Weighing More Than Nature

The end of the year is always a good time for reflection, and it’s the perfect time to note milestones and measure progress. As such, I’ve found a very unusual milestone in the history of our planet.

The year 2020 saw the total weight of man-made materials overtake the weight of biomass made by Mother Nature. In other words, the total mass of concrete, steel, asphalt, and everything else we’ve been building is now greater than the mass of living plants, animals and microorganisms, as estimated in a study published in the journal Nature.

How do we know?  Scientists at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science integrated a large number of existing datasets. For biomass, they used data from a 2018 study, which calculated the mass of all living things on Earth and how it was distributed. (By the way, humans make up less than 0.01% of the living biomass). To estimate the weight of man-made materials, they went to Vienna’s Institute of Social Ecology and University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences which for years have been compiling data from national statistics bureaus, industry groups and related research.

Ron Milo, one of the authors of the recent study, says that, though there is a large margin for error in the data given its “gigantic” scale, his team can say with 95% confidence that the “tipping point” where human-made materials outweigh living biomass takes place in the six years before or after 2020, with this year as the most likely date.

Why is this important? Milo says these findings are further evidence that we are living through a new geological era in which we are the dominant environmental force. “Some people think that humanity is just one species out of many, and that we’re tiny and the world is huge. But our impact is not tiny,” Milo says. “Having a number really quantifies that.” He hopes that the study will be a wake-up call. “It’s not that we should stop making things, but we need to be aware of the impact we are having and think about how we’re consuming natural resources. Our decisions, our policymaking could affect the rate at which human-made materials become double or triple the mass of living things.”

Happy New Year.

Taken from “2020 Marks the Point When Human-Made Materials Outweigh All the Living Things on Earth, a New Study Finds” by Ciara Nugent  (https://time.com/5919294/human-materials-biomass-2020/?)

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