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Paranoia as Plaything: Conspiracy Culture and its Threat to the Current Climate (Crisis)

As Cumulonimbus clouds swirled above northern skies last October, members of a

fringe political group gathered in Manchester. Present amongst the truth seers were

some of Britain’s finest minds, the descendants of Enigma codebreakers and perhaps

our only true advocates for liberty in times of increasing authoritarianism. Ruthless

crackdowns on our hard-fought freedoms have become a fact of life, but most ‘sheeples’

are too distracted by the woke phantasmagoria of our cultural haze to notice. Isn’t it

great we have a real-life Indian in charge? Maybe Ru Paul will replace Alex Jones (no, not

that one) on the One Show? Seemingly, no one is doing anything to stop the assault.

Except these guys. As one of their chief protégés warned them of imminent plans to

remove meat from the national diet and turn us all into tofu-eating loons, a more

established initiate sent chills through the enlightened masses with details of the plot to

confine us all to our homes. There will be no cars in the 15-minute city, no trips to

Maccies or even Barnard Castle - unless you’re lucky enough to actually live in it. The

crowds response grew vociferously as the speakers outlined their strategy for fighting

the globalist cabal. Some nodded their heads and murmured approval; others stomped

the floor to an irregular syncopated beat. One man at the back, inspired by the poetry

and will of these resistance fighters, rose to his feet and flung his arm straight into the

air, fingers flowing forwards at a 45° angle, until his wife hurriedly tugged his shirt and

ushered him down and out of his trance state.

Somehow, this meeting wasn’t a public talk by Piers Corbyn, Jeremy’s conspiratorial

sibling shadow. It wasn’t even an impromptu Trump Rally. This was the Conservative

Party Conference.

This blending of hard-right rhetoric and the lore of conspiracy into a new political mass

is a relatively new phenomenon. Naomi Klein’s new book ‘Doppelganger’ describes this

configuration as a ‘diagonalist alliance’, a place where grandchildren of the flower

generation and exponents of extreme wellness rub shoulders with the likes of Steve

Bannon in the digital ether. Until fairly recently, it had been reserved for the strange

hinterlands of the American subcontinent.

But last year, it reared its ugly head for the first time in the mainstream British political

landscape. Within it, unsubstantiated but familiar fears of a migrant “invasion” stood

next to paranoid ramblings about meat taxes and 15-minute cities, as the Tories’ death

rattle appropriated a newer, much darker timbre.

This political blending could easily be dismissed as expediency, a desperate lurch by the

Tories to attract fresh voters and prevent electoral disaster later this year. But recent

research by The Guardian suggests that exaggerated concerns about the 15-minute city

have already led to a shift in transport policy. In the Government’s new ‘Plan for

Drivers’, pedestrians have been side-lined, walking and cycling schemes curbed, and the

right to drive and pollute favoured over pleas for cleaner air and greener communities.

What began as an innovative town planning concept based on access to local amenities

within easy walking or cycling distance, an idea fleshed out by the Urbanist Dr Carlos

Moreno, has morphed into a furtive ruse for population control too ominous even for

the brainiacs at Number 10 to ignore.

The influence of these “theories” on our mainstream politicians is a damning indictment

of their critical faculties, but what’s more concerning is how they are fuelling a new

wave of climate change denialism at a critical juncture for humanity. Anyone who

watched the recent edition of the BBC’s flagship nature programme ‘Planet Earth’ can

testify to the worldwide interlinked crises of biodiversity, habitat loss and ecological

collapse. This is happening everywhere, from the Amazon rainforest, where a section

the size of Wales is lost each year, to the UK’s unique but critically depleted chalk rivers.

But caught in a vice grip of deep mistrust and paranoia, an affliction that has perhaps

understandably grown since COVID-19, an alarming number of people have turned their

back on reality. According to YouGov, as many as 22% of respondents to a 2021 global

poll believed the climate crisis was a hoax.

At home, this is visible in recent campaigns against the London ULEZ where some

protesters, deploying rather dubious techniques, rejected decades of scholarship and

scientific rigour with the simple flick of an air pollution meter in a battered van driving

through Bromley. Though understandable concerns about the scheme’s rollout do exist,

the movement’s conspiratorial turn has effectively equated climate science with a

subterfuge for population control, which has encouraged a growing number of vigilante

groups to commit acts of vandalism and damage to TFL cameras, road signs and traffic

lights. The Conservatives’ selection of Pro-Trumpian, anti-ULEZ Susan Hall as their

candidate for London Mayor suggests they intend to continue fanning the flames.

Yet there is something in this strange, distorted mirror, an uncomfortable truth that the

left is perhaps unwilling to confront.

The climate crisis is getting worse. Extreme weather events and the unpredictability of

seasonal changes will soon lead to mass habitat decline, rising sea levels, food shortages

and climate refugees on an unprecedented scale. No country, no matter how prominent

or developed, is untouchable. On the west coast of Wales, the villagers of Fairbourne

have already been told they will need to relocate due to a high risk of flooding.

So when conspiracy “theorists” bang on about imminent measures of control to subdue

our freedom of movement and way of life, they are actually tapping into a very real

threat which increases with every day of non-action. Very soon, top-down interventions

will have to be implemented to keep our consumption at sustainable levels and within

the earth’s fragile parameters.

However, disseminating and promoting misinformation about the reasons for this will

only allow for our current conditions of planetary exploitation to be reproduced.

Conspiracies can seem fantastical, light-hearted, even funny. But at their historical core,

they have always been a convenient distraction technique; a tool that allows the system

it obfuscates to continue turning whilst placing the blame for its darker machinations

on small groups of scapegoats, ethereal beings or mirages. And the more people that

buy into the lie, the more opportunity there is for the real villains, oil companies, large

corporations, arms manufacturers and intensive agriculturalists, to profit from

ecological destruction.

Crucially though, as more time passes there will be less opportunity to solve the crisis

through meaningful democratic consensus. And the recent work of environmental

scientists and advocates, in projects as variable as the London ULEZ, Yellowstone Wolf

Project and Indoor Vertical Farming, proves there are solutions here and now that must

be demanded and implemented. But the real question, as the late cultural theorist Mark

Fisher put it, is whether we act now to demand that these are “collectively managed, or

whether [they] will be imposed by authoritarian means when it is already too late.”

Unfortunately, as recent studies suggest, time is running out. And if we continue to deny

the reality of our fragile climate, to delay these already known and much-needed

solutions out of misguided fears of an imminent Orwellian world, then a much darker,

much more real dystopia might emerge in the future.


Joe Barnes works in Outreach for a homelessness charity and is based in West London. When he isn't rewatching the Sopranos, he likes to blog about football and neoliberalism, urban space production, the rise of conspiracy culture, and our increasingly precarious ecosystems and habitats. 

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