Stuff made by humans now outweighs all life on Earth

Originally published at:


"The world’s plastics alone now weigh twice as much as the planet’s marine and terrestrial animals. Buildings and infrastructure outweigh trees and shrubs. "

but…mass is not weight. and the problem isn’t how much things weigh, but how much space they take up. WTF Scientific American?

This headline brings out my inner pedant.
If it’s stuff humans “made” than does that also include all the humans we’ve made?
And really, we haven’t “made” much of anything, we’ve just reconfigured and assembled ingredients into new formats…
Isn’t there some old joke about a guy challenging a god that he could create anything, maybe a physicist or chemist joke? The punchline is the scientist realizing he doesn’t have any ingredients to start with.


I’ve always been curious about how long it would take a society to vanish once our gig is up. The dinos have their fossils and not much evidence of structural engineering, but they were around for millions of years. Do you think our architecture will last that long? Hell, the pyramids will be gone in a few centuries. Who knows what other species have risen and fallen in that time.

Cockroaches are just sitting in their dens rubbing their little mandibles and thinking “soon…”

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Most life has a specific gravity of about 1. Plastics and wood wold have a specific gravity of about 1. Concrete is about 2.4. Metals are more. I doubt if the volume ratio is out by more than a factor of 3.

The Anthropocene age is taken from the 50’s and surface H-Bomb tests that put tritium into everything. That may not be detectable in a thousand years tine, but we will still be able to look at a sample of clay and see whether it has plastic beads or cloth fibres in it. The stuff with specific gravity of about 1.0 is the stuff that gets everywhere.

It is a random statistic, but it can still be a sobering one.


Comparing the mass of a bridge to the mass of bacteria in the soil seems like a really arbitrary way to quantify human impact. The obscene amount of plastic waste we’re putting into ecosystems choking out life is much more relevant. If a skyscraper is a hundred tons or a thousand seems unrelated to our impact on biomass

Sure, but why would the variances in Earth’s gravity be relevant to this story?


True - man is part of nature.


Obviously, not all human made stuff has equal impact. A kilogram of roundup has a different impact from a kilogram of fertilizer. The tipping point of when we should collectively begin to mitigate these effects was probably first reached with the great stink of London in 1858.

I’m certain that the limitation we are struggling with is not one of brain pathways, this species is clearly able to respond to self generated threats: It’s the language that’s limited, making it easy for people to lie to ourselves about what matters and what doesn’t matter.


Depends on how you look at it. Is the limestone that goes into cement made by humans or the other biomass?


You know, if someone wrote an article about all the significance of all the dams that beavers had made or hills that ants have dug up, I doubt there would be the same immediate need to pedantically explore the what it is to make something, or what is natural, or what is weight. Somehow it’s only when we point out the impact of human artifacts and just how much the modern environment is shaped by us that people need to start musing about the meaning of every possible word. :thinking:


This is from 2007, but might I recommend The World Without Us?


The disposability of modern product is sad and offensive. A phone dies in five years, really? A laptop can only survive 3-4 years before it’s out of use? These should all be modular and allow for components to be sold in a bag. This is how computers were originally introduced. Either you upgraded it with cards, or you bought a kit and built it component by component.

The CRT TV set in my parents’ basement is older than me or my brother, I think my dad bought it in 1965. The same flat screens upstairs with flimsier parts are regularly replaced every five years. One CRT monitor’s lifespan to constantly upgraded flatscreens. There should be components of a screen that are intended to be replaced (the screen itself, for example - if you want a larger screen) but the core circuit boards and power supply should be a separate module you just keep and maintain. Want 4K? Buy a new card for it and maybe a screen, but keep half the television components that aren’t needed for that one part left alone. Surely the old set and the new one share common HDMI and cable inputs and outputs, so that should be its own separate module, along with power. A simple shift in that would be just as profitable to a manufacturer and they’d get buyer loyalty, too. (Cameras do this with lenses)

Then there’s the comedy of computers shifting i/o to different standards and buying a small handful in adapters. I appreciated the shift from SCSI to USB, but everything since has been some conceptual improvement, either aesthetic or perceived speed benefit, but it’s irresponsible. I think I’ve bought a basketball full of trash in adapters keeping up with Apple by itself, from USB to firewire, thunderbolt, back to USB-C, etc. It would be much easier to expose that connection as a solder point with each new device to have a jumper installed and state the benefit of a user upgrading to thunderbolt, for example. A user could upgrade one connection or two at that connector, but not need to convert all their thunderbolt or ethernet to USB-C with a new mac. Of course, this irresponsible dance will start again with the next purchase. It’s shameful.

Also: It’s been lovely to realize these last nine months at home that forks, spoons, knives, cups, and even plates are reusable! I found these things called plates in our cupboard, too.

Seriously, frozen food sold to you with a plate in the plastic, or fast food takeout giving you plates and plastic utensils should be banned. It would only take a year or so for us to carry a set of the damn things with us. Proposal: Here is your yearly reusable fork.


A molecular biologist is talking with god, and makes the claim:

“With our new CRISPR/CAS9 tech, I cwn make practically anything now.”

god says “alright, very well, let’s see you make a man.”

The molecular biologist excitedly yells “Aw shit this will be easy” as they stoop down to grab up a handful of dirt.

But god stops him and says “Hey hey, wait a second, that’s my dirt. You have to make your own dirt first”


I’m not sure if this was in response to my comment, but to be clear, I do understand the impact us humans and our products have, and have devoted career and personal time to remediation of the bad impacts. The headline just annoyed me because it overly (and to my mind unnecessarily) simplifies the issue, to the point of being nonsense. I was just blowing off steam about headlines, not the story.

That’s the one, thanks! :relaxed:


I think that was the clumsy attempt here, to address the general global footprint that humanity is leaving in its’ wake, but god damn


that’s why i’m wondering why SA kept going on about the weight of things.



The short answer is… these products are easily available, and often cheaper.

Yes, an Apple PC is useless after a few years.

What if I told you that I was typing this on a PC desktop that is 10 years old, has been repaired/upgraded over those years, and is still very usable and you could still buy slower computers new? That on the PC side, we’ve had 25+ years of backwards and forwards USB compatibility, with no new ports until USB-C?

That my Samsung Galaxy S5 Active from 2014 was working great and fine until last month?

That I have a three year old Fire Tablet that is close to identical to what they are selling now?

That the only reason my launch day iPad isn’t still in daily use is because Apple intentionally makes it hard to use old hardware? (Still plays music. Heck, I have an iPod from 2010 that I use.)

My TV is a 40" Sony. It’s as dumb as a box of rocks. It is HD. It is 10 years old. I am perfectly happy with it. It is essentially a flat panel screen, a board to drive it, and a power supply.

I’m typing this on a 14 year old LCD screen. It’s a 22" widescreen made in 2006, with a 1680x1040 resolution. It still looks great.

Heck, I’m wearing a 25 year old T-shirt. I have shoes that could vote.

You think things are disposable and not durable because you buy disposable, not durable things. But you don’t have to; you don’t have to be on that constant upgrade cycle. You just have to step off of it.

You have a choice. Buy the durable, repairable, modular option. Well built and sturdy, as few features as possible. Or buy the sleek. Apple is the sleek. PC is the durable. Connected internet of things is sleek. Dumb is durable. Fashion forward is sleek. Timeless and stately is durable.


Great timeline. Submit article in October of last year. Nature is notoriously exclusive with what they choose to publish… they publish it a year later, serving it up before Christmas of the worst year of first world man-made problems. Santa don’t exist. If he did, he’d be the scape goat of this atrocity.

Not sure you read what I wrote but we agree. I buy things and keep them going in a fairly durable way. You didn’t mention anywhere there about learning to solder or test equipment, but my guess is I could have fixed that Samsung issue you were having.

The mac stuff was provided as an example of wider expectations of millions of people to keep up with those adapters. And yeah, I love gadgets, so I have a lot of mac products. That’s just because I was raised on Apple, who originally were durable/replace as needed model.

PC is not durable, incidentally. Neither is Mac. Every item you list, except maybe for the T-Shirt, is meant to be a system to itself and won’t share any of its components with other things, and will end up in the dirt when you (or whomever it gets donated to) is done with it. There is no ethically made earth-conscious computer system, other than the one you make yourself. I like every product you list (cheers on good decisions) but my suggestion was you are still buying COMPLETE SYSTEMS every time. A better world, which will never happen, because standards are impossible (cue the XCD comic) - but a better world would be one where the power supply is separate from the TV, each board of your TV is a slot and easy to swap out and repair, other things. This would allow you to upgrade your 40" SONY easily. I wasn’t saying you should ever update it, btw. My example was our 1965 Sony Trinitron that still works. I drive cars til they get 300,000 miles if I can, take the bus as often as possible and really try to be ethical with my garbage. But it’s a bummer that it’s up to the consumer to make these decisions. Any large manufacturer should, instead, make all their products intended to be user serviceable and user replaceable. Cuba forced its population to keep cars alive for decades. This wouldn’t be possible today with cars you buy from the same manufacturers.

So yeah, we agree.