In case you hadn’t heard about the “15-minute city” conspiracy theory, the year’s hottest thing in alleged sinister plots, it goes like this.
A perfectly sensible urban planning approach — building more pleasant neighbourhoods with accessible, nearby amenities to lessen our dependence on highways congested with fossil-fuelled cars — is actually a totalitarian scheme to keep us confined, for unspecified reasons, in neighborhood prison districts.
Yes, it’s bizarre. But it’s also nothing new; you’ve likely heard a version of it before.
And that’s because the 15-minute city is really just the latest target of the conspiracism that has long harassed the politics of environmental sustainability.
Like soaking Gremlins
As far back as the late 1980s and early 1990s, conspiracy theorists insisted there lurked tyrannical communist schemes behind efforts to do something about the hole in the ozone layer or to coordinate global environmental policy under the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.
And of course, climate science had always been accused by conspiracy theorists of being a hoax to justify increased government control over our lives (a claim that’s sadly seen a revival recently).
But, like a Gremlin dropped in water, that conspiracism has exploded in number and kind in the last ten years or so.
The non-binding United Nations’ sustainability resolution “Agenda 21” was a plot to impose a global tyrannical government. Climate activist Greta Thunberg is a paid actor or part of a plot by liberal billionaire George Soros. The Green New Deal is a totalitarian socialist ploy to take away our freedoms. The “Great Reset” is a globalist plan leveraging climate concerns to reduce our standard of living. Tar sands opposition is really a way for foreign-funded eco-radicals to undermine Canadian democracy.
And now, if it isn't 15-minute cities we’re supposed to see sinister workings in, it's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fertilizers. Or corporate initiatives to adopt “ESG” (environmental, social, and governance) principles. Or cricket protein.Or the just transition. Or climate lockdowns. Or “climate police”. Or even just the word sustainability.
But despite how numerous and how varied they’ve grown, something becomes obvious when you list these conspiracy theories one after another.
They are all the exact same one.
A generic formula, an old playbook
Each of these conspiracy theories is the product of a simple, blunt formula that goes like this: any policy measure to promote sustainability is really a deceptive pretext for [insert nefarious forces] to advance their plot to [insert vague assertions about manipulating and controlling us]. The reason they’re so generic is that nothing more substantial is going on here — no rigorous attempt to validate one hypothesis over another, no attempt to ground things in any understanding of ideology or political economy, no convincing attempt to show anything works this way in the complex reality of the actual world.
It’s entirely unsurprising, then, that when it comes to producing accurate explanations or predictions for what happens in the world, this “environmentalism = conspiracy” formula has a historical success rate of precisely zero. Reliability isn’t why it flourishes.
It’s prominent, rather, for at least two reasons. The first is more straightforward: it offers people uneasy with progressive social change a way to oppose undesirable developments in the politics of the environment. The second reason is more complicated.
Something had to happen for so many people to deem absurd conspiracy theories more plausible than the more rational alternative — that there really are observable environmental consequences to industrial capitalism (and that people sincerely want to find effective and just policy responses to address them).
“Environmentalism = conspiracy” only works because another flawed formula laid its foundation: “science = untrustworthy.”
What established that foundation was decades of organized right-wing disinformation campaigns funded by polluting industries to shield them from government regulation. As Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway detailed in their modern classic book Merchants of Doubt, the playbook these campaigns relied on was to sow distrust in profit-threatening environmental science by countering its findings with a flood of made-up (but plausible-sounding) contrarian claims. The purpose was to give the impression that the science behind a litany of issues — tobacco use and health, CFCs and the ozone layer, fossil fuels and climate change — remained radically unsettled. Therefore, there really wasn’t any reason people should change their patterns of life (or regulate the industries that profit so richly from it).
What’s clear now is that these campaigns did more than foster doubt and distrust. They paved the way to conspiracism, because conspiracism offered people who bought into the disinformation a way to make sense of it. After all, if the science is actually unsettled, isn’t it suspicious that no part of the establishment — governments, the United Nations, academia, the mainstream media — is acting like it? Why are they pushing their sustainability agenda if we’re not even sure there’s a problem? What’s really going on?
Today, more than one in four people in the United States and almost one in five in Canada believe the following statement to be true: “The idea of man-made global warming is just a hoax that was invented to deceive people.”
The fact that millions of people could be convinced of that — that they find it more convincing than the idea that pumping climate-warming gases into the atmosphere could warm the climate — is a testament to the influence of the manufactured doubt in science that makes everything churned out through the “environmentalism = conspiracy” formula appear plausible.
Disinformation as political force
While disinformation and conspiracism tell us nothing real about the world, they can nevertheless impact it.
We can see how that is playing out in Canada through some recent polling work by Ekos looking into the intersection of disinformation, politics, and polarization.
For one, disinformation has a powerful negative effect on people’s willingness to respond to climate change at the necessary scale and speed. Polling from February and March showed that 46 per cent of those holding the highest levels of belief in disinformation on matters like COVID-19 vaccines and climate change would oppose Canada adopting an ambitious climate program like the one found in the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. Compare that with how only 4 per cent of those not believing disinformation would be in opposition.
At a time when Canadian society needs broad and sustained popular support for rapid reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, mistruth threatens to hold us back: 72 per cent of those who are most disinformed also supported the 2022 “Freedom Convoy” movement in opposition to public health measures — a reminder of how disinformation can drive impactful political mobilization for socially destructive ends.
But perhaps even more striking is how disinformation is becoming a political force in its own right.
Ekos found that the more respondents believe disinformation, the more they intend to vote for right-wing parties in the next federal election. Of those in the highest disinformation rank, 68 per cent would vote Conservative and 12 per cent would vote for the People’s Party. Of those who did not believe disinformation, just 12 per cent would vote for the Conservatives and none for the People’s Party. (Meanwhile, low levels of disinformation were associated with intent to vote NDP or Liberal.)
Imagine knowing this as a right-wing media figure, politician, or strategist. What incentive would you have to rein in the conspiracists in your midst? On the contrary, why not tolerate them? Why not let them stir things up with half-truths about, say, the impacts of the just transition that your liberal opponents are talking about?
This is dangerous stuff for democracies. Conspiracies and disinformation signal something about the people who believe in them: they’re easily manipulated. If they can be convinced that the 15-minute city is a plot or that climate change is a hoax, what other readily debunked mistruths can they be convinced of? What other progressive policy changes might they be turned against? What crises can they be convinced to ignore?
I’ve written parts of this piece under an eerie red-orange sunlight, the result of smoke from the massive wildfires raging several provinces away in an Alberta made warmer and drier by a changing climate.
Already, disinformation efforts are underway to misdirect the gullible and depict the fires as some false flag operation orchestrated by “eco-terrorists pushing climate hysteria."
It's a reminder of the deep irony to the belief that environmental policies are conspiracies to impose some dystopia upon us: a dystopia is already setting in, and for all their vigilance and paranoia, conspiracy theorists are too busy worrying about the latest nonsense — eco-arsonists, 15-minute city plots — to see it.