• SPRF Team

How Humans Outweighed the Earth: Biomass vs Anthropogenic Mass

by Alisha Vasudev


In 2020 [1], experts believe that the human-built environment's collective weight exceeded that of our planet's total biomass. This estimate indicates that everything humans have created, maintained, or discarded is heavier than Earth’s natural habitat and creatures combined [2].


Given all the space and infrastructure we need every day, such as homes, offices, schools, farms, hospitals, transportation, roads, manufacturing, entertainment, power generation, trash disposal, and so forth, humans have tipped the scales. This has potentially ushered in Anthropocene [3], a geological epoch defined by the human impact on our planet.


However, entering this epoch is no small feat nor a matter of pride. Typically, an epoch lasts three million years. However, after only 11,500 years into the Holocene epoch, studies speculate the planet is entering a new geological era, one distinctly marked by the human impact on Earth’s climate and ecosystems [4].


A 2020 Weizmann Institute of Science study [5] calculated how varied masses on the planet add up. It projected that there are 1110 gigatonnes (Gt) [6] of buildings and infrastructure on the planet compared to 900 Gt of trees and shrubs. Similarly, animals stand at 4 Gt, making up only half of plastic’s 8 Gt weight, both measured on a dry-weight [7] basis.


This Anthropogenic Mass weighing Earth down is defined as ‘mass embedded in inanimate solid objects made by humans (that have not yet been demolished or taken out of service)[8]. It comprises concrete, bricks, asphalt, metals, gravel, plastic, and other everyday materials.


Based on the past five years’ average [9], 30 Gt of anthropogenic mass is added globally per year. This means that, on average, an individual contributes more anthropogenic mass than their body weight every week.

Taking the perimeter [10] of the human-made objects in the photograph, this cartography-inspired illustration depicts how each contribution to the built environment is 52 times our weight annually. It uses contours [11] to depict our contributions to anthropogenic mass every four weeks relative to our body mass per annum.


In relation to the dotted contour that depicts the average human weight annually taken as x, the contours emanating from the items are placed at equal intervals showing our monthly contributions for an entire year (52x). While human bodyweight may not fluctuate much annually, the anthropogenic mass has doubled roughly every 20 years over the last 100 years. This discovery serves as a potent reminder that humans must strive to create a balance between development and sustainability. Humans live their life cycles, perish, and may even become extinct, but the built environment is eternal.


Endnotes:


[1] 2020 is a crossover point with an uncertainty of (+/- 6 years) for anthropogenic mass.

[2] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-3010-5. [1]

[3] https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-is-the-anthropocene-and-are-we-in-it-164801414/.

[4] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/4/100406-new-earth-epoch-geologic-age-anthropocene/.

[5] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-3010-5.

[6] 1 Gigatonne or metric gigaton (unit of mass) is equal to 1,000,000,000 metric tons. A metric ton is exactly 1000 kilograms (SI base unit) making a gigatonne equal to 1000000000000 kilograms. 1 Gt = 1000000000000 kg. Source: http://www.kylesconverter.com/mass/kilograms-to-gigatonnes.

[7] Dry-weight is the weight of anthropogenic mass excluding water.

[8] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-3010-5.

[9] https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-3010-5.

[10] Please note this does not include the actual area.

[11] Lines used to connect and depict places with the same height in topographic maps and are placed at regular intervals.


Alisha Vasudev is a documentary photographer and earth scientist whose practice focuses on human-environment interactions and co-existence, in our everyday lives. She is a member of Diversify Photo, Authority Collective and the 2021 Women Photograph Mentorship Class.
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