Solving earth's mess with mass, by Tristan Rutherford
Camper & Nicholsons SEA+I Magazine, September 2021
Professor Ron Milo likes to measure things. “Our passion at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel is to look at the world and quantify what's in it”, the professor explains. “We wanted to measure how much living mass like plants, bacteria and animals we have. This is called biomass. Plus how many human-made products like bricks, laptops and asphalt we have. This is called anthropogenic mass.”
By compiling statistics from various global studies, Milo’s team tried to find out what weighs the most. Biomass or anthropogenic mass.
“We found that biomass is relatively constant,” continues Milo. “However, since the beginning of the 20th century, anthropogenic mass has doubled approximately every 20 years.” When did the weight of human-made things overtake natural things? As Milo’s report proves: “2020”.
For the first time in history, the combined weight of cars, cellphones, cement and other societal elements has become heavier than all living things on earth. In terms of mass, there is more plastic alone than all land and marine animals combined. Those statistics might sound alarming. For Milo, this big data contained in his report can promote positive change.
There’s no need to panic, continues the professor. “It’s not like you’ll wake up tomorrow and there’s a tipping point that has changed the world. Although we are already feeling the results of our changes,” most visibly in terms of habitat loss and pollution.
Instead Milo’s study hopes to put a perspective on our footprint. “Some people might believe the impact of humanity on our planet is negligible,” he explains. “Our rigorous analysis proves the opposite.” In Milo’s analysis, “just realising the fact that humanity has such a large factor in shaping the earth tells us something about our responsibility.”
The bad news is that there is no single solution to reducing our footprint. “You need to ask yourself what leverage you have,” Milo explains. “For example, do you own a large company that could do something differently?” Saving the world often makes business sense. Covering your factory roof in Tesla solar tiles, for example, will result in energy savings. And possibly profits too. According to CNBC, the global level of sustainable investments doubled by volume during 2020.
The good news is that Milo’s statistical analysis might point to other environmental solutions. “Putting numbers behind the mass of stuff we produce gives us a clear yardstick to mark our effect,” he explains. Some statistics are as dull as concrete. That’s right, concrete. The most widely-used anthropogenic matter (and the second most consumed substance in the world, after water) produces 8% of greenhouse gases. If concrete was a country, it would be the world’s third-largest carbon emitter behind China and the United States. After all, 70% of humans live in a concrete structure.
One solution might be green cement. By using residual waste from other manufacturing industries, like silica fume from computer production and fly ash from coal-fired power stations, green concrete uses less energy in production. It's also more durable.
“A lot of our environmental impact is related to housing,” agrees Milo. Hopefully when his report’s data is disseminated, “it might affect decisions on how to build your dream home more efficiently. Or how you can use natural resources, from water to sunshine, even better.” His study might also ask how society can construct the two billion homes needed through 2100. Which may need to be built using recycled and renewable materials, with the ability to manage their own energy and waste.
Ironically, the Covid-19 pandemic may have given humanity a push in the right direction. “The pandemic has been terrible,” cautions Milo. “Especially for people who have lost loved ones.” Although some long term effects might reduce our anthropogenic footprint. “For example, Zoom is now considered an acceptable way of attending a meeting,” continues Milo. “You can log-in instead of spending time and fuel in planes.”
Has Milo reduced his own footprint? “I now eat less meat,” confirms the Israeli professor. That’s significant. Because another of Milo's statistical studies notes that humans represent 0.01% of all living things. Yet they have caused the loss of 83% of all wild mammals, most of it due to habitat destruction related to grazing and animal feed production. The lost species include, during the last decade alone, the Western Black rhinoceros and the Yangtze river dolphin.
Conversely farmed livestock (there are one billion each of cows, pigs and sheep) make up 60% of mammals on our planet compared to 4% for wild mammals. This livestock produces around 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. Beef emissions make up two-thirds of that figure.
Such stats have already impacted those aware of them. In 2021 a leading American food website, Epicurious, took a decision not to publish new beef recipes citing concerns over climate change. In 2017 Sir Lewis Hamilton became vegan to improve both animal welfare and environmental awareness. Novak Djokovic, Venus Williams and some of Hamilton's 22 million Instagram followers have also transitioned to a plant-based diet. As has Hamilton’s pet bulldog Roscoe. The pup might thank Professor Ron Milo for reducing his carbon pawprint.
Tristan Rutherford write stories about global issues for The Guardian and AramcoWorld magazine.