Our ‘concrete jungle’ is winning: Human-made materials now outweigh all living things on Earth, study says

Doyle Rice
 
| USA TODAY

In one “contest” between humans and nature, humans are moving out in front.

According to a new study, the mass of all the planet’s human-produced materials – concrete, steel, asphalt, etc. – has grown to equal the mass of all life on Earth, its biomass. 

In fact, humans are adding new buildings, roads, vehicles and products at a rate that is doubling every 20 years, leading to a “concrete jungle” that is predicted to reach over 2 million million tons – or more than double the mass of living things – by 2040. 

“Humanity has become a dominant force in shaping the face of Earth,” according to the study, which was published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed British journal Nature.

The study said that as of 2020, all human-made materials and all the living things on Earth each weigh roughly 1.1 trillion metric tons, with the human-made stuff about to race out in front.

“The study provides a sort of ‘big picture’ snapshot of the planet in 2020,” said study co-author Ron Milo of Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science, in a statement. “The message to both policymakers and the general public is that we cannot dismiss our role as a tiny one in comparison to the huge Earth. We are already a major player and I think with that comes a shared responsibility.”

Buildings and roads make up the majority of human-made mass; other examples include plastics and machines. 

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It wasn’t always this way, of course: In 1900, human-produced mass equaled only about 3% of the total biomass. How did we get from 3% to an equivalent mass in just over a century?

The study found that not only have we humans quadrupled our numbers in the intervening years, the things we produce have far outpaced population growth: Today, on average, for each of the 7.7 billion people on Earth, an amount of human-produced mass greater than their body weight is produced every week. 

In addition, since the first agricultural revolution, humans have cut the world’s plant biomass in half, through land-use changes such as agriculture and deforestation. 

“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,” said study lead author Emily Elhacham, also of the Weizmann Institute of Science.

Milo concludes by saying that “we hope that once we all have these somewhat shocking figures before our eyes, we can, as a species, take responsibility.” 

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