Image: Itai Raveh.
The year 2020 was uncharacteristically distinct from any other in modern human history. While agonising accounts of COVID-19 dominated the news, a subtle and profound shift of a different kind unfolded the same year.
A group of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel, has estimated that the global human-made mass today exceeds all living biomass on Earth. Given the minor uncertainty in this estimation, the planet is either at a crossover point now or has already passed a point of no-return.
Researchers classify human-made materials as anthropogenic mass, and it includes buildings, roads, machines and plastics, plus many, many other things. Biomass refers to the mass of all of Earth’s plants, animals, insects, fungi, bacteria, archaea and protists. It’s notable that humans commenced agricultural development and started building settlements only about 12,000 years ago – marking the beginning of our reduction of biological diversity.
At the start of the 20th century, the anthropogenic mass was about 3% of the global biomass – but in a century, the former has shot past the latter. Although the mass of humans is a negligible fraction of the world’s biomass – roughly 0.01% – we have managed to engineer a world in which our actions created more materials that together outweigh every other bit of biological matter.
Such expansive materialism is rooted in our consumerism, even if the pleasure of each instance of possession is fairly short-lived. Most of our success stories and models are based on creating and consuming more. Our economic engines are ordered according to the unwritten principle that more human-made materials are key to our successes and happiness. It is no coincidence – but quite a bit of irony – that while the Amazon rainforest has lost its ability to regulate weather systems, another well-known Amazon has been increasing in monetary value.
When scientists in the 19th century debated idealism and materialism, they are unlikely to have contemplated a world in which their descendants would produce more materials to solve its materialism problem, ad perpetuam.
Even many of our ideas of problem-solving involve material production. You need only consider the industries that have sprung up around ‘healthy living’ and ‘wellness’ – which have managed to couch fundamentally minimalist lifestyles in systems of yet more production and consumption.
But closer home, the global ICT infrastructure itself – which has played an important role in disseminating the reality and significance of our climate crisis – is also part of the problem. According to one estimate, the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting all of them account for about 3.7% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.
Then again, we may not deserve our surprise, considering material possession has often been linked even to spiritual aspirations. When people say you are blessed, there is an object or an array of material things attached to that blessing. Many truly believe that a god’s blessings manifest as better-paying jobs or larger or more houses. And just as many hope to ‘pay back’ their deities with a share of their fortunes in the hope of future dividends.
As a result of all these activities, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rapidly rising. In fact, it is already considerably greater than it has been at any time in the last 800,000 years. In this regard, considering activism to be the sole way to address could be a form of escapism. Most discussions of climate change consist of arguments about who else to blame. But reducing our own consumption is very important.
The technologies that many entrepreneurs have created in response to the climate crisis are also problematic. For example, electric vehicles, solar panels and energy-efficient household appliances all require rare-Earth metals. These are often mined in already resource-poor countries after cutting down forests, displacing people from their settlements, and contaminating and depleting natural resources like groundwater and clean air.
Taken together, the outcome of our actions on this planet may no longer be reversible. We are all complicit in this tragedy and we need to address it together.
The totalitarian principle in physics offers a suitable perspective on this issue. It states that “everything not forbidden is compulsory”, and is used with reference to some particle physics phenomena. Physicists borrowed this expression from T.H. White’s 1958 novel The Once and Future King, in which a society of ants voices this principle. What we need to remember today requires a small tweak: “Everything not forbidden is not compulsory.”
If our material consumption continues at its present rate, Earth’s anthropogenic mass will balloon to thrice the biomass in another two decades. At that point, we may just be forced to confront the possibility that there is nothing to fear but life itself.
Santhosh Mathew is a professor of physics, astronomy and mathematics at Regis College, Greater Boston.