Qanon Senator’s Bonkers Theory that Wildfires Caused by Laser from Space Clearing Way for High Speed Rail

Media Matters

In November 2018, California was hit with the worst wildfire in the state’s history. At the time, future Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) wrote a bizarre Facebook post that echoed QAnon conspiracy theorists and falsely claimed that the real and hidden culprit behind the disaster was a laser from space triggered by some nefarious group of people. 

Greene’s post, which hasn’t previously been reported, is just the latest example to be unearthed of her embracing conspiracy theories about tragedies during her time as a right-wing commentator. In addition to being a QAnon supporter, Greene has pushed conspiracy theories about 9/11, the Parkland and Sandy Hook school shootings, the Las Vegas shooting, and the murder of Democratic staffer Seth Richamong others

Greene also has a history of pushing anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic remarks.

CNN’s Em Steck and Andrew Kaczynski recently reported that on her Facebook page, “Greene repeatedly indicated support for executing prominent Democratic politicians in 2018 and 2019 before being elected to Congress.” 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and the Republican Party have done little to stop Greene’s rising profile. During the 2020 campaign, the National Republican Congressional Committee added her to its “Young Guns” fundraising and recruitment program. In November, after Greene was elected, McCarthy defended her by falsely claiming that she’d denounced her QAnon views. And Republicans have selected Greene to be a member of the House Budget Committee and the House Committee on Education and Labor. (A spokesperson for McCarthy recently told Axios: “These comments are deeply disturbing and Leader McCarthy plans to have a conversation with the Congresswoman about them.”) One of Greene’s conspiracy theories directly targets McCarthy’s state. 

The Camp Fire was a horrific California wildfire that started on November 8, 2018, and, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “burned a total of 153,336 acres, destroying 18,804 structures and resulting in 85 civilian fatalities and several firefighter injuries. The Camp Fire is the deadliest and most destructive fire in California history.” After an investigation, the department “determined that the Camp Fire was caused by electrical transmission lines owned and operated by Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E) located in the Pulga area.” Scientists have noted that climate change has worsened wildfires in places like California. 

Conspiracy theorists have pushed other explanations for the Camp Fire, especially on social media. One theory, which has been promoted by QAnon followersfalsely posits that a nefarious entity used laser beams or a similar instrument to start the fire for financial profit or to clear space for California’s high-speed rail system.

Rep. Greene is a proponent of the Camp Fire laser beam conspiracy theory. She wrote a November 17, 2018, Facebook post — which is no longer available online — in which she said that she was speculating “because there are too many coincidences to ignore” regarding the fire, including that then-California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) wanted to build the high-speed rail project and “oddly there are all these people who have said they saw what looked like lasers or blue beams of light causing the fires.” She also speculated that a vice chairman at “Rothschild Inc, international investment banking firm” was somehow involved, and suggested the fire was caused by a beam from “space solar generators.” 

Greene added: “If they are beaming the suns energy back to Earth, I’m sure they wouldn’t ever miss a transmitter receiving station right??!! I mean mistakes are never made when anything new is invented. What would that look like anyway? A laser beam or light beam coming down to Earth I guess. Could that cause a fire? Hmmm, I don’t know. I hope not! That wouldn’t look so good for PG&E, Rothschild Inc, Solaren or Jerry Brown who sure does seem fond of PG&E.” 

Rethinking the Streetcar Suburb in an Age of Zero Carbon Planning

One of the most frequently heard terms recently has been the 15 minute city, as promulgated by the Mayor of Paris. Actually the term originates from the term ’20 minute neighbourhood’ coming from the 2018 Melbourne Plan.

Work undertaken in partnership with the Heart Foundation (Victoria) and across the Victorian Government identified the following hallmarks of a 20-minute neighbourhood. They must:

  • be safe, accessible and well connected for pedestrians and cyclists to optimise active transport
  • offer high-quality public realm and open spaces
  • provide services and destinations that support local living
  • facilitate access to quality public transport that connects people to jobs and higher-order services
  • deliver housing/population at densities that make local services and transport viable
  • facilitate thriving local economies.

Research shows that 20-minutes is the maximum time people are willing to walk to meet their daily needs locally.

Traditionally, the focal point for neighbourhoods were its high streets and local villages. While the structure of local shopping centres has changed over time, these places are an integral part of community life and fundamental to creating a city of 20-minute neighbourhoods.

‘Neighbourhood activity centres’ is the land-use planning term used to describe these local shopping centres. Community services and infrastructure are generally co-located with these places, planned and managed by local government. Neighbourhood activity centres provide retail services and goods (newsagent, bakery, supermarket), local entertainment facilities (cafes and restaurants) and local health services and facilities to meet daily needs. 

The concept has become popular because high streets have shot down and people are forced to walk because of loss of public transport.

Of course sharp eyed planners will note this concept goes back a long way – for examples Dr Patrick’s Clarke (an Aecom colleague now) studies of Sustainable Residential Quality (Litchfields) for the GLA in 1997, and much further back to Clarence A. Perry’s concept of the Neighborhood Unit before and during the great depression which became so central to New Urbanisms concepts of Transit Orientated Development.

Can then the concept of the 15/20 min neighbourhood simply be collapsed to that of the neighbourhood unit?

Not entirely, for two reasons, firstly the neighbourhood unit was a child of its time and secondly the ‘walkable distance’ neighbourhood by itself does not have a fixed urban design concept of how it sites within a city and how it is laid out.

The neighbourhood unit was born in a time of rising car use and a reaction against traditional grid cities like New York where cars could access everywhere and there was a high accident rate. Neighbourhood units were islands of tranquility where through traffic ‘the town less highway’ was directed around the edge and in the centre walking networks would be largely car free. In the form of Radburn layouts

cars would access at the front and pedestrians at the back. We have learned since how this was an overreaction to the grid and how grids can be managed to discourage through traffic, such as with filtered permeability. In its original form there was little dedicated space for cyclists, however continental thinking from Denmark, Scandinavia and in particular the Netherlands show us the way. Dense segregated cycling grids no kore than 500m apart are shown to dramatically reduce car use. Two case studies stand out, the new town of Houten which has a ring road but no through roads for cars, only cycles built around a railway station.

And nearby Merwede, a district of inner city Uthrecht which is being developed so cars are communal with only three parking spaces per 10 houses.

We are beginning to tackle such concepts in UK urban design. For example LDA in the recent report for RTPI North envisaged largely car free local streets and neighbourhood ‘mobility centres’. There are difficult issues for urban design, can cars access every local street or do autonomous vehicles drop off and then park elsewhere, if so where? If we can solve this problem however we have the chance to recreate, without the famous problems of front and backs, the exquisite designs of the early radburn layouts and similar very narrow streets and alley housing blocks of early Garden cities, and at a range of densities.

Going back a generation further however we have Streetcar suburbs. Railway suburbs clustered around stations, but street car suburbs formed corridors, often biult out and perpendicular from the city grid form. In europe much more star like urban forms can be seen. . An underlying assumption in many TOD layouts is that they would be clustered around a BART type stations. Modern trams, BRT and Tram Trains travel faster and people don’t just jump on anywhere as you see from movie reels of the period. Optimal spacing of local services (as opposed to rapid metro services) is around 400m suggesting a string of pearls of 5 minute suburbs of neighbourhood centres and every 4 or 5th being a district centre where non stopping regional metro services (if you have them) stop.

Because the street cars have largely disappeared we often fail to recognise streetcar suburbs for what they are. To truly see the way they shaped urban form you have to find a sector of growth that did not rely on railways (as almost all English Cities did) and where trams persisted until late into the twentieth century, a good example is the North of Leeds (West Yorkshire is consulting on a vision for mass transit this week) in such cities such as Headingly, the West of Sheffield and West End Glasgow you invariably find the tram suburbs are by far the most desired neighbourhoods.

As cities grew beyond their street car suburbs however you increasingly had car traffic passing through them, and as trams travelled on central no segregated lanes congestion formed when they stopped. Trams were blamed for problems caused by cars and poor planning.

It still shocks me in an age now where we are planning an age of zero carbon sustainable suburbs how we fail to learn the lesson of streetcar suburbs, that of you want to succeed you don’t put transit (in whatever form) on segrated paths away from distributor roads carrying cars. Yet again and again we see this mistake, with distributor roads passing through the middle of suburbs and buses of infrequent services expected to share the same path. You often find these are edge of city areas where bypasses have been mooted since the 30s in some cases (e.g. Bedford) and urban extension plans come along, the TIA shows congestion, so a bypass disguised as a distributor is squeezed in and said to be essential to ‘unlock’ the site. LPAs use it as an excuse to squeeze S106 from developers and make bids to government infrastructure pots. You see examples such as Dorchester, Chippenham and Aylesbury – the latter strung through several schemes. It is bad unsustainable and fraudulent planning on many levels. It mixes up the concept of distributor, expressway and connector roads and makes efficient transit impossible, and creates pollution and traffic clogged neighbourhoods where buildings instead of forming high streets facing transit have buffers with neighbourhoods turning their backs in them. A terrible perverse incentive is government and Homes England pots like the Local Instructure fun which needs urgent review because of the sheer volume of carbon hogging schemes it is funding.

We really need to look back at Streetcar suburbs, and what made them tick, as inspiration for Zero Carbon Planning, and replan their focal points and grid connectivity for modern times. I actually have done this in a scheme of 35,000 or so homes for one large UK town that because of local politics is unlikely to publish its local plan at any time in the next 20 years.