On canaries in mines

There are many canaries in the coal mine of modern life. Not all of them are dead yet. Some have merely stopped singing and might conceivably recover if their cages were removed promptly from the shafts.

The same might be tried for a person trying to kill himself by piping carbon monoxide into his car. (I am told it is a painless way to commit suicide.) He might not be dead yet, merely passed out; one should try opening the car doors, or if they are locked, smashing the windows. This would be an act of corporal mercy, though like many it might not bring thanks. As we know from the enthusiasts for “euthanasia,” some people would rather be dead, and any of them might also prove litigious.

I gather (I am no expert on this) the old practice in the coal mines involved more than one canary. Should one suddenly drop off its perch, the miners could find their way to safety, or potential safety, by following the sound towards the noisiest surviving canaries. This would generally correspond to the best route towards the surface. This is what made canaries better than white lab mice as “sentinel animals” in the circumstance, for while mice sometimes squeak, few are so robustly choral.

The famed Scottish physiologist, John Scott Haldane (1860–1936; father of J.B.S.), first advanced this proposal. Mice and canaries alike have very quick respiratory metabolisms. This makes them ideal for the detection of a wide range of the toxic gases, which killed far more miners than the coal dust explosions which often preceded their emission. Haldane was also the brilliant man who realized that a miner’s safety lantern could be used to determine not only the amount but the kind of toxic gas, by careful observation of the shape, height, colour, and trend of its flame.

Such lanterns are still used to this day, as I understand, but the advantage of canaries is that they lack subtlety, and get right to the point.

I assume there are gas detectors in all modern coal mines (methane is also an issue), so that quality of life for canaries has improved. But as with so much technical progress, one must bear in mind that the canaries were infallible. Whereas, the modern gas alarm might not be working; or, like the average apartment smoke detector, it may be giving so many false alarms that it is eventually ignored. These aggressively advertised devices are expensive, too; and one must remember to turn them on, whereas canaries were relatively cheap, and stayed “on” until they expired. There may be animal rights issues, however, so that the choice between the life of a canary and the life of a coal miner is no longer so obvious as it once was.

On the other hand, the canary in question has become a cliché so that, for instance, almost anything can now be a “climate canary,” with no need to invoke coal mines. I blame Kurt Vonnegut, the pop writer who created a vogue for this metaphor in the late 1960s. (I am now so old, that I can remember a time before Vonnegut’s style of unctuous moral posturing became the “canary” for lethal asininity throughout post-secondary education.)

All of this interests me as the son of a New Waterford girl. The Canadian Maritimes had their share of grievous coal-mining disasters, thanks to the cost-cutting of miserly owners and managers, though more often to bad luck. In either case, and regardless of the law, the punishment for these accidents was also sometimes fatal.


Speaking of the Maritimes, I have noticed that our nine Catholic bishops in those parts, and their archbishop in Halifax, have issued a Pastoral Reflection on the new Canadian law for “assisted dying.” (Here, for those with the stomach to read it.) In “merciful” Bergoglian bafflegab they justify “pastoral accompaniment” and the prospect of nice “Catholic” funerals for those intending to “off” themselves. (Many of whom may leave valuable estates.) The page of their signatures reminds me of the document signed by all the English bishops, except John Fisher, in 1534. (Him who observed: “The fort is betrayed even of them that should have defended it.”)

Comments on the Atlantic bishops’ effusion have been posted at all the usual “trad” websites, and may be easily searched. I see no need to add my own, beyond expressing agreement with a point raised at Vox Cantoris about “the very real probability that each of these cowardly, emasculated, heretical apostates will end in Hell.”

Yet, unlike their self-murdering “penitents,” they might live to repent.