Aflockalypse Now: Shock and Awe or Cheap Thrills?

No, it's not a canary, but it's trying to tell us something. (Photo by Dave Gingrich/Flickr)

Birds falling from the sky! Fish washing up on the beach! In the same week! In the same place (if you think of North America as one place)! Run! It’s here! Thus do the stewards of the fabulous technology of the Information Age ensure that our brains continue to atrophy. (To listen to the audio version, click here: 0108 Aflockalypse Now)

“Animal Apocalypse?” asked the Melbourne Times. “Aflockalypse Now,” smirked the Washington Post. “End-Times Panic” announced the Ministry Herald. “Conspiracy Theorists…Freak Out,” according to the London Telegraph. Then there were the hundreds of “film-at-11” TV promos backed by soundtrack music from Hitchcock’s The Birds, asking improbable and unanswerable questions: “Birds falling from the sky: The beginning of the end?”

Great television. Terrific newspapering and web-siting. The consumption of which causes brain atrophy.

Our perception of such stories, and what they mean to us, is shaped today not by journalists who investigate until they understand what has happened, then report their understanding; but by the writers of headlines and ten-second TV teases, the whiz kids in the back rooms of the media shops who are rewarded for creating buzz, not comprehension. The principal way to create buzz (as opposed to the principled way) is to pretend that everything is new, that nothing has ever happened before, that whatever the media spotlight lands on is deserving of shock and awe. A temporary, pleasurable shiver, lasting only until the next bit of “news.”

That is why it took days — after the mass bird deaths in Arkansas and Louisiana, the fish kill in the Chesapeake Bay — to see in print or video what a perfunctory, pre-publication check would have revealed: that the US Geological Survey recorded 90 large bird kills in the six months before the aflockalypse, and has noted mass deaths of more than 1,000 birds approximately every other year for 30 years.

Large fish kills made headlines without the apocalyptic references in, for example, Lake Ontario and South Africa in 2006, the Potomac River in 2007, Taiwan, Salt Lake, Hampton (Virginia), Belfast and Pennsylvania in 2008, and on and on. [Kudos to Pat Brennan and Kevin Sablan of the Orange County Register (California) for doing some actual, rare journalism on this story.]

When buzz is the objective, context is the enemy. If something happens all the time, it’s not news. If there is no shock and awe, it doesn’t deserve to be teased.

The emerging, actual causes of these events, while not yet determined (such things do not yield to the inflexible, tell-me-now-dammit demands of the media) are almost mundane. A swift, unseasonable plunge in temperature may have much to do with many of them, according to the qualified people who tend to turn up after all the dingbats have been interviewed. By the time responsible people know what killed these birds and fish — and it may well be a warning to which we need to pay attention — there will be another source of shock and awe sucking the oxygen out of the Information Age and killng the brain cells of its participants, so we may not hear about it.

Amid the kerfuffle, we miss the reason for the legitimate shock, the authentic awe: that our activities on this planet are wiping out the species with which we share the web of life at a rate variously estimated at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate. It is precisely because this is not news that we should be worried sick. We are coal miners whose canaries are dropping to the floors of their cages by the millions, and we just keep on mining. “Gee,” we keep saying to each other, “Wonder what killed that canary. Witchcraft? Fickle finger of fate? Oooh, spooky.”

(Has this reference become obscure, even as it has become a cliche? Miners took canaries to the mine face because when invisible, odorless and deadly methane gathered, it killed the birds before it affected the miners. The message was: get out of here fast if you want to live. Tough to do when it’s not a mine, but a planet.)

If you want true shock and awe, not just cheap thrills, contemplate for a few moments the consequences of our long-term, wanton destruction of the web of life which alone can ensure our survival on this earth.

Wait…sorry, we have to go. We have breaking news about Lindsey Lohan going into or coming out of rehab. Our team of crack reporters is live at the scene…..

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2 Responses to Aflockalypse Now: Shock and Awe or Cheap Thrills?

  1. Someone in Asia says:

    Don’t forget the bees.