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.