In 2020, Human-Made Objects Tipped the Earth Out of Balance
A new study redefines our impact on the natural world
There is considerably more plastic on our planet than there is living animal mass. Buildings and roads account for more mass than trees and shrubs. As of 2020, the weight of humankind’s creations is on track to surpass that of all the living biomass on Earth, a remarkable development that gives us a new way of understanding our impact on the natural world.
Researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel detailed this claim in a study published in Nature last week. The authors call 2020 the “crossover point.” After this, human-produced mass, or anthropogenic mass, will outweigh the planet’s natural biomass. There will be more people stuff than other stuff. This has happened quickly: The study explains that anthropogenic mass has doubled every 20 years since the turn of the 20th century.
(Note that the researchers’ calculations are complex and have enough give to swing a few years in either direction. Perhaps we have already passed the crossover point, or are just about to.)
There is a related website that explains the research through a series of infographics: The mass of the Eiffel Tower is roughly equal to the mass represented by all the white rhinos left in the world, and the human-made mass in New York City is roughly equivalent to that of all the fish. It’s like a bedtime story that fades into an unsettling dream.
“We hope that once we all have these somewhat shocking figures before our eyes, we can, as a species, take responsibility.”
You might awake feeling restless. Though you could imagine someone looking at this research and seeing a triumph of humanity — all the world harvested for our buildings and roads and technological progress — a realist will understand that it may portend disaster.
“We hope that once we all have these somewhat shocking figures before our eyes, we can, as a species, take responsibility,” Ron Milo, PhD, an author of the study, said in a press release.
This level of production, referred to as our “socioeconomic metabolism” in the paper…