Conspiracy Theories

For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to sketch out the mental barriers that make it so hard for Americans to come to grips with the predicament we're in and the hard steps that will have to be taken to resolve it. These barriers are all interwoven with one another; whether we're talking about the unwillingness of the American middle class to let go or even acknowledge its position of privilege, or the universal insistence that the future has to be better than the present (even, or especially, when everyone knows it won't be), or the notion that our current problems are the result of someone's deliberate malice -- the theme of this week's post -- you can't talk about one for very long before others come into play. Every link in what William Blake called "the mind-forg'd manacles" of modern consciousness is tightly welded to the others.

One of the most interesting things about the set of ideas I want to discuss today is that it almost grasps this. Conspiracy theories start from the recognition that connections aren't always visible, that what looks random and disconnected often has a thread of purpose and meaning tying it together beneath the surface. That recognition's a crucial tool for making sense of today's global predicament, not to mention a necessary first step toward the ecological awareness that's our best hope of moving toward a more sustainable way of life. It's also a fundamental element in spirituality. Mystics and poets have been pointing out for thousands of years that everything is connected to everything else -- "thou canst not pluck a flower without troubling of a star" -- and the same realization has been central to the modern Druid tradition since its 18th-century origins.

Here as so often, though, the devil's in the details. While everything's connected to everything else, in any given context some connections are more relevant than others. Some series of subtle links connects the peanut butter sandwich you made last Tuesday with the state of your career, no doubt, but if you got turned down for a promotion on Friday, that peanut butter sandwich probably doesn't belong very high up on the list of the reasons why. If you don't want to discuss the more important reasons, though, the sandwich might just make a good way to talk about your career troubles but not about the factors you'd rather not mention.

Quite a bit of the conversation about fossil fuel depletion, global warming, and other aspects of our current predicament uses exactly this strategy. Recently, while checking the peak oil blogosphere, I ran into one article claiming that peak oil is a conspiracy being perpetrated by left-wing extremists who are trying to bring down the status quo. A few minutes further on, I ran across another article claiming that peak oil is a conspiracy being perpetrated by financiers who are trying to shore up the status quo. Now it's certainly true that some political activists have done their level best to hijack the oil depletion issue for partisan purposes, and it may be possible that the recent run-up in oil prices was pushed in an attempt to pump more financial liquidity into a faltering world economy. But those are secondary factors at most. The driving forces behind peak oil are these:
  • the world's oil reserves are finite
  • we've already used close to half the total recoverable oil on the planet
  • we've pumped more oil than we've discovered every year since 1964
  • production at most currently producing oil fields is declining
  • new fields and alternative sources such as tar sands are barely filling the gap
  • the situation is more likely to get worse than better in coming decades
These hard physical realities provide the context within which activists, financiers, and everyone else make their decisions and pursue their goals. If liberals are manipulating peak oil to support a partisan agenda, or if the big investment banks are encouraging speculation in the oil markets, that's worth noting, and arguably worth criticizing as well. Neither of these change that fact that the world is running out of cheap oil and worldwide demand for oil is outrunning the available supply. Still, if you don't want to talk about the reasons that you got passed over for promotion, that peanut butter sandwich makes a good distraction.

You can often make sense of a phenomenon by watching it in an extreme form, and I've had the opportunity to do that with this sort of thinking over the last few years. In the small southern Oregon town where I live, we've got quite a few residents more-or-less associated with the New Age movement, and a fair number of them are into the baroque conspiracy theory launched a few years back by a soccer player turned New Age guru named David Icke. Icke claims that our planet is controlled by malign, shapeshifting extraterrestrial reptiles, who are personally responsible for everything bad in the world. The conjunction between this bit of cosmic paranoia and the New Age movement always seemed odd to me, since the core of the New Age credo is "you create your own reality." If you believe that you create your own reality, I wondered, why would you want to create one in which the world is ruled by evil reptiles from outer space?

Like most questions, this one contains its own answer, because there are at least three reasons why a world ruled by evil reptiles is more comforting than the one we actually inhabit.

First, it's not your fault. If space reptiles rule the world, it doesn't matter that your comfortable lifestyle depends on Third World sweatshops and environmental devastation, or that the choices you make are helping to guarantee your grandchildren a poorer life on a more barren world. Since space reptiles run the world and you don't, they're to blame, not you.

Second, the world does what it's told. If space reptiles control the world, that means the world is under control, and thus at least potentially under your control. The world around you loses its independence, and becomes an object to be pushed around at will. You don't have to confront a universe governed by its own laws and momentum, in which you, your desires, and your opinions aren't actually that important.

Third, you don't have to change your life. If space reptiles are responsible for all the world's problems, then opposing the reptiles is far more important than solving the problems. It's also much easier, since it doesn't require you to give up unsustainable lifestyle choices.

These advantages go a long way toward explaining why Icke's reptile mythology has become so popular on the far edges of today's zeitgeist. The same three factors, though, play at least as large a role in the far less exotic versions of conspiracy theory that surround the current predicament of industrial society. Far too often, talk about the various manifestations of that predicament focuses exclusively on who to blame, and whether the target du jour is liberal activists, financiers, oil companies, George W. Bush, or Gilgamesh, the assumption seems to be that if only the right scapegoat can be found and punished, the problem will be solved.

It won't, though. Criticism has its place in any healthy society, but when it turns into a replacement for constructive action, it becomes wasted breath -- and when it becomes a way for people to avoid dealing with their own complicity in the situation, it can easily become part of the problem it claims to address. That's true even if some of the potential scapegoats helped make the situation worse than it had to be, by the way.