September 16th, 2021
Hi there! This is Margaux, from the support team. I’ve been there since July answering our customers’ questions at email@example.com, and today I’m excited to present my very first Weekly Chart!
Like many of us, I’ve been thinking about climate change a lot. The fact that we just passed Earth Overshoot Day on July 29th — which means that we’ve already spent all the resources the Earth is capable of producing in a year — sparked another flame in my climate panic. So when I recently went to Hamburger Bahnhof, one of Berlin’s contemporary art museums, I was intrigued by the premise of their exhibit “Scratching the Surface.” Disclaimer: it’s not a fun one. The exhibit was based on the finding (published in the scientific journal Nature last December) that, as of 2020, the total mass of human-made stuff exceeds the total of “dry biomass.” That’s the combined weight of all living things on Earth, excluding water content. Pretty impressive right? Turns out all the data was available, so I decided to dive deep into that and remake the charts in Datawrapper.
First, a little insight on what's happening with biomass. Biomass had been steadily decreasing until the 1970s, in part due to deforestation, species extinction, and industrialization. And although the steep decline seems to have stopped, biomass hasn’t recovered in the decades since then. You might be surprised to hear that plants and bacteria, not animals, make up the vast majority of biomass on Earth. Humans are part of the biomass, but according to the study account for only 0.01% of it. So even though the human population has almost doubled since the 1970s, gaining about one billion every 12 years, it is far too low to tip the balance — as are the increased afforestation efforts since the 1990s.
Now as with everything, data is also a matter of scale. Biomass decreased a lot, and then increased a little. But it's a drop in the ocean compared to the amount of things humans have been producing since the end of WWII. The Nature article estimates that "on average, for each person on the globe, anthropogenic mass equal to her or his bodyweight is produced every week." Concrete is by far the biggest culprit, which comes as no surprise since it makes up the majority of big cities. Interestingly, we see that bricks made up almost half of the mass before the mid-1950s, and it's also around that time that asphalt comes onto the stage.
The study takes a few parameters into account: the dry weight versus wet weight of biomass, and the mass of products in use versus products that are considered waste. For this chart, I've decided to highlight the wet weight at the top, so you can see the "definite" weight of things (after all, we're 60% water). Measuring biomass in dry weight instead of wet weight would put the tipping point in 2020, excluding waste. If waste is included in anthropogenic mass, the tipping point falls earlier too — by roughly seven years. And since these measurements only include solid, material things, there's a big chunk of human-made waste that's not represented: CO2 emissions. If we were to take them into account, we'd have been over since 1996 (when I was barely born and France hadn't won the World Cup yet — what a decade).
This might not seem so important, since biomass is still better off than in the seventies, but the fact that we have reached or will soon reach a tipping point also means that biomass is very likely — and in fact has already started — to decrease again. Forests continue to be decimated for farming, global warming resulting from CO2 emissions affects coral reefs, and factories often release harmful chemicals in rivers causing destruction of these ecosystems. Most of it relies on governments and big corporations, but on an individual scale some action is possible. Consuming less, buying second hand, and traveling by train are all changes that are fairly easy to implement in our daily lives. Initiatives to increase plants in public space, such as the one in Barcelona that Eddie from the support team wrote about recently, are also important. It's not going to tip the scale the other way, but it still has an impact on communities — so speak to your local decision makers if you have the power to do so!
That's it from me! If you have any thoughts, insights, or tips on how to deal with climate change, you can comment below or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! You'll also find a few sources and useful links, and we'll see you next week for Gregor's chart!