A glance out the window reveals humanity’s pervasive presence on the planet. Our quest to produce food is a dominating force on the planet. How did our species learn to manipulate nature to such a grand extent? The Big Ratchet, written by Ruth DeFries, traces the long journey of our species from hunters and gatherers to shoppers in the aisles of grocery stores. Through technologies, innovations, and quirks of fate, people over millennia have manipulated ecological processes to propel our species to the current day of abundant food amidst myriad environmental and social consequences. From this long-term view, the pattern shows neither collapse nor technological supremacy. Rather, our tenure on the planet reveals cycles of crisis and growth, with each innovation leading to a new set of ecological problems that in turn spur new innovations. These cycles have led to the Big Ratchet, in which our species is the only one to live mostly in cities subsisting on food produced by a minority in distant locations.