What is the technosphere? The materials used by humans now weigh more than all life on Earth.
Humanity’s influence on the planet has reached unprecedented levels, evident from the accumulation of plastic waste in oceans and the expansive growth of urban areas.
The concept of the “technosphere” seeks to quantify the massive scale of our collective impact on the Earth’s systems.
The concept was first introduced by US geologist Peter Haff in 2013 and popularised by paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz. The technosphere encompasses the extensive global output of materials resulting from human activities and the associated energy consumption.
Over the past 12,000 years, human enterprise has steadily grown. Our impact has had a dramatic surge in the last two centuries, transforming into exponential growth since 1950. Despite growing awareness of the issue, there has been a lack of concrete action to reverse the impact.
Weighing the Technosphere
In 2020, Israeli academics revealed a startling fact – the combined mass of all materials utilized by humans surpassed the total mass of all living organisms on Earth.
While the mass of all life on Earth (biosphere) stands at 1.12 trillion tonnes, materials actively used by humans, including concrete, plastic, and asphalt, weighed in at 1.15 trillion tonnes. This highlights the immense size of humanity’s footprint. Considering associated by products like waste and greenhouse gases, the technosphere’s total mass is estimated to be a staggering 30 trillion tonnes, including industrially emitted carbon dioxide equivalent to 150,000 Egyptian Pyramids.
Changing the Earth
Human activity now significantly outpaces natural processes in altering the Earth’s surface. The annual global sediment load transported naturally through erosion is around 30 billion tonnes, primarily carried by rivers. However, human activities, such as construction and mining, have surpassed this natural sediment load since the 1990s. In 2015 alone, humans moved approximately 316 billion tonnes of material, more than ten times the natural sediment load, indicating the magnitude of our impact.
The ability to transport fuel and products across the world has facilitated the trends in the technosphere’s growth. Shipping remains the primary mechanism for moving materials globally, and since 1990, the volume of shipped materials has more than tripled and continues to rise.
The Growth of Plastics
Plastic production represents one of the most significant components of the technosphere due to its rapid growth. From its inception in the early 20th century, plastic production skyrocketed after World War II, with an estimated 2 million tonnes produced in 1950. By 2019, global plastic production had reached approximately 460 million tonnes. This excessive manufacturing raises grave concerns about plastic pollution, leading to severe impacts on marine life and ecosystems.
The Ongoing Threat
Humanity’s escalating impact on the Earth poses a significant threat to global health and security. Understanding the size and nature of our impact is crucial, including tiny materials like nano plastics that can have far-reaching consequences. It is evident that our pursuit of ever-increasing material output is overwhelming the planet and requires urgent attention.
The technosphere represents the extent of humanity’s influence on the planet, revealing the immense scale of our collective impact. From surpassing the weight of all life on Earth to outpacing natural processes in changing the planet’s surface, human activities have become a global force on par with natural systems. Understanding the true impact and nature of materials in the technosphere is essential to address our relentless pursuit of material growth and minimize the threats posed by our actions on Earth. Only through concrete actions and a collective effort can we hope to create a sustainable future for our planet and all living beings.Bottom of Form