Every culture has a great fiction to explain the origin of the world. Whether it's a monumental explosion in the blackness of space, a herd of giant animals or an omnipotent patriarch with skilled hands, the basic message is the same: in order to understand life we need stories.
For most of the last 2,000 years, Western civilisation was dominated by a single story. The story was of a mythical father figure in the heavens (God), who conferred the majesty of his power and the demands of his will on to an earthly father figure (King, President), who enforced it through a network of additional, subordinate father figures (ministers, bishops, sheriffs, teachers).
The people who believed in this story were compelled to obey these commands through their fear of the mythical father, whose wrath resulted in eternal torment and a variety of imaginative plagues involving skin disorders and locusts. Those that were less sure of it were compelled to believe by their fear of the subordinate fathers, who had a lot of sharp objects and bare-chested men wearing black hoods at their disposal. This is what modern academia refers to as "the patriarchal paradigm". Inextricable from it is a second paradigm; that of "compliance through fear".
Since the end of World War II, in what has been labelled the "post-modern" period, these two paradigms are alleged to have languished. This is true to the extent that other voices have indeed arisen to shout their own stories through the cracks in the framework, but it is not true when you look at the actual exercise of power.
The power of bishops and teachers may have waned, but it has been more than taken up by news networks, advertising companies and global corporations. The efficacy of the God story has diminished slightly, but it has been vigorously replaced by modern fictions such as the current War on Terror and the rapidly emerging narrative of climate change.
Central to the essence of the fear paradigm is the idea that the world is permanently on the brink of destruction. Thanks to America's partisan struggles, this paradigm, far from disintegrating, has entered a new golden age; a glittering renaissance after the dark centuries of enlightenment, reason and romance.
There has never been a better time to go out into the street wearing a sign saying "the end of the world is nigh" and feel confident that you won't be carted off to the madhouse. On the other hand, go out in public and say that there's absolutely nothing to worry about and you'll soon find yourself lumped in with holocaust deniers, Klan leaders, Danish satirical cartoonists, practioners of voodoo and those wacky Islamic preachers.
That's why, even if I don't necessarily agree with them, I can appreciate the position of the climate change sceptics. We've bought into so many grand political fictions in the last few decades that it's little surprise people have become suspicious.
Scientists, environmentalists and greens have been talking about global warming for years but, for most of us, it was just a vague threat, like a young man being told by his doctor that he might have liver failure at the age of 65 if he doesn't lay off the booze.
It is very possible that most of what they were saying was right, but right or wrong on a scientific level has nothing to do with it. Politics is all about what people will believe, and the only way to get large numbers of people to believe anything is through good marketing.
Did I say "good" marketing? Good is a relative term. The current marketing strategies of the Bush regime employ much the same crude logic that the Nazis used in the 1930s. Create fear of specific groups (communists/terrorists), implicate these groups in dramatic attacks (the burning of the Reichstag, September 11), stoke the fires of nationalism with incendiary rhetoric, flag-waving and parades (axis of evil, web of terror, innumerable garbled German phrases involving the word Reich) and allow people's own insecurities and petty hatreds to do the rest.
Although they would never admit to it, the far-right in America were clearly admirers of the ideas of Josef Goebbels. They applied them feverishly during the 1950s to weed out commies, the 60s against hippies (less successfully), the 80s against the Soviet Union (more commies, this time with nukes), the 90s against Saddam and now the 00s against terrorists.