The mass of humanity’s footprint on Earth, all the structures, vehicles, infrastructure, garbage dumps, everything — collectively known as the “technosphere” — comes down to roughly 30 trillion tons, a new study estimates.


Image credits Kasuma F. Gruber / Pexels.

If my last dorm room taught me anything it’s that people have a lot of stuff. And if each one of us has a lot of stuff, then just how much stuff do all of us have put together? It must be a huge pile of stuff — one that would weigh about 30 trillion tons, according to an international team of researchers.

So it would be a pretty impressive pile. But that’s to be expected; everything processed, altered, or made by humans is counted here — every bit of rural and urban infrastructure, all buildings as well as vehicles and other machinery on land, sea, or air, all the computers, smartphones, and all the garbage in landfills. All this makes up the technosphere.

“It is all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them 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,” study Jan Zalasiewicz, professor of palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, UK, and study co-author said in a statement.

It’s not the largest of the spheres, but it’s definitely big. If we were to distribute the total mass evenly across the Earth’s surface, the technosphere would cover every square meter (11 sq-feet) of the planet in about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of man-made stuff, the researchers say. And it’s bound to grow in size as time passes.

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The technosphere is in a way the sum of our action on the planet. As such, it has a close connection to the newly-declared geological age Anthropocene — a period in which human activity has the power to shape the whole planet. But unlike the other sphere of life, the biosphere, our system does a very poor job at re-using and recycling the materials and energy used to create it. It doesn’t break down to power further growth (think of how animals digest plants into dung which then provides fertilizer for other plants,) instead it just adds to itself, taking more space as new buildings, new cars, or in landfills.

“The technosphere is a system, with its own dynamics and energy flows – and humans have to help keep it going to survive,” Zalasiewicz said.

“The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet.”

Right now, the study concludes, the technosphere outweighs humans 3 to 1. Considering that the “present human biomass is more than double” that of all large terrestrial vertebrates before us and that the primary source for technospheric growth comes from the transformation of the biosphere and other natural resources, the sustainability of further growth under a business as usual model comes into question.

But then again, people need houses, food, roads, and all that good stuff. With the huge population growth we can expect in the future, the technosphere will need to expand to accommodate these needs — putting further pressure on natural resources already spread thin. Some new technologies will also require more resources and energy to implement.

The strain this growth requires might be dampened by re-using materials already available in landfills or infrastructure we don’t need anymore, but that won’t cover all the demand. In the end, there’s a limit to how much the technosphere can expand.

“While the long-term development of the technosphere remains uncertain, its scale and accelerating diversification of form means that it already represents a distinctive new component at a planetary scale,” the study concludes.

The full paper “Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective” has been published in the in the journal The Anthropocene Review.