Standing between beds of golden beets and elephant garlic in the garden of Lincoln Hills, a small organic farm in Placer County, California, Tammi Riedl looks up and points to a stripe of white haze running across a cloudless blue sky.
“See that?” she asks, raising her eyebrows. “What do you think that is?”
I look up. The white stripe looks like a normal contrail of jet engine exhaust to me. But to Tammi, a 54 year-old organic farmer, it’s a “chemtrail”: a toxic cocktail of aluminum, strontium and barium sprayed from planes in a plot to control the weather, the population and our food supply.
“See how it dissipates and becomes cloud cover?” she says. “That’s not normal.”
I nod, unsure how to respond to this unexpected declaration, and Tammi resumes demonstrating how to cover crop rows with frost blankets.
For the month of January, in an attempt to escape seasonal and post-election depression, I applied to work as a part-time farmhand at Lincoln Hills in exchange for room and board after spotting the arrangement advertised on the website HelpX.
To someone accustomed to New York City’s mouse-infested apartments, the farm was cartoonishly idyllic: on 10 acres in the Sierra Nevada foothills, sheep graze on blackberry bushes, a baby mule frolics, and free-range chickens pluck worms from compost heaps. But for the residents who subscribe to the chemtrails conspiracy theory, what looks like a perfect bucolic scene feels shrouded in danger.
Tammi and her boyfriend, Rob Neuhauser, are among the estimated 5% of Americans who believe that various global powers, including the US government, run clandestine and harmful chemical-spraying programs.
Versions of the chemtrails (or “covert geoengineering”) theory abound, and Tammi’s goes roughly like this: to mitigate global warming, mysterious airplanes spray chemicals into the atmosphere to form sun-blocking artificial cloud cover. This is done in secret, because these chemicals wreak havoc on environmental and human health, causing “Alzheimer’s, all sorts of brain problems, cancer”, she says.
Despite her adherence to USDA organic guidelines, Tammi fears that the chemical spraying means the produce she sells and donates to the Placer Food Bank isn’t technically organic. “It makes me think, ‘Wow, are we going to have to start growing everything indoors, under tunnels?’” she says. “Because the air is not healthy for crops.”
Scientists roundly reject the chemtrails theory, which started to gain followers in the mid-1990s. The trails you see behind airplanes, they explain, are harmless condensation trails, or contrails, formed when moist engine exhaust hits freezing temperatures at high altitudes.
Stoking the chemtrails theory is the fact that there are a few legitimate reasons for atmospheric spraying. Geoengineering scientists have indeed suggested fighting global warming by doing more or less what Tammi fears they’re already doing. So far, though, solar geoengineering remains in hypothetical or small-scale research stages.
To counter conspiracy theorists, in the early aughts the US Air Force featured a disclaimer on its website, stating that “the ‘chemtrail’ hoax has been investigated and refuted by many established and accredited universities, scientific organizations, and major media publications”. The EPA published a similar notice alongside a fact sheet about contrails. But this hasn’t been enough to sway true believers, who tend to dismiss skeptics as “sheeple” or shills.
Not your stereotypical conspiracists
Before I met Tammi, videos of far-right conspiracist radio host Alex Jones foaming at the mouth and claiming “they are spraying poisons on you” served as my prime example of what a believer in chemtrails might look like. I’d read articles that called such believers “idiots”,but I had never actually talked to one.
Tammi isn’t a caricature of a tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracist, and she’s not an idiot. Instead of crazy walls full of newspaper clippings, her house is decorated with dreamcatchers and her grandchildren’s drawings. After getting degrees in Applied Information Technology and Architectural Drafting from Capilano College in her hometown of Vancouver, she helped pioneer the “girl games” movement as a multimedia producer for game developer Purple Moon. In 2012, a biodynamic farming course at Rudolf Steiner College inspired her to quit her six-figure job as a financial controller and go back to the land.
Now, when she’s not laboring outside, she sells upcycled furniture, bakes pumpkin muffins and supplements her income with financial consulting services. She rarely discusses her beliefs unless prompted, though she occasionally reposts articles by so-called anti-vaxxers on Facebook.
She’s an example of how conspiracy theories, once a fringe obsession, have gone mainstream – and how “alternative facts” aren’t just for the right wing.
Before I left Lincoln Hills, Tammi and Rob let me interview them about their beliefs. I wanted to know how these socially progressive, educated and entrepreneurial organic farmers came to reject the authority of science – and what it would take to redirect their concerns toward real and dire environmental threats.
At the heart of it: Facebook
Facebook made a believer out of Tammi. When she moved to Lincoln in 2012, she’d never heard of chemtrails. Three years later, around the time her mare gave birth to twin mules, a post about a Facebook group called Sierra Nevada Geoengineering Awareness popped up in her newsfeed. Thinking it was related to agriculture, she joined the group.
The group’s 500 members post constantly about “aerosol attacks”, “toxic silver skies”, “mad men playing god with our weather, blocking our life-giving sun”.
The movement’s mantra is “LOOK UP”. Tammi obeyed. “I started looking up at the sky, noticing it was just crisscrossed.” When she told Rob about her discovery, he was convinced.
Tammi became “obsessed”. “I was taking pictures, videotaping the sky,” she says. “And I was like, I wish I didn’t know, because now that I know, it’s really making my heart sad.”
In early January, Tammi felt cautiously optimistic about how the Trump administration would affect organic farmers. Born in Canada, Tammi isn’t a US citizen, but given the option to vote – despite thinking Trump is “a prick” – she “probably would’ve picked him”. Given her environmentalism and hippie-dippy aesthetic, this shocked me.
While teaching me how to candy grapefruit peels, Tammi explained her optimism: Todd, her dairy farmer neighbor, claimed that “Trump promised to end chemtrails”.
Curious where Todd might’ve found this information, I Googled “Trump chemtrails”. It turned up a dubious news report from 16 January, which featured what looked like a screenshot of a tweet by Donald Trump: “My very first executive order will END the chemtrailing across America. #MAGA,” it read.
At first I couldn’t tell if the site was satirical, or whether the tweet was really authored by Trump – it wouldn’t have been the most outrageous missive from the man who once supported the “birther” theory.
Another Google search clarified that the tweet was impersonated. But if I’d encountered it as a middle-aged farmer worried about toxic clouds and untrained in spotting fake news, I probably would’ve told my friends that the president-elect had promised to end chemtrailing.
In a textbook case of confirmation bias, from 20-25 January, some members of Sierra Nevada Geoengineering Awareness claimed the skies were clearer than they’d been in months. Tammi read aloud a post dated 23 January: “Beautiful Blue Skies!!! I haven’t seen any Spraying Activity since Trump took office … Anyone else out there think that the ‘tide has turned?’”
Sabrina Lamont, a Lincoln Hills farmhand with a buzzcut and tattoos of her dogs’ names, says she became a conspiracist while working as a National Guard truck mechanic in Pennsylvania.
“To me, chemtrails aren’t that farfetched,” she says. To put her beliefs into context, she cites known examples of the military conducting secret human experiments – such as the time in 1950 when the army sprayed bacteria into San Francisco’s fog in a “simulated germ-warfare attack”, leaving one man dead.
Despite the protests of her wife, an ICU nurse with a “Love Trumps Hate” bumper sticker, Sabrina voted for Trump. “He’s not a stellar guy,” Sabrina says, “but I think he’s what America needs to wake up.”
A group plagued with infighting
Trump, ironically, may actually be on track to initiate the world’s first large-scale atmospheric spraying program – the type of planet-hacking that Tammi fears is already under way. In January, for the first time ever, a White House report submitted to Congress called for research into geoengineering. In March, climate scholars gathered in Washington to discuss cooling the planet by shooting aerosols into the stratosphere, among other potentially risky approaches.
“Worryingly, geoengineering may emerge as this administration’s preferred approach to global warming,” Silvia Riberio, with technology watchdog ETC Group, told the Guardian in March. “In their view, building a big beautiful wall of sulphate in the sky could be a perfect excuse to allow uncontrolled fossil fuel extraction.”
In the months leading up to Trump’s election, Sierra Nevada Geoengineering Awareness was plagued with infighting. A faction of climate change deniers, feeling vindicated by Trump’s anti-establishment message, sparred with members who believe in human-accelerated climate change and thought a Trump presidency spelled doom.
“People are so divided, even within this movement,” says Lisa Thomas, creator and moderator of Sierra Nevada Geoengineering Awareness. “It’s difficult to find enough common ground to make progress.” In October, she called off the group’s monthly meetings.
A homeschooling mother of two, Lisa exemplifies how concern about geoengineering can become all-consuming. She’s spent the past four years spreading “geoengineering awareness” with missionary zeal.
One afternoon in 2014, for example, following what she calls “heavy spraying” which she says left a metallic sheen on the surfaces of her ponds and depleted the honeybee population around her Spanish lavender, Lisa drove into town and marched around holding a sign that said “LOOK UP”.
“See how the sky is a steely color?” Lisa says when I meet her at her home in Penn Valley. The sky is a normal-looking blue, cloudless and trail-less, but she insists this is “rare” and that “it used to be more turquoise”.
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