X Marks The Spot: Chemtrails, Conspiracies & Discourse Analysis

By Morag Rose, University of Sheffield 

Sfc.contrail.1.26.01

NASA photograph of aircraft contrails, take from I-95 in Northern Virginia, January 26, 2001 by NASA scientist Louis Ngyyen.

The X-Files recently returned to television after a fourteen year absence. The Guardian provides a useful guide to the new series, which had mixed reviews and was accused of Islamophobia and Transphobia. As ever the show explores a range of paranormal phenomenon, folklore and contemporary conspiracy theories.  These may seem strange subjects for geographers to take an interest in but such stories are an integral part of society. For an exemplar, see Pile (2005) on phantasmagorias and the role dreams, magic, vampires and ghosts play in modern city life.

In an article published in The Geographical Journal, Rose Cairns explores the online world of “chemtrail” conspiracy narratives and asks what they can tell us about the international politics of geoengineering. Conspiracy theories are not new, and Cairns provides historical examples of the role they play in making sense of the world.  She highlights “the instability of the distinction between ‘paranoid’ and ‘normal’ views”, suggesting “moral outrage at the idea of global elites controlling the weather” should not simply be dismissed as irrational (2016:70). The reaction is provoked by many things including our emotional and visceral connections to the weather.

Geoengineering is often discussed as a possible intervention against climate change.  Perhaps fears around chemtrails can be seen as embodying a wider mistrust with authority, mainstream media and science which is seen as elitist and opaque. Belief is connected to scepticism about climate change and may indicate a failure to convey research in clear and understandable ways. As public engagement is perceived to be an increasingly important facet of academic communication, perhaps we should encourage conversations with those who provide alternative viewpoints. Cairns recognised this may be difficult when arguments are polarised and emotional.

Discourse analysis can draw contradictory narratives into a bigger picture that explains how and why belief systems develop within a society. You don’t have to agree with something to find it interesting, and it’s often illuminating to try and understand radically different perspectives. Cairns has been attacked for her work by “truthers” but we all need to keep questioning. We also need to refrain from dismissing anything that deviates from the hegemony simply because it sounds unbelievable to us. Just last week a former aide to President Nixon was quoted as saying, with regards to another alleged cover-up:  “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the (Vietnam) war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities…and vilify them night after night on the evening news” (Baum, 2016).

It is tempting to finish with a glib Mulder and Scully slogan that “the truth is out there” but reality is so often more complex and fantastic than fiction.

References

60-world2 Baum D 2016 Legalize It All: How to Win The War on Drugs Harpers March 2016 online at https://harpers.org/archive/2016/04/legalize-it-all/ (accessed 22.2.2016)

books_icon Cairns R  2016 Climates of Suspicion: “Chemtrail” Conspiracy Narratives and The International Politics of Geoengineering  The Geographical Journal 182: 1 pp 70-84 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/geoj.12116/abstract

books_icon Pile S 2005  Real Cities Modernity, Space and the Phantasmagorias of Modern Life London: Sage Publications Ltd

60-world2 The Guardian  The X-Files Episode by Episode http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/series/the-x-files-episode-by-episode (accessed 22.2.2016)

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