Man-made objects double in mass every 20 years. He just crossed a disturbing line


All the splendid greenery of the Amazon. All the fish of the Pacific. Every microbe under your feet. Every elephant in the plains, every flower, every mushroom and every fruit fly in the fields no longer trumps the amount of things humans have made.
Estimates of the total mass of man-made material suggest that 2020 is the year we exceed the combined dry weight of all living things on Earth.

Travel back to a time before humans started plowing fields and tending to livestock, and you’ll find our planet was covered with a biosphere that weighed around 2 x 10 ^ 12 tons.

Thanks in large part to our habit of farming, mining and building highways where forests once grew, that number has now halved.

According to a small team of environmental researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, the mass of human-built objects – from skyscrapers to buttons – has grown so much that this year may be the time when biomass and mass production correspond.

The exact moment of this historic event depends on how we define the exact point where a piece of rock or a drop of crude oil passes from the natural resource to the manufactured element.

But given that we’re currently rearranging around 30 gigatons of nature into anything from IKEA bookcases to luxury apartments every year (a rate that has doubled every 20 years since the early 1900s), such blurring will soon be arbitrary. .

Key components of dry biomass and anthropogenic mass in 2020 (Elhacham et al., Nature, 2020)

Researchers draw our attention to this depressing moment in history as a symbol of our growing dominance over the planet.

“Beyond biomass, as the global effect of humanity accelerates, it becomes more and more imperative to quantitatively assess and monitor the material flows of our socio-economic system, also known as the name of socio-economic metabolism, ”the researchers write in their report.

The concern about the metaphorical expansion of the size of society is not new. Researchers have believed the numbers on humanity’s greed for energy and raw materials for years.

When it comes to calculating the mass of resources swallowed up by our industrial complexes, previous studies have generally focused their estimates on primary productivity.

It is hardly surprising. From cutting down forests for agriculture to plundering the oceans for their fish stocks, we are increasingly aware that our hunger for T-shaped steaks and convenient tins of tuna in spring water comes at a high ecological cost. .

While it’s important to keep the greener parts of our environment in mind, this study shows why our insatiable hunger for sand, concrete and asphalt should not be ignored, given the contribution of infrastructure to our overall consumption.

“The anthropogenic mass, the accumulation of which is documented in this study, does not come from the stock of biomass but from the transformation of the orders of magnitude of the upper stocks of rocks and minerals mainly”, notes the team.

The numbers can be difficult to visualize. If the total mass of all humans exceeds 300 million tonnes, we could say that there are an additional 3.8 tonnes of cooking utensils, giant jets, microwaves, and backyard pools on Earth every year for each of us.

Yet we do not all have an equal share of the benefits of this growth, and we do not all have the same influence over it.

Since our obsession with economic growth plays a major role in our rising rate of consumption, slowing it down will require rethinking the very foundations of how we operate as a global society.

The prognosis for a future more concrete than the forest is far from new. But with 2020 serving as a symbolic crossroads into a new era of human consumption, there’s no better time to act.

This research was published in Nature.


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