The tipping point of stuff: what we make now outweighs all living things

Not all our achievements are something to be proud of. Nor is climate change the only anthropogenic environmental crisis we face.


According to research just published in Nature, and reported in the Guardian, 2020 marks the transition point when the weight of all things made by humans that are currently in use exceeds that of all living things on our planet (dry weight equivalent). Include waste, and we passed this point back in 2013. Add water back into the mix, and look at biomass in its natural, hydrated state, only pushes the crossover point back by 15-20 years.

Biomass and anthropogenic mass estimates since the beginning of the twentieth century on a dry-mass basis

Mirroring what we've seen with carbon emissions, the bulk of this anthropogenic mass has come since 1900. At that point, in dry weight equivalent, human stuff represented only 3% of living stuff. Since them, like a version of Moore's Law, the weight of human-produced materials has doubled every 20 years. Over the same period, biomass weight has reduced slightly. Most of which is also function of human activity, primarily deforestation and intensive farming.


To look at things a slightly different way, in 2020 the mass of in-use plastic alone is twice that of all land animals and marine creatures combined. Similarly, the mass of human-made buildings and infrastructure exceeds that of trees and shrubs by over 20%.

Contrasting key components of global biomass and anthropogenic mass in the year 2020 (dry-weight basis).

Given us humans account for only 0.01% of global biomass that really is some achievement, showing what a negative impact we've had (and continue to have) on the world. And why, before too long, its likely the whole thing will come crashing down under the weight of its own unsustainability if we're not careful.

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© 2020 Something's Happening by Jon Howard

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