The Myth of Peak Stuff

“Scientists say the weight of human-made objects will likely exceed that of living things by the end of the year.”

                                                ~ Helen Briggs

A good friend warned me years ago about peak oil, when the production of oil from the Earth reached its peak, and the amount of oil remaining would continuously decline, exacerbating future shortages. Of course, the same dynamic applies to any finite resource, such as metals. That awareness is not new, for decades, if not centuries, we have recycled metals and other materials to conserve them.

The one thing we have not conserved is human population, and consequently, human consumption, both of which continue to increase dramatically.

Our planet is finite. The only significant input above what is already here is sunshine (and trace amounts of cosmic dust). Sunshine powers our planet and makes life here possible. Everything else on Earth was here before us or created out of those materials plus the energy ultimately provided by the sun. (Exception can be made for those things provided by a benevolent god. However, it just might be that we have reached peak divine intervention.)

Living creatures make things. They may take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. They may absorb water and minerals from the soil and create vegetation. They may ingest vegetation or other creatures to produce energy or reproduce themselves. It is the way nature works, basically, the circle of life. All living things exist in a web of interdependence. In actuality, the whole concept of the circle of life is dependent on planetary forces that include the rotation and declination of the earth, the atmospheric system and climate.

Humans are the most prolific adaptors on the planet. We have learned how to farm vegetation as well as hunt and husband animals to stabilize our food supplies. We’ve learned to harvest and grow firewood and mine the earth for sources of heat and energy. We have used the materials of the earth to create shelters, implements and devices to improve our lives. We’re actually pretty damn amazing.

It may not be our fault if we’re not good at knowing when we have it good and learning when to stop. Correspondent Helen Briggs reports, “the combined weight of all the plastic, bricks, concrete and other things we’ve made in the world will outweigh all animals and plants on the planet for the first time.”

She quotes, “The significance is symbolic in the sense that it tells us something about the major role that humanity now plays in shaping the world and the state of the Earth around us,” Dr. Ron Milo, who led the research, told BBC News… “It is a reason for all of us to ponder our role, how much consumption we do and how can we try to get a better balance between the living world and humanity.”

“The research, published in Nature, is further evidence that we have entered a new geological age, known as the Anthropocene, where humanity’s impacts on Earth will be visible in sediments and rocks millions of years into the future.”

Humankind has survived and thrived on this planet because we learned how to work the system. But we forget that any system has limits. Human conversion of a natural thing doesn’t really eliminate it from the system.

Conversely, things made from the earth, inorganics, are more slowly changed. We don’t change the atomic makeup of the materials, just reassemble them. (Okay, nuclear power is an exception.) Organic materials decompose into their various constituents, sometimes making useful items enroute (remember it’s a circle). Prehistoric plants and animals decay into subterranean pools of oil and gas or blocks of coal that we happily extract to heat our homes and power our machines. The minerals we mine don’t disappear, just change their form for our use.

We try to conserve those things that we value, and rare things often are valued for their rareness. Gold has little inherent value, but became valuable primarily in human perspective. (I note that gold now has value as a necessary component of some electronics.) As an engineer, I studied water conservation. The main lesson was that water’s value was in its use. In cities and towns, we conserved treated water suitable for potable use. Industries and farms conserved water of a quality suited to their needs.

Misused water — ‘wasted’ — did not disappear, but returned to nature, sometimes in a different form. The hydrologic cycle (there’s that term again) shows that liquid water moves with gravity, and can be evaporated into vapor, where it moves with the air and ultimately precipitates back to earth in liquid form.

While the form of most materials can be changed, the atoms that make it up remain. Trying to compare the mass of “human-created objects” versus living things is a faulty exercise. The materials that make up living things, as well as concrete and plastic, have been here all along. The total mass of the Earth may change form, but within realistic parameters, does not increase or decrease.

Plastic may melt and decay, concrete may crumble, living things may die, but it all returns to the cycle. We are all stardust. Every living thing on Earth is cobbled together from what is here now and the energy we receive from the sun. When any living thing dies, its component parts ultimately return to nature, to the earth. 

   “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

                                                ~ The Book of Common Prayer.

Additional information:

Helen Briggs, Human-Made Objects to Outweigh Living Things, December 9, 2020, BBC News

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