The Mass of Human-Made Materials Now Equals the Planet’s Biomass

The world is becoming more and more artificial, with a doubling of man-made mass compared that produced by nature. The synthetic, “anthropogenic” part of the world doubles every two decades, and the curve is not flattening.

According to researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, the mass of all human-produced materials – concrete, steel, asphalt and the like – has grown to equal the mass of all life on the planet, its biomass. 

The study, just published in the prestigious journal Nature and conducted in the group of Prof. Ron Milo of the plant and environmental sciences department by Emily Elhacham and Liad Ben Uri, shows that at the outset of the 20th century, human-produced “anthropogenic mass” equaled just around three percent of the total biomass. But today’s “concrete jungle” could reach over two teratonnes (two million million) – or more than double the mass of living things – by 2040. 

How did we “progress” from three percent such an incredible amount in just over a century? Not only have we humans quadrupled our numbers in the intervening years, but the things we produce have far outpaced population growth. Today, on average, for each person on the globe, a quantity of anthropogenic mass greater than their body weight is produced every week. 

The upswing was clear from the 1950s on, when building materials like concrete and aggregates became widely available. In the “great acceleration” following World War II, spacious single-family homes, roads and multi-story office buildings spang up around the US, Europe and other countries. That acceleration has been ongoing for over six decades, and those two materials in particular make up a major component of the growth in anthropogenic mass.

“The study provides a sort of ‘big picture’ snapshot of the planet in 2020. This overview can provide a crucial understanding of our major role in shaping the face of the Earth in the current age of the Anthropocene. The message to both the policymakers and the general public is that we can’t dismiss our role as only a tiny one in comparison to the huge Earth. We are already a major player and I think with that comes a shared responsibility.” asserted Milo. 

Referring to the dynamics of the human-made materials in our world as a “socio-economic metabolism,” the study invites further comparison with the way that natural materials flow through the planet’s living and geologic cycles. “By contrasting human-made mass and biomass over the last century, we bring into focus an additional dimension of the growing impact of human activity on our planet,” added Milo: “This study demonstrates just how far our global footprint has expanded beyond our ‘shoe size.’ We hope that once we all have these somewhat shocking figures before our eyes, we can, as a species, take responsibility.” 

Milo and Elhacham teamed with graphic designer Itai Raveh to create a website, Anthropomass.org, to help explain these figures in clear, simple terms. 

 


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