Our limitations have always determined our lives. Also those of our most remote ancestors, in the last ice age. Since we had neither the strength nor the speed to hunt large prey, nor did we have sharp teeth or claws to rip through flesh, we made javelins, flint knives, and scrapers. We didn’t have thick fur either, but we took those of other animals. As the ice retreated, we became better equipped to increase our survival and comfort, such as stone houses, plows, and wheeled vehicles. All these advances allowed the existence of small oases of civilization in the middle of a wild nature that seemed to have no end.
The idea that the greatness of the natural world dwarfs humanity and its advances has always been very persistent. In fact, it reaches our time, when it has been translated into concern about the fact that human action is causing phenomena such as climate change or the extinction of species. How could something like this come about, if we are so small and nature so great?
A new study published in the journal Nature by a team of researchers from Israel’s Weizman Institute overturns this view. The set of things built by man (and it is something that happens precisely in this horrifying year) already has the same mass as all living organisms on the planet. The drive of man continues to increase, while that of nature continues to decline. The science-fiction setting of an engineered planet is here.
It seems like a simple calculation, although in practice it is devilishly complex. But this team has experience in the task of facing impossible challenges. A couple of years ago they trained by completing the first part of the calculation, the mass of all living organisms on the planet, including that of fish in the sea, that of microbes in the subsoil, that of trees on earth, that of birds of the sky and much more. At this time, the biosphere of our planet has a weight of slightly less than 1.2 billion tons (we are talking about dry mass, not counting water), and what weighs the most are the trees. In fact, before humans started deforesting the planet, the weight of trees was approximately double (and at this time it is still decreasing).
On this occasion, the researchers have dug into the statistics of industrial production and mass flows of all kinds to determine the growth since the beginning of the 20th century of what they call “anthropogenic mass”.
It is made up of all the things we build – houses, cars, roads, airplanes, and an immense variety of other objects. And here the pattern they determined was remarkably different. The things we build reached a total mass of about 35 billion tons in 1900 and that mass nearly doubled by the middle of the 20th century.
Subsequently, the wave of prosperity that occurred after the Second World War, the so-called “Great Acceleration”, caused that amount to multiply several times until it reached half a trillion tons by the end of the century.
In the last 20 years, this quantity has doubled again, which has made the volume of mass equivalent to that of living organisms this year. And in the coming years, this will be widely exceeded (by 2040 it will triple) if current trends continue.
But what exactly do we build? We are talking about an extraordinary and growing variety of objects. The number of ” technospecies ” at this time far exceeds the number of biological species, which is estimated at nine million. Their exact number, in fact, exceeds the extraordinary computational capabilities of this scientific team. But all these objects can be decomposed into the materials that make them up, and of these concrete and conglomerates take the lion’s share (about four-fifths). Then would come the bricks, asphalt and metals. On this scale, plastics would be a minority component (and yet their combined mass is currently greater than that of the sum of all the animals on the planet).
This is an eye-opening study, very meticulous, and incredibly clear on what measures it includes and excludes. It does not include, for example, rocks and land masses moved by machinery to construct buildings, nor does it include all rock debris generated by mining activity. Both activities are estimated to generate around 33 billion tonnes of these materials annually. Add to that the masses of land that we generate, sometimes unjustifiably, by plowing farmland or allowing such materials to settle in dams. In addition, humans have long used and then disposed of 30 trillion tons of the planet’s various resources.
It does not matter how the data is interpreted, since the final thesis that the researchers of this revolutionary study maintain puts the finger on the wound and is in accordance with other recent analyzes that we have also taken into account. Since the middle of the 20th century, the Earth has entered a new era determined by human activity; an era in which the stable conditions of the Holocene no longer prevail, but is fraught with uncertainties and in which conditions change rapidly: the Anthropocene. In this sense, the weight of scientific evidence seems indisputable.