Photo: a sticker seen on the NY subway in May.

“The Earth is Flat”……I was told by an American friend while visiting LA earlier this year. 

This was news to me. 

It was hard to comprehend that this was a current school of thought. But the more I discussed this with her, and the more I digged online, the more I realised this was a contemporary movement that had risen to the top of the conspiracy pyramid over the last 2 years. Most specifically it began to spike about 18 months ago.

Photo: Google Trend over the last 5 years, for the search term “Flat Earth”

I began to piece together a theory that as Trump’s ascendancy began so did support for the Flat Earth. Why? What was going on? 

Asking around my friends and acquaintances they confirmed that yes, they knew of other Flat Earthers: that office arguments around the subject were a thing, and that they too had noticed the phenomenon.

Around this time, the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, and like so many, I understood more fully how beliefs were being actively manipulated. That our thoughts were not our own, and that we were living in a climate of suggestibility and susceptibility.

Could it be that the Russians were promoting Flat Earth to already susceptible voters as a way to “soften-up” their thinking to encompass something as outlandish as voting Trump for leader of the free world?

While liberals were getting Bernie and cat videos, conservatives were being delivered Trump and Flat Earth on Facebook?

And could the side effect be that non-Trump supporters with a certain algorithm picked up on the Flat Earth as a form of “spiritual bypass”? 

spiritual bypass or spiritual bypassing is a “tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks”

Source: Wikipedia

After watching too many Flat Earth videos on Youtube I can now say I am reasonably qualified on the subject. So much so that I can tell you the official “handshake” of the Flat Earth movement is to hold your arm at a horizontal angle like leaning on an imaginary bar. 

But over the drone of earnest narration, and badly drawn diagrams refuting accepted physics, I could hear a silent scream. There is a mania detectible in the voices of people talking about the Flat Earth. It is the same tone I hear when talking to most Americans when they express their fears and anxieties about life in the Trump era.

“I just have to shut out the news, and not read or watch anything. I can’t take it every day: it’s too much.” I hear this all the time in America.

Photo: Manhattan Beach, California. Taken as my friend pointed out to me the obvious flatness to support her Flat Earth belief.

First though, before I could begin to think about the other implications of the Flat Earth movement, my immediate impulse was to argue with every fibre of my being for the Heliocentric Model. 

I am from New Zealand, from the other side of the planet, with sufficient air travel to be pretty rock solid on the whole, “the Earth is a globe concept”. But as I argued with my Flat Earth friend I realised I might have to go to extremes.

I have two life long dreams as a photographer. 

To shoot polaroid landscapes in Antarctica.

To photograph the Earth from space.

Up until this point I felt these ideas were reasonably uncontroversial, but also out of reach logistically and financially for me to ever achieve. Although there is an Antarctic artist residency for New Zealanders I will apply for one day. But space? I believe the ticket price for a Virgin Galactic flight was about $200,000 USD.

I had previously shared these dreams with my FE friend, and I was surprised by the lack of excitement or enthusiasm around these ideas. As I began my research into the Flat Earth, I suddenly understood why.

Starting with Antarctica: the FE belief is that Antarctica is the hard edge around the flat plate of the Earth and it’s ice walls (like Game of Thrones) is what keeps it all from spilling off the edge. 

The reason no one can easily go to Antarctica and why it is controlled by a certain group of governments, is because they don’t want us to know the truth, and see the edge. It is all a huge conspiracy. 

Space: space travel is a laughing matter for Flat Earthers for many reasons. The first being that there is a giant hard dome covering the diner plate of Earth, so there is no way to fly out. The second is that our whole concept of space and the bodies within it is completely wrong, and what we know of space and space travel is all a fabrication, Photoshoped and CGI’d and acted out to cover up the secret. No we did not land on the Moon.

Photo: Response to my enquiry to photograph the Earth from the edge of space as a MIG-29 passenger.

I am a pragmatist, and as common arguments failed with my Flat Earther, I decided to find a way to prove the Earth was a globe my way.

Take a Polaroid. 

Polaroids can’t be faked. You can’t manipulate or Photoshop it. The film you put into the camera is what comes out as a print. So: how could I take a Polaroid of Earth from high up enough that I could show the curvature of the Earth?

Weather Balloons. 

For $1 USD per gram, an enthusiast weather balloon club will send up your experiment / camera to the edge of space. Working through the idea, I realised there were too many limitations, and I would probably have 100% failure. Even if the camera got to space, and shot images, I only had a camera that could take 8x frames, and would be bobbing around so much, I would probably end up with a bunch of random shots of black space. Plus the weight, automation, and temperature were major issues. 

This led me to consider traditional analogue film. Also a medium, impossible to tamper with and fake. Shooting film over Polaroid gave me more shots, and better conditions, but still after more research, I decided there had to be a better way.

Russian MIG fighter planes.

Yes….for around $20,000 USD you can be a passenger in a MIG-29, the only commercially available plane that can actually reach the edge of space. The 50 minute flight will get you up there, and in my mind it would allow me enough time to shoot the landscape of my dreams.

I have yet to solve many of the logistics, or funding. But here in my mind is a way to conclusively win the next argument I have with a Flat Earther.

Photo: carpark of The Atlantis Casino Hotel, Reno, Nevada.

After you get over the initial shock of learning people still believe the earth is flat, you want to know why….what is the appeal, and why does it offer a source of Spiritual Bypass?

Flat Earth brings you closer to God.

The argument goes, that if the Earth is flat, and the Universe revolves around us, then clearly this is by design. It can be no accident that Humans are the centre of the Universe. Therefore there has to be a God who created it all..

Pro Tip: if you want to be a clever Flat Earther, choose Catholicism, because they know the most secrets (Vatican Library), so therefore they are most informed on The Truth. Apparently.

Yes, the pinnacle of Flat Earth belief is to embrace Christianity. 

I recall reading research concluding that the same part of the brain responsible for people’s attraction to religion is responsible for an attraction to conspiracy theories.

So to follow along with the Cambridge Analytica theory….the biggest constituency for Trump voters is going to be in traditionally conservative Christian states: pre-condition these populations with conspiracy theories and see what sticks. Really it doesn’t matter which conspiracy: what’s important is to activate this part of the brain.

I am not saying that all Flat Earthers are Christians and Trump supporters or any combination of these. But there is a phenomena at work right now, for the Flat Earth Theory to be so popular around the world. (pun)

Photo: Catholic Church in Brooklyn, NY.

Regardless of these ideas, I have observed new things while traveling across America this year. From LA to New York, I stopped over in Vegas, Reno, and Denver, and got a taste of middle America. I understood that there really is a vast country with a gigantic populace existing in this land locked bubble, and it is possible to never venture out.

I am constantly reminded that California and New York where I spend most of my time are NOT America. They are like separate countries, and every other state is more like a European nation: similar but not the same.

The flattest earth I have ever seen from an aeroplane is over Denver. The un-ending plains, the grid city. If that’s all you have ever known, then the Flat Earth maybe logical. 

The first Flat Earth Conference was held in North Carolina last year, and this year it will be in Denver: apart from it being the flattest place in America (I think) it is also a conspiracy theorists Disney Land. Google… ”Denver Airport conspiracy” ….

Photo: Taking off from Denver airport, Colorado. 

It’s all too easy to roll your eyes and laugh at Flat Earthers….but these things don’t happen in isolation. 

Right now we are in a time of science deniers, neo-scepticsm, and alt-truth. There is a trend to challenge conventional science: anti-vaxers / climate change deniers and this susceptibility is being used for the purpose of power and control, and it reminds me of the evils of organised religion.

On one hand a Flat Earther will argue that unless they can see it or experience it, then it can’t be true, while on the other hand, they believe in an entire construct that includes a hard dome, no gravity, and a universe revolving around them, created by a God, all of which they cannot see or prove.

Photo: Scientology building, Hollywood.

Recently I have been asking myself if I would want Flat Earthers to be voting: would they vote against Climate Change Reform because they believe we are in a protective hard dome as opposed to having a thin atmosphere? Would I want a Flat Earther to be an educator, especially of school children? 

Flat Earth is not the only populist fringe belief. I visited the Scientology Centre in LA and speaking to the host there, I got the impression that business was good.

Self help, magic, new faiths, old faiths, nihilism, fascism, racism: they are all having a big come back. 

We are in a moment where basic human rights are being abused systemically within America, but a large percentage of the population and their elected representatives are living in a world where that is ok if it serves their beliefs.

We talk about living in an alternative reality these days, and at some point I think….why not believe the Earth is flat if that makes you happy. But this is not a harmless quirk. It is a symptom of some people triggered by an atmosphere of radicalism and needing refuge.

Photo: “Chemtrails” over Reno.

My Flat Earth journey has led me to a conclusion I would never have thought. It has pushed me to confirm my own reality by learning about scientific experiments which prove the existence of gravity, curvature of the earth, aerodynamics of flight, and learn to look through the prism of others lives. 

Sadly my Flat Earther friend and I parted ways and she could not be persuaded. I had listened. We had debated. She stood firm. 

For a Flat Earther it is not enough to only be part of the universe and feel insignificant: there is a greater power in feeling like you are the centre of a universe that God created just for us.

Photo: I looked at Orion’s Belt through the Griffiths Observatory telescope with my Flat Earther friend. She was not convinced.

One day I hope to see our planet from the edge of space, and look up into the black, and then down to the sun rising over the horizon, and make my Polaroid landscape of our beautiful round Earth from a Russian fighter plane at supersonic speeds.

I hope to be so lucky.

Photo: LA at night from Griffiths Observatory.

© Adam Custins, 2017