While we would all love some good news at the end of a very trying year, a study published this month does not bring glad tidings. The study quantified our human-made (anthropogenic) mass and compared it to the overall living biomass on Earth. The findings are stunning: human materials, including concrete, metal, plastic, bricks, and asphalt, exceed the overall living biomass on Earth, which currently equals approximately 1.1 teratonnes. (One teratonne, Tt, = 1012 tonnes.) The amount of plastic alone is greater in mass than all land animals and marine creatures combined.
The period following World War II, known as the “Great Acceleration,” was marked by continuous increases in anthropogenic mass. This “enhanced consumption,” as well as urban development, has resulted in a meteoric rise of anthropogenic mass relative to biomass. At the beginning of the twentieth century, anthropogenic mass was equal to 3% of global biomass. Now, some 120 years later, it exceeds overall biomass. Over the past 100 years, anthropogenic mass has been doubling about every twenty years. In contrast, total biomass, affected by a complex interplay of deforestation, afforestation, and the rising CO2 fertilization effect, among other things, has not greatly changed. The accumulation of anthropogenic mass corresponds to each person on the globe producing more than his or her body weight of human-made matter each week.
Unfortunately (although not to our surprise) the mainstream media rarely connects the growth of anthropogenic mass to the issue of human overpopulation. Not so our patron Dr. William (Bill) Rees, Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia, and an ecological economist. He argues that if humans were any other species, we would say they had entered the plague phase. He also points out that humanity must accept the biophysical reality of a finite planet or the “human population outbreak” will end badly for us. (You can see what Bill has to say about ecological overshoot in this engaging interview he did in June with Facing Future TV.)
As the human population and the global economy have grown over the past 50 years, the populations of wildlife have plummeted, with population sizes of vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles) dropping an average of 68% since 1970. Extraction, production, and consumption, driven by industrialization and a consumer society, have had an outsized impact. If everyone in the world lived the way Americans do today, it would take five Earths to sustain us. The other side of the coin, however, is the very rapid population growth still occurring almost exclusively in the developing world. (Population growth in industrialized countries is driven primarily by immigration; many Western countries and Japan have reached zero or even negative population growth.) If every country were as densely populated as India or Iraq, it would take 6.5 and 12.5 Earths, respectively, to sustain us. Not surprisingly, impoverished, low-consuming people do not want to remain in their current condition, and as hundreds of millions of such people begin to fulfil their unmet needs, they create concomitant demands on the planet. Nor does abject poverty preclude serious environmental damage, as growing populations convert wildland to agricultural use and hunt wildlife for food or for sale in the illegal wildlife trade.
Assessing the human impact on the planet while ignoring either consumption or (as is more often the case) population is like trying to calculate the area of a rectangle while ignoring either the length or the width. Either way, the conclusions won’t be reliable. PIC advocates for every country to bring its population to a sustainable level by promoting education and awareness about ecology and biophysical reality (to use Bill Rees’ term) as well as about the social and environmental benefits of small families. We also urge our government to make support of ethical and effective international family planning programs an integral part of their development assistance.
We mentioned it in our last mailing, in November, but it’s worth repeating: a survey by the Center for Biological Diversity in November indicates that the public is increasingly ready to have broader discussions about population. While most of our leaders still operate under the growth-forever paradigm, many people who are experiencing the “benefits” of growth first-hand are becoming receptive to the message of “degrowth” toward a steady-state economy: “A stable and sustainable population in a steady state economy allows more resources per person.” The Gross Domestic Product is not, by itself, an adequate metric to measure the well-being of a society.
It seems likely that the only way our leaders will change their growthist policies is with a little bit of pushing from the grassroots, so it would be great if you could help us to get out the message that “bigger is not necessarily better” by sharing this post. The acceptance by our policymakers of the reality of “Limits to Growth” would be the very best Christmas gift we could think of!