The Biosphere versus the Technosphere

December 21st, 2020 - by Bill McKibben / The New Yorker

Our Stuff Now Weighs More Than All Living Things on the Planet

Bill McKibben / The New Yorker

(December 19, 2020) — We are necessarily occupied here each week with strategies for getting ourselves out of the climate crisis — it is the world’s true Klaxon-sounding emergency. But it is worth occasionally remembering that global warming is just one measure of the human domination of our planet. We got another reminder of that unwise hegemony this week, from a study so remarkable that we should just pause and absorb it.

A team led by Emily Elhacham, at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Rehovot, Israel, performed a series of staggeringly difficult calculations and concluded that 2020 was the year in which the weight of “human-made mass” — all the stuff we’ve built and accumulated — exceeded the weight of biomass on the planet. That is to say, our built environment now weighs more than all the living things, including humans, on the globe.

Buildings, roads, and other infrastructure, for instance, weigh about eleven hundred gigatons, while every tree and shrub, set on a scale, would weigh about nine hundred gigatons. We have nine gigatons of plastic on the planet, compared with four gigatons of animals — every whale and elephant and bee added together.

The weight of living things remains relatively static, year to year, but the weight of man-made objects is doubling every twenty years. This means that most of us likely have in our minds a very different and very wrong picture of the relative size of nature and civilization. In 1900, the weight of human-made mass was three per cent of the weight of the natural world; we were a small part of the big picture. No longer. We live on Planet Stuff.

It would be easy to blame the increase in our footprint on the increase in human population, which grew rapidly in the twentieth century yet is now slowing. But that would almost certainly be wrong: recent calculations have found that the richest one per cent of human beings produce more than double the carbon dioxide than the poorest fifty per cent do; presumably, some similar ratio would apply to the volume of infrastructure and the consumption of plastic.

A typical US household’s material holdings. From Peter Menzek;s “Material World”

(To get a visceral sense of the gulf between people, it’s always useful to refer back to the photographer Peter Menzel’s 1994 project, “Material World,” in which he enlisted fifteen other photographers to help him take pictures of statistically average families in dozens of countries standing in front of all their possessions. He needed a cherry picker to take a wide-enough shot to encompass the American family’s matériel.)

I actually don’t feel the need to draw any conclusions from this remarkable new fact — I just feel the need to let it settle in my mind and inform my outlook from this point on. We are an overwhelming force.

Passing the Mic

The Goldman prize may be the world’s most prestigious environmental award. It is given annually to a grassroots activist in each of the six inhabited continents. This year’s European winner is Lucie Pinson, whom the French media call “la décarboneuse de banques” for her work in getting French financial institutions to stop financing coal projects.

From her post as the head of the think tank Reclaim Finance, she joined with other campaigners last week to announce a focus on stopping a dozen vast “carbon-bomb” megaprojects planned for the next few years. (Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)

Congratulations on the Goldman prize. What were the keys to getting French banks to back away from coal?

Determination. We never gave up on our final objective: to push French banks to adopt over-all coal-exit policies. When French banks stopped supporting new coal projects and some coal companies, it was a great step but clearly not enough. So we kept exposing the gap between the banks’ climate pledges and the money that was still flowing to the coal sector, including to companies with coal-expansion plans. We kept them accountable for the impacts of their support on people’s health and on climate.

We also spent a significant share of our time building a set of very specific measures that financial institutions must adopt in order to both prevent the expansion of the coal sector and support its phaseout. When you face financial giants, you soon understand the issue is not to push them to adopt a policy on coal but a robust policy on coal. Quality matters. As details matter.

Are the banks key to these “carbon bombs” you’ve helped identify around the world?

French banks have now stopped financing new coal projects but seem to remain oblivious of the climate urgency to also phase out oil and gas, starting with the obvious: stop financing expansion! BNP Paribas, Société Générale, and Crédit Agricole show up in the ranking of the twenty top global financiers of the companies behind the twelve carbon-bomb projects we’ve identified. These expansion projects alone would use up three-quarters of the total remaining carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Our financial data show that French banks are far from walking away from companies developing the worst projects for the climate and indigenous peoples’ rights. For example, BNP Paribas, Société Générale, Crédit Agricole, and BPCE have provided close to fifty billion dollars in financing to companies developing shale hydrocarbons in the Permian Basin in the United States and in the Vaca Muerta region in Argentina, the first two even being among their fifteen largest financiers.

We’re used to Exxon and Chevron, but tell us about the French super-major oil company, Total. Is it anywhere near capitulating to climate reality?

For sure, one can see differences between Total and Exxon and Chevron. Total does better than the U.S. majors. It started addressing its anti-climate lobbying practices; it set some greenhouse-gas reduction targets; it develops more renewables. But is Total cancelling its investments in new oil and gas projects? Absolutely not. Total is expanding fracking in Texas, planning new projects in the Arctic, and, with a Chinese oil company, building the East African Crude Oil Pipeline.

There is no other magical way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions than to reduce fossil-fuel production. When investors, including Amundi, AXA, Allianz, Legal & General, BlackRock, and many others voted against the climate resolution at Total’s shareholders’ meeting this year — let’s be clear — they all trampled on their supposed support of the Paris Agreement.

Climate School

On the topic of foreign banks and climate, here’s a trenchant and fairly depressing analysis of what Standard Bank, Africa’s largest lender, means when it says that it is committed to meeting the climate goals set in the Paris climate accord.

There are fears — some well founded — that some of the ingredients for clean energy are coming from places where the abuse of workers and of human rights is endemic. Last week, the Solar Energy Industries Association asked member companies to pledge that no forced labor is used in making their products.

The new Zero Carbon Action Plan, launched this fall, is an attempt to channel academic research into actual timelines for transitioning electricity generation, transportation, industry, and buildings into zero-carbon enterprises by 2050, along with a focus on sustainable land-use and sustainable-materials management.

Here’s the launch video, from Yale Law School’s Dan Esty and Columbia University’s Jeff Sachs. Meanwhile, Action for Climate Empowerment, or ACE, has released a “strategic framework” for the Biden Administration to consider as it takes power, focussed on driving climate dialogue on the local level.

As much as forty per cent of the food produced in the U.S. ends up in waste dumps or incinerators. A new consortium, which includes such heavyweights in their fields as Unilever and Starbucks, has announced plans for “repurposing any unavoidable waste” into energy by using anaerobic digesters.

Ice cover keeps melting — it’s been an absurdly warm year in the Arctic — and a new study from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration makes clear that this trend will not end anytime soon. “Nearly everything in the Arctic, from ice and snow to human activity, is changing so quickly that there is no reason to think that in 30 years much of anything will be as it is today,” one of the report’s authors told Henry Fountain, of the Times.

I wrote recently about the need for ad agencies and P.R. firms to stop collaborating with Big Oil; in an incisive Bloomberg essay, Eric Roston calls for these creative companies, and also law firms, to, at the very least, measure and disclose the size of their carbon portfolios. Such openness might “help guide companies with enormous marketing budgets away from firms who make money promoting the interests of clients burning up the world’s future.” Meanwhile, here’s an interview with a longtime associate of mine, Jamie Henn, about the emerging Clean Creatives campaign.

A free book, “The Perennial Turn,” has emerged, in large measure, from the revolutionary agricultural thinking at the Land Institute, in Kansas. This volume covers some of the institute’s work in trying to produce perennial wheat and also features broader essays on the climate-crisis era: the editor, Bill Vitek, contributes a chapter called “Dandelions Are Divine.”

With this year’s Conference of the Parties to the global climate talks postponed, owing to the pandemic, campaigners are deprived of the long-standing ritual of awarding the Fossil of the Day to the country doing the most to block progress. But the veteran campaigner Kevin Buckland decided to keep up the tradition anyway.

Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility this week released the seventh edition of their compendium of studies on the dangers of fracking. One of the editors, the scientist and activist Sandra Steingraber, said, “I’m reminded that our first edition, in 2014, was slim enough to staple at the top. This monograph’s burgeoning girth simply reflects the state of the accumulating evidence. The scientific case against fracking is now deep and wide.”

For my money, The New Yorker is one of the strands of societal fabric that has managed, just barely, to hold us together these past four years. If you subscribe, it underwrites not just a great stable of writers but also this free newsletter.


This year, Venice tested a huge, and hugely expensive, seawater barrier that been under construction for nearly two decades and was designed to prevent floods in the magnificent city center. Critics have warned that it is too small to stand up to the coming rise in sea level caused by climate change, and it seems to be running into trouble already.

Big Tech increasingly claims to be climate-concerned, but, as a new report makes clear, you wouldn’t know that from looking at its teams of lobbyists. Amazon, for instance, employs a hundred and fifteen of them, exactly one of whom is tasked with helping pass new climate laws.

A nascent effort to pressure T.I.A.A., the retirement fund for teachers and university professors, to divest from fossil fuels got a big boost from the faculty at one of the premier State University of New York campuses, in New Paltz. Advocates are now taking the fight across New York and the entire country.

A fascinating new study attempts to measure how much heat-trapping methane escapes from the pipes of major American cities. The worst leakage is in Indianapolis; the least is in New York City.

Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.

McKibben Bids Goodbye — and Hello

(December 20, 2020) — Bill McKibben, author, activist and founder of the climate protection group has announced his retirement from the organization he founded. Here are some of his parting thoughts as we enter another critical year of do-or-die decision-making:

This is the last year I get to write my annual fundraising letter for I’m stepping back from my duties — I’ve had my last board meeting, and as the year ends even my volunteer job as ‘senior advisor’ transitions to emeritus status.

It’s always hard to leave behind an institution one helped found, but the time is right: the people now doing most of the work at 350.orgneed the space to assert their own identities, become public figures in their own right.

I’m very proud of our work together fighting pipelines, divesting trillions of dollars from fossil fuel, and standing up to banks — but there are other battles ahead that need new ideas.

And those battles will need resources. From the South Pacific to South America, from the Arctic to Australia, from London and Paris to DC and New York, remains the essential global grassroots climate campaign. We have people scattered across the planet — 150 or so hardy souls, most of them young, together catalyzing a vast volunteer base to take on the entire fossil fuel industry.

It might seem like a mismatch, but in fact we’re winning: I took a day to celebrate this year when the news came that Exxon was no longer the world’s biggest energy company, that it had been surpassed by a solar and wind company. There will be more important news like this if we keep fighting.

I’m of course nostalgic right now, thinking back to the early days of, when the climate movement was tiny. But I’m also thinking ahead — to the new projects I’ll be working on but also to the work that 350 will be undertaking in every corner of the globe. As long as I’m alive I’ll be here to help out in some way with those fights — and I hope you will too.

Let me just finish by saying thanks. It’s been the privilege of my life to work shoulder to shoulder with y’all.

On we go, — Bill McKibben