This post is the fourth in our collaborative series with Histoire Source | Source Story about the “stuff” of environmental history. Check out the rest of the posts in the series here, and be sure to watch the Histoire Source | Source Story videos on the environmental histories of “outside.”
Growing up, I heard stories from my mom about a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, a reclusive and eccentric man who had had a strange encounter years before. This man carried a mixed reputation in his community of Gilmour, Ontario, halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. His thick French Canadian accent made him hard to understand. Weird stuff happened around him and he had a huge workshop that sometimes caused electrical blackouts. Who was he and what was he doing?
His name was David Hamel and he was building a flying saucer.
In 1975, Hamel lived in Maple Ridge, BC. One day, he was watching TV–his favorite show, Bonanza–in his living room with his wife, Nora. Suddenly, the screen went fuzzy and extraterrestrial beings emerged and took him up and away in their spacecraft to see their distant planet. Hamel returned to Earth a changed man. He was driven. He immediately began construction on his own spacecraft, a task that would occupy him for the next 30 years.
In 2019, I made a 15-minute documentary film about Hamel. He claimed that the TV aliens had given him special knowledge that would allow him to obtain a source of clean energy to save the world from its environmental crises–that is, to save humanity from itself, which is a common theme in UFO history. As early as the 1950s, UFO “contactees” were preaching about the need for nuclear disarmament and world peace, making the connection between runaway technology and the harms it caused to the planet.1 These claims were always built on environmental concerns about the potential annihilation of Earth, the (inexplicable) use of natural elements and forces in UFO propulsion, and even the strange interactions UFOs had with flora and fauna. For Hamel, building his flying saucer was just the first step in harnessing the awesome power of the cosmos. Hamel died in 2012. Until his death, he claimed that he had succeeded, but the flying saucer had flown off into the sky of its own accord. Was Hamel a visionary or a crank?
The best way for me to answer these questions about Hamel is to try to sit on the fence and look around.2 What do we see when we look at the boundary between real and unreal, visionary and crank? How can it help us teach a more nuanced story about an otherwise unconventional subject?3 How do we make this story relevant to today’s environmental concerns? One thing that intrigued me about Hamel’s story is the “stuff” of it. Some of Hamel’s stuff is obvious in the short film: the remnants of a flying saucer prototype, Hamel’s colourful blueprints, and a mysterious gelatinous cone.
But the stuff of UFOs and aliens is usually intangible, ephemeral, and beyond our ability to see or experience, such as the “special knowledge” Hamel was given by the TV aliens. I’ve come to consider this as its own kind of stuff because the theme of specialized knowledge from faraway planets appears often in UFO accounts. There are other types of non-stuff too, such as the forces of electromagnetism and gravity (and its corollary, anti-gravity), long-favored candidates in the UFO community to explain the motive force behind flying saucers.4 This intangibility of UFO stuff is what fascinates and continues to inspire wonder. But it can also cause confusion and conflict for believers as they try to convince others.5 Famously, scientists have ignored, debunked, and lampooned UFOs for just this reason: there’s no stuff to study.6
So then, what continues to motivate some believers in UFOs and aliens? Like members of certain religious groups, some UFO believers have faith that salvation is coming. They wait for benevolent aliens to arrive from distant planets to bestow us with their advanced, planet-and-society-saving technology. When Hamel started working on his flying saucer in the mid-1970s, that salvation was often framed in environmental terms. In the early 1950s, the environmental concern was about Cold War nuclear destruction, but by 1975 the world was in the grip of an energy crisis and the environmentalism movement was growing. We can track the development of ufology rhetoric over time, seeing how it is adapted to meet the needs of each new generation, to provide hope and alleviate concern about what we now might call “existential crises.”
David Hamel was convinced the aliens had chosen him to save the world from its woes, but he wasn’t the only UFO enthusiast who thought this way. UFO enthusiasts had long before articulated an environmental consciousness. For example, radiation and its effects on bodies and the planet has always been part of UFO lore, because a number of witnesses have described symptoms akin to radiation poisoning in the days after their UFO encounter and because radiation, while invisible, is nevertheless something scientists can measure and might take seriously as evidence of contact.7 UFO enthusiasts have also been convinced that the atomic bomb tests upset the balance of our world (politically and/or magnetically) and the wider intergalactic ecosystem, populated by any number of extraterrestrial species.
Stuff has also been a part of this lore, so long as we conceive it a bit more broadly than scrap parts from a flying saucer. UFOs and the fate of our planet have always been intertwined, because UFOs seem to show up when we’re dealing with intractable global problems. They tantalize us with the prospect of technology that might save us, the same way people might look to tech moguls in Silicon Valley.8 It’s just that the stuff of UFOs, like radiation from the atomic bomb, is usually invisible.9 Nevertheless, UFO stories like David Hamel’s help us see that aliens have always been a way for Earthlings to articulate fears and hopes that seem impossible to overcome or achieve otherwise. To solve huge problems on Earth, we look to the stars. Environmental problems are exactly this – too big for humans, but more than manageable for technologically advanced aliens.
1. “Contactees” have been part of the UFO phenomenon from the start, most notably George Adamski and Diamond Leslie, The Flying Saucers Have Landed (London: Thomas Werner Laurie, 1953) and Whitley Strieber, Communion (Avon, 1987).
2. Tina Loo, “High Modernism, Conflict, and the Nature of Change in Canada: A Look at Seeing Like a State,” Canadian Historical Review 97.1 (2016):46.
3. Given the similarities between the economic and energy crises we’re experiencing today and back in the 1970s, I’m expecting to see more appeals from the UFO community to benevolent extraterrestrials from space.
4. The uncertain thingness of UFOs, their ability to flit between tangible and intangible (as well as ignore all sorts of boundaries) has always been an issue for those trying to understand or defend against them. See William Rankin, “The Geography of Radionavigation and the Politics of Intangible Artifacts,” Technology and Culture 55.3 (2014): 622-674.
5. J. Allen Hynek, The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1972),111.
6. The most well-documented case in Canada of radiation sickness symptoms after an encounter is the 1967 Falcon Lake incident.
7. The 2021 movie Don’t Look Up provides a great example of this and the folly of relying on these people.
8. For an example of radiation made visible, see Susan Schuppli on archival film from Chernobyl.
9. For example, see Kathryn Denning, “Is life what we make of it?” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A 369:1936 (2011): 669-678.