If you are in a major city anywhere in the world, it is very easy to get a cheap hamburger from a nearby fast food restaurant. But what you might not realize is that the meat in that cheap burger can actually tell a great narrative about how humans shaped the planet. From the land used to raise cattle to consume beef, to the water used to feed those cattle, to the fuel used to transport beef around the world, and the human progress that enables us to easily buy a burger — and in that regard, hop on a plane, charge our phones, and take part in Many of the activities that make up our daily experiences – it has changed the biosphere.
Now, Caltech researchers have developed a database containing global data on how humans affect the planet. The Human Impacts Database is designed to be accessible to scientists, policymakers, and ordinary citizens, and provides information ranging from global plastic production (4 x 1011 kg per year), to the number of livestock on Earth (about 1.6 billion), to the world. Average annual sea level rise (about 3.4 mm per year). The data is divided into five main categories: water, energy, plants and animals, atmospheric and biochemical cycles, and land. These also include 20 subcategories. Where available, the database includes time series to help illustrate how these numbers have changed over the years.
The project was carried out in the laboratory of Rob Phillips, Fred and Nancy Morris Professor of Biophysics, Biology and Physics. It is led by former graduate students Griffin Chor (PhD 20) and Rachel Banks (PhD 22). A paper describing the research appears in the journal Patterns Aug. 3.
The team hopes that by coming up with simple numbers about human influences, citizens and scientists alike can develop data-driven intuitions about the way the world works and make more informed decisions.
“For example, a friend texted me asking how the impact of dairy cattle compared to meat cattle,” Chouri says. “We can use our database to see that, in terms of land requirements, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use, beef cows are five times more impactful or more on a calorie basis. We really hope that this database will be useful to both ordinary citizens who are trying to make decisions and people who are thinking about politics. I see literacy in numbers as a prerequisite for getting information, whether you are a citizen or a scientist.”
The project takes a comprehensive look at human impacts rather than sorting by country or region.
“For the most part, we offer global values,” Banks explains. We also draw data from all kinds of different resources: scientific papers, government and intergovernmental reports, and in some cases industry reports. We have made an effort to see the consistency of these reports. If we have multiple sources, we report more than one value of a number in order to give us a better sense of certainty about the value.”
There is a long tradition in the sciences of building databases containing fundamental quantities in physics and chemistry. Inspired by this work, in 2009 Phillips and his collaborator Ron Millo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel developed BioNumbers, a publicly available site where researchers can find quantitative data about different aspects of biology drawn from the scientific literature, such as the number of Proteins involved in a particular biochemical process. The Human Impacts Database provides the same impetus for studying the many ways humans interact with land, oceans, and the atmosphere.
While working on his Ph.D., Chor made a lot of reference to BioNumbers, but he realized that it would be helpful to have a database that focuses specifically on determining how human activity affects planetary scale processes. He began developing the human impact database during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, and the project had a greater impact on him than anticipated.
“From a personal point of view, this project completely changed my life. It changed the direction of my science,” says Scheuer. “I am confident that I will spend the rest of my science career focusing on how humans are changing biology. This could range from looking at the massive amounts of nitrogen and phosphorous we dump into coastal watersheds and how that alters the microbial makeup of these ecosystems, to how chickens have been artificially developed to make their meat grow faster than their bones can support, for example. From a personal point of view, this has refocused what really matters to me, and what I believe I can do to be an impact.”
The team emphasizes that the database is not comprehensive or exhaustive; They plan to constantly update the numbers as new data emerges.
“In my view, the root of understanding is arithmetic: Once you get the numbers, it becomes clear what are the problems, the important things, the less important things,” says Phillips. Charles Darwin once noted that arithmetic gives one a “sixth sense”. The Human Effects Database is a first step towards offering a coherent advocacy of that sixth sense in the context of the great human experience.”
The project was funded in part by the Resnick Institute for Sustainability at the California Institute of Technology. “Projects such as the Human Impacts Database are a unique resource that can help experts and the general public alike to gain a clearer perspective on the different ways people affect the planet,” says Neil Frommer, executive director of programs at the RSI. “Supporting the development of this tool, along with other incredible research supported by the Resnick Institute for Sustainability on campus, is key to achieving our mission of educating and informing people about their impact on the world, as well as providing solutions to the problems that these impacts cause.”
The paper is titled “Anthroponumbers.org: A Quantitative Database of Human Impacts on Planet Earth.” Chor and Banks are the lead authors of the study. In addition to Phillips, additional Caltech authors are postdoctoral scientist Avi Flamholz and graduate students Nicholas Saray and Ignacio Lopez-Gomez. Other co-authors are Mason Kamb of the Chan-Zuckerberg BioHub, and Yinon Bar-On and Ron Milo of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Funding was provided by the Resnick Institute for Sustainability at Caltech and the Schwartz-Reisman Collaborative Science Program at the Weizmann Institute of Science.