Tracking yarns spun by the nation\u2019s growing cadre of conspiracy theorists on both the right and left of the political spectrum is a favorite pastime of mine. From flying saucers to \u201csmart\u201d meters, what these fringe groups say often provides insights into the mainstream. Conspiracy theories have long played a role in American history. They\u2019re far more entertaining and engaging than most prime time television pap and pulp novels. They often become a genuine force in American life. For example, the John Birch Society--which saw a communist under every bed--helped propel Barry Goldwater to make his ill-fated run for president in 1964. They may affect history again when it comes to smart meters, demand-response, and our energy future. For the uninitiated, one of the running themes in conspiracy theories is that a secret society is working to control the world for nefarious purposes. Its newest tool, a growing number of people say, is the \u201csmart\u201d meter. Today, digital meters are closely entwined with fear about a \u201cnew world order\u201d run by an international cabal. \u201cSmart\u201d meters are on par with black helicopters that were the stuff of \u201cone-world\u201d government conspiracy theories in the 1990s and the last decade. You think it\u2019s crazy, but it\u2019s true. You can watch Michael Shaw of Freedom 21 Santa Cruz ( www.f21sc.net ) and Dr. Stanley Monteith of Radio Liberty. They explain in great detail what they see as the conspiracy behind Agenda 21--the United Nations sustainable development accord--for which \u201csmart\u201d meters increasingly are considered a major implementation tool. California Eagle Forum president Orlean Koehle is fighting meters to ward off Agenda 21 as her cause célèbre. She\u2019s giving a presentation about it at the state group\u2019s annual conference in Sacramento next month. Earlier this spring she appeared at a Tea Party forum on smart meters in Santa Barbara. Phyllis Schafly founded the Eagle Forum in 1972 to promote \u201cfamily values\u201d in response to the feminist movement. It was a time of stagflation, energy embargoes, and the economic rise of Japan, which exerted heavy downward pressure on male wages. In essence, traditional families began to see their living standards decline--but despite these real reasons--many blamed it on feminism and moral decay caused by birth control. Today, the Eagle Forum--which is closely related to the Tea Party and a variety of property rights organizations--are charging that meters threaten economic decline. These organizations see smart meters as part of the secret cabal\u2019s efforts to establish world government and depopulate the Earth, presumably so the illuminati can have all the remaining resources for themselves and live on a sustainable basis without the rest of us interfering. Meters, they say, will be used by Lucifer worshipers to ration energy and thereby begin the depopulation process. The groundwork was laid in Agenda 21 at the UN\u2019s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Former UN under-secretary general Maurice Strong, the theory goes, engineered the agreement to carry out the depopulation plan developed by the devil worshipping group, of which he was secretly affiliated. Citing scientific research about Earth\u2019s carrying capacity, the conspiracy theorists postulate that the goal of rationing energy with smart meters is part of a plan to reduce world population from 7 billion to 500 million, while violating private property rights and personal liberty along the way. Here\u2019s what I love about conspiracy theories. In general, they draw on facts which are indisputable. For instance, Maurice Strong did push through Agenda 21 and it does argue for collective control of private development rights and restraints on consumption. Smart meters are envisioned as a means for rationing energy, to put it in simple terms. There are black helicopters. However, the real genius of conspiracy theorists like Koehle and company is to weave these facts into a plausible and coherent explanation of what is motivating actors who are shaping events. Koehle cites a litany of familiar concerns with smart meters--from health impacts to invasion of privacy--making them synonymous with Big Brother. At the heart of her argument\u2019s appeal, though, is that it feeds into the current sense in America that our leaders and big companies are failing the average person, resulting in a declining living standard. Right wingers are deftly convincing more and more people that smart meters, energy efficiency policies (like CFL lights), and other energy and environmental management policies are driving small businesses, farmers, working people, and consumers into sweaty, gritty Third World lifestyles. Meanwhile, the suits in government and big companies, like utilities, live the air conditioned lifestyle under solar rooftops, ride in expensive plug-in hybrid cars, and look forward to good pensions. Note that part of this argument, namely that living standards are declining and inequality is growing, is the same thing that leftist film maker Michael Moore shouts at rallies against big banks on Wall Street. That\u2019s why the theory about meters and other energy policies is so compelling in explaining the changing world before us--even though it\u2019s bunk. It\u2019s also why--as it appears to be spreading like wildfire--it\u2019s especially important for the state\u2019s energy leaders to dispel it. Here\u2019s how they might do so: -Acknowledge the pain felt across the land--mostly borne in the silence of foreclosures, short sales, students turned away due to university admission quotas and fee hikes, layoffs, furloughs, and persistent unemployment--by getting tough on utility rate increases. -Stop talking about how the transition to cleaner energy will be at little or no cost and tell people the truth. Reveal the cost of renewable energy contracts between investor-owned utilities and wind and solar energy producers. Work to reopen and lower the cost of those that are unreasonable. Wind energy producers are no longer small businesses that have to be coddled. They\u2019re big international firms that should be toughly regulated. -Figure out a way to create a sizable and direct role for small businesses, small cities, and working and low-income folks in creating the green revolution. Don\u2019t just leave it to big companies. This means more emphasis on energy efficiency and distributed generation, including financing programs. -Take these steps with the same urgency the state approached getting permits out for a handful of companies to build large, centralized solar plants in the desert, largely at public expense, that will increase the cost of electricity to state consumers. Leaders\u2019 display of good faith can dispel conspiracy theorist charges that they\u2019re out to exploit the general public. By convincing many that they share in their basic \u201cfamily values\u201d they\u2019ll win over some in the growing ranks of the discontented.