What it means to say we’re living in the Anthropocene

The following analogy occurred to me recently, and I decided to share it with you.

Think of a bunch of kids out on a playground playing a game. The rules of the game, let’s say kickball, are basically fixed. As far as the kids are concerned, the game has been played a certain way since time immemorial. Nobody remembers making up the rules, and nobody thinks of changing them. That’s how we humans have gotten used to thinking about nature, and about the natural systems that regulate the flow of life and energy on the planet. They are fixed, given, immutable.

But today, it seems, that’s no longer the case. We cannot continue to think that way. It’s a bit like if a group of big, athletic kids showed up at the playground. They start to play kickball, only every time one of them kicks the ball, it goes flying over the hedge that customarily marks a home run. Now the big kids aren’t necessarily bullies, and they aren’t really being mean about it; it’s just that they are so much bigger and stronger that the playground isn’t big enough to contain them. And so the other kids get together and say, “Look, we have to change the rules. It’s no fun you guys always kicking it over the hedge. From now on, if it goes over the hedge it’s an out, not a home run. And whoever kicks it has to go get it.”

While not a perfect analogy (feel free to say why not in the comments), the point is that human beings have become the big kids on planet Earth. Whether it’s carbon emissions or nitrogen runoff or huge megacities or endless fields of monoculture, we seem to be outkicking the field in ways that are beginning to alter the very rules by which nature plays her game. I don’t mean the basic laws of physics and chemistry are being amended, of course; but there appears to be a very good chance that many of the conditions that prevailed in the Holocene will look — are already beginning to look — significantly different. What used to be a home run — drilling for oil, say — is now an out. And we — or rather, our kids and grandkids — will be the ones who have to deal with the consequences (go get the ball). That’s — in part — what it means to say we’re living in the Anthropocene.


4 responses to “What it means to say we’re living in the Anthropocene

  1. Most people aren’t used to change or they are afraid of it. The change can be for the better but sometimes fear overrides that for whatever reason. Changing how we utilize our resources would take a lot of work and responsibility. I think there are a lot of people out there who aren’t up for the work or responsibility.


  2. Can’t argue with that, Ava! There are definitely a lot of people who would prefer the status quo, even if they’re convinced that things could be better with a lot of hard work. And that doesn’t even take into account those who are not convinced. 🙂
    So this is a hard problem. In the analogy I gave above, the kids called for change (which was hard — it meant standing up to the bigger kids), but only after it became obvious that change was necessary. The game wasn’t fun anymore; the whole point of playing was being undermined.
    Let me throw this question out there, then — to you and everyone else as well. In your experience, what does it take to change behavior? Can you think of a time when you, or someone you know, made a major change (quit smoking, lost a lot of weight, changed career, converted to a new religion, etc.)?

    • I like the analogy you used. It does work well for this situation. I also agree with Ava that it often takes a crisis before someone will change. I know people who have both lost a lot of weight and quit smoking and it wasn’t until they finally realized the serious health risks they were going to encounter in the future that they made the effort to change. Unfortunately, I think most of humanity would prefer to stick with what they’re currently doing rather than change, so it usually is something drastic that is required. All of the changes in the environment around us tend to be more of gradual changes, in my opinion, rather than drastic, sudden changes. Hopefully this isn’t the case, but I can see humans continuing down the same path we’re on until something extremely severe catches our attention.

  3. Usually it would be something like a crisis or an event that occurs that can strike a change. Most of the time I think change occurs when there is some kind of loss. Would the depletion of all our resources finally cause us to change?


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