The Technosphere: 30 Trillion Tons of Human Stuff Weighing Down the Planet

December 1, 2016 | Maggie Romuld

Photo credit: University of Leicester

In an effort to measure humanity’s impact on the planet, scientists have estimated the total weight of everything we need to support our lifestyles, and everything we throw away.

The widespread acceptance of the term Anthropocene—a proposed epoch describing the impact humans have had on the planet—made the examination of our “technosphere” a somewhat logical next step.

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Duke University earth system scientist Peter K. Haff coined the term in 2014 to describe the layer of the earth made up of the “the interlinked set of communication, transportation, bureaucratic and other systems that act to metabolize fossil fuels and other energy resources.” The term depicts the broad combination of humans and technology as an earth sphere, parallel to the concept of other planetary spheres, or such as the atmosphere or the biosphere.

A team of researchers, led by University of Leicester geologists Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Colin Waters, believe that the technosphere is some measure of the extent to which we have reshaped our planet. In a paper recently published in the Anthropocene Review, they estimate that the weight of the “summed material output of the contemporary human enterprise” is a staggering 30 trillion tons—which would work out to be about 50 kilograms per square meter of planetary surface if it were evenly distributed.

The team estimates that weight includes “all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep themselves alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste.” Essentially everything needed to support the human biomass, and the things we leave behind.

They also believe that the relics of our material-rich lifestyle—our baubles, books, and bottles – will form “technofossils” that can be used in the far future to help date and characterize the Anthropocene in much the same way that trilobites characterize the Paleozoic. They also believe that if technofossils were classified using the traditional system for classifying current fossil finds – the technofossil diversity could exceed total biological diversity throughout history.

Some scientists debate the relevance of labeling the technosphere, saying that technology should not be used to define the role humans play as drivers of planetary change. Either way, there is no denying that the full weight of our combined influence on the planet has certainly altered the natural environment and its systems. Whether technology has driven the change, or the sheer sum of humanity going about their daily business, is perhaps irrelevant.

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