How can an entire species that can't even fill up a canyon ruin everything?
If you took every human being on Earth and put them in the Grand Canyon, they wouldn't even begin to fill it up. The seven billion-strong lot of us would make a pretty formidable pile, sure, but we'd get nowhere close to an overflow. At least, not according to this 'species portrait' put together by VSauce and recently shared far and wide across the blogland.
The visualization proved so popular because it turns our working conception of the size and scope of humanity on its head—we are a vast and multiplying species; we blanket the entire planet with our cities and settlements. Jesus Diaz notes that "Even if you took all of humanity across all the ages—an estimated 106 billion—the piles—about 15 of these—wouldn't cover the Grand Canyon. Not even a significant fraction."
But we are overpopulous, so how can the whole of our kind fit inside a single chasm, sprawling and iconic as that chasm may be? In that light, this makes for a useful context by which to consider how impressive we humans really are, given our relatively diminutive collective physiology: That stack of biomass has exerted unparalleled, and perhaps unprecedented, dominion over the blue marble. (Our only serious competition are the cyanobacteria that single-handedly spurred one of the first great extinctions.)
We have colonized every major biosphere the globe has to offer. We have built civilizations on most of that globe; we have been relentlessly successful in bending its geography to our will, to extracting its resources, to domesticating and/or eradicating its flora and fauna.
VSauce's full video, the pile of humans is right at the start.
We have driven great species to extinction and are in the process of driving a good many more. We are razing millions year-old forests to the dirt, we are polluting and clear-cutting and contaminating, we are redirecting and usurping water supplies. In the course of it all, we have emitted and continue to emit enough carbon dioxide and methane to fundamentally change the composition of the atmosphere. So, we are also melting glaciers, rising the sea level, beckoning droughts and megadroughts, and heat waves and mega-heat waves, spreading wildfires, and acidifying the oceans.
We have done all of the above by ingeniously inventing and harnessing technologies that amplify our impact. Here's a good example: We built plows to maximize farming efficiency, and razed 98 percent of the American prairie. But we also built steel mills and steam engines and railroads to colonize vast swaths of erstwhile wild. We built coal-fired power plants to generate huge loads of electricity. We organized ourselves into cities. We undertook industrial logging operations, roboticized manufacturing facilities, mass-produced internal combustion engines. It's things like these, of course, the interminable stream of things that the pile of humanity has made, that makes our footprint so vastly outsized.
Even more impressive is that it's really just a small fraction of the pile that has actually yielded those planet-taming implements; maybe a third of it or less. Only the wealthiest and most industrialized slice of the wriggling canyon mass—those who live in the US and Europe, mostly—have historically done the lion's share of the planet-stomping.
That meager pile of humanity, smaller than a single canyon on a planet full of canyons, has fundamentally transformed the entire biosphere, probably for ages to come.