The canary in the coal mine
On the morning of January 27, 1896, mining operations at Tylorstown, No 8 Pit (and #7) in Rhondda Fach (UK) caused an incredibly powerful methane explosion. 57 miners died. A Scot trained in engineering, medicine and physiology was asked to help find the cause of the disaster. His name was John Haldane.
On December 30, 1986, a British mining tradition dating back to the results of Haldane’s initial efforts ended: The use of canaries in coal mines to detect carbon monoxide and other toxic gases before they hurt humans. Canaries were also used in mines in the U.S. and Canada. Although the use of canaries in mines as primary noxious gas detection devices was eliminated in Britain by 1986, they are still used as a backup to digital monitoring devices by the UK Mines Rescue Service and remain in use today in mining operations from China to Ukraine.
After his inquiry at the scene of the explosion, he determined that the primary cause of the deaths of the miners was not the explosion that occurred, nor had they suffocated from lack of oxygen. Throughout the late 19th Century it was a common belief that most miners trapped in an explosion died from the force of the explosion itself. Prof Haldane stood virtually alone in his belief that suffocation (lack of oxygen) was the primary killer. He was wrong.
Autopsies of the miners killed revealed the primary cause of death was the presence of carbon monoxide gas they inhaled. The outcome of Haldane’s recommendations would come to be known as the pit canary: a bright yellow songbird that was transported by miners in a small cage, and descended into the depths of the mine to identify dangerous levels of CO2, an invisible, colorless, and odorless gas, affording time for the miners to escape the danger they could not sense. The adoption of canaries in mining operations began a 100+ year tradition of miners interacting with their canaries akin to pets. Talking to them, listening to their songs, feeding them, whistling to and with them. The miners trusted Haldane’s assertion that the behavior of the canaries would be the signal to alert them to the presence of poisonous gases they could not sense.
Haldane found birds are very efficient in inhaling oxygen, yet incredibly sensitive to poisons in the air. He found that canaries were 20 times more sensitive to CO2 than humans, and would consistently demonstrate signs of carbon monoxide poisoning by acting peculiarly, falling off their perches, or the cessation of their singing. Although his primary assumption was incorrect, he persevered and devised and implemented a solution that could sense what humans could not. This solution was adopted across the mining industry, spanning the globe. John Haldane’s canaries are said to have performed as true life-savers. This article examines the warnings canaries in U.S. society are currently warbling – detecting dangers many of us are unable to sense.
Canaries in society
Can you imagine trusting your life to the behavior of a caged, small, yellow bird, in the depths of a coal mine where you are working? As a miner, imagine what your reaction might be the first time you encounter another miner carrying this little, yellow, caged bird down into the bowels of the mine. “Hey Charlie! What’s up with the bird?” Charlie: “Management says these birds can sense poisonous gases that we can’t. They’re here to save our lives.” “Yeah right!” you exclaim, as you walk away chuckling and shaking your head.
Today, our lives are filled with canaries. We have all kinds of widgets and gadgets that serve to sense what we cannot. Think of devices like watches, blood tests, x-rays, MRIs, wind gauges, thermometers, barometers, speedometers, measures of economic health, etc. Societies are also filled with canaries whose behaviors alert us to dangers that may not be apparent to us. In June 2022, I became aware of a number of canaries whose behavior and warbling alerted me to dangers bubbling beneath the surface of the U.S. –from their nest in the west.
In June 2022, I heard a canary by the name of Keturah Kendrick, who wrote an op-ed about gun violence in the U.S. published by NBC. She wrote:
I’ve tried to explain the specific sickness my country suffers from on many occasions. And what else can we call it but an illness when something so horrific keeps happening, there are simple solutions that most voters favor, yet our elected leaders refuse to act? A fear rests just beneath the surface of the consciousness of many living in the United States. This country is not well. The U.S. has a sickness. We are just not well1.”
On June 14, 2022, another canary sounded off. The name of this canary was U.N. Secretary General António Guterres. He said: “Our energy mix is broken. The energy crisis exacerbated by the war in Ukraine has seen a perilous doubling down on fossil fuels by the major economies. New funding for fossil fuel exploration and production infrastructure is delusional2.
While reading during June 2022, I came across a quote uttered by a guy named Henry Adams in 1853. He said, “Great as were the material obstacles in the path of the United States, the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind3.”
Another author I encountered in June, John Casti, observed: “The past seldom obliges by revealing to us when wildness will break out in the future. They (outbreaks of wildness) always seem to arrive as surprises. After the fact, however, when we study the history of what happened, the source of the wildness appears so obvious to us that we have a hard time understanding how people on the scene were oblivious to what lay in wait for them4.
Finally, another canary author, Carl Bernstein, warbled the following: “Specific surprises - can and do happen. And even when they are so unpalatable that you don’t want to think about them, and thus fool yourself into believing they cannot occur. They will happen anyway. The damage will be orders of magnitude greater than need be the case by sticking your head in the sand and pretending otherwise5.”
As I pondered the warbling I heard in June 2022, I noticed the following:
My country suffers from a specific sickness, an illness - This country is not well. The U.S. has a sickness. We are just not well. Delusional. The greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind. Outbreaks of wildness always seem to arrive as surprises. Specific surprises - can and do happen. And even when they are so unpalatable that you don’t want to think about them, and thus fool yourself into believing they cannot occur. They will happen anyway. A fear rests just beneath the surface of the consciousness of many living in the United States.
Thinking about the above took me back to John Haldane. A highly educated man who initially assumed miners were dying from lack of oxygen, confronted his error in judgment and delivered tiny yellow warbling birds in cages who could sense the invisible, odorless, colorless dangers that humans could not. So, I decided to use John Haldane’s approach to sense the invisible, odorless, colorless dangers that currently inhabit America. The following are my findings.
Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has written: “Trust is the grease that makes society function6.” Scholar Alasdair Roberts adds: “Trust holds the machinery of commerce together: when it dissipates, the machinery succumbs to disintegrating forces and flies apart7.”
According to a recent poll by Pew Research in June 2022, “Americans remain deeply distrustful of and dissatisfied with their government. Just 20% say they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing just about always or most of the time.” An Economist/YouGov poll conducted from March 26 - 29, 2002 reveals “that while Americans are more likely to trust than distrust many prominent news sources, there are very few organizations that are trusted by more than a small proportion of Americans on both sides of the political aisle. In fact, most Americans place trust in an organization that rarely covers domestic politics: the Weather Channel (52% of Americans trust it). The Weather Channel is trailed by the U.K. news outlet, BBC (39%), the national public broadcaster, PBS (41%), and The Wall Street Journal (37%).”
When 80% of Americans are deeply dissatisfied and distrust government while trusting the Weather Channel more than prominent media outlets, might we infer that the erosion of trust is a reality in the U.S.? Yet, if “trust is the grease that makes society function” and “trust holds the machinery of commerce together: when it dissipates, the machinery succumbs to disintegrating forces and flies apart,” what are the implications? Perhaps, the U.S. is currently struggling with what Henry Adams referred to in 1853 as “the greatest obstacle of all was in the human mind.” Then I recalled what Keturah Kendrick observed: “There are simple solutions that most voters favor, yet our elected leaders refuse to act? A fear rests just beneath the surface of the consciousness of many living in the United States.”
Fear, distrust, dissatisfaction, and frustration with elected leaders all indicate that the human mind in America is at least perplexed, and quite possibly bewildered. Why? Perhaps a quote from Prof. Yuval Noah Harari, a historian, philosopher, and the bestselling author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, provides some insight. He writes:
That’s how history unfolds. People weave a web of meaning, believe in it with all their heart, but sooner or later the web unravels, and when we look back we cannot understand how anybody could have taken it seriously8.
Yes, it is obvious that the U.S. is in the midst of a great unraveling, whereby former widely held webs of meaning are being challenged and displaced. Is this a challenge for the human mind, the human heart or the soul of a nation? What might this indicate for the future of the American nation?
When humans (and societies) are confronted with webs of meaning unraveling during their lifetimes, we must engage in a process of confronting our illusions and examining the fictions that have come to inhabit our worldview. As sociologist Daniel Levinson points out:
De-illusionment is a reduction of illusions. It’s a recognition that long held assumptions and beliefs about self and world are not true. This process merits special attention because illusions play so vital a role in our lives throughout the life cycle9.
Hence if we want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world10.
Yes, the U.S. remains entangled in a difficult era whereby webs of meaning are being unraveled. One where beliefs, illusions, assumptions, former truths, and fictions are being challenged. It is not alone. This occurs across the globe in every society throughout history.
The U.S. is currently embroiled in an epoch where the life of a nation is beset with extraordinary partisan political polarization, a congressional investigation of the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021, an immigration apparatus that remains broken after decades of debate, legislative gridlock, a plethora of fictions remain embedded in the minds of many citizens regarding the nonsense that the 2000 U.S. presidential election was stolen, a stock market decidedly in decline, income inequality, homelessness, a war in Ukraine, a rise in domestic terrorism threats, soaring energy costs, a doubling down on fossil fuel supplies, the absence of a funded climate change policy, difficult international relations challenges, supply chain disruptions, gun violence, regular outbursts of racial hatred, inflation rates not seen in forty years, and a looming economic recession. Honestly, the canaries in this coal mine have fallen off their perches.
‘Stories, fictions, illusions, change, narratives, emotional states, perceptions, fear, trust, confidence’ — all terms that economist John Maynard Keynes might point to as sources of explanatory power for economic fluctuations and the instabilities that inhabit capitalism. Economists like Keynes, Akerlof and Shiller refer to these influences as ‘animal spirits.’ In their book by the same name, Nobel Prize winners Shiller and Akerlof state:
To understand how economies work and how we can manage them and prosper, we must pay attention to the thought patterns that animate people’s ideas and feelings — We will never really understand important economic events unless we confront the fact that their causes are largely mental in nature11.
Perhaps we might change the word economies in the first sentence above to societies, and change the word economic to societal in the final sentence to capture what is going on in the soul, heart, and mind of America today. If the canaries in the coal mine of yesterday have taught us anything pertinent to our lives today, it is that we must be mindful of the limits of our human senses, and the dangers that exist beyond those limits. Today, the canaries in the depths of the coal mine of the American soul are unsettled. They are signaling recognition of new sentiments that are oozing into the atmospheres of the hearts, minds, and souls of Americans. They are reminding us that as America continues to mine the expanse of the great democracy experiment, we must continue to pay attention to the warbling and behaviors of those unassuming canaries who inhabit the nest in the west.
I will close with a quote from former France’s former President Nicolas Sarkozy:
The time to change our trajectory is now. Amidst all these difficulties we cannot rest content with reacting on a day to day basis; we will not recover from the crisis with just ad hoc solutions…the only thing that will save us is unchaining our minds so as to gather the strength to make the necessary changes. The only thing that will save us is unchaining our minds so as to free ourselves from conformism, conservatism and short-sighted interests…. such a revolution is inconceivable without deeply challenging the way we represent the challenges of what we undertake, the results of what we do12.
Remember John Haldane and the canaries he delivered to the mining industry. Remember how incredibly unconventional and effective his solution was. Remember how he changed his mind. Remember how important it is to take the time to observe and listen to the canaries in society today.
Remember, surprises do happen in life. We must not overlook the fact that surprises will occur and will create, as Bernstein puts it, a “damage that will be orders of magnitude greater than need be the case by sticking your head in the sand and pretending otherwise13.” I, for one, am delighted John Haldane mustered the courage to descend into the depths of a mining disaster to determine the cause of the catastrophe. Perhaps, America might seriously consider his example.
Canaries? Who would have ever thought of that?
It’s amazing what the unchained human mind can accomplish.
1 NBC News.
2 United Nations.
3 Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage – Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, NY, NY Copyright © 1996 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc.
4 Casti, John L. X-EVENTS – The Collapse of Everything, William Morrow – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers New York, NY Copyright © 2012 by John L. Casti.
5 Bernstein, Peter L. Against The Gods -The Remarkable Story of Risk, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York, NY Copyright (c) 1996, 1998 by Peter L. Bernstein.
6 Stiglitz, Joseph E. Freefall – America, Free Markets, And The Sinking of The World Economy, W.W. Norton & Company New York, NY Copyright 2010 by Joseph E. Stiglitz.
7 Roberts, Alasdair America’s First Great Depression – Economic Crisis and Political Disorder After the Panic of 1837, Copyright © 2012 by Cornell University, Cornell University Press Ithaca, NY.
8 Harari, Yuvall Noah Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper – An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers New York, NY Copyright © 2017 by Yuvall Noah Harari.
9 Levinson, Daniel J., The Seasons Of A Man’s Life, New York: Ballantine Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, 1978.
10 Harari, Yuvall Noah Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harper – An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers New York, NY Copyright © 2017 by Yuvall Noah Harari.
11 Akerlof, George & Shiller, Robert Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy, and Why It Matters for Global Capitalism, © 2009 Princeton University Press, 2009.
12 In Stiglitz, Joseph E., Se, Amartya ans Fitoussi, Jean-Paul Mismeasuring Our Lives – Why GDP Doesn’t Add Up – The Report By The Commission on The Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Copyright (c) 2010 , The New Press New York, NY Sarkozy excerpts that make up this quote are compiled from pages vii, xv.
13 Ibid, Bernstein (5) above.