2020 might be an important millestone for the Anthropocene

Although the Covid pandemic is strongly associated to 2020 for now, that year may be remembered in the future as the moment when human-made things have outweighed every other living things:


According to this study there is now more infrastructure (composed of concrete, aggregates, bricks and asphalt) than trees and shrubs (the majority of plant mass and, therefore, of the overall biomass).
Also the global mass of produced plastic now exceeds the overall mass of all terrestrial and
marine animals combined.


I saw this news, too. For someone like me, who has followed environmental matters all my life (Bachelor of Environmental Studies, class of 1996), life gets more painful with each year. Only the third time humans reached the bottom of the Mariana Trench, they found a plastic bag!


Freddy Mercury sang, “Who wants to live forever?” The way planet earth is going, I sure don’t.


That is sombering news indeed. I clicked <3, but really what I meant is :’(


Not exactly a cheerful read but I guess that’s the point of it. It’s an interesting result but I’m pretty sure this is not the metric that is going to shift things in the direction of sustainability. It will probably be useful for starting some conversations although I find absurdity is usually a more productive starting point for engaging people who don’t already get that things need to change. Depressing people just gets results like the comment by @jasonhernandez74, which is understandable but not what’s needed if change is going to happen. I sometimes use an article that appeared in the Journal of Irreproducible Results many years ago that purported to show that we are all just highly evolved phenotypes whose function is propagating primordial ooze. If people smile it opens their ears and their hearts.

2020 will be a landmark in a few ways. One of the lessons that has been laid out with urgent clarity is the extent to which overwhelming evidence will be resisted by people who feel invested in dysfunctional social relationships. Millions are crticially ill and hundreds of thousands are dead while bodies stack up in freezer trucks and masses of people mobilize to resist doing the things that will stop the dying.

This is an urgently important time in human history and the message that there is great potential for very bad things to happen seems lost in the static. In developed countries it has been so long since war or famine or pestilence have ravaged them that only the very oldest have a memory of these things being possible. There is a sense that they couldn’t possibly happen now. I’m pretty sure that these sorts of analyses won’t change that.


All this news is so sad. And the fact that humans seem even less likely to believe in science is a disturbing trend. In addition, I just read an article that complained that the birth rate is falling in many European countries as well as in Japan and governments (and more likely economists) are upset by this news. Governments are now encouraging people to have more children in some countries with the use of rewards. Isn’t it better to have fewer children and return nature to its rightful place? It’s really discouraging to learn that people are now worried that we will have too few people on the planet! It seems that having fewer people will eventually lead to a healthier environment if we don’t completely obliterate it before that happens.

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It will also improve job prospects: a smaller applicant pool means that getting hired will be easier. Granted, that is the opposite of what certain economic interests want to see…

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Not a good sign the fact that the richest and most powerful entrepreneurs are turning their interests to Mars, or the Moon…


We’ve trashed this one. Let’s move on to the next - as ‘they’ do with holiday resorts. Once was nature.

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This is a bit of an aside… Long, long ago, when nuclear waste was on our minds, and nothing much was on offer to handle it besides storage in basalt or some such…

Well, sitting around at night talking and drinking wine, we mused on other ways to handle nuclear waste. One woman ventured the notion to dump canisters of waste into deep ocean trenches were the subducting crust would suck the waste into the earth’s mantle and core, where the radioactive material would decay along with other decaying elements in the core. … unless it happened to got spewed out by a volcano first.

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Malthusianism (the important idea that population size impacts ressources) is still doing strong in Naturalist circles.
For example in a study in 2010, among 32 propositions for conservation, 300 conservation professionals voted “Conservation success demands significant changes in human population growth” number 4 whereas the proposition “Conservation success demands dramatic changes in life-styles of the world’s rich” was number 12.

This is an expected perception bias from a social group (naturalists) that is more likely to have a large ecological footprint and not many kids.

It would be fair to mention two things however:

  • In the last century population has grown 5 fold but per-person resource use has grown 10 fold (and this use is extremely not evenly distributed).
  • Some people (most of them indigenous people, some of them even have large families) have sustainable life styles, and they are also humans.

“there is too many people” is therefore lacking focus. While USA is still sterilizing some persons today, Ethiopia is not asking USA to curb obesity (equivalent to one billion people’ footprint) nor is India asking Europe to control aging (quarter of Europe will be soon above 65).

Maybe we could look at our own groups first and recognize that “there is too many Inaturalist users” because of what it implies in terms of resources consumption. From there, a discussion could start about per-group ecological footprint that than global population growth.

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What are people’s views on the ecological footprint of storing all these photos on iNaturalist? It is probably minute compared to all the rubbish on You Tube.

@langzi You raise some significant issues but there also some problems with your analysis, I think.

That’s not a definition of Malthusianism. The observation that two people consume more resources than one person is just a fact. Malthusianism, in the strictest sense of the term, is the assertion that increases in resource availability are typically linear while population increase is intrinsically exponential. In its more general application it is stated as “population growth outstrips resource availability” or something similar.

You have data on this? Some of the most insightful “naturalists” that I know are Indigenous.

Yes. On the other hand, the unevenness (an artifact of colonialism and postcolonial/neocolonial international economic structures) is diminishing as global political and economic systems become increasingly multipolar. India, Indonesia, the Philippines and China all had similar per capita ecological footprints in 1970 that were roughly a tenth of that in the US. All of them are now higher but not equally so. China’s per capita footprint has almost quadrupled and is now roughly half that of the US, which has seen its per capita footprint fall by about a fifth in the same period. The other three Asian examples have seen their footprints increase more gradually but given the aspirations laid out by governments in those places that is unlikely to remain the case.

Sustainable defined how, precisely? Extensive agriculture systems and hunting/gathering do not work in the absence of extensive land bases, an increasingly scarce resource. I work with a bunch of Indigenous communities whose cultures are deeply rooted in land ethics that are all about sustainable living. With few exceptions they have aspirations for their children’s material security and health that come into conflict with their cultural beliefs in challenging ways. They are well aware of this.

Sustainability is a complex issue in some respects but at its core it comes down to whether humanity is able to live within limits that do not degrade the planet’s ability to sustain humans in the future. A broader (and more sensible) definition encompasses sustaining biodiversity, not just humans. There is no way of talking about it without talking about human population. No amount of political, economic or social theorizing can overcome the reality that sustainability as a concept is about human use of other living things and the resources on which those things depend and that those things are finite in quantity. It is physically impossible for human population not to be part of any meaningful conversation on the subject.

OK. Fair point, although Ethiopia is certainly aware of US policy hypocrisy, whether they frame it that way or not.

Europe’s aging population is a direct result of low birth rates. Why would India see this as a problem?

Always, but unless you know of a way to deal with changing climate, ocean acidification, ocean overfishing, atmoshperic mercury, etc. etc. etc. without talking about, understanding and addressing things globally, looking only at our own groups is a bad idea.

Seriously? Unless you are proposing that information tech be dismantled globally, there is no conceivable argument for dismantling an initiative whose goal is increasing understanding of biodiversity. The amount of matter and energy associated with iNat use would not feature in the twentieth decimal place of any measure of ecological footprint. If you are talking about nature tourism, that’s a complex question that deserves its own conversation.


I asked some time ago, and was told the impact is trivial.
But I curate my obs and prefer to limit to fewer and more interesting.

I deal with ocean overfishing by being vegetarian. Having looked at the ecological footprint of an omnivorous diet as compared with a vegetarian diet, I feel this is the biggest beneficial thing most people in First World countries could do.

Now Bitcoin, on the other hand… Yeah, the ecological impact of speculation always has been high, hasn’t it?


Fish (and some invertebrates) are the only flesh I eat. My family members at least don’t cringe anymore when I question retail and restaurant staff on the provenance of their products. Personal choice matters but it’s not enough

It will take co-ordinated, thoughtful, global co-operation to make change on a scale that will change anything.

The energy intensiveness of Bitcoin tech as currently structured is staggering.

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Thanks for your pertinent comments, my point was only to remind us that population size (a real issue) is often used as a diversion by the wealthiest to avoid discussing their individually large impacts.

Information tech is not sustainable in the way that it cannot be generalized to the global population. My comment about too many Inat users (and I do love to see the community and the data growing!) was to illustrate how it is easier for a social group to consider diminishing population before considering abandoning one of their unsustainable practice (information tech, private cars…).

…and the COVID pandemic has, unfortunately, only entrenched those more deeply. Information tech so that they don’t have to risk in-person meetings, private cars so that they don’t have to risk public transportation.

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