Tipping point? Humanity’s stuff now weighs more than all living things


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Our deficiencies have always driven us, even among our distant ancestors, back in the last Ice Age. Having neither the speed and strength to hunt large prey, nor sharp teeth and claws to tear flesh, we improvised spears, flint knives, scrapers. Lacking a thick pelt, we took the fur of other animals. As the ice receded, we devised more means of survival and comfort – stone dwellings, plows, wheeled vehicles. All these inventions allowed small oases of civilization to be wrested from a natural wilderness that seemed endless.

The idea of a natural world that dwarfed humanity and its creations long persisted, even into modern times – only to run, lately, into concerns that climate was changing, and species were dying through our actions. How could that be, with us so small, and nature so large?

Now a new study in Nature by a team of scientists from the Weizmann Institute in Israel upends that perspective. Our constructions have now – indeed, spookily, just this year – attained the same mass as that of all living organisms on Earth. The human enterprise is growing fast, too, while nature keeps shrinking. The science-fiction scenario of an engineered planet is already here.

It seems a simple comparison, and yet is fiendishly difficult in practice. But this team has practice in dealing with such impossible challenges. A couple of years ago they worked out the first part of the equation, the mass of all life on Earth – including that of all the fish in the sea, microbes in the soil, trees on land, birds in the air, and much more besides. Earth’s biosphere now weighs a little less than 1.2 trillion tonnes (of dry mass, not counting water), trees on land making up most of it. It was something like double that before humans started clearing forests – and it is still diminishing.