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The anthropocene is upon us

Human-made materials now outweigh Earth’s entire biomass—for the first time in our planet’s history



Date: December 31, 2020

The mass of all human-produced materials—concrete, steel, asphalt, and more—has grown to equal the mass of all life on the planet, known as its biomass—and the trend is only accelerating. A new study at the Weizmann Institute of Science found that the total mass of human-made material, known as the anthropomass, is at this tipping point. In fact, people are building 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 more than double the mass of living things, by 2040: over two teratonnes, or two million million.

The study, published earlier this month in Nature by Emily Elhacham and Liad Ben Uri in the group of Prof. Ron Milo of the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, shows that at the outset of the 20th century, anthropomass equaled just around 3% of the total biomass. In just over a century, this number grew to 100%, despite the fact that the number of humans quadrupled in this time frame. Today, for each person on the globe, a quantity of anthropomass greater than their body weight is produced every week on average.

This upswing in the production of human-made products is seen markedly from the 1950s on, when concrete and other building materials became widely available. Following World War II, spacious single-family homes, roads, and multi-story office buildings sprang up around the US, Europe, and other countries—and the frenzy of construction has been ongoing for more than six decades.

These human-induced shifts have had a huge impact on the carbon cycle and human health, and have caused scientists to propose that a new Earth era is upon us: the Anthropocene, the period during which human activity has become the dominant influence on the biosphere.

“Our study provides a sort of ‘big picture’ snapshot of the planet in 2020… a crucial understanding of our major role in shaping the face of the Earth in the current age of the Anthropocene,” says Prof. Milo. “Our message to both the policy makers and the general public is that we cannot dismiss our impact [as humans] even though we are tiny compared to the huge Earth. We, as humans, share a collective responsibility to take care of the planet.” says Milo.

 The study also compares the dynamics of human-made materials in our world to the way that natural materials flow through the planet’s living and geologic cycles. “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. We’re going beyond comparing apples and oranges, to comparing apples and cellphones,” says Elhacham.

For more information, see Anthropomass.org, the website built by the Milo team to complement the study.

Prof. Ron Milo is Head of the Mary and Tom Beck - Canadian Center for Alternative Energy Research; his research is also supported by the Zuckerman STEM Leadership Program; the Larson Charitable Foundation New Scientist Fund; the Ben B. and Joyce E. Eisenberg Foundation; the Yotam Project; the Ullmann Family Foundation; Dana and Yossie Hollander; Sonia T. Marschak; and the European Research Council. Prof. Milo is the incumbent of the Charles and Louise Gartner Professorial Chair.