The World’s Human-Made Materials Weigh as Much as All Life on Earth

Caitlin Dempsey


Humans have reached another milestone per researchers from the Weizmann Institute in Israel. The study, recently published in the journal Nature, calculated the mass of all living organisms on Earth as well as the mass of all “anthropogenic mass” such as roads, buildings, cars, planes, and all other stuff humans have built using plastic, metal, concrete, bricks, asphalt, and aggregate.

The year 2020 was determined to be the crossover year. This is the year that the total mass of all human-made materials weighs more than the total mass of all living organisms.

Old growth forests have bigger trees and a more complex understory. HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. Photo: Matthew Betts, Oregon State University. Public domain
Half of the world’s biomass is made up of trees. HJ Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon. Photo: Matthew Betts, Oregon State University. Public domain

These researchers have estimated that the total biomass on Earth is about 1.2 trillion tons and declining due to deforestation and other human activities. Half of that biomass is made up of trees.

Human-made mass has been accelerating since the era of post-World War II prosperity. Around the turn of the 20th century, all human-made materials totaled about 35 billion tons. By the mid-20th century, that mass had doubled. By the end of the 20th century, anthropogenic mass had reached half a trillion tons.

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Anthropogenic mass is now doubling every 20 years according to researchers: “On average, for each person on the globe, anthropogenic mass equal to more than his or her bodyweight is produced every week.”

A view of a suburban subdivision being developed in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. Image: USGS, public domain.
Humans continue to rapidly add to the amount of anthropogenic material on Earth, outpacing the amount of living organisms. Image: A suburb in development in Georgia, USA, USGS, public domain.

The study

Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J., Bar-On, Y. M., & Milo, R. (2020). Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature, 1-3.

Zalasiewicz, J., & Williams, M. (2020, December 9). Anthropocene: Human-made materials now weigh as much as all living biomass, say scientists. The Conversation.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.