Human-created mass is officially greater than biological mass

It’s time to stop drawing natural resources and start cleaning up

A new study has calculated that human-created mass now outweighs all biological mass on earth. In other words – buildings and infrastructure weigh more than creatures, trees and shrubs.

Adding a new dimension to commonly used measures such as CO2 output, biodiversity loss, temperature and pollution levels, the comparison helps us to comprehend the impact of human life on earth in a more visual and symbolic way.

Ron Milo, and his colleagues at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, gathered data from 1900 to the present day, combining field research and computer modelling, and from 1990 onwards, satellite tracking of global vegetation. Reporting in Nature last week, anthropogenic (human-created) mass was defined as the mass from inanimate solid objects made by humans, not including waste. Concrete, metal, plastic, bricks and asphalt were identified as the biggest contributors.

Key findings

  • In 1900, anthropogenic mass equated to just 3% of the earth’s overall mass.
  • Anthropogenic materials have since almost doubled every 20-years.
  • Each week, we add mass equal to the mass of the earth’s 8 billion people.
  • Mass of plastic is double that of all animals and marine creatures.

The data tells a story of how events over the last century such as wars, economic recessions, and the development of new materials have led to either sharp increases or sharp decreases in human-created mass: post-WW2 building sprees marked the first notable climb; whereas notable dips included the Great Depression and the 1979 oil crash. Meanwhile, biomass has simultaneously decreased due to deforestation, industrial agriculture, and mass urbanization.

The researchers suggest that these findings, combined with a growing body of supporting studies, mark the official crossover into a new epoch: the Anthropocene. Here we acknowledge that human imprint on the earth is now irreversible and urgent large-scale action is needed to protect and heal what we have left.

If you weren’t convinced before that humans are dominating the planet, then you should be convinced now

Tim McPhearson, Urban Ecologist at the New School

For too long, we have been operating from a mindset that humans sit above nature and the earth will continue to function in the way we need it to. The reality is that concrete suffocates, mining creates deep flesh wounds, and microplastics infiltrate life on a cellular level. There is simply not enough to sustain this level of damage, alteration and consumption. To continue as we are, we will soon need three planets.

Innovate, repurpose, recycle, and reuse

Can the forces which caused this destruction also get us out of it?

One of the most hopeful things about being alive at this time is access to information and the speed of innovation. Perhaps it’s still possible for technological development to be channelled into developing industrial-scale solutions that will prevent us from depleting natural resources and instead repurpose what we’ve already taken. Contrary to current eco-trends and aesthetics, using natural or renewable materials may not be the most sustainable solution. We need to clean up.

Othalo is a company that takes one problem, plastic waste, and uses it to solve another, the housing crisis. They have patented technology that manufactures building systems from plastic waste into affordable homes, refugee shelters, temperature-controlled mobile storage units, schools and hospitals in the developing world. A single 60 square metre Othalo home upcycles 8 tonnes of plastic waste, taking it out of our oceans and water sources and into long-term solutions that create jobs and safe communities that allow societies to stabilize. The Norweigan startup calculated that if all of the plastic waste polluting our planet right now was transformed, we could create 1 billion homes.

Othalo also tackle the construction industry’s reliance on concrete. Concrete manufacturing strips riverbeds and beaches of finite sand supplies and contributes 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions, making it one of the world’s biggest pollutants. Despite this, many nations are still trapped in a cycle of out with the old, in with the new. In the EU, concrete and demolition waste accounts for the largest waste stream in quantitative terms at 450 million tonnes each year. In China, it’s 2 billion tonnes per year.  Several emergent technologies tackle this problem, using additive manufacturing and 3-D printing to turn crushed buildings into public furniture, or combine recycled concrete with a small amount of non-recycled concrete to create a lower-impact blend.

Since infrastructure growth shows no sign of slowing down, particularly in developing cities, it’s critical that we develop smart ways to manage this. Examples such as these demonstrate that technological innovation can provide solutions that stop humans extracting more natural resources, but it needs to be a necessity, not a nice-to-have.

Recycling innovation is no longer just for the realm of idealistic student projects – the future of our species hangs in the balance and we need to nurture every seed of possibility we can find. The question is, will corporate and political powers realise this fast enough and dedicate the commitment and funding needed to make it happen?

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