Imagine, if you will, the following scene at a municipal council meeting in the UK:
Councillor 1: Traffic along this, this, and this road is bloody awful.
Councillor 2: Well, this city over here has implemented a traffic management scheme and it seems to work well.
Councillor 3: Brilliant. Let’s do something similar.
Presents to public.
Public: THIS IS PART OF A WEF PLOT TO IMPLEMENT 15-MINUTE CITIES AND KILL US ALL.
Sounds funny, but it’s actually happening. As far as I can make out, conspiracy theorists have taken a perfectly mundane traffic filter proposition, designed to unclog certain routes at certain times (and encourage public transit use or cycling/walking) and made it out to be a plot designed to restrict movement via ‘climate change lockdowns.’
They have conflated the traffic filters with a concept known as ‘15-minute cities,’ an innocuous urban planning concept that’s been around forever. The thinking behind that is that most things that urban residents need should be within 15 minutes of where they live. We’ve kind of forgotten that approach, which is why urban sprawl is a huge problem, especially in North America. In practical terms, that might mean that in the future, your local council declines a proposal for yet another strip mall on the edge of town, but approves a low-rise residential building in the core that features shops on the bottom floor.
How does the WEF come into this? Good question. WEF, in case you’re unaware, stands for World Economic Forum. It’s a glorified TED Talks for politicians, and has included presentations from everyone from Jair Bolsonaro to Greta Thunberg, and from Jacinda Ardern to Donald Trump.
Fifteen minute cities gets mentioned a few times on the WEF website because, unsurprisingly, a forum that is concerned with the world economy is also concerned with the big topics of our day, like climate change, urban living, health, etc. And cities actually designed to have the amenities you need more conveniently arranged wouldhelp tackle climate change.
The WEF is the target of conspiracy theories because it’s primarily wealthy politicians, celebs, and business people who attend its meetings, but mostly because its founder is named Klaus Schwab.
It’s also a target because there are a lot of people who deliberately make it one. All of those folks who rose to prominence during the pandemic need a fresh grift. That’s the allegation here on a small scale, and it also seems to be the playbook for higher profile people like this guy, who apparently spends his waking hours raging against being asked to use less paper towel and who’s also cooking up some sort of ‘alternative’ to the WEF.
There’s good money to be made in manufacturing outrage. I did the math on a single pandemic-related YouTube video once, which consisted of a 20-minute interview with a self-proclaimed expert. No special production values, it was just two people on either end of a Zoom call with minimal editing. It had, at that time, been viewed more than 250,000 times. I estimated the ad revenue share for that 20 minutes to be about $1000. And as long as it remained topical, it was going to keep earning.
The bigger your channel, the more you earn on YouTube by the way, with some people earning as much as $29.30/1000 views. You can see how outrage manufacturing is incentivized. (Depressing side note: Consider how much money ‘kitty with an itchy bum’ has made, even at a penny per view revenue share.) Websites full of ads are another way to monetize, as are speaker fees, sponsorships, and especially in the US, sales of dubious vitamin supplements.
Now you would think that, with the pandemic mostly sorta kinda behind us, at least as far as the public and politicians are concerned, that grifters would have lost their audience. Here we are, with most of the world’s population vaccinated and boosted, largely back to the office, attending concerts, going to church and travelling to other countries. The ominous predictions of troops on the street and increasing restrictions never transpired.
Indeed, most of us never really endured a true ‘lock down’ apart from that first few weeks when we were still learning about the virus and were asked to stay home. Certainly essential workers had to carry on doing their jobs all that time. So how is it people are still so easily convinced of new variations of these theories?
I covered the fact that some people are actively working to keep that audience hooked, and it’s also the case that once you fall down a rabbit hole, it’s really hard to climb back out of it, psychologically speaking. Obviously, social media plays a huge role, especially when you have billionaires reactivating grifter accounts and actively signal boosting theories. (We can maybe hope that whole network is coming to an end soon.)
But more than anything else, I think it’s future shock. Alvin Toffler wrote a book by that name back in the 1970s, and he suggested that the increasing pace of change would leave many people unable to cope. It’s a long, but good read, if you have the time.
Why should we care whether people believe weird things as a coping mechanism? It’s increasingly dangerous. Councillors have received death threats over these sorts of proposals. Large groups of angry people are descending suddenly on meetings to demand answers to questions based on misinformation, and then not believing the answers they’re given. And of course, these angry groups are filmed, the video posted on social media, which then winds up more people, and it just gets worse from there.
It’s pushing good people out of public service and preventing other good people from signing up. It’s delaying or completely halting changes that would be beneficial. It will inevitably push governments to be more secretive because who needs a mob showing up over a straightforward traffic detour project? And, it will mean that legitimate criticism of proposals will get lost in all the shouting. Citizens should question their governments and the policies they propose. But they should base those criticisms on what’s actually being proposed, not a rumour made into a meme.
It also means that a large section of the population are spending their lives feeling scared and angry for no particularly good reason, and that’s not good for them or their families.
Image credit: Midjourney