Of the many global catastrophic threats known to humans, some are more entertaining than others in the media. Asteroid Effects, Super Volcanic Outbreaks and Climate Change have gotten Hollywood Treat. And each of these has taken a devastating toll on the life of our planet in the past. What many are unaware of, however, is that a new global threat capable of destroying life is emerging in the shadows of our daily lives. It’s directed by the massive human desire of material consumption. And paradoxically it is the very result of human life.
Look around – you are inseparably surrounded by material things – whether it is necessary in your life or not. For every piece of this material we use, there is a growing web of global actions that is slowly robbing human emotional health, depleting the earth’s resources and ruining our planet’s habitat. If unchecked, is there a risk that human consumption could eventually turn the Earth into a desolate world? Do we have to stop before it is too late?
A team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel recently published a study comparing man-made mass – anthropogenic mass – to all living mass or biomass in the world. They declared that for the first time in human history the former has either surpassed the latter or is close to doing so in the coming years.
The Weizmann Institute’s study estimates that, on average, every person in the world now produces more than their body weight per week. “The anthropogenic mass – artificial things – in current time measures the weight of almost every living thing, and the reality that it accumulates so rapidly shows it another clean picture about how human being is playing a major role in shaping the earth planet,” stated Professor Ron Milo, whose laboratory conducted the study.
The earth is home to millions of species. Only one dominates it. Us. Our intelligence, our inventiveness and our activities have changed almost every part of our planet. In fact, we are having a profound effect on it. Indeed, our ingenuity, our inventiveness and our activities are the catalyst for the global problem we now face. And each of these problems is accelerating as we move towards a global population of 10 billion. In fact, I think we can rightly call the situation we are in right now a crisis – an unprecedented planetary crisis.
We human beings emerged as a species approximately 2 lakh years ago. In geological times, it is really incredibly recent. Just 10,000 years ago, there were a million of us. By 1800, just 200 years ago, there were 1 billion of us. By 1960, 50 years ago, we were 3 billion. We are now over 7 billion. By 2050, your children or your grandchildren will be living on the planet with at least 9 billion others. By the end of this century, we will have at least 10 billion. Maybe more.
This revelation is not surprising to many who believe that humans have already begun a new geological age called anthropocene – a popular term by the human age, Nobel laureate and chemist Paul Krutzen. While the exact beginning of this age is debatable, there is no denying that human beings have become an influential force on this planet, changing other forms of life through our actions.
The amount and size of anthropogenic matter is worrisome. Take the case of plastic – the modern plastic age was born only in 1907, but today we produce 300 million tons of plastic every year. Furthermore, after water, it is incomprehensible that concrete is the most used material on earth.
When materials such as concrete and aggregates became widely available, the huge geoengineering process initiated by humans took a rapid turn. These two materials form a major component of growth in the anthropogenic mass. Even relatively recent human enterprises in space exploration, which began nearly 60 years ago, are exacerbating the devastating space junk problem. With this, we observe haphazardly polar cap melting, permafrost melting and global warming.
So, why did this happen? Are humans genetically inclined to become materialistic to the point of our own destruction? Is the accumulation of anthropogenic substances just a measure of the rate of destruction of humans? Or will nature equip man to face this problem? These are highly unresolved questions.
Although there is evidence that materialism is taught and shaped by culture, there are some who argue that natural selection may have undone our species with a desire to accumulate material. Our luggage can give us a sense of security and status that has previously played a more important role in human history.
Somehow, creating new content has become a divine word in the collective human mind. It sits unpleasantly in all our endeavors, from ancient stories to modern research and development rooms. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth …” The Bible tells the story of Genesis. Humans are conditioned to believe that creating something new is the meaningful purpose of life and that it is the only way to advance their ambitions. Yet we fail to recall to put a cap on the use.
The limitations of science are never so obvious when trying to solve this conundrum. Reliance on green technological solutions alone is flawed because the focus is still on new materials and more use – not to change the lifestyle or business models that gave us this problem in the first place. Even if we could replace all fossil fuel-based vehicles with electric vehicles, for example, cities are already struggling to take the road space from cars and have their own impression on the world’s resources due to the materials needed to make electric vehicles.
“The accumulation of anthropogenic mass is also associated with urban development, with its associated environmental effects, which are already being seen around the world,” states Emily Elhacham, one of the authors of the Weizmann Institute of Science study. “I hope that growing awareness will encourage behavioral change that will allow us to search for a better balancing point. Every step taken in this direction will be having a positive effect.”
Carbon footprints of our gadgets, the Internet and supporting systems account for about 3.7% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and are projected to double by 2025. It is possible to reduce emissions by a few emails or avoid sharing an unnecessary photo on social media – it may seem like a small reduction from one person but then add billions of such small actions together.
Big technology companies claim they are going green or setting goals for carbon neutrality but they rarely encourage people to spend less time on social media or order fewer products. Instead advertising and marketing models deliver powerful messages that reinforce the motto: create and consume more.
This irrational brutal materialism is very deeply embedded with traditions and cultural symbols. In the United States, Black Friday is the second carnival celebrated after Thanksgiving. During this ritual, long lines of customers appear at the malls and are often injured or crushed – but people are convinced that it is the right effort to troubleshoot.
In the anthropocene age, humans may feel entitled to rely on technology to fix any problem so they can continue to do what they are doing. Facing the accumulation of long-lived plastic in the environment, for example, biodegradable coffee cups, bags for life and reusable straw due to the rise of innovation. But while it is true that a sustainable growth model that encompasses our environment has great potential for survival, we need a different approach to sustainability that addresses our broader consumerism.
Covid-19 reminds us of how fragile and unprepared human culture is when it comes to even known epidemics. It has also taught us that human behavior can be changed by small actions such as wearing a mask to reduce the severity of global tragedies. The passive approach to the propagation of anthropogenic mass is not only due to a lack of knowledge about its effect, but in general, it is also associated with the human tendency to reject facts that do not correspond to their worldview. Humans instinctively ignore issues that are not challenging their daily lives or that reduce their convenience.
Furthermore, humans can be comforted by the idea that nature can equip living things to survive, no matter what we do. It is true that Darwinian-style evolution by slow and gradual, natural selection often precedes a certain highly polluted environment. In 2016, a team of scientists in Japan found a strain of bacteria from a bottle recycling facility that could break down and metabolize plastics. On the other hand, this discovery demonstrates the subtle and powerful ways in which human actions are changing life on this planet.
Adapting the organisms in response to pollutants is a complex case. Alessandra Loria, who is a biologist at McGill University of Canada and a lead author of this study states that “In long run, a constant growth in anthropogenic mass will result into habitat loss through habitat changes like contamination with pollutants, which is a result of human beings’ production and disposal.” Research indicates that the negative impacts caused by pollution become worse over many generations, although the way of coping is different among different species.
Rapid depletion of natural resources and biodiversity is not a common evolutionary race used for nature. While some species can adapt precisely to the changes taking place in our environment, humans are no longer just species following Darwinian evolution but have come a long way in advancing evolution on this planet.
Studies have shown that for most species, evolutionary adaptation is not expected to be fast enough to buffer the effects of environmental changes caused by human activity, which means our own species will be no exception.
While there is no evidence that we will destroy ourselves, there are clear indications that we ignore the effects at our own risk. For example, some mass extinctions in the history of the Earth are related to the acidification of the oceans. The oceans absorb about 30% of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, which in turn increases the acidity of the oceans. Today the oceans are acidifying faster than in the last 300 million years, mainly due to human activities.
Loria stated that Human life will be negatively affected as we are losing many ecosystem benefits and services offered by biological diversity. For example, water pollution can impact provision services like food and water by decreasing the food diversity, food quality and food safety. Extensive degradation of the ecosystem threatens the conditions of life on Earth, especially the long-term survival of our own species.”
Our impact on the earth is much deeper than carbon footprints or global warming, which points to a future where human being will start capturing the effects of matter – if not already – the identity of the earth and its life. In the face of this, humans can lose themselves in the race for evolution.
Eliminating materials like concrete or plastic or replacing them with alternatives will not solve the fundamental problem with our unparalleled appetite for human attitudes and more. This is where materialism can turn into a universally known unknown risk factor for global catastrophe. There are countless ways that it can turn this planet into a worldly world that our culture has never experienced before.
In the absence of a completely safe evolutionary shield, we can rely on our intelligence to survive. Yet, says Abraham Loeb, a professor of science at Harvard University and an astronomer who has been searching for dead cosmic cultures, “the mark of intelligence is the ability to promote a better future.”
“If we (humans) keep on behaving in such a way, we may not survive very long,” he adds. “On the other side, human activities can be a reason of pride for our successors if they are able to sustain an intelligent culture which can endure for hundreds of years to come.”
In Hindu mythology, the story of Bhasmasur parallels the effects of materialism. As a devotee of Lord Shiva, he receives blessings from Shiva, which gives him the power to turn anyone into ashes with just a touch on the head. Immediately after attaining this magical ability, he tries to test it on Shiva. Shiva manages to escape; the story goes on.
But humans are not lucky enough to escape their own actions. As long as we provide a different vision based on the reduction in consumption, the flames of our own materialism can consume both us and our pale blue dot.