When I first started collecting conspiracy theories as a kid I never bothered to ask — and conspiracists never bothered to mention — why the Illuminati or international Jewish bankers, et cetera would bother manipulating world events to take control of the globe. It was so obvious it went without saying. Power is after all an end in itself, not a means to some other goal. Of course the Illuminati wanted power — who doesn’t?
But things have changed in conspiracy land. Today conspiracists rail against so-called “globalists,” their catch-all term for elite power brokers both real (like the Bilderberg Group) and imagined (like the Illuminati). They claim these globalists are motivated by environmentalism as much as a desire for raw power. It seems the Illuminati has gone green.
Like all conspiracy theories, the eco-Illuminati is absurd and ridiculous on its face. However it’s also insidiously brilliant. By giving the globalists an environmental agenda, conspiracists are able to weave together every possible government action, down to the most inane local zoning laws, into a Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory. Never before has anyone been able to link gun control to infill development or 9/11 with bike lanes — but anti-environmentalism makes it possible.
The Ecotopia Agenda of the Globalists
So what are the globalists after, according to someone like Alex Jones, who Rolling Stone called “the most paranoid man in America”? Not surprisingly, Jones believes in the typical New World Order conspiracy: that a secret society of global elites is manipulating the world economy and mass media in order to destabilize democracies and steer humanity toward a single planet-wide dictatorship. That’s pretty standard stuff as conspiracies go, with a long history running from 1903’s the Protocols of the Elders of Zion straight through to the first Left Behind novel.
Jones’s twist on the old New World Order (NWO) story (neatly summarized at globalistagenda.org) is that once the totalitarian planetary government is in place, it will systematically kill billions of people until the world’s population is just 500 million (conspiracists differ on the exact number, but the Georgia Guidestones monument explicitly says maintain the population at 500 million, and many believe the monument to be the work of the NWO). After depopulation, the remaining people will be concentrated into a small number of “megacities.” This global holocaust is necessary so that outside the megacities, the Earth’s lands and waters can be restored to an original state of nature. And with Earth’s population maintained at 500 million, its natural resources will not be exploited. Earth will be an Eden again, though the price for this ecotopia is murderous totalitarianism.
No environmentalist has ever proposed that billions of people be murdered in the name of saving the Earth, but Jones and others like Alan Watt argue anyone who uses the term sustainability, even if they’re advocating for something as innocuous as bike lanes, either holds this murderous belief or has been duped by the propaganda of the globalist conspirators who do.
If you watch the many movies Alex Jones has made starting in 1997, he doesn’t explicitly state the globalist agenda is an environmental one until Endgame in 2008. During the introduction of that film (minute 5:30), he briefly outlines the depopulation of the planet and creation of megacities but then doesn’t follow up with details later in the film. It’s as if he assumes his audience already knows the globalists have radical eco goals and so he need not elaborate further. Indeed, by 2008 the idea that global elites had a radical environmental agenda was conventional wisdom among large numbers of both conspiracists and mainstream conservative Republicans. (Consider the partisan divide about climate science and that climate change denial is fundamentally a conspiracy theory.)
The UN's Agenda 21
Conspiracists think they have a smoking gun — the New World Order’s blueprint for global takeover that's hiding in plain sight. Oddly, it is an obscure non-binding UN resolution from 1992 called “Agenda 21” (full text download).
In the summer of 1992, the United Nations met in Rio de Janeiro for the Conference on Environment and Development where a non-binding voluntary action plan was written about ways local, regional, and national governments could combat poverty and pollution and conserve natural resources in the next century. It was a sustainability agenda for the 21st century, hence its name, Agenda 21. Then-President George H. W. Bush, along with leaders of 177 other countries, endorsed the document. However, it was not a treaty. It had no provisions for funding, no enforcement mechanisms, and no force of law.
In other words, it was the kind of meaningless feel-good statement of intent the UN regularly churns out and it couldn’t force anyone to do anything. Not only that, it wasn’t even a top-down set of proposals but instead endorsed the idea that local communities were best suited to solve local problems. So not surprisingly, Agenda 21 initially flew under the radar of conspiracists and the conservative movement. However, the end of the Cold War had provoked an identity crisis among American conservatives, and some were searching for a new enemy to fight.
Hope & Optimism vs. Anger & Fear in the Republican Party
Before returning to anti-environmentalism and conspiracy theories, we need a brief review of the conservative movement in the 1990s:
During the early nineties conservatives faced a crisis of identity and purpose. In America, coalitions are formed within parties, rather than between parties like in a parliamentary system, and the Republican Party (and the American right in general) had for fifty years been a coalition united by anti-communism. The Soviet Union had officially ended Christmas Day, 1991 when the Soviet flag was lowered from over the Kremlin. Any feelings of elation among conservatives at the defeat of their great enemy quickly gave way to feelings of anxiety. What would they do now? What would replace communism as the thing that united them and gave them purpose?
Two competing visions were offered by two competing Republican presidential candidates: one hopeful and positive from sitting President George H. W. Bush, and one pessimistic and negative from television pundit Pat Buchanan, who mounted a primary challenge to Bush’s reelection.
Throughout his presidency, George H. W. Bush used the phrases "new world" or "new world order" when outlining his positive vision for a post-Cold War world, often during speeches to Congress, like on September 11, 1990, or on January 29, 1991, or on March 6, 1991 when he said:
“Until now, the world we've known has been a world divided — a world of barbed wire and concrete block, conflict and cold war. Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. In the words of Winston Churchill, a ‘world order’ in which ‘the principles of justice and fair play…protect the weak against the strong….’ A world where the United Nations, freed from cold war stalemate, is poised to fulfill the historic vision of its founders. A world in which freedom and respect for human rights finds a home among all nations.”
Unlike Bush's vision of the globe working together toward freedom, Pat Buchanan thought Americans should be fighting enemies lurking within. Buchanan’s rejection of Bush’s vision would play out during the primaries, and culminate in a dark speech he gave at the 1992 Republican National Convention where he famously said, “There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself.” He argued that liberal values like feminism, secularism, and multi-culturalism were an existential threat to the United States and explicitly recruited conservatives to join a new “culture war” that would replace the Cold War as their unifying purpose. Buchanan also ranted about environmentalism in the same speech:
“As running mate, Mr. Clinton chose Albert Gore…In New York, Mr. Gore made a startling declaration. Henceforth, he said, the ‘central organizing principle’ of all governments must be: the environment. Wrong, Albert! The central organizing principle of this republic is freedom. And from the ancient forests of Oregon, to the Inland Empire of California, America’s great middle class has got to start standing up to the environmental extremists who put insects, rats, and birds ahead of families, workers, and jobs.”
In 1992 Buchanan alienated many Americans, including many conservatives, and shared in the blame for Bush’s defeat along with Ross Perot. He was even banned from speaking at the 1996 RNC. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before mainstream conservatives had embraced Buchanan’s dark vision and rejected Bush’s optimism. There were many reasons for this, including structural problems with the economy, globalization, and stagnant wages, but Bill Clinton’s election stands out as a big reason.
The so-called Reagan Revolution had been a backlash against the 1960s, and Bill and Hillary Clinton were the very embodiment of the 60s. Bill and Hillary’s personas mobilized conservatives more than any principled stand against Bill’s moderate policies. With Clinton in office, Reagan’s heirs felt the 60s needed to be defeated all over again, so obstruction of Clinton’s agenda was paramount — far more important than working toward Bush’s goal of worldwide freedom and respect for human rights. The Republican Party had reached a crossroads, and fear had defeated hope.
Meanwhile in Conspiracy World
Let's return to the conspiracists. When laying out his post-Cold War vision George H. W. Bush had endorsed the UN, which conservatives had always hated, and he used the phrase “new world order,” and did so often. While most listeners heard an innocent phrase, groups like the conspiratorial John Birch Society as well as Evangelical Christians heard a coded message of tyranny.
Anti-communists had for decades used “New World Order” to describe international communism’s goal of a collectivist one world government, and thought Bush had endorsed an end to US sovereignty. Evangelical Christians who believed in end times scenarios had also used New World Order to describe a global dictatorship led by the anti-Christ. In fact, televangelist Pat Roberson published a book in 1991 called New World Order, which claimed Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, the Council on Foreign Relations, and others were working to install the anti-Christ as a world dictator.
In other words, much of the Republican base didn’t hear Bush say, “a world in which freedom and respect for human rights finds a home among all nations.” They heard him endorse a tyrannical superstate.
Environmentalists: Pagan and Communist
Throughout the nineties, anti-environmentalism was evolving within conservatism. Conservative Christians began to see environmentalism as a neo-pagan religion of nature worship. And angered by environmental regulations, laissez-faire capitalists portrayed the green movement as repackaged communism, green on the outside but red on the inside.
While both groups feared a new world order, secular capitalists and religious conservatives did not have much else in common. Laissez-faire capitalists weren’t too interested in waging a culture war, and with the Soviet Union gone, Christians feared the anti-Christ more than communism. However, if united against environmentalism, the culture war could easily be married to the anti-regulatory goals of free-market capitalists.
Tom DeWeese and Agenda 21
The environmental movement in America has always been decentralized, composed of small, local groups formed to address specific local issues. It has never had a single guiding philosophy. It has no bible. Even in its very beginnings there was a sharp divide between preservationists and conservationists, famously illustrated by the clash of John Muir with Gifford Pinchot. Today, animal rights activists have different priorities than anti-pollution activists, who have different priorities than land preservationists. The green movement is as sprawling and diverse as the American landscape. It is secular and religious, urban and rural, vegan and omnivorous.
In other words, no single document had ever outlined a uniform environmental agenda. There was no Green Manifesto that opponents could demonize. Compounding this further, most nature writing is long on descriptions of nature and very short on policy prescriptions.
That is, until a man named Tom DeWeese discovered Agenda 21. According to research by the Southern Poverty Law Center, it was DeWeese who first seized upon Agenda 21 as an insidious document and began to spin conspiracy theories from it. DeWeese is the founder of the American Policy Center whose stated purpose is to combat “environmental policy and its effect on private property rights…[and] the United Nations and its effect on American national sovereignty” as well as government surveillance and public education. DeWeese travels the country giving lectures about Agenda 21 to Tea Party and similar groups, while the APC produces and disseminates books, reports, and handouts that demonize regional planning, resource management, energy efficiency, alternative fuels, climate change science, et cetera.
From Tom DeWeese the Agenda 21 meme has spread far. Glenn Beck has even written not one but two dystopian novels about Agenda 21, and Republican candidates for office at all levels of government are regularly asked by constituents whether they oppose Agenda 21.
If DeWeese was a shill for oil companies, that would be one thing, but instead he is a full-blown conspiracist just like Alex Jones. Search the word "globalist" on the APC website to find dozens of articles where DeWeese argues Agenda 21 is the manifesto of a global collectivist conspiracy — the New World Order gone green, complete with depopulation and megacities. Consider the following quote from a January 2011 APC column, where he uses the term globalist and references the NWO plan to depopulate the planet: “For the globalists, A/R [animal rights] is a perfect pawn. The globalists want to reduce the human population by up to 85%, what better ally to have than the A/Rists who hate humans; who want to erase humans from the face of the earth.”
Some of the other nonsensical things DeWeese peddles:
Conspiracy Goes Mainstream
When I first started collecting conspiracy theories as a kid, conspiracists were on the fringes of American life. They were anti-government zealots who joined militias, members of the “Patriot” movement, or outright white supremacists who hated Jews. They were the weird kids who read books about Freemasons or Holy Blood, Holy Grail during lunch. No one took them seriously. They didn’t exert influence on the Republican Party. William F Buckley had famously kicked the conspiratorial John Birch Society out of the conservative movement.
Then conspiracism got legit. The conservative movement is now dominated by conspiracists—or rather, the conservative movement is a conspiracist movement. There has always been a "paranoid style" in American politics, as Richard Hofstadter famously wrote in 1964 (download the Harpers Magazine article here, or a longer version here), but even usually non-political folks like sci-fi authors Orson Scott Card and Michael Crichton got conspiratorial. How did the author of Jurassic Park end up believing so fervently in climate change conspiracy theory that he wrote a entire (terrible) novel about it? How did nearly every policy position of the Republican Party become a conspiracy theory?
Alex Jones should be on the far fringe of society but instead presidential candidate Donald Trump went on his show, where he praised Jones's “amazing” reputation, and promised, “I will not let you down.” Jones also regularly hosts Trump’s longtime political mentor Roger Stone on his radio show, which is broadcast across the country.
Trump himself began his political career promoting the racist conspiracy that President Obama is not a natural-born citizen, a lie many Republicans still believe. When the New York Times published a story about women who said Trump had sexually assaulted them, Trump gave a speech accusing Hillary Clinton of conspiring with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty, and claiming the media was a propaganda tool of global elites to maintain power.
Conspiracy Theories are Destructive to Democracy
"They substitute ignorance and suspicion for knowledge and reason ... and wreck any chance for finding real solutions." — the SPLC
In many ways, I collect conspiracy theories because they're fun and fascinating. But they have horrible consequences for democracy — for the straightforward work of solving shared problems in our communities. For example, my home town of Tampa, Florida has terrible traffic problems and some of the ugliest roads in the country. The city is a jungle of strip malls. Decades of poor growth planning has harmed our quality of life, the tourism industry, and our beautiful Florida environment in equal measure. The city needs more public transit, especially light rail, and infill development. But as As Mother Jones reported, “tea party activists helped defeat a widely supported measure that would have funded light rail and road improvements in Hillsborough County. In the lead-up to a ballot initiative on the penny-per-dollar sales tax increase to fund the project, the local conservative paper, the Tampa Bay Examiner, ran a series on Agenda 21 plus commentary suggesting that the ‘smart growth’ principles underlying the light rail proposal were simply ‘cover for an agenda to transfer American sovereignty to various tentacles of the United Nations.’”
Outside Florida, bills have been introduced in the Arizona, Missouri, Kansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Virginia legislatures opposing Agenda 21. Alabama’s governor actually signed into a law a vaguely worded bill prohibiting the state from enacting any part of Agenda 21. Even the Republican National Committee passed a resolution calling Agenda 21 a “destructive and insidious" scheme meant to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth” and a version of this resolution ended up in the GOP’s 2012 platform.
The Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory
So there you have it. Anti-environmentalism is at the heart of modern conspiracy theory. And this meme will not die on its own. Like the way urban legends evolve through every retelling until they become perfectly crafted stories, anti-environmentalism is the perfect meme, the pinnacle of conspiracy theory evolution. It's a totalizing worldview, encompassing any and every government action. What does 9/11 have to do with bike lanes? Electric cars with the Federal Reserve? Pollution control with gun control? Infill development with immigration? In reality, nothing. But if we believe in the eco-Illuminati, then all things are interconnected. Infill is the process by which they will build "stack n pack" megacities, and gun control is how they'll disarm us before herding us into the megacities — obviously.
Meanwhile, seas continue to rise, coral reefs continue to die, species continue to disappear, forests are clear cut. mountaintops are removed, drinking water is poisoned, the ice caps melt, and suspicion and fear keeps us from working together to fix any of it.
- October 2016