In a study that confirms the repeated warnings of environmentalists that anthropogenic material — stuff created by humans — is becoming a literal burden on the Earth, a Nature research paper suggests the weight of biomass, which comes up to 1.2 trillion tons, is now roughly equal to the amount of artificial material we've created on this planet.
We're talking here about buildings, roads, railways, plazas, computers, crude oil machinery, aircraft, treehouses, toothbrushes, microplastics, and everything in between. What's even more pressing is that researchers worry that our anthropogenic weight could soon be an excessive burden for the natural world in that it'll irreversibly alter it to a point from which it can't recover.
It's such an alarming possibility that scholars worry the world may soon enter the "Anthropocene," a theorized geologic era primarily shaped and influenced by humans. Man-made activity, in the Anthropocene, shapes the Earth — not the other way around. Some argue we're already in it.
Humanity's creations are already affecting how species migrate from one place to another, how their waterways are affected and potentially turned into death zones, how some species have been pushed dangerously close to extinction.
Artificial vs. natural — Scientists have been trying to physically weigh our presence on the Earth for years. In 2016, scholars noted the weight of the technosphere, which refers to the making of technological products and materials specific. It was a jaw-dropping 30 trillion tons at the time. For reference, the technosphere would include massive enterprise activity like Facebook initiating and then eventually abandoning its undersea fiber optic cable project in northern Oregon or Elon Musk's noise pollution-heavy SpaceX launch site in Texas.
You can't ask the Earth's diverse living forms to stand together on a scale, so scholars had to sift through datasets that detailed the weight of man-made construction material and natural life forms over decades, and extrapolate accordingly.
One-way ticket — At the beginning of the 20th century, this anthropogenic weight came out to 35 billion tons. That sounds like a lot, but over the years the rate at which we add artificial materials to our planet has skyrocketed to 30 billion tons annually. A good deal of this material is metal, asphalt, and concrete, the backbones of buildings, roads, and other infrastructure and which is found in everything from individual houses to blocks of skyscrapers.
Anthropogenic yield grows remarkably faster and more aggressive than the weight of the Earth's varying life forms, like plants and animals. Scholars say that this rapid weight gain has a dramatic effect on the natural world and its non-human inhabitants. Unless we radically reassess our presence in this world from the micro to macro levels we may reach a tipping point at which natural life is overwhelmed and begins to irrevocably dwindle.