Earth in the Balance
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
Victor Luca, 6-Jan-21.
Published in The Beacon, Friday 19-Mar-21.
Figure 1. In 2020 humans tipped the balance between made-made materials and nature. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/human-made-stuff-now-outweighs-all-life-on-earth/
In a recent article in the prestigious science publication, Nature, Elhacham et al., (Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature 2020, 588, 442-444) calculated the overall material output of human activities compared to the overall amount of natural biomass. Biomass is organic matter, stuff that is living or was once living and includes plants, animals, and microorganisms. From a biochemical perspective biomass is made up of cellulose, lignin, sugars, fats, and proteins. In decreasing order of abundance, the elements in biomass are commonly considered to be C, O, H, N, Ca, K, Si, Mg, Al, S, Fe, P, Cl, Na, Mn, and Ti. But mostly we are talking about the non-metals C, O, H, N, P & S.
Elhacham et al. determined that for the first time in human history the year 2020 ± 6 saw the total amount of stuff we humans have produced outweigh the sum total of all biomass (Figure 1).
Humanity started making a measurable impact on the Earth that sustains us as far back as 3,000 years ago when we humans represented a mere 0.01% of total biomass on the planet and we have never looked back.
Elhacham et al. point out that since the first agricultural revolution, humanity has roughly halved the mass of plants, from approximately two teratonnes (Tt, units of 1012 tonne; where estimates are on a dry-mass basis) down to the current value of approximately 1 Tt.
To have brought this about in such a short period of time is truly breathtaking. Land-use and changes in biomass have affected the carbon-cycle, the climate and human health.
The mass balance accounting behind the calculations presented in the paper are complex although achievable nowadays. As the authors state, “comparing biomass with human-made mass necessitates bringing together objects with different attributes, going beyond comparing apples and oranges to compare apples and mobile phones”.
And herein lies the problem. Due to scientific and technological advancement, we humans have got very good at making stuff that in many ways enhances our lives. However, that stuff comes from a finite Earth which we are transforming using energy at an unprecedented rate and in ways, and with consequences, we don’t even fully understand.
Whereas the Earth was almost totally comprised of natural biomass we now have a lot of technogenic biomass and other materials and objects that we have made from the minerals that constitute the Earth’s crust. From the bowels of the earth we extract oil and utilizing chemical processes and energy we convert it to polymers (plastics). From the earth we dig up iron and aluminum ores and we reduce the oxides of the metals into metals. To extract and purify elements further down in the periodic table that are critical to our modern technology such as the so called rare-earth elements we have to find ores rich in these metallic elements and undertake complex chemical separations to produce pure streams. I am talking about elements such as cerium, dysprosium, neodymium and so forth. However, the recycling of these materials is not easy. It is not like recycling glass.
In recent decades the alluring prospect of a circular economy has received much attention. In a circular economy all materials - organic, inorganic and hybrid - can be recovered after use and then re-used, re-purposed or recycled repeatedly rather simply sent to landfill. From cradle-to-cradle rather than cradle-to-grave. This all sounds terrific and is certainly something to be aspired to. However, while it is possible to circularize organic biomass such as food, forestry slash and so forth, the problem becomes more difficult when one wishes to recycle a plastic bottle and still more complex objects such as say a mobile phone or a car. Consider for example the capacitive touch screen panel that is a core technological component of your mobile phone. This simple looking glass panel is actually far from being a simple object but rather a marvel of modern materials science, physics, chemistry and engineering (Figure 2).
Without the precious element, indium, which is part of the indium tin oxide (ITO) conducting glass used in this panel the touch screen could not work. Indium is a critical resource because there is not much of it around. Although indium is precious, from a chemical perspective recycling such touch screens is nothing short of a nightmare and is not being performed commercially anywhere at the moment.
Figure 2. Image of the component of a thin-film-transistor (TFT) liquid crystal display (LCD). Source: Zhou et al., Beware of Your Screen: Anonymous Fingerprinting of Device Screens for Off-line Payment Protection. December 2018.
Circular economic principles work very well for chickens as I outlined in my Beacon article of 16-Dec-20 (One man’s trash is another man’s food). And yet I don’t see people rushing out to set themselves up with backyard chickens which will virtually eliminate all your household’s food scraps and produce eggs and fertilizer. Recycling complex man-made objects is another kettle of fish.
There is no doubt that moving from a linear system (cradle-to-grave) that emphasizes resource use, consumption and mass production in the interests of economic growth while ignoring externalities such as waste disposal, climate change and the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services to a fundamentally different paradigm (cradle-to-cradle) would to be great. However, I see it very difficult if not impossible given the collective societal mindset, the imperative - indeed obsession - for growth and the sheer volumes of man-made materials involved.
Turn on the TV, radio or the internet and you are constantly bombarded by adverts that convince you of the need to consume more not less. And the stuff that you buy often has obsolescence built into it from the get-go. Our corporatized capitalist world needs consumption, it feeds off fueling it and requires stuff to break or to be rendered technologically obsolete to maximize profits. By that I mean that the technology of tomorrow renders that of yesterday obsolete so that you feel the need to upgrade. Scientific and technological development is accelerating not decelerating.
To give a tangible example of what I mean by built-in obsolescence, let’s consider light bulbs. The centennial light bulb has been in more-or-less continuous operation for the past 120 years. It has clocked over one million hours and it continues to glow, albeit not as brightly as when it was new (see Figure). So how is it that today a normal incandescent light bulb lasts only about 83 days (constant operation) and even the longest long-life LED light bulbs last a mere 50,000 hours (5 years)? I will park this here for now but suffice it to say that the trick might be in the carbon filament that was used in the centennial light bulb.
Figure 3. The Centennial Light is the world's longest-lasting light bulb, burning since 1901, and almost never switched off. It is at 4550 East Avenue, Livermore, California, and maintained by the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department. Source: http://www.centennialbulb.org/cam.htm
If you want growth then you need population to increase and you can’t have stuff lasting forever. You can talk all you like about circular economics but thermodynamics ensures that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy (and matter) cannot be created or destroyed and this means stuff can’t just disappear. The second law ensures that any recycling will always require energy and will always be incomplete and will generate wastes and side-products (increasing entropy, decreasing energy) of its own.
The concept of entropy that is part of the second law is somewhat esoteric but to put it simply the law states that as energy is transferred or transformed, more and more of it is wasted. The Second Law also states that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. These laws of thermodynamics apply to every physical object around us. The laws are not abstract human creations such as the economy that arbitrarily attaches value to some things while ignoring others. For instance, happiness, fresh water, air-pollution and so forth. As Tim Jackson the author of ‘Prosperity without Growth – Economics for a Finite Planet’ puts it, we are in the business of "spending money we don't have, on things we don't need, to create impressions that wont last, on people we don't care about".
In principle, it is possible to fully recycle every single component of a complex object such as a mobile phone or a Tesla Battery Electric Vehicle but the physical and chemical processes need to be developed, and no matter what they are, there is going to be an energy cost to do it. And energy my dear people, equals money in our economic system, even if it comes from renewables. It is also imperative that decisions to re-recycle be supported by appropriate methodological frameworks that include life-cycle analysis, cost-benefit analysis, environmental risk assessments and so forth in order to answer the question ‘does what I am proposing really make sense?’.
Finally, it is of paramount important to recognize that, as important as it is to conserve, the arithmetic shows clearly that large savings from conservation and recycling will be wiped out in short times by even modest rates of growth in population and consumption.
Recycling may be good, but we have to consume less and conserve everything we can, else we risk devouring the very system that supports our existence.
Elhacham et al., Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature 2020, 588, 442 – 444. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5
Liu & Ramakrishna (eds) - An Introduction to Circular Economy. Springer 2021.
Pourebrahimi et al., Identifying building obsolescence: towards increasing buildings' service life. Int. J. Building Pathology & Adaption. 2020, 38(5), 645-652. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJBPA-08-2019-0068
Wiles, J. The Lightbulb Conspiracy: Shining Light on Planned Obsolescence. October 12, 2018. In Livermore, California, a light bulb has burned continuously for over 117 years. It's amazing - but is it proof of a vast global conspiracy?