Conspiracies, Climate, and the New Dark Age: an extract from my book about Technology and the End of the Future

Hello, I’ve written a book. New Dark Age is a book about technology, knowledge, and the end of the future. It’s published by Verso, and you can buy it direct from the publisher as hardback and ebook (which is better for me, them, and publishing in general) — or wherever you usually acquire your reading. There is a series of events next week in the UK, in London, Bristol, and Liverpool , and the details are on my website.

If you’ve enjoyed my writing about weird YouTube videos, ubiquitous video surveillance, and the relationship between the weather and computation, you’ll find stories like these, retold and expanded, alongside much more on artificial intelligence, machine learning, the climate, the history of computation, conspiracy theory and the internet. Here’s a long extract in the Guardian, and another in Harpers Magazine. These extracts emphasise the technological aspects of the book, so here’s another one, from the opening of Chapter 8, Conspiracy, which focuses more on its philosophical concerns: how we know and what we cannot know about the world around us.

In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, the airmen of the 256th USAF Squadron find themselves trapped in an impossible position. The war is at its height, and the fighting in the skies over Italy is intense. They run the risk of being shot down every time they climb into the cockpit, and it’s clearly insane to choose to fly more of the dangerous missions; the sane choice would be to refuse to fly. But to get out of flying missions, they would have to plead insanity, at which point they would be declared sane for trying to get out of them. The airman “would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to, but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”

Catch-22 exemplifies the dilemma of rational actors caught up within the machinations of vast, irrational systems. Within such systems, even rational responses lead to irrational outcomes. The individual is aware of the irrationality but loses all power to act in their own interest. Faced with the roiling tide of information available to us and cascading down upon us from the network, we attempt to gain some kind of control over the world by telling stories about it: we attempt to master it through narratives. These narratives are inherently simplifications, because no one story can account for everything that’s happening; the world is too complex for simple stories. Instead of accepting this, the stories become ever more baroque and bifurcated, ever more convoluted and open-ended. Thus paranoia in an age of network excess produces a feedback loop: the failure to comprehend a complex world leads to the demand for more and more information, which only further clouds our understanding — revealing more and more complexity that must be accounted for by ever more byzantine theories of the world. More information produces not more clarity, but more confusion.

In the 1970 film adapation of Catch-22, Air Force Captain John Yossarian, played by Alan Arkin, utters the immortal line, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.” Yossarian’s dictum has found new life in today’s paranoid conspiracy thrillers engendered by technological advances and mass surveillance. One of the first symptoms of clinical paranoia is the belief that somebody is watching you; but this belief is now a reasonable one. Every email we send; every text message we write; every phone call we make; every journey we take; each step, breath, dream, and utterance is the target of vast systems of automated intelligence gathering, the sorting algorithms of social networks and spam factories, and the sleepless gaze of our own smartphones and connected devices. So who’s paranoid now?

G-TDSA over Farnborough. Image: James Bridle

It’s November 2014 and I’m standing on an access road in a field near Farnborough, in Hampshire, England. I’m waiting for a plane to fly overhead. I don’t know when it’s going to take off, or if it’s going to fly at all. There’s a camera on the hood of my car that has been filming empty sky for a couple of hours now; every thirty minutes or so I wipe the memory card and start it up again. The thin, high cloud shimmers and disappears.

The plane I am waiting for is one of three Reims-Cessna F406 aircraft based at Farnborough Airport, home of the famous air show and location of the first powered flight in Britain, in 1908. The Royal Aircraft Establishment, which researched and built first airships and later planes for the British military, was established here — as the Army Balloon Factory — in 1904. In the hangars to the south of the runways, the Air Accidents Investigations Branch, or AAIB, reassembles the shattered fragments of downed aircraft, in order to piece together the circumstances of their demise. It is thus a mecca for plane nerds, like myself, as well as the favorite airfield of oligarchs and foreign royalty, coasting into airstrip one in unmarked private jets.

The Cessnas aren’t jets; they’re little twin turboprops, designed for civilian and military surveillance, particularly favored by coast guards and aerial survey companies. The three who make their home at Farnborough first came to my attention when I encountered one of them doing tight circles over the Isle of Wight one summer afternoon, for hours on end. I was spending a lot of time on the website FlightRadar24, initially looking for the private charter planes being used to deport rejected asylum seekers in the middle of the night, but I slowly became entranced by the sheer wealth of data beamed down from the skies, and the intricate patterns of aircraft over Southern England. At any time of day there are thousands of planes, large and small, speeding through or pottering around this heavily congested airspace, one of the busiest in the world. Among the long-haul jets and budget city-hoppers weave trainer aircraft and military transports — and sometimes, flights that the Government would prefer to be remain hidden.

Few people know more about what is hidden from view by the British Government than the investigative journalist Duncan Campbell, who was the first person to report publicly on Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) back in 1976. In 1978, the government punished Campbell and his colleagues Crispin Aubrey (a journalist) and John Berry (a former intelligence officer) by prosecuting them under the Official Secrets Act. The so-called ABC Trial, which ran for months, revealed that almost all the information used by the journalists was in the public domain already. “There are no secrets, only lazy researchers,” as Richard Aldrich, a historian of the intelligence services, wrote in an account of the trial. In 2010, Campbell reviewed Aldrich’s book on GCHQ for the New Statesman, writing,

[GCHQ’s installation at Bude in Cornwall] was the start of the English-speaking allies’ Project Echelon, comparable, Aldrich suggests, to today’s Google Alert system, which constantly scans the internet for new additions. This is an ingenious comparison, but it omits a critical point of divergence. Google, even though it often overreaches itself, collects what is placed in the public domain. The sigint collectors are scanning and storing the entire private domain of communication, under questionable authority at best, and certainly without accountability as it is normally understood.
Over east London now, as you are reading this, a sigint collection plane is likely circling at 10,000 feet above Canary Wharf, scooping up the capital’s cellular networks, reportedly attempting to voice-match mobile telephone calls made in the area to a bomber back in Britain following training with the Taliban. If such activity nets those who plan harm on the City streets effectively, all may appear well and good. But how are the hundreds of thousands of others whose communications are collected to be protected against impropriety, or error, or worse?

This, and scattered other references, were what I found when I started looking for information about the Cessnas circling the Isle of Wight. On G-INFO, the publicly accessible database of UK-registered aircraft, I found two of the planes listed as belonging to Nor Aviation, an otherwise mysterious entity with an address at a Mail Boxes Etc. store in Surbiton, a few miles from the airfield. The same anonymous location was the registered address of a second Cessna belonging to Nor Aviation, while a third, performing the same low passes over Bembridge and Blackgang, was registered to Aero Lease UK at the Mail Boxes Etc. in Farnborough itself. The names of several owners were the same as serving or former Metropolitan Police officers, a strangeness confirmed by the discovery of a newspaper article from 1995, detailing a decade-long fraud perpetrated by a former Met accountant, Anthony Williams. Williams was tasked with setting up front companies for the Met’s secret air wing, but funneled most of the funds — some £5 million over nine years — into his own bank account, from which they were used to buy up a large chunk of the Scottish village of Tomintoul, as well as the manorial title Lord Williams of Chirnside.

Attempts to find out more about the planes on pilot and planespotter forums was frustrated by the usual British deference to authority: those who posted about the planes were warned off by other users; administrators of the Farnborough planespotters groups banned all mention of their tail numbers. This wasn’t a surprise: investigations into the deportation flights had led to my being unceremoniously banned from several forums previously. “We’re interested in the planes, not who’s on them,” I was told. Or — in the case of the legally dubious blanket surveillance of the general public’s mobile phone calls by a secret fleet of police aircraft — not even interested in the planes, despite photographs of them littering the websites of air photography enthusiasts.

So here I am in the field in Hampshire, and after several hours the lawnmower rasp of a light aircraft becomes audible, shortly followed by the body of a small, twin-engined plane, its registration number clearly visible on the underside of the wings. Shortly after it disappears over the horizon, it pops up on FlightRadar24, heading southwest. I watch it on my phone for the next hour, as it performs its usual pattern of mid-altitude loops off the south coast, and then heads back toward me. Ninety minutes or so after it took off, it returns to Farnborough. I still don’t know what they’re doing down there. Later, I will write a small piece of software to scrape the website and log all the flights of the three planes, as well as others — the 3 a.m. deportation flights out of Stansted Airport, the CIA’s unmarked excursions over Los Angeles and Boston, the high-altitude lurkings of MI5’s Islander aircraft from Northolt. Big data flows out of the sky at a rate I can barely keep up with, and that I don’t really know what to do with anyway. Sometime in 2016, the planes stop broadcasting their location after take-off.

Farnborough Airport. Image: James Bridle

While I’m waiting by the airfield, another car pulls up — a minicab, according to the license decal in the rear window. The access road is a good spot, just off the A325, for cabbies to wait between jobs. The driver gets out of the car, and I take the opportunity to borrow a lighter. We share a companionable cigarette; he notices my radio and binoculars. We talk about planes. And then, inevitably, we talk about chemtrails.

“They’re different now, aren’t they, the clouds?” says the taxi driver. It’s becoming a familiar conversation. Go on YouTube and you can find countless videos detailing, often in anger, the changing nature of the skies, and the aircraft producing such changes. Many of my web searches for the aircraft logging mobile phone calls lead me not to accounts of surveillance, but of covert geo-engineering: the use of planes to control the atmosphere with chemical sprays.

Something strange is afoot. In the hyper-connected, data-deluged present, schisms emerge in mass perception. We’re all looking at the same skies, but we’re seeing different things. Where I see covert deportations and secret surveillance planes — supported by flight logs and ADS-B data, newspaper reports and Freedom of Information requests — others see a global conspiracy to doctor the atmosphere, to control minds, to enslave populations, or to reengineer the climate for naive or nefarious purposes. In an atmosphere measurably filling with carbon dioxide — a gas that warms the planet and makes us dumber — many are convinced that far more than greenhouse gases are being dumped upon us.

Chemtrails have been around for a while, since at least the 1990s, when, according to the conspiracy theorists, the US Air Force let slip what they were really up to. In a report entitled “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025,” a group of Air Force researchers proposed a series of measures by which the US military might use weather modification to achieve “battlespace dominance to a degree never before imagined,” including inducing and preventing precipitation, controlling thunderstorms, and selectively activating the ionosphere with microwave beams to improve or degrade radio communications. While weather modification has a long history, the particular conjunction of speculative meteorology, military research, and the nascent internet caused chemtrails to go viral — perhaps the first truly mass folklore of the network.

Within a few years, assisted by online forums and talk radio, the belief that aircraft were intentionally spraying chemicals into the upper atmosphere was widespread, even global. Questions were asked in parliaments; national scientific organizations were flooded with inquiries; atmospheric scientists were barracked at conferences. Online, shaky videos of blue skies besmirched with smog, and planes trailing black smoke, proliferate. Groups of individuals gather in forums and Facebook groups to swap anecdotes and images.

The chemtrails theory is multifaceted and hydra-like; its adherents believe in fractal versions of the same idea. For some, the chemicals sprayed by commercial, military, and mystery aircraft are part of a widespread program of solar radiation management: the creation of cloud cover to reduce sunlight and slow — or accelerate — global warming. The chemicals used cause cancer, Alzheimer’s, skin diseases and deformities. Global warming itself might be a lie, or a plot by shadowy forces to take over the world. Others believe the chemicals are intended to turn people into mindless drones, or to make them sick in order to profit the pharmaceutical industry. Covert geo-engineering, climate denialism, and the new world order meet in the churn of online misinformation, user-submitted videos, claims and debunkings, and contagious distrust.

Still from “Take Ur Power Back: Vote to leave the EU”, YouTube

Chemtrails become the vortex of other conspiracies, pulling everything into their orbit. “Take Ur Power Back: Vote to leave the EU” exhorts one Youtuber, with the possibly unexpected username of Flat Earth Addict, over a montage of blue suburban skies criss-crossed with contrails. In this telling, covert climate engineering is a project of the European Union to suppress the will of the people. A few days later, the morning after Britain does indeed vote to leave the EU, Nigel Farage, de facto leader of the Leave Campaign, appears on national television. “The sun has risen on an independent Britain,” he says, “and just look at it, even the weather has improved.”

The pervasiveness of chemtrails is deeply akin to Timothy Morton’s hyperobject reading of climate change itself: something that clings to the skin and inserts itself into every facet of life, as perfectly captured in an account by journalist Carey Dunne of a month spent with chemtrail believers in the California: “I wish I didn’t know, because now that I know, it’s really making my heart sad.” Conspiracies literalize the horror we feel lurking unspoken in the world.

Dunne’s initial enthusiasm for an idyllic working break on an organic farm turns weird when she discovers the beliefs of her employers, hippyish back-to-the-landers who, through Facebook, discovered a community of local chemtrail believers — and a doctored tweet by Donald Trump claiming that his administration would end chemtrailing:

How does someone like me know what’s true and what’s not?” Tammi says. “I’m 54 years old. I don’t watch the news. I don’t listen to the news on the radio. Then when I’m on the internet, and I see something where I’m like, ‘Holy shit, really?,’ I’m led down this path of believing it. I don’t have the knowledge that a journalist has about how verifiable is the source. When you’re just a standard person, you can really be led to believe anything. Because of the internet, anybody can put news out there. How do I know if it’s the truth or not? It makes it hard when you’re trying to choose a president. People chose Donald Trump because [they thought] he tweeted he was gonna stop chemtrails — you know what I mean?

Conspiracy theory, nevertheless, serves a vital and necessary function, by bringing into view objects and discourses otherwise ignored — the edge cases of the problem space. The term “conspiracy theory” has more to do with the relation of people to power, than that of people to truth. The “black smokers” of the chemtrailers can’t simply be ignored, when it is so clear that they point directly toward the actual and ongoing cataclysm in the atmosphere.

Stratocumulus homogenitus: Rising thermals from the Prunéřov, Tušimice and Počerady power plants in the Czech Republic generate clouds that spread out to form stratocumulus at a height of about 2,500 meters. Photograph: Karlona Plskova/WMO.

The fundamental uncertainty of the present manifests in the form of weather formations: an array of new and strange clouds. In 2017, the latest edition of the International Cloud Atlas, published by the World Meteorological Organization, added a new classifier to its official list of cloud formations. This is “homogenitus,” and it is used to describe those cloud formations that develop as a result of human activity.

In the lower part of the atmosphere, warm and moist air from urban and vehicle emissions creates a fog: these are layers of Stratus homogenitus. In unstable atmospheres, these layers lift up to form free-floating clouds of Cumulus homogenitus. Thermal power plants, which eject their waste heat into the middle atmosphere from their cooling towers, swell existing nimbostratus and altostratus, casting themselves into shadow. But it is in the high atmosphere, far from the surface of the earth, that homogenitus comes into its own.

The combustion of kerosene in jet engines produces water vapor and carbon dioxide. The water vapor cools quickly in the freezing air, first forming tiny droplets of liquid water, and then hardening into ice crystals. At high altitudes, ice crystals require a tiny nucleus around which to form: this is provided by the impurities in the the jet fuel. Millions and millions of these crystals form the track that marks the plane’s passage. This is Cirrus homogenitus. Contrails are officially man-made clouds, and on cold, still days they can persist for hours, or even longer.

November 13, 2001, NOAA-15 AVHRR infrared over the southeastern United States, showing contrails of various ages. Source: NASA.

The criss-crossing of the skies is repeated everywhere. In Grant Morrison’s comic book series The Invisibles, one of the characters takes a polaroid snap of the desert sky, commenting, “A cloud head rising over the mesa in Dulce, New Mexico — that is exactly the same, in every detail — as one photographed in Queenstown, New Zealand.” In The Invisibles’ cosmology, this is one of the dramatic moments when the narrative collapses, and evidence of time travel and much else is revealed. For us, the strange, global entanglement of Cirrus homogenitus and its endless circulation and reproduction online through climate research and conspiracy theory is the moment when the weather becomes active data: a Storm-Cloud of the Anthropocene, unlimited in physical space and spreading through the network, and the paranoid imagination.

Scientists are at pains to disassociate “normal” contrails from the conspiracists’ chemtrails, but they contain the seeds of the same crisis. Contrails are the visible sign of what is ejected invisibly from jet engines: carbon dioxide, the stupefying insulator that is increasing so rapidly and dangerously in the atmosphere. Jet exhaust also includes nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, lead, and black carbon, which interact with each other and the air in complex ways which we do not fully understand. While airlines have continued to introduce fuel-saving efficiencies over the decade, this financial and ecological saving is far outstripped by the rapid growth of aviation in its totality. At its current rate of expansion, the aviation industry alone will by 2050 account for the entirety of the carbon dioxide emissions permitted to hold global warming below the two-degree-Celsius crisis point.

Contrails do affect the climate, particularly when they persist, spreading out across the sky to form vast swathes of whiteness resembling cirrus and altocumulus. It is not merely their chemical composition, but their very cloudiness that affects the atmosphere: they trap more long-wave thermal radiation beneath them than they reflect back into space, resulting in increased global warming. The difference is particularly pronounced at night, and during the winter. Long-term studies of the atmosphere have shown that it is in fact getting cloudier up there: the contrails are changing the skies, and not for the better.

Etruscan wall painting from Tomba degli Auguri (c. 530 BC) showing two augurs. Image: Wikipedia

In ancient Greece, certain seers practiced ornithomancy: divination of the future by observing the flight of the birds. According to Aeschylus, it was Prometheus, the bringer of technology, who introduced ornithomancy to the ancients by designating some as fortuitous and some as sinister.18 Prometheus also promoted haruspicy, the examination of birds’ entrails for omens — a kind of primitive hacking. Today’s haruspex is the obsessive online investigator, spending hours picking over the traces of events, gutting them and splaying out their innards, poking at their joints and picking out fragments of steel, plastic, and black carbon.

Many conspiracy theories, then, might be a kind of folk knowing: an unconscious augury of the conditions, produced by those with a deep, even hidden, awareness of current conditions and no way to articulate them in scientifically acceptable terms. But a world that has no way of admitting such differently articulated accounts is in danger of falling prey to far worse stories — from antiscientific public panics to blood libels — and of failing to hear voices of genuine and necessary warning.

In the far north of Canada, indigenous people claim that the sun no longer sets where it used to, and that the stars are out of alignment. The weather is changing in strange and unpredictable ways. Warm, unpredictable winds blow from new directions; severe flooding threatens towns and villages. Even the animals are changing their patterns of life, struggling to adapt to the uncertain conditions. This is how the world is described in Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change, by Nunavut filmmaker Zacharias Kunuk and environmental scientist Ian Mauro, a series of interviews with Inuit elders in which they recount firsthand their experiences of the world around them — experiences informed by decades of observing the climate firsthand. The sun is setting in a different place, they say, often kilometers from where it used to. The earth itself is off-kilter.

When the film was screened at the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in December 2009, it caused many scientists to complain that while the Inuit viewpoint was important, their claim that the earth had actually moved — had tilted on its axis — was dangerous, and would lead to them being discredited. But the direct experience of the Inuit is upheld by scientific theory: at high latitudes, the appearance of the sun is hugely affected by the snow covering the ground, which reflects and refracts it myriad ways. Changes in the snow and ice correspond to changes in visibility. At the same time, the atmosphere is indisputably filling up with particulate matter, the impurities of jet liners and the exhaust of fossil fuel fires. The bright red sunsets seen over dirty cities are the result of the smog and smoke the city itself exhales. In this way, the sun above the Arctic is distorted, and appears to set further and further away. The sky, like everything else, is seen through the lens of climate change. Not knowing why doesn’t make it not so.

“Over the years, nobody has ever listened to these people. Every time [the discussion is] about global warming, about the Arctic warming, it’s scientists that go up there and do their work. And policy makers depend on these findings. Nobody ever really understands the people up there,” Kunuk reported. Scientific and political knowledges cannot escape the horizon of their own experience any more than embodied ones can, but it doesn’t mean they’re not looking at the same thing and seeking ways to articulate it.

Eyjafjallajökull eruption, 2010. Image: Jon Gustaffson

Some of the most spectacular sunsets seen in Europe in recent times occurred after the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, the Icelandic volcano that filled the heavens with ash in April of 2010. These sunsets are also caused by aerosols in the atmosphere, particularly sulfur dioxide. As sunset approaches, ash and sulfur dioxide produce ripples of white cloud on the horizon, before the blue light scattered by atmospheric particles combines with the extended red of sunsets to produce a unique tone known as volcanic lavender. The sunsets appeared across the continent as the ash cloud moved south and west over several days. Volcanic ash was known to interfere with jet engines, but despite several incidents over decades, few studies had been performed. As a result, the whole of European airspace shut down. Over the course of eight days, over 100,000 flights were canceled, almost half the world’s air traffic, and 10 million passengers were stranded.

Apart from the sunsets, the most unsettling thing about the Eyjafjallajökull event was its silence. For the first time in decades, the skies over Europe were quiet. The poet Carol Ann Duffy noted its stillness:

Britain’s birds / sing in this spring, from Inverness to Liverpool, / from Crieff to Cardiff, Oxford, London Town, / Land’s End to John O’Groats; the music silence summons, that Shakespeare heard, Burns, Edward Thomas; briefly, us.

Others commented on the archaic strangeness of a sky without contrails. It was a strangeness that crept up on us slowly, an inversion of the event. While the media reported on the “chaos” of travel disruptions, we sat in sunlight beneath clear blue skies. The eruption was a hyperobject: an event of almost inconceivable violence, present everywhere but experienced locally as an absence, like climate change, like the artist Roni Horn’s paradox of the weather: “The nice is occurring in the immediate and individual, and the wrong is occurring systemwide.”

For a long time, climate skeptics have claimed that volcanoes produce more carbon dioxide than human activities. Indeed, volcanoes have historically been responsible for periods of global cooling, and of paranoia. In 1815, the colossal eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia was the final cataclysm in a series of events that caused 1816 to become known as “The Year Without a Summer.” Crops failed across North America and Europe, with snow, ice, and frost appearing in July and August. Bright red and purple skies appeared, and famine spread across the land, along with ominous portents and apocalyptic beliefs. In Geneva, a group of friends decided to set down their most frightening stories. One outcome was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus; another was Byron’s poem “Darkness,” in which he wrote:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the star / Did wander darkling in the eternal space, / Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth / Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.

The explosion of the volcano Krakatoa in August 1883 also produced purple sunsets and global falls in temperature, and has been associated with both Ruskin’s Plague-Cloud, and the flaming skyscape of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. Like Tambora before it, it took several months for news of the eruption to reach Europe: in the meantime, apocalyptic predictions flourished.

The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull provided an opportunity to lay certain misconceptions about volcanic carbon dioxide to rest. The volcano was estimated to have emitted between 150,000 and 300,000 tons of carbon dioxide a day; by contrast the grounding of the European air fleet prevented the emission of some 2.8 million tons in just eight days, a figure greater than the total global annual emissions from all of the volcanoes in the world. If painting The Scream today, the appropriate backdrop would not be the blood-red sky of Krakatoa’s eruption, but a sky criss-crossed with contrails: the same contrails that litter the websites of chemtrail conspiracy theorists, even, if not especially, those who deny the realities of man-made climate change. We are all looking at the same sky and seeing radically different things.

Acts of human violence have been recorded in the climate on numerous occasions. In the thirteenth century, the disruption of agriculture caused by the Mongol invasions of Asia and Eastern Europe caused such devastation to agriculture that forests significantly regrew, causing a measurable 0.1 percent dip in atmospheric carbon levels. The “little ice age” that reached its climax in the Year Without a Summer of 1816 began in 1600, but it was the result of a century of global turmoil, which began with the Colombian catastrophe of 1492. In the 150 years following the arrival of Europeans in America, 80 to 95 percent of the indigenous population was wiped out, reaching 100 percent in some regions, many by warfare, most by diseases introduced from the Old World. A population of 50 to 60 million was reduced to around 6 million. In the aftermath, fifty million hectares of previously cultivated land was left devoid of humans. Subsequently, more than twelve million Africans were enslaved and displaced to the Americas, with millions more dying en route. Once again, agriculture collapsed, this time on both sides of the Atlantic, and the regrowth of forests coupled with the reduction in wood burning resulted in an atmospheric decline in carbon dioxide of seven to ten parts per million between 1570 and 1620. It has never fallen in such a way since.

It is perhaps this event, rather than more modern inventions, that should be considered the beginning of the anthropocene, the era when humans first left their mark on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems. Not the invention of the coal-fired steam engine that kick-started the industrial age in the eighteenth century; not the fixation of nitrogen beginning with the invention of the Haber-Bosch process; not the release of billions of particles of radioactive contamination from the detonation of hundreds of nuclear bombs: the anthropocene starts with mass genocide, with planetary violence on such a scale that it registers in ice cores and the pollination of crops. It is the hallmark of the anthropocene that, unlike those epochs that started with a meteor strike or sustained volcanic eruptions, its origins are cloudy and uncertain. And its effects, which are happening right now, are even more so. What we can say of it is that, as the first truly human epoch — the one that we are closest to and entangled with — it is also the hardest to see and think.

This has been an excerpt from New Dark Age (2018), published by Verso. You can buy the full book here.