The Balance Between Biomass & “Stuff”
Buildings, bodies, “stuff”
Weigh down the world, forever
Changing its essence.
The Weight of It All
People are always talking about body weight, how many pounds they’ve put on, how much better they’d look if they’d lose some belly fat, what kind of diet they should follow, how much exercise they need to do to whip themselves into shape.
But we’re missing a bigger point.
Bodyweight may be personally important, but the weight of what humans have done to change our environment matters much, much more to the world than our individual poundage.
Think of this. Biomass is the weight of all living creatures on earth. In 1900, a little over a century ago, the accumulated weight of man-made objects was only about 3% of the world’s biomass. Now, a hundred and twenty years later, the items that man has manufactured equal or surpass the weight of biomass.
In other words, our “stuff” weighs more than we do.
If humanity keeps constructing things, the weight of the anthropogenic mass, (artificial, man-made “stuff”) will double every twenty years.
All the accouterments of modern life have added to the weight of the world. Buildings, roads, subways. Boats, planes, trains, and cars. Walkways, towers, parking lots. Hotels, houses, hospitals. Mankind has been as busy as beavers, chopping down trees, mixing up mud, building structures, and altering the face of the planet.
The Epoch Period of Man and His Creations
Humans have created so much “stuff” and so drastically altered the mass of the world, that scientists have proposed that the right term for the geologic Epoch we’re living in now is Anthropocene, “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.”
The more we build, construct, manufacture, and erect, the less area there is for plants. Since the beginning of agriculture, plant biomass has decreased by 50%. Less living, natural green. More brick and metal on the scene.
Human-beings are causing the world to get out of balance.
Biomass vs. Stuff
Last year, (or within a margin of error of six years over the course of eons), the anthropogenic weight of “stuff” on the earth equaled or surpassed all the dry weight of all living things on the planet.
Want to guess what half of the anthropogenic matter was?
Concrete, that material that we think of as “modern,” has been around since 700 years before the birth of Christ, developed by Bedouins who found that using hydraulic lime mixed with cement helped their buildings harden.
Do you know how heavy a bag of concrete mix is? Have you ever tried to lift a slab of broken concrete?
Yep. Now imagine that humans have been adding concrete to the weight of the world’s anthropogenic mass for more than 2000 years. Add to that the weight of aggregates, asphalt, bricks, metal, and plastics, and you get an inkling of the weight we’ve added to the world.
Plastics, as the classic movie, “The Graduate,” noted is “the one word” we need to remember. Currently, the plastics of the world weigh two times more than all the living creatures of the land and the seas combined.
Your Body Weight …Each Week
Each of us bears responsibility. The weight of all those clothes, computers, phones, cars, dishes, cabinets, suitcases, bikes, and chairs — and the thousands of other things we own and use — mount up. As the study published in Nature suggested,
“On average, every person in the world is responsible for the creation of human-made matter material equal to more than their body weight, each week.”
At this rate, in twenty years, the anthropogenic mass will be three times the world’s biomass. (And that doesn’t even count trash!)
Fascinating Facts. Absolutely No Answers.
The problem with these fascinating facts about the weight of the world and the balancing act between biomass and anthropogenic mass is that there are absolutely no answers to the questions they pose.
- Does it mean that humans should “Marie-Kondo” the world, destroying anything that doesn’t bring us joy? De-cluttering the continents and simplifying cities?
- Does it mean that if we put too much stuff on the surface of the earth, the ground will cave in from the weight of it all, dropping everything into the molten center of the world, liquifying it into magma for recycling?
- Should we build fewer roads? Manufacture less product? Buy less stuff?
- Would it matter if we designed ultra-light living structures and paper-weight vehicles? If buildings and bridges were made of hollow parts that rested on air?
- Can we plant more trees, save more forests, grow more crops without heavy equipment?
- Does this mean the world is overweight? Or is there an ideal weight? Or can the world support any amount of weight we put on it? (Help me, please, you physicists and geologists!)
You got me.
I’ve never known which side to be on in the tug-of-war between consumerism and environmental concerns. (I like “stuff” like clothes and dishes. I like modern conveniences like roads and buildings. But I don’t want to choke out the trees and pastures, fields and forests, by adding to the weight of the world.)
Finding the right ratio between natural and artificial masses is a precarious balancing act, with solutions far beyond my mental grasp.
Why What We Weigh Matters
There’s new meaning to the phrase, “throwing your weight around” now that I know what humans are doing to forever change the world.
The Hollies song, “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” comes to mind.
He’s not heavy at all. It’s the weight of his stuff, and my stuff, and the human-made anthropogenic mass of the modern living that is weighing down the world.
If you feel like you’ve got the weight of the world on your shoulders, know that it’s probably getting heavier by the week. Depressing thought.
So here’s a more positive one to leave you with:
The weight of the world is a trifle, if we all put our two fingers under it and try to lift together. -Vera Nazarian