The volcanoes erupted for about 600,000 years, spewing basalt lava that blanketed an area about half the size of Canada. The acidified oceans warmed by as much as 18 ° F, killing reefs and suffocating organisms. Up to 96 percent of marine species in the super-ocean, Panthalassa, and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species on Earth’s supercontinent, Pangaea, went extinct.
The Earth became, according to Carl Zimmer in his foreword to 2008’s T. Rex and the Crater of Doom, “a truly grotesque place—a glassy purple sea releasing poisonous bubbles that rise up to a pale green sky”.
In a geologic instant, or about 200,000 years, life on Earth collapsed.
According to a March 31 paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and titled “Methanogenic burst in the end-Permian carbon cycle”, it turns out that microbes in the ocean played a great role in the devastation. Fed a steady dose of nickel from the volcanic eruptions, Methanosarcina microorganisms were able to quickly reproduce and convert marine organic carbon into huge amounts of methane—an agent that has a warming potential between 72 and 100 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
The end-Permian extinction event—or the Great Dying—that occurred 252 million years ago was so catastrophic that it took between 10 million and 30 million years for life to recover.
Today, industrial civilization has produced enough carbon dioxide to warm the planet and bring methane into the picture yet again. A warming planet, for instance, has meant a decrease in Arctic sea ice and snow cover, exposing permafrost under the snow and releasing stored methane.
“Methane is in the marine sediments on the continental shelf and in the permafrost on the land,” says Paul Beckwith, a part-time geography professor at the University of Ottawa, in a phone interview with the Georgia Straight. “Around the fringes of the icecap, there’s no ice and the water is warming the marine sediments.” If the melting permafrost and marine sediments trigger a methane bomb, we’ll experience a sudden and major ecological shift, according to Beckwith.
“The Earth is presently undergoing an abrupt climate change that will take us from our previous climate state to a state that is much warmer,” he says, “perhaps even five or six degrees [Celsius] warmer over a decade or two.”
An American Association for the Advancement of Science report from last month also warned of “abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes in the Earth’s climate system” that could lead to “loss of the Amazon rain forest, die-off of coral reefs, and mass extinctions”.
Already, we’re seeing the effects on various species. “One-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion,” Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, a book published in February.
We’re quickly approaching a critical tipping point that would break apart the web of life of which we’re a part.
Beckwith, however, believes we’re also approaching a “tipping point for human behaviour” where we finally mobilize and challenge the crisis confronting us.
Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed, an investigative journalist and international security expert, agrees. This opportunity arises, he says, because there’s a growing recognition that anthropogenic climate disruption is part of a larger web of crises. Climate change, resource depletion, global militarization, and economic collapse, he writes in his 2010 book, A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization: And How to Save It, “are manifestations of the same structural dynamic generated by the inherently dysfunctional character of the global political economy”. They “illustrate that neoliberal ideology fails to fully reflect the real conditions of human life as fundamentally embedded in the natural environment”.
We are approaching what Ahmed calls the post-carbon age, where “a new ethical system based on human cooperation, grassroots participation and the mutual needs and well-being of all will be increasingly viewed...as the basis of the rational pursuit of self-maximization.”
A post-carbon civilization will “increase access to, and ownership of, productive resources for the majority”, he writes, with agricultural and industrial means of production controlled by grassroots communities. The end of productive resources being concentrated in the hands of an elite minority would “drastically reduce industrial overconsumption while transitioning to a localized renewable-energy infrastructure”.
This transition could be as dramatic a paradigm shift as abrupt climate change. And it could mean that we do face, in effect, an impending extinction event. But it would be the extinction of modern industrial civilization, which, according to Ahmed, “cannot survive in its current form beyond the twenty-first century”.
Like those microbes in Earth’s ancient oceans, it would ultimately author the end of one era and the beginning of another.