On mylar balloons and forgotten futures

Some thoughts about mylar balloons, what they represent in the paranormal, and what else they might mean in terms of our world and our future.

a halftone photograph of blue mylar balloons with the words "use your imagination"

I've been sick this week, so wasn't able to record the podcast episode I was going to drop today. Instead, here's an essay version of an episode of Buried Secrets Podcast that I published in October 2022, which you can listen to wherever you get podcasts. It's my favorite episode that I've done so far.

Mylar balloons are a popular piece of imagery in the paranormal today. This nearly ubiquitous type of trash has been imbued with synchronistic meaning because of its role in the popular webseries Hellier. But I'm interested in what else it might be able to represent, and the ways in which this dangerous type of trash can prompt us to imagine better futures.

Mylar balloons as paranormal synchronicity

In Hellier, mylar balloons appear during particularly significant moments, which has led many people interested in the paranormal to think more critically about their own encounters with mylar balloons, past or present. Independently of Hellier, I've heard about strange mylar balloon synchronicities elsewhere, such as on the podcast Strange Familiars[1] and in articles about bigfoot sightings.

I suppose it's also worth mentioning that when I searched "mylar balloon paranormal" there were some results that mentioned that some people mistake mylar balloons for ghosts, UFOs, or other paranormal phenomena, since they're shiny objects that float around in the air. So there's also a possible trickster element to mylar balloons.

I've had my own personally significant mylar balloon synchronicities while randonauting and hiking, so I think there's something in the paranormal community's fascination with them. But that's not the only thing going on with mylar balloons.

Mylar balloons as trash

Last year, I read tons of books about reuse, repair, garbage, and the environment. Multiple books mentioned mylar balloons as a common sight when it comes to waste, which stood out to me, since I already have mylar balloons on the brain from a paranormal perspective.

In the book The Buy Nothing, Get Everything Plan: Discover the Joy of Spending Less, Sharing More, and Living Generously by Liesl Clark and Rebecca Rockefeller (the folks who started the Buy Nothing movement), there's a story about going to the beach and finding it covered in trash:

When we looked more closely at the sand beneath our feet. . . . We found larger bits of plastic debris that were even more disturbing: syringes, a green army man that Finn was happy to add to his collection, coffee stirrers, PVC pipe, pens just like Cleo’s from home, light switch covers, a Mylar helium birthday balloon like the one that Ava lost at a friend’s party when it slipped free from her fingers the week before, cigarette lighters, a bright yellow baby toy just like one Mira remembered having, car bumpers, and tampon applicators—objects of our everyday lives, all made of plastic, all washed up on our shoreline.

Mylar balloons are mentioned only briefly, but as I researched further, I discovered that they're an extremely common sight in places where people go to "be in nature," like forests and beaches.

I did a bit more digging to see who else was talking about finding mylar balloons out and about in nature, and I came across a thread on arizonahuntingforums.com from March 2022.

I found the thread fascinating because it was hunters talking--not a group stereotypically known for being environmentally conscious. Multiple hunters talked about the need for legislation to ban mylar balloons, saying things like "I find them in the most remote locations and they never seem to die. They need to be outlawed as an environmental hazard." and "Brothers, you are all singing the right song- these damned balloon[s]- and plastic Wal Mart bags- ought to be banned and taken off the open market."

The hunters also talked about how mylar balloons are particularly pernicious, because unlike Walmart bags, they can float around and get into the most remote areas: "I tend to hike fairly deep into the woods and will always find [mylar balloons]. I have yet to go on a hike, scout, hunt and not come across one, often 2-3!"

While reading Garbology by Edward Humes, a book about the study of garbage, I was struck by how we are haunted by our own trash. The book describes dumps where our trash is warehoused and tells stories of garbage that should have decomposed, but which was essentially mummified instead. (I believe that was because there wasn't enough oxygen for things to break down as expected.) To me, while mylar balloons are a potent symbol of the paranormal phenomena that can haunt us, I think that they're also a symbol of the trash that haunts us.

Mylar balloons are such a widespread issue and are found  out an about in nature so often that there are a lot of websites dedicated to spreading the word about how environmentally damaging they are. There's even one called mylarmistake.com.

The ubiquity of mylar balloons is also important context to have for paranormal mylar balloon encounters. I'm not trying to debunk paranormal experiences that anyone has had with mylar balloons, but it's good to know that they're common. It's helpful context to have while weighing the likelihood of a possibly synchronistic occurrence.

Dangers of mylar balloons

In addition to mylar balloons being litter and eyesores, they are also potentially dangerous.  One CBS news report talked about how mylar balloons are dangerous to our infrastructure:

Mylar balloons have also proved to be a constant menace to utilities and fire departments. Their silvery coating serves as a conductor for electricity, which means they can short transformers and melt wires just by coming near a high-voltage line. . . .
[A] California utility recorded 80 outages in February involving balloons and 217 in June. Last year, it tallied more than 1,000 outages related to mylar balloons, including dozens of incidents involving downed power lines.

Imagination and the paranormal

So why am I writing about mylar balloons and trash? Well, it's partially because I've been reading and thinking a lot about the power of imagination. It turns out that imagination is important when it comes to trying to make the world a better place.

If you're reading this, you probably have a lot of imagination. That's because being interested in the paranormal requires imagination. I'm not saying that the paranormal is made up or imaginary.

But the paranormal and the occult are all about the things that are at work in this world that we can't see. They're about an alternate way of experiencing reality.

The whole world tells us that the only things that are real are what we can see and measure. But the paranormal is all about things that are harder to measure scientifically, more difficult to explain, or just out of sight and accessed through unusual means.

So you have to have a lot of imagination and vision to be able to consider that there's something else out there.

I would also argue that if you're interested in history, you have to have a lot of imagination as well. Because to study history and to learn about history, you have to be able to imagine things being different from how they are now.

The importance of imagination

There's a great book called From What Is to What If: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want by Rob Hopkins, which talks about how people's imaginations are constrained. People are taught not to be imaginative. (For example, here in the United States, curriculums are built around standardized testing, which doesn't exactly encourage people to think creatively.)

On top of that, stress damages the part of your brain that allows you to imagine things.

So in a world where we need creative solutions for difficult problems more than we ever have before, we end up with a population of people who find it more and more difficult to use their imagination.

I don't know about you, when I think about times my life when I've been extremely stressed out, those memories are very . . . blank. Dull. They're times when I didn't have the mental space to imagine anything. I couldn't really picture anything getting better in my own life, much less the world.

Most people are like that, because that's literally how our brains work.

If you have no imagination, then you end up rooted in the here and the now, in the measurable.  You are confined by the restraints created by the consensus of what reality is, and what is possible.

To be interested in history or the paranormal, you must be able to imagine a world that's different from the one we're in right now. That sort of imagination is exactly what I want to talk about here.

There's a lot of unpleasant, stressful, and bad stuff going on in the world right now. The consensus tends to be that things are going to keep getting worse and worse.

But what if it were possible for things to get better? Can you even imagine a world where things could get better?

I think that a lot of people who imagine a better world are just imagining a past world. They're imagining maybe the '90s or the '60s or some other time when they imagine that things were better than they are now.

But, to quote my Cajun grandparents, "there's no such thing as the good old days." They should know, because they grew up in Louisiana without air conditioning or indoor plumbing.

We don't need to regress to a previous time when maybe some small number people might have had things better than they do now, but most people still were struggling (and had it worse).

Instead, we can imagine a better future. And that's what I want talk about here.

Let's loop back to the mylar balloon.

The mylar balloon is meaningful in the paranormal, but in a more realistic sense, mylar balloons are just a thing that you encounter a lot out and about in "nature." And that's because people release them without thinking about what kind of damage they're doing.

So I could just say that when you see a mylar balloon out in the woods, you shouldn't think of synchronicity, you should think about litter and the environment.

But that's not what I'm saying here.

I think that it is important to think about the environment. But it's just as important to think about how things could be improved as it is to think about how things are bad and getting worse.

Forgotten futures and solarpunk dreams

Like I said, things can feel pretty bleak.  We're up against a lot, and it's worth pausing and trying to find a way to feel more hopeful about things. Because otherwise you just end up miserable, crushed, and unable to even imagine a less miserable fate.

Let's get back to the book From What Is to What If. In it, Hopkins describes a concept called "shit life syndrome" (SLS):

In August 2018, the journalist Will Hutton reported on a new colloquialism being used by doctors in the United States and United Kingdom to describe ‘a tangled mix of economic, social and emotional problems’, which ‘consists of low mood caused by adverse life circumstances’. ‘Shit life syndrome’ (SLS), as the doctors call it, is when ‘finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources … It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.’ Although Hutton was primarily describing SLS as an argument against austerity and growing inequality, it seems to describe how an awful lot of people, rich or poor, are feeling these days.

SLS is probably familiar to anyone reading this. Even if not every day is characterized by this hopelessness, it's hard not to feel it sometimes.

That makes me think of a quote I stumbled upon in the book Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion by Tansy E. Hoskins: "I agree with the activist economist Michael Albert who wrote: ‘Our negative or critical messages don’t generate anger and action but only pile up more evidence that the enemy is beyond reach.’"

The introduction to From What Is to What If is called "What if things turned out okay?" In it, he imagines a nice future, and walks the reader through a day in a better future than the one we usually picture (sorry to include such a long excerpt, but I just love to detailed picture this paints):

I wake, well rested, in the straw-bale-walled apartment my family and I call home. Built fifteen years ago as part of a sustainable-construction initiative throughout our city, the three-storey-high apartment complex costs virtually nothing to heat, its basement hosts composting units for all the building’s toilets, and the solar panels on the roof generate all our electricity needs. I wake my kids, get them dressed and fed and accompany them to school – a walk that takes us through shared gardens with a diversity of food crops, including young ruby chard whose deep red leaves radiate like stained glass caught in the brilliant sun of this late spring morning. The streets are quiet, due to sparse motorised traffic, and they are lined with fruit and nut trees in early blossom. The air smells of spring. Each bus stop we pass is surrounded by a garden on three sides, part of the Edible Bus Stop network that now includes most bus stops across the United Kingdom. Anyone can graze while they wait for the bus. In our community, the kids seem to have radically different feelings about school than they did ten years ago. The education department’s decision to eliminate testing, to give ample space for unstructured play and to provide students with opportunities within the community to acquire meaningful skills that enable them to live happy and healthy lives by their own definition means that most kids here now love going to school. My son, for example, recently upped his cooking skills by spending a week at a local restaurant. My kids and I approach the school through intensive food gardens, planted and managed by the students, and walk into a building where we are greeted by the smell of baking bread and the sound of happy chatter. After we say our goodbyes, I pick up a public bicycle and head into the city on one of our cycle networks. With more bicycles and fewer cars on the road, air quality has improved, and public health along with it. I call into my favourite bakery to buy bread. Launched fifteen years ago on the premise that ‘baking is the new Prozac’, the bakery’s mission is to provide meaningful work opportunities for people who lack housing and job security, and who struggle with mental health. The bakery prioritises local produce, grows a thriving rooftop garden and uses bicycle-powered delivery around town. With the bakery’s support, many of its employees have launched other successful businesses across the city.

The future that he describes sounds lovely; everyone probably has their own version of this that they could dream up. What would a day in your future life look like if things turned out okay?

Particularly if you're someone who's prone to feeling hopeless from time to time (who isn't these days?), it's worth really thinking about and trying to imagine.

I really enjoy the solarpunk genre of sci-fi, which is about imagining sustainable futures in which today's destructive systems have been dismantled, people live in a society that prioritizes community, and the climate crisis has been mitigated.

I'm completely exhausted by dystopias. We're so often focused on apocalyptic events and fear of the future we could be barreling toward that we forget to focus on the future we might want to live in. And I like that solarpunk stories aren't utopias. There's a sense of realism, an idea that not everything is perfect and some past mistakes are hard to recover from. But if society were structured differently and we lived differently, our lives and the world would be better.

Imagination and the paranormal

So, if you're someone who's into the paranormal, I hope that the next time that you see a mylar balloon, you don't just think about synchronicity and imagine what the balloon could mean from a paranormal standpoint. I also hope that you can also use mylar balloon sightings as a trigger to remind yourself to think about how things could be better in the future.[2]

The more we suppress our imagination--the more we tell ourselves that things can't improve--the more screwed over we are. And if we humans want to have any chance of improving the state of things, we have to have the courage and imagination to envision a world where things are better. And that means being able to see beyond the bleak future that the governments, the corporations, and the hegemonic structures of our world tell us is the only option.

I reject the idea that the only one possible future is an apocalyptic and miserable one.

So when it comes to mylar balloons, I'd like to challenge you to use it as a prompt to pause and think about what sort of forgotten future you'd like to reclaim, what sorts of what ifs you'd like to dream into being.

Things to read, watch, or listen to

Here are just a few places to learn more about imagined better futures and solarpunk ideas.

[1] I can't for the life of me remember which episode(s).

[2] Also, if it's safe to do so, it's worth collecting the mylar balloon and disposing of it elsewhere.