Jonny Rogers breaks down an alarming new study on humanity’s impact on the planet, exploring how we got here and where we might be going.
Photo by Patrick Tomasso
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Earth’s total anthropogenic mass – the mass of man-made objects, buildings and infrastructure – was equal to around 3% of its biomass – that of plants, humans and animals. However, according to research from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the former will likely have surpassed the latter by the end of this year.
Over the past few decades, scientists and environmentalists have campaigned to name our current geological epoch the ‘Anthropocene’, arguing that humanity has become the dominant force in determining the shape, life and climate of this planet – a title perhaps more relevant now than ever. As Professor Ron Milo declares, "our global footprint has expanded beyond our ‘shoe size.’"
"Given the empirical evidence on the accumulated mass of human artifacts, we can no longer deny our central role in the natural world." – Researchers Emily Elhacham and Ron Milo, Anthropomass.org
How Did We Get Here?
Since the First Agricultural Revolution around 10,000 years ago, which marked the point at which agriculture and animal domestication became the primary means of subsistence for humanity (rather than hunting or foraging), we have roughly halved the total mass of plants on the Earth. As incremental developments in technology and medicine increased our life expectancy over the following millennia, the total human population grew exponentially, reaching 1 billion in the early 1800s, and 7 billion in 2011.
The mass production of concrete and asphalt boomed after World War II, when developed countries rebuilt both their ideological and physical infrastructure in the wake of political and technological changes. Architecture began to reflect the pressure of growing populations, with the concrete-faced Brutalist movement championing the development of utilitarian, low-cost social housing and civil architecture throughout Britain and Europe.
As cities expanded and patterns of consumption changed, motorways and freeways spread across the world throughout the twentieth century; the total amount of road vehicles surpassed 1 billion in the past couple of decades. The total mass of buildings and roads is estimated to constitute around 1.1 billion tonnes, which exceeds the Earth’s 0.9 billion tonnes of trees and shrubs.
The recent study also estimates that humanity currently produces at least as much material as the combined bodyweight of every person each week, with our total anthropogenic mass doubling every 20 years as the global population continues to grow. The majority of this material is concrete, though significant contributors include asphalt, gravel, bricks, metals and, of course, our many disposable products. The amount of plastic on the planet alone is twice the combined mass of all land and marine creatures.
Similar studies have shown that the weight of the Earth’s ‘Technosphere’, which in addition to buildings and products also accounts for the land and seafloor that has been modified through human activity, came to a total of 30 trillion tonnes (compared to the 1.1 trillion tonnes of living matter).
A Call to Action
If human activity continues on its current trajectory, our anthropogenic mass will surpass three times the world’s total biomass by 2040. Although this is alarming in itself, it will likely prove even more problematic for future generations. As Fridolin Krausmann from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences claims, the next 20 years will see the production of as much waste as the previous 110 years combined.
This data is, of course, impossible to measure with objective precision, not least because it is unclear what should count as anthropogenic or biomass. For example, it has been argued that including only the mass of goods fails to take into account the amount of material processed or moved through mining. In addition, the study does not consider the Earth’s ‘wet-mass’ or waste, as this is more difficult to determine.
Nevertheless, the findings reveal the undeniable scale of impact of human activity over the past couple of centuries:
"I’m sure the numbers can be shifted by different statistics [...] But given the scale of the difference between the early 20th century, mid- and late-20th century, and now, early 21st century, it’s hard to see how the pattern can be shifted." – Jan Zalasiewicz, Emeritus Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester
The researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science hope that their study will provoke citizens and governments alike into taking radical and effective action to behave more responsibly. After all, it’s only the end of the world at stake.
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