s cultural response. Why is it that people failed to perceive the problems developing around them, or if they perceived them, why did they fail to solve the problems that would eventually do them in? Why did some peoples perceive and recognize their problems and others not?” Diamond explained:
A theme that emerges… is insulation of the decision-making elite from the consequences of their actions. That is to say, in societies where the elites do not suffer from the consequences of their decisions, but can insulate themselves, the elite are more likely to pursue their short-term interests, even though that may be bad for the long-term interests of the society, including the children of the elite themselves.
Today, oil and gas corporations are still funding a bunch of crank climate change deniers in order to avoid regulations that might slow their “short-term interests” in extracting as much wealth as they can from traditional hydrocarbons. And here we have Tea Partiers—a “movement” nurtured by business-friendly Republican operatives and backed by the Koch brothers’ dirty energy money—being whipped into a frenzy by the likes of Glenn Beck and shouting down local planners trying to do something about rising water levels. They’re freaking out about energy-efficient lightbulbs and bike-sharing programs, the very sorts of things we need in order to stave off disaster.
So the next time you hear a wingnut spewing feverish nonsense about “climategate” or the “globalist agenda,” remember that this is not just fodder for late-night TV monologues, but the kind of stuff that has in the past brought societies faced with changing environments to their ultimate end.