environment sustainability

The weight of the human world

2020 may have marked a strange symbolic moment: when the weight of the human world overtook the weight of the natural living world.

A paper in the Nature journal has attempted to quantify and compare these two measurements. On one side is the weight of all the world’s living things, the forests and the plants and animals, which they call global living biomass. This has been calculated as around 1.1 teratonnes, which is a hefty word that I don’t get to use often enough.

On the other side is the ‘anthropogenic mass’, which is the stuff created by human activity. The biggest component is concrete, and then aggregates such as sand and gravel. Metals, wood, glass and plastic are also included. The total weight of human resources has been doubling every twenty years, and 2020 is the year that they weigh the same as the natural living world.

This isn’t a study to read a huge amount into – there are various ways to calculate those weights that deliver slightly different outcomes, depending on what you include and how you estimate its mass. And it’s largely symbolic anyway – this doesn’t represent a tipping point of consequence.

What is does do is reinforce the impact that humanity – especially the overdeveloped wealthy countries of the global North – are having on the planet. Nature is being reshaped according to human priorities.

The research also creates some fairly horrendous comparisons. For example, the total weight of all the world’s animals is 4 gigatons. The total weight of all the plastic in the world is 8 gigatons. Pound for pound, there is twice as much blasted plastic on the planet as there are living creatures.

It’s January. Isn’t now supposed to be a good time to think about losing some weight?


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