Permian

If systems of remembering have a purpose, they must have a target – the rememberer, the one who re-calls, who reads the text and thus infuses it with the logos. We have confidence not only in our own continued existence, at least for some time, but in the succession of generations and the meaning they carry, into which those seeking to be recalled must insert their significance.

Industrial civilization has embarked on an act of forgetting on a colossal, even industrial scale: the elimination of species, mainly those competing with us for land or food, or edible species not amenable to taming, but sparing no bystanders. These species, when gone, will not re-appear; their culture and their living physical presence will be forgotten, and the text of their genetics will dissolve into the noisy chaos of the micro-world. The places which they occupy in the interwoven world of living things will stand vacant, and the straining web will continue to unravel as it becomes less and less complicated.

The war against species is not something waged only in industrial countries, for the global world touches, after all, the entire globe. Since the arrival of white people in South Africa, the Quagga, Blue Buck, and Eastwood’s Longtailed Seps have gone. According to the Red List, the following South African species are critically endangered: the Bastard Quiver Tree, Juliana’s Golden Mole, Smith’s Dwarf Chameleon, the Bushman Hare, the Riverine Rabbit, Visagie’s Golden Mole, Van Zyl’s Golden Mole, the Leathery Turtle, Rudd’s Lark, the South African Long-clawed Lark, the Pondoland Cannibal Snail, the Pink Velvet Worm and the Lion’s Hill Velvet Worm. Species with which we are less familiar, and which thus have no common names, include Chrysoritis cotrelli, Colophon berrisfordi, Colophon cassoni, Colo-phon montisatris, Colophon primosi, Delosperma macellum, Dicoma pretoriensis, Encephalartos aemulans, Encephalartos brevifoliolatus, En-cephalartos cerinus, Encephalartos cupidus, Encephalartos dolomiticus, Encephalartos dyerianus, Encephalartos heenanii, Encephalartos hirsutus, Encephalartos inopinus, Encephalartos laevifolius, Encephalartos latifrons, Encephalartos middelburgensis, Encephalartos msinganus, Encephalartos nubimontanus, Khadia beswickii, Khadia beswickii, Lepidochrysops lotana and Lepidochrysops lotana. Articles on the impact of climate change in Nature and other magazines suggest that within forty-five years, between fifteen and thirty per cent of all species will be extinct.

Long ago there occurred an event which had a profound effect on the continued presence of living things on the planet. Palaeontologists call this event the Permian extinction, and place it at the Permian/Triassic boundary, around the time that the long-lived bacterium was setting itself up for the extended wait.

It seems (and it is a matter of some dispute) that at around that time, two hundred and fifty-one million years ago, con-ditions on the earth underwent a very sudden shift. Where there had been a biodiverse and complex society of living beings, suddenly ninety-five per cent of species go missing, never to be seen again. The succession of rocks deposited shows that above the complex fossil-bearing strata is a layer of sand and rubble indicating erosion of the land-mass as the plants died, along with the animals that depended on them. Land animals were hard-hit, and only two species of four-legged animals are thought to have survived – one of them a reptile resembling a pig: our ancestor. The ocean did worse, with an almost total die-out.

What happened? Competing theories have been advanced: a meteor hit the planet, or a planetary body passed close by, the earth’s crust shifted on its mantle, as Einstein thought might be possible, or a nearby supernova emitted enough gamma radiation to kill most living things.

In recent years, as dating techniques have improved, one theory has taken the lead: The event was triggered by volcanic eruptions in the area now called Siberia, where the earth split, forming immense trenches and pumping vast amounts of lava, carbon dioxide and sulphur onto the surface and into the air. Fancy techniques to do with isotopes allow this rise in atmospheric carbon to be traced. The carbon dioxide caused global warming which, it is thought, was enough to release methane trapped in the circumpolar ice. Methane is a much more effi-cient greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, and when it gets into the mix, the temperature jumps suddenly. The jump is enough to disrupt weather and change conditions beyond the adaptive ranges of the vast majority of hapless animals and plants. The disruption of ocean currents prevents oxygen from reaching the ocean beds, killing the seas and the corals, hobbling the global oxygen economy. Planetary oxygen levels plummet. Meltdown. This model, while still in some dispute, is consistent with the fossil record.

Some scientists have proposed a number of degrees of warming, based on carbon isotope measurements: at the time of the Permian/Triassic boundary, there was six degrees centigrade of global warming, they claim. Other scientists are far more cautious: when things are that distant, the accuracy of meas-urements is woolly at best. But the detailed model which factors methane in with carbon dioxide is now a matter of consensus science and not disputed, except by corporate toadies of the oil companies. Predictions for global warming caused by industrial civilization by the end of this century range from three to twelve degrees. If the methane in the ice-caps is released, the models strongly suggest, we can forget ourselves, individually and as a species. The world will no longer nurture the steady succession of generations, the repository of memory that we take for granted.

The great biologist E.O. Wilson reckons that if we come out of our current scrape with fifty per cent of the species we have now, we’ll be doing pretty well. He is ambiguous about the hope that humans will be among the survivors. And yet, like gamblers, addicts, writers and artists, we carry on as before, hoping for the lucky break, the skewed odds that might carry us through. We know how special we are and how much we deserve to make it.

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Part 1       Part 2     Part 3     Part 4     Part 5     Part 6     Part 7      Part 8     Part 9     Part 10

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