As anyone who has ever loaded up a moving van can tell you, most humans own a lot of stuff. We're good at creating it, too: from laptops to phones, roads and cars, buildings and homes. All of it, everything that humans have constructed on the planet, is called the technosphere. And no surprise, it's getting bigger.
In a new study published in The Anthropocene Review, University of Leicester geologist Mark Williams and his international colleagues have estimated for the first time the sheer size of the technosphere. When all of humanity's objects –– from pens to keyboards to space rockets –– is totaled, it all weighs an estimated 30 trillion tons or a mass of 50 kilos (110 pounds) for every square meter of the Earth's surface.
“The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it," Williams said in a release. "At its current scale the technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet — and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly."
Unlike the biosphere, however, the technosphere in its current state is extremely poor at recycling its own waste. As such, its weight is increasingly growing, with greater pressures on the biosphere to extract more and more resources to keep it flowing. The evidence isn't just in the growing number of garage sales on your street, but also in time-lapse satellite images of growing city sprawl from around the globe, which you can see in the video below.
According to coauthor and geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, all of this waste is leaving behind "technofossils," buried layers of humanity's impact that will one day define the Anthropocene Era.
"The far-future paleontologists who will (we will assume) reconstruct, from these infinitely variable petrified remnants, the technosphere built by humans, will move, inch by inch, across these fossilized landfills, as not only the objects but also their aspects change their nature, centimetre by centimetre," he said. "A square meter might include such complexity and variety as to provide work for a lifetime of such study."
Whether or not humanity's insatiable drive for stuff will allow future generations to even exist to contemplate this era remains to be seen. Human biomass alone currently is more than double that of all large terrestrial vertebrates that characterized the Earth prior to human civilization. We all love the things that make life comfortable, but without some drastic changes in resource consumption and recycling, it's clear that the technosphere and humanity will be nothing more than a short-lived layer in the geologic record.
“The technosphere may be geologically young, but it is evolving with furious speed, and it has already left a deep imprint on our planet," Zalasiewicz added.