31 December, 2008

Much Ado About Maybe Nothing

The folks who specialize in Sturm und Drang are at it again.

No. Not the radical feminists who insist that the failure of Barack Obama to select Hillary as his Vice President was further proof that the male conspiracy against them is much broader than previously expected.

The OTHER conspiracy theorists. The ones that even Art Bell thought were kooks. Yes, that Art Bell, who gave airtime to the supporters of National Tin-Foil Hat Day.

It starts off rather innocuously. Thanks to the Discovery Channel's well rerun special on supervolcanoes, most folks that watch television know that (Insert ominous voice here.) someday the Yellowstone Caldera will erupt again, maybe some day soon. (Close ominous voice.)

With the recent swarm of earthquakes in the Caldera, unfortunately, out come the crunchy nut bars in full force. Regretfully, the linked article is so full of sensational claims that makes it almost impossible to blockquote effectively, so I will explain. No. Forget that. It'll take too long.

Let me sum up.

The Illuminati, using a long-defunct Soviet subsonic weapon, is forcing the ground itself to weaken in the caldera so that it can erupt, cause massive devastation, combine with a 9.0 Los Angeles earthquake and a nuclear detonation in New York City, usher in the New World Order, force the relocation of half the (surviving) American population, bring about the Antichrist and herald the destruction of the entire world!

Not even James Patterson's ghost writers could use such a plot. Maybe Douglas Preston, though...

Is the possibility of an eruption something to be concerned about? Absolutely. Massive death, destruction, mayhem, and missing out on knowing who will be the next American Idol? (Snark!) Certainly a part of everyone's not-to-do lists for the coming year. The significance is overwhelming already, folks. The second-to-last thing we need is to set it to the X-Files theme music.

The last thing, however, is to be grossly ignorant as to the actual impact. From James Pethokoukis, a blogger at the U.S. News & World Report: (Bold mine.)

And what if the supervolcano blew? Kind of like if a giant rock hit the Earth. A planet killer. An extinction-level event. Let me quote the words of President Tom Beck (Morgan Freeman) in the comet-hitting-earth film Deep Impact:

Within a week, the skies will be dark with dust from the impact and they will stay dark for years. All plant life will be dead within weeks. Animal life within a few months. So that's it. Good luck to us all.

Such a scenario would be very bad for equity values and the outlook for the labor market.

This is even worse than the conspiracy theorists above. From the Tin Foil Brigade, you can expect grandiose claims and slippery-slope arguments as a matter of course. It's what they do. This is a (now allegedly) respectable blogger in a (very long time allegedly) respectable media publication, crying around in a Chicken Little impersonation until someone comes to check on the wolf.

What would actually happen? It depends on the actual event itself. If it is large enough, a good number of American citizens will be dead within the first hour or two, and a lot more over the next week as panic sets in. If it is not large enough, we breathe in ashes and soot for the next few months until things settle out of the atmosphere. For this to be an "extinction-level event", as James suggests, would require an eruption beyond what the historical records show can happen. Years of deteriorated sunlight, miniature ice ages, loss of most plant species in the Northern Hemisphere and the virtual dessication of a continent? Can happen. Complete annihilation of all life? I'd sooner believe in talking laboratory rats taking over the world.

Will this be Happy Fun Time at the park? Doubtful. Can basic human stubbornness and ingenuity cause some of us to survive? Flights to Australia and New Zealand will be booked solid to give it a good shot, even though it might turn into the set of Mad Max movies for real. Will the dead turn into the undead, requiring all owners of the Zombie Survival Guide to register with the government so as to provide trained countermeasures against the mindless hordes? It's more likely than the Antichrist, especially if the talent for American Idol is as pathetic as it was last year. (Paula Abdul: Zombie Queen.)

As it stands, there should be a wait-and-see attitude. Prepare for the merely bad, certainly. But drive the susceptible population into panic beyond measure in order to solicit donations to your religious organization in return for the salvation of the gullible? Or wax grandiose in order to simply sell a webpage so that your paycheck won't be under the ax when it's time for cuts?

I have a four-letter word for that garbage:


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