Once canaries were prohibited from dying in mines by executive order. In their role as early warning signals, it didn’t matter how toxic the air they breathed had become, they were simply not allowed to depart this world. It was a matter of national health and welfare. Whenever a canary actually did keel over in its cage, the death was invariably ascribed to natural causes and, as such, was declared not to be any reason for general concern. Other canaries should pay no notice and simply go on breathing the air around them as usual. The penalties for joining the heavenly choir in defiance of the executive order could be severe. A presidential task force was assigned to investigate any reports of choking, hacking, wheezing, and suspiciously expiring canaries. No time was lost in reassuring the public that everything that could be done was being done to find the cause of these episodes. There was no reason, therefore, to be alarmed by even wholesale canary demise. That same task force was empowered by another executive order to detain any canary suspected of attempting to spread panic by faking its own death. Likely suspects were routinely charged with aiding and abetting ecoterrorism and of playing into the hands of a conspiracy that could cross national boundaries. Yet still, despite this threat of grave consequences, canaries continued to give up the ghost in growing numbers. Nor were their deaths confined any longer to areas in the immediate vicinity of known sources of foul air. Reports came in from places far downwind that previously healthy canaries were dropping in droves. Without a doubt, the highest authority in the land was being openly mocked. So yet a new executive order was issued calling upon field personnel of the Environmental Protection Agency to cease whatever else they might be doing and apply themselves to netting any and all canaries, below ground or above, before calls for time-consuming investigations of the investigation arose. Unfortunately, it quickly became obvious there simply weren’t enough EPA agents to handle the job. As reports of serious injury to persons and property from crashing canaries began to mount, the early warning system that the birds had represented for so long came to be seen as more trouble than it was worth. This “ticking canary time bomb,” it was now agreed at the highest levels, called for the boldness to “think like a bomb squad”: when you can’t defuse a threat, blow it up. It was impossible, obviously, to blow up every canary the now politicized EPA tracked down, but their elimination en masse (a “controlled extinction,” officials proudly termed it) might effectively remove the need for such painstaking and expensive measures. And if the air the canaries breathed was the problem, why not make the problem part of the solution? How much more toxic air was required, when you calculated it, to be rid of these little troublemakers altogether? That shouldn’t be hard to determine. This new approach, codenamed “Operation Yellow Death,” proved remarkably effective, and after peaking, accounts of suspicious canary-death activity began to fall off precipitously. In time, there were few sightings to speak of, and finally there were none. To mark this success, the chief executive of the nation sent a delegation of those who’d contributed most to solving the canary quandary once and for all to present what was the last living specimen to the EPA Administrator. It is now being kept in a glass jar on the Administrator’s desk.
Copyright © 2020 by Geoffrey Grosshans