Humans bring greatest change to Earth

This era on our planet is called the Anthropocene – meaning the time of man (yes, and woman). And here’s the truly incredible news: humans have—and have had—more effect on the changes of the planet than earthquakes, glaciation, tides and all the rivers in the world. Yes, you read that right. We’ve collectively changed the planet more than anything nature previously provided.

Agriculture, climate change, building, digging, paving, tree-felling, dams, wars, nuclear explosions – a whole host of human alteration to the planet  which has finally added up and surpassed what nature did over the previous 150,000 years. The British Geological Survey along with several US institutions have calculated the changes we have brought and made a greater change to the surface of the Earth than anything nature ever did. Let’s see if I can say that again... go back past the dinosaurs, past the fish in the oceans, past the bacteria... collectively in under 11,000 years, humans have changed the surface of the planet more than billions of years of the planet’s existence.

“There are about 27,000,000,-000,000 tonnes of human modified materials scattered across all the continents, said Anthony Cooper and Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey. “If you even that across all the land masses, you end with a thickness of a little over a foot of material deposited and piled up by humans...” over every square inch of land – and this does not include material dumped in the oceans. When was all this material piled up?  Even the Romans used concrete, “...but the increase in population from 2 billion to 6.5 billion people since the second world war, means that the scale of production of these areas of change is expanding exponentially.”

Let’s take one example, coal. To get one tonne of coal we move and stack up 9 to 20 tonnes of waste material. Copper? 12 tonnes of waste. We’ve added to coastlines by dredging and building up the land. We use incredible amounts of concrete all over the planet. In 2015 humans shifted 316,000,000,000 tonnes of material around the surface, permanently changing the earth’s surface in places.  Currently, we humans are shifting, according to Colin Waters, “...about 24 times more material than all the world’s rivers combined. We are, in effect, a much bigger geological force than the rivers.”

Gold? The ratio is one troy ounce of gold means between 4 and 20 tonnes of rock have been excavated. (Are you glancing at your left hand?) Cobalt? About the same ratio... the list is endless.

Human impact is relentless. Let’s end with just one simple number. What does, say, human construction (buildings, roads, railways) in London weigh? 6,000,000,000 tonnes. In US measurement that’s 13,200,000,000,000 (13.2 trillion) pounds.


Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now lives in New Mexico.