To quantify all of this, the team scanned the existing literature, aggregating previously available datasets covering resource extraction, industrial production, waste and recycling. “It turns out that what humans produce – in our industries, etc. – is something that has been relatively well characterized, ”says Ron Milo, systems biologist at the Weizmann Institute, co-author of the paper.
Quantifying the biomass of all organisms on Earth was trickier, as the planet did not keep good records of the exact amount of life there. Researchers had to count everything from giant species like the blue whale to microbes that cover the earth and swirl in the oceans. “The biggest uncertainties, in fact, in overall biomass are mostly plants, mostly trees,” Milo adds. “It is not easy to estimate the overall mass of roots, shoots and leaves.” But here, too, Milo and his colleagues could pull previous estimates of biomass up and down the tree of life and incorporate landscape satellite monitoring data to get a feel for how much vegetation there is.
They also considered the change in biomass over time. For example, they note that since the first agricultural revolution, mankind has been responsible for halving plant biomass, from 2 teratons to one. At the same time, especially over the past 100 years, people are creating more and more anthropogenic mass. Not only has production increased exponentially, but as these products reach the end of their usefulness, they are simply thrown away if they are not recyclable.
In other words, all of this bullshit is piling up as humanity continues to wipe out natural biomass, to the point where everyone’s mass is now roughly equal. “They produce this message, I think, very eye-catching and as strong as these two types of stocks – biomass stock and anthropogenic mass – they’re actually at a crossover point more or less in 2020, more or less a few years. . Says social ecologist Fridolin Krausmann of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, who was not involved in the research, but was a peer reviewer of the article.
The two actions appear to be intimately linked. The relentless destruction of biomass is largely a consequence of deforestation in the pursuit of industrialization and development. But our built environment is also generally horrible for wildlife: roads cut ecosystems in half, birds fly in buildings, sprawling developments fester like scars on the landscape.
The accumulation of anthropogenic mass is also linked to the climate crisis. The production of materials is extremely energy intensive, for example. In the case of cement production, this climatic effect comes from the energization of the manufacturing process and also from the chemical reactions in the forming material which spit out carbon dioxide. If the cement industry was a country, according to the Carbon Brief climate change website, it would be the third most prolific transmitter in the world.
As economies around the world continue to grow, humanity has locked itself into a vicious snowball cycle of human-made mass growth. “On the one hand, economic growth leads to the accumulation of this mass,” says Krausmann. “And on the other hand, the accumulation of this mass is a major engine of economic development.” China has been a particularly large contributor in recent times, Krausmann adds, as the nation has rapidly and massively built its infrastructure. Which is not to blame one country alone – we made this mess together as a species. And modeling in the Nature the paper was global and not on the scale of individual nations. “But I think it would be interesting to study this in the future, and to really see these changes in different regions or in specific countries,” Elhacham says.
What is perfectly clear at the moment is that the anthropogenic mass has grown out of control and has become a nefarious crust on the planet. “This exponential growth in anthropogenic mass cannot be sustainable,” says Krausmann, “even if we don’t know exactly where the threshold is.”
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