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SocietyApril 30, 2019

A day at the NZ meetup for the world’s hottest conspiracy theory: flat earth


Oskar Howell went to the inaugural Flat Earth New Zealand Conference in Auckland and found some surprisingly normal people with some very strange beliefs.

I am not a flat earther. I believe this ball we are on is round, and we are hurtling through space at over 100,000 kilometres an hour, destined to spin through the cosmos until the end of time.

Despite this, on Saturday I found myself in a room filled with people who earnestly believe the earth is flatter than a pancake, gathered together for the first Flat Earth New Zealand Conference.

When I hear the phrase ‘flat earthers’ I think of a dimly lit wooden cabin on a secluded mountain, so an invitation to the Auckland Novotel conference centre came as quite a pleasant surprise. Tea and coffee were available, as well as some rather excellent caramel slices. Each seat had a Novotel pen and notepad for notes. If you ignored the large flat earth banner strung up on the wall, you’d be forgiven for thinking you had walked into a business convention.

My fellow conference attendees weren’t what I expected either. If I observed closely enough I might have spotted a flat earth t-shirt or belt buckle, but everyone looked far more normal than you’d expect at a conference for people who literally believe the earth is flat.

But something felt off. The atmosphere was tense, almost hostile. Attendees side-eyed the person next to them, clearly wondering: Are they a fake? A phoney? Are they here to make fun of us flat earthers? The tension was palpable.

To be fair, at that ticket price, I wouldn’t want to be side-eyed either. For a cool $250, you could enjoy the full weekend of seminars and talks, and hang out with flat earth royalty from around the globe. For an additional $100, you could join the speakers for dinner, and talk about more flat earth… stuff.

Among the international speakers was Mark Sargent. You might recognise him from the immensely popular Netflix documentary Behind the Curve, which in late 2018 thrust the flat earth philosophy into the limelight.

Flat earth evangelist Mark Sargent, from the documentary Behind the Curve

My first real-world interaction with a flat earther a while back was like a scene out of a film noir. I met a shifty-looking man in a bar, and we discussed his theories in hushed voices “in case the barman was listening”. You know, the kind of thing normal people do.

Mark Sargent is the polar opposite. His goofy warmth is instantly disarming, and it’s hard not to pay attention when he talks. There’s a reason this guy is the beaming face of flat earth, and at the conference he had the audience hooked on his every word.

Sargent’s speaking style seems to take its cues from evangelist preaching; he’s so charismatic that, watching him, the newfound popularity of flat earth theory suddenly makes a lot more sense.

He sees his job as a simple one, he told me: he’s the enlister. He’s the man responsible for bringing in new recruits, and spreading the message of flat earth

I asked him if he thinks the world of conspiracy theories is a genuine pursuit of truth or more of a lifestyle choice – like the paleo diet or being a Marvel fan. Why are people drawn to conspiracy theories?

“There’s certain personality types that conspiracies can go too far with,” he said. “I hate to use a Force reference but it’s a dark side/light side type of thing. If you believe in flat earth, you automatically have to revisit every conspiracy you’ve ever looked at, because it’s all in a new context.”

For most of us, being told the world is a lie would be daunting, but Sargent argued that embracing flat earth can actually improve your outlook on life.

“Look at it with a brighter light. Flat earth is a happy thing, and it tends to overshadow the darker stuff. Flat earth is bigger and happier than 9/11 is sad and terrible.”

A sign at the flat earth conference. Photo: Oskar Howell

Sure, flat earth is a less heavy topic than 9/11, but I’ve seen the way flat earth beliefs hook people, locking them into a ‘question everything’ way of thinking. I’ve spent time in the Facebook groups, and chuckled at the rambling theories being thrown around.

“Be careful,” my friends would tell me when they heard I was hanging out on flat earth forums. “Conspiracy theories are a slippery slope.”

But the truth is, as conspiracy theories go, flat earth has never seemed very exciting. Compared to 9/11 or chemtrails or false flag operations, flat earth always seemed, well – tame.

Flat earth theory is relatively simple: the earth is a flat plane, covered by a gigantic dome, surrounded by an ice wall three hundred feet high (so the oceans don’t flow off the edge) and guarded by a secret world government supported, many claim, by Lucifer himself.

It’s kind of like The Simpsons Movie, if Springfield was a 12,000km-wide frisbee orbited by a holographic moon lied about by NASA in a devil-backed PR campaign.

The Simpsons Movie

I asked Adrienne Morrison, the organiser of Saturday’s conference, about her flat earth beliefs. She told me she believes the Bible holds all the secrets of the flat earth, and that NASA is hiding the truth from the general public.

“When it comes to the description of how God created the Earth, if you had a child drawing that… they would draw it as a flat earth with a dome over the top – a firmament.

“You can’t get past the firmament.”

Morrison claimed NASA have been paid to keep the secret that the earth is not flat, and that other planets in our solar system aren’t round either.

“They are spherical to support the spherical globe. Everything they [NASA] give you is to support the globe; the spinning globe is what they want you to believe.

“It’s just common sense that the Earth is level.”

Teaching the spherical-earth model in schools is harming New Zealand kids, Morrison said, and she wants the education system to rethink its one-eyed science curriculum.

“We’re indoctrinated into [spherical earth beliefs] at school. We don’t think that’s fair, we think kids should be shown all the theories about what the earth could be. Let the kids make up their own mind.

Morrison told me New Zealand flat earthers intend to lobby Education Minister Chris Hipkins on changing the education curriculum.

“Basically we’re going to write and say that we want a meeting. We keep having to do that, because Obama said ‘we haven’t got time for a meeting with the flat earth society’ – well we’re not the society.”

Watch out, Chris Hipkins.

Short of going into space and seeing Earth’s curvature with her own eyes, Morrison said she’d never be willing to give up her flat earth beliefs. And that worries me.

The difference between believing an idea and subscribing to the dogma of a pseudo-religion is small at best. If flat earthers are unwilling to change their minds even when presented with evidence, does that make flat earth faith-based?

If you claim to champion science, being willing to accept new ideas when faced with convincing evidence is one of the first rules.

But if you want to challenge a flat earther to a battle of ideas, you must first find one. Despite having members around the globe, flat earth is still something of a niche movement. Particularly here in New Zealand, flat earthers can be few and far between.

The official Flat Earth New Zealand (FENZ) Facebook group is small but active. Two thousand passionate members pitch theories, share evidence and reach their own conclusions about why the earth is flat. The group is hard to get into, and even harder to leave.

For two years, I’ve watched as the handful of FENZ members became a few hundred, then a few thousand. At this rate, the group is set to have a significant presence in New Zealand within the next few years, and it won’t remain underground for much longer. Flat earth is out in the open, and with the help of people like Mark Sargent, it’s recruiting new members.

But who cares? Flat earth is just a kooky but ultimately harmless belief, right? But maybe it isn’t. Maybe flat earth theory is an ideological gateway drug that leaves you in a fever, obsessing over every small inconsistency you can spot in life.

Conspiracy theories can be fun to talk about, but if left unchecked they can spiral rapidly out of control until they take control of you, wrapping their tendrils around every facet of your psyche until the very world starts to lose shape.

The flat earth movement is getting bold. Are we sleepwalking over the edge?

Keep going!