Last month, a small herd of bison was running along a highway in Yellowstone National Park and happened to run past a film crew from a local television station that was there to do another story.
The footage of the bison soon went viral, fueling endless speculation about what the bison were running from. Initially, the theorizers did acknowledge that the bison could have been running from all sorts of things, including carnivores, such as grizzly bears or wolves, or even poachers. But very quickly, all of the other possibilities receded and just about everyone honed in on the most catastrophic possibility: namely, that the bison had sensed an imminent eruption of the Yellowstone super-volcano and were literally running for their lives.
If that seems a fairly spectacular speculative leap, well, consider the “evidence.” That week there had been a very moderate earthquake in Southern California that had received some national media attention, and it had been followed by a moderate earthquake in Yellowstone that had received very little media attention, even locally. So, clearly, there was some sort of conspiracy afoot to minimize the Yellowstone event. And the only possible cause of such a conspiracy would be the need to avoid a mass stampede of human beings who would become as panicked as the bison were. And the only possible cause of such panic would be the imminent eruption of the super-volcano.
It was very reasonable, then, for someone to re-post an edited version of the video, with a very foreboding musical track added.
The panic induced by the viral video and the speculation about its meaning eventually became its own media story. But, after some very superficial investigation, it became clear that the panic was completely unfounded.
Don’t get me wrong, the Yellowstone super-volcano, which is enormous–about 55 miles wide, will eventually erupt again, and that eruption will almost certainly devastate much of North America and disrupt the climate worldwide. But the last time that it erupted was 640,000 years ago. Given that all of recorded human history stretches back 4,000 to 5,000 years, I suppose that any of us can be excused for not grasping the scale of geologic time.
But the main reason that the moderate earthquake in Yellowstone did not attract much media attention, even locally, is that there are between 1,000 and 3,000 minor to moderate earthquakes in the Yellowstone region each year—that’s about 3 to 10 a day.
Moreover, although bison running on the roadway might seem very unusual, according to park rangers, it occurs quite frequently. It seems that the bison have figured out that it is much easier to run along unobstructed roadways than elsewhere through the park.
And, by the way, the bison were clearly headed farther into Yellowstone and not out of it. They were probably moving toward one of the valleys where the spring grass had already started to emerge.
There has always been an apocalyptic strain in the American character—a pessimistic underside to the theme of optimism that has drawn waves of immigrants to our shores and that drew waves of pioneers to each new frontier. We have always been a nation in flux, a nation of seemingly endless dynamic potential. Ironically but almost inevitably, that restless energy sometimes becomes reckless, creating periodic crises in which mass frustration becomes volatile. For those most negatively affected by those seemingly abrupt crises, it all can seem very personally destructive and, projected outwards, unimaginably catastrophic—even though from a historical perspective, it is all too predictable. And when the numbers of such people reach a certain critical mass, there is a market for apocalyptic visions.
I find it fascinating that while our new immigrants, documented or not, continue even today to fight for political recognition, economic fairness, and social justice, those on the lunatic fringes of the Far Right are becoming end-timers: survivalists building bunkers in the wilderness, stockpiling dried and canned foods in their reinforced cellars, and finding confirmation of their obsessive delusions in just about everything.
Of course, cable television, talk radio, and fundamentalist religion have all made an industry out of “unimaginable” catastrophe. The Far-Right media endlessly recycles the catastrophic threats looming over us: from solar storms to the switching of the earth’s magnetic poles, from asteroids or comets suddenly striking the earth to earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and super-storms, from the terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction to environmental catastrophes, famines, and global pandemics.
Within this skewed world view, the individual has no control over any of it, and yet the individual can still somehow survive all of it if only he or she is willing to pay heed to the warnings. The voice of God to Noah has been replaced by a chorus of voices that have so narrowly focused the meaning of their lives that they have nothing left to live for but the end of everything except themselves.
Of course, most Americans, even those on the Far-Right find it impossible to survive as survivalists. So, it is not surprising that there would be a tremendous tension—a fundamental contradiction–in the Far Right’s views of something like climate change. While the end-timers embrace the concept that the earth is heading toward a catastrophic rise (or fall) in temperatures, everyone else who is not enjoying the delusional “safety” of their own bunkers has to be reassured that it’s all a “big lie” being spread by leftist tree-huggers who want to end American energy independence and kill the American jobs. This projection onto the other side of the Far Right’s own dangerous obsession with catastrophe has, in fact, become the core strategy for keeping the Far Right’s base voters running like bison down roads through a wilderness—but without even the bison’s sense of where they are headed and why.