Area 51, Greta Thunberg, and a Tale of Two Hashtags

It started with Joe Rogan. On June 27, a 20-year-old college student named Matty Roberts caught an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience featuring the subject of a new documentary, Bob Lazar: Area 51 & Flying Saucers, currently streaming on Netflix, and promptly posted the now-famous Facebook event, “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All Of Us,” as a lark. Apparently lots of people needed a lark. Within two weeks, more than 540,000 people had signed up to bum-rush the top-secret Air Force facility, with its fabled repository of spaceships and alien corpses. Their promise to congregate in the desert on September 20 and make a run for the base with their arms trailing behind them in homage to the anime character Naruto, prompted a military spokesperson to issue a warning. “The U.S. Air Force always stands ready to protect America and its assets,” she told the Washington Post. But the statement’s deterrent effect remains in question; the number of Facebook users promising to go “see them aliens,” is now well over 2 million, at least a few of whom are presumably serious. (Indeed, a couple of guys from the Netherlands already gave it a go, with predictable results.)

In an attempt to head off a disaster and maybe pocket a few bucks, Roberts promptly pivoted, announcing a music festival, AlienStock, to be held in Rachel, Nevada, the nearest town to the base. Local counties preemptively declared a state of emergency, and earlier this week, Roberts bailed out of concern that he was about to preside over “Fyre Fest 2.0” and teamed up with a different promoter for a party at a Las Vegas venue. At press time, Connie West, proprietor of the Little A’Le’Inn vowed the original event would go on as planned.

Of course, desert-dwellers weren’t the only ones looking to cash in. Bookmaker, an online gambling site, is taking bets on the number of people expected to show up in town, as well as the number of arrests that might result. As of Monday, searching “Storm Area 51” on the print-on-demand marketplace Redbubble returned nearly 2,000 T-shirts, sweatshirts, tanks, and onesies, including a long-sleeve tee that read, “I Charged Area 51 and All I Got Was F — king Shot in the Face by the United States Government,” and a V-neck proposing we “Clap Some Alien Cheeks.”

The event does have some competition. On the same day, inspired by the example of teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg, student groups and unions in more than 150 countries have pledged to ditch their classes and jobs as a way of drawing attention to the warming atmosphere, in an action being billed as the Global Climate Strike. (There are some climate strike shirts available too, of course — but the good ones are all in German.)

It seems an odd twist of fate that both events — a desperate bid to preserve life on earth, and an impish stab at proving the existence of a galactic escape hatch — will occur on the same day. But as a certain FBI special agent on the paranormal beat once put it, “If coincidences are coincidences, why do they seem so contrived?”

T

hirty years ago, in May of 1989, a local TV station in Las Vegas aired a memorable news segment. In it, a man identified only as “Dennis,” his face in shadow, backlit by the bright blue sky, shared an incredible story with viewers. Dennis claimed to have been employed as a research physicist at Area 51. His task, he said, had been to study an alien spacecraft somehow obtained by the U.S. government and reverse-engineer it. Dennis said the smooth, saucer-like ship was powered by a “gravity propulsion system” and “anti-matter reactor,” either one of which, if harnessed by humans, would utterly transform life as we know it. Though the project was highly classified, Dennis was breaking his oath of silence in an effort to force the authorities to share this miracle of technology with the world. Anything less, he insisted, would be a crime against humanity.

At nearly the same time, a diplomat named Noel Brown, head of the United Nations Environment Program, offered a similarly far-fetched sounding tale in an interview with the Associated Press. The Earth’s atmosphere, Brown claimed, was warming dangerously, due to the emission of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the burning of fossil fuels and the steady destruction of the world’s rainforests. If the trends weren’t reversed “within the next 10 years,” he predicted, Earth would likely experience rising sea levels, devastating floods, drought, and other extreme weather conditions.

Both men met with intense skepticism and have been ridiculed ever since.

In the intervening three decades, Noel Brown went on to serve on the boards of various nongovernmental organizations and lecture at universities around the world. Meanwhile, the amount of CO2 humans pumped into the atmosphere at the time of his warning literally doubled, with all the consequences he’d cautioned us about and more to come.

Soon after his Eyewitness News debut, Dennis outed himself as Bob Lazar, pled guilty to a felony charge involving a prostitution ring, and launched a company that sells chemicals and radioactive substances to teachers, hobbyists, and other enthusiasts. Over the years, he also appeared in numerous TV shows and films, but none of them sparked anything like the frenzy that has greeted the 2018 documentary that caught Joe Rogan’s eye. The attention comes as a bit of a surprise, since just about the only thing the film adds to Lazar’s shopworn testimony is a voiceover by noted astrophysicist Mickey Rourke. “This story is extraordinary,” he tells us sagely, “especially if it’s true…”

It seems noteworthy that both Matty Roberts and Greta Thunberg, whose 2015 protest outside the Swedish Parliament led to the first round of climate strikes, belong to Generation Z. The cohort has shown itself to be remarkably adept at harnessing the power of the internet to attract attention and build social movements, whether giddily reckless (eating Tide Pods) or gravely earnest (March for Our Lives). While Roberts has been fielding media interviews, Thunberg spent the last few weeks crossing the Atlantic by boat, a zero-emissions journey to New York, where she’ll address the UN’s Climate Action Summit on September 23.

The two young trailblazers make for an odd pairing — Thunberg with her unwavering seriousness of purpose and Heidi-esque pigtails, and Roberts with his goofy Wayne’s World affability and Fred Durstian chin beard. But maybe they’re more similar than they first appear. Born into a world steeped in absurdity and teetering on the brink of apocalypse, they each identified a conundrum that has bedeviled previous generations and fearlessly set out to solve it. In both cases, their pluck and initiative have left their elders dumbstruck.

Roberts’ eventual misgivings notwithstanding, he’s certainly proven one thing, as a look at Google Trends makes painfully clear: The vast majority of Americans would much rather talk about a wacky event based on a threadbare conspiracy theory than take on the grave responsibility of addressing a looming disaster that imperils all life on earth.

And really, why wouldn’t we? Storming Area 51 is a “short-term, easy activity with fun and excitement included,” notes Christian Russ, a lecturer at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences and author of the paper “Online Crowds — Extraordinary Mass Behavior on the Internet.” The climate emergency, by contrast, is a huge and overwhelming bummer, requiring sustained action guaranteed to inconvenience us now in return for a shot at future salvation. “This psychological and mental conflict paralyzes us,” Russ explains.

Despite the bravado and arms-back stride, deep down, many of us are plainly terrified.

For Jodi Dean, a professor of political science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the author of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outer Space to Cyberspace, the Area 51 gambit represents a welcome distraction with genuine mass appeal. “The world is total shit right now, and UFOs are this other thing to get excited about,” she observes. “Area 51 lets people express skepticism and mistrust about the government, and even express political outrage, in a way that cuts across left-right valences, and doesn’t seem too serious. And the Naruto run […] that’s just hilarious.”

Despite the bravado and arms-back stride, deep down, many of us are plainly terrified. Distractions like the Nevada raid, or a new chicken sandwich, or the vacuum challenge (please don’t), are all but a thumb swipe away. Each in its own way hints at a yearning for collective action — a desire to come together on the thinnest of pretexts and commune with one another in a shared experience. One interpretation of the recent Area 51 craze is that we’re really just practicing, stretching our muscles for when we’re ready to really put them to meaningful use, say, in an American version of the Arab Spring or the Hong Kong protests or Gilets Jaunes movement, the kind of revolution you might engage in if you were facing a monumental threat.

Another is that we’re a bunch of idiots fidget-spinning our way to oblivion.

“Look, at any given moment far more people are playing World of Warcraft than worrying about climate change,” acknowledges Bill McKibben, who wrote the first landmark book on global warming, The End of Nature (published in that pivotal year of 1989, as it happens) and went on to found 350.org, the international environmental group spearheading the protest. “That’s just how the world works. But we don’t need absolutely everyone engaged in this fight. If we can get 4% or 5% of Americans truly active in the political battle for a working climate, we will win.”

It’s certainly possible, as Bob Lazar seems to believe, that we’re not alone, and that the bug-eyed “greys” of Zeta Reticuli have been visiting Earth for decades. Perhaps they’ve snatched up a few unlucky people, as the abductees claim, probing them, extracting their sperm and eggs, and using this genetic material to create a lab-grown interplanetary half-human, half-alien species. Maybe a generation of our alien kin is racing here as we speak, traversing the inky void, bringing an armada of escape vessels large enough to comfortably whisk every man, woman, and child on Earth — pets, too — away to a pristine new interstellar home.

Then again, what if they aren’t?

We might want to hedge our bets. Maybe Matty Roberts and some of the 2 million other people who’d like to bum-rush Area 51 on the 20th could devote a fraction of that go-for-broke audacity to the fate of our own planet — the only one we know of that actually supports life. Maybe, like more than 1,000 Amazon workers, they can help make September 20 into a worldwide day of action rather than of distraction.

In the end, I think Mickey Rourke said it best“Maybe every single sighting of things in the sky is a product of our collective consciousness, a false hope [for] intervention by external powers,” he theorizes in Bob Lazar, his ravaged voice evoking the sound of a cobblestone gently making love to an electric juicer.

“We’ve always looked to the skies for answers,” he added, “instead of looking into ourselves.”

All Rights Reserved for Aaron Gell

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