The Weight Of Humanity

Bill McKibben‘s Climate Crisis newsletter this week has an interesting segment on the total weight of things humans have made, mentioning the book to the right for visual reference. Turns out our stuff now weighs more than all living things on the planet. That is impressive, but not necessarily in a good way:

We are necessarily occupied here each week with strategies for getting ourselves out of the climate crisis—it is the world’s true Klaxon-sounding emergency. But it is worth occasionally remembering that global warming is just one measure of the human domination of our planet. We got another reminder of that unwise hegemony this week, from a study so remarkable that we should just pause and absorb it.

A team led by Emily Elhacham, at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, performed a series of staggeringly difficult calculations and concluded that 2020 was the year in which the weight of “human-made mass”—all the stuff we’ve built and accumulated—exceeded the weight of biomass on the planet. That is to say, our built environment now weighs more than all the living things, including humans, on the globe. Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, for instance, weigh about eleven hundred gigatons, while every tree and shrub, set on a scale, would weigh about nine hundred gigatons. We have nine gigatons of plastic on the planet, compared with four gigatons of animals—every whale and elephant and bee added together. The weight of living things remains relatively static, year to year, but the weight of man-made objects is doubling every twenty years. This means that most of us likely have in our minds a very different and very wrong picture of the relative size of nature and civilization. In 1900, the weight of human-made mass was three per cent of the weight of the natural world; we were a small part of the big picture. No longer. We live on Planet Stuff.

It would be easy to blame the increase in our footprint on the increase in human population, which grew rapidly in the twentieth century yet is now slowing. But that would almost certainly be wrong: recent calculations have found that the richest one per cent of human beings produce more than double the carbon dioxide than the poorest fifty per cent do; presumably, some similar ratio would apply to the volume of infrastructure and the consumption of plastic. (To get a visceral sense of the gulf between people, it’s always useful to refer back to the photographer Peter Menzel’s 1994 project, “Material World,” in which he enlisted fifteen other photographers to help him take pictures of statistically average families in dozens of countries standing in front of all their possessions. He needed a cherry picker to take a wide-enough shot to encompass the American family’s matériel.)

I actually don’t feel the need to draw any conclusions from this remarkable new fact—I just feel the need to let it settle in my mind and inform my outlook from this point on. We are an overwhelming force.

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