how do I love fertilizer? Let me count the ways

Were I an absolute legislator, I would therefore make it death for a man to be convicted of flying, the moment he could be caught; and to bring him down from his altitude by a bullet sent through his head or his carriage should be no murder. Philosophers would call me a Vandal; the scholar would say that, had it not been for me, the fable of Daedalus would have been realized; and historians would load my memory with reproaches of phlegmn, and stupidity, and oppression; but in the mean time the world would go on quietly, and, if it enjoyed less liberty, would at least be more secure. – William Cowper, letter upon hearing of Montgolfier’s ascent in a balloon.

The main reason that human population could quadruple while cropland only doubled in the twentieth century is that farming became more productive. Several elements combined in this, most notably chemical fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation, agricultural machinery and plant breeding. – William McNeil, Something New Under the Sun

To abbreviate horribly, Polanyi’s Great Transformation thesis states that the coming of capitalism to Europe was about reversing the relationship between the economic and the social, with the economic becoming the dominant, that into which the social is embedded. LI’s thesis, pursued with ardor and lunacy on this site, is that the twentieth century saw the meshing together of the treadmill of production and the war culture on a planetary scale. A couple of posts ago, we promised to say something more about Michael Pollan’s article in the NYTM, because we kept barking our shins, as we went through it, on brilliant hints of larger vistas. We have another excuse to say something about the planet today – the government equivalent of St. John on Patmos announced that it is the end of the world as we know it, and it does look like Exxon will be handing out its 10000 checks to Discovery Institute/Tech Station scientists in vain. Although, really, any changes that will be wrought in the near future will be purely rhetorical. We are the lemmings of the system, man.

Well, the atmosphere has been, in one way, the real last frontier: it is an airgrap, a stratograb, perhaps the logical conclusion of 1492. But LI has been collecting the flotsam and jetsam about the other biosphere transformation this week. The twentieth century saw the biochemical properties of the air, water and earth transformed by Man, that disconnected giant. However, a century has no eyes. There have been no eyes to see, and hence no memory to enshrine, the vast and sweeping changes we simply live in.

One of the greatest of those changes is one of the simplest.

Back in the days of the millennium – you remember the millennium, don’t you? – LI remarked to our friend, S., apropos of the Time Magazine article listing the hundred most influential people or scientists or whatever the fuck, that undoubtedly the most influential person who roamed the earth in the 20th century was Fritz Haber. S. thought this was wildly hilarious in a typical LI way. And in one way it is – Haber is one of those scientists who did something that seems, in retrospect, to have inevitably lain in the path of science. The spellbinding thing about science is how much of it seems systematically pre-ordained. Still, Fritz Haber was the first man – the first organism – to figure out a new way to synthesize nitrogen, and that was huge. Much huger than the invention of the atom bomb, or the invention of our minor knickknacks, like the computer.

Vaclav Smil, the geographer, gives some fascinating statistics in his book on Fritz Haber and the effects of the production of nitrogen fertilizer, Enriching the Earth, from which I take this:

-the reactive nitrogen in synthetic fertilizers is now perhaps equal to half of the total fixed by all bacteria in all natural terrestrial ecosystems.

-the twentieth century saw a roughly 125-fold increase in the average global rate of inorganic nitrogen applications per hectare of cropland. Half of all nitrogen fixed by the Haber-Bosch process between 1913 and 2000 was consumed only during the last two decades of the twentieth century.

- over forty percent of the human population depends on food fertilized by nitrogen fertilizers.

We are talking about a soil change that we can’t even begin to understand. Interestingly, that explosion in fertilizer use (and all the consequences – a monoculture that adapted to the fertilizers, an abundance of food that fed the exploding human population, etc.) came in tandem with the war system. This isn’t just a matter of poetic correspondences, such as Haber being one of the scientists to develop mustard gas. This is more a matter of policy patterns, common to both the east and the west, that resulted in massive population drains from the rural areas and the subjection of agriculture to efficiency – i.e., giant concentrated agricultural power, a process that was full integrated into the war culture as it played itself out in third world countries during the golden days of the green revolution.

That is enough about this for the moment. But I should end with one of Lorenz Oken’s golden sentences.

“The fourth science is the Art of War, the art of motion, histironism, music, poetic art of science, the light. As in the art of poetry all arts have been blended, so in the art of war have all sciences and all arts. The art of War is the hightest most exalted art; the art of freedom and of right, of the blessed condition of Man and humanity – the Principle of Peace.”