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I know it’s the norm to finish a book before reviewing it, but I couldn’t wait that long. Thomas Hager’s Alchemy of Air, about the development and effects of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, is such a terrific read that I’m having a hard time getting anything else done.
Since I’m only half-way through, this won’t be a real review, but more of a travel essay, telling where I am and where I’ve been, and what the landscape is like.
First of all, it’s a lot more interesting than you might expect simply from the topic. This isn’t a polemic; it’s a historical narrative, and Hager’s a master of the form. He gives us the people, the problems they faced, and the world in which they lived, so that we get a richer understanding of what they did, why, and its consequences, than any dry recital of facts could convey.
He starts with the problem, as articulated in the late 19th century: the world’s population was growing at an ever-increasing rate, outstripping the ability of farmers to feed it. Fertilizers, therefore, were increasingly important and valuable, but the known sources were either inadequate (manure) or were being rapidly depleted (Chilean nitrates).
The key nutrient needed, nitrogen, exists in almost unlimited quantities in the air (our atmosphere is about 70% nitrogen), but it is an inert gas there, meaning that it doesn’t react with other chemicals. If it doesn’t react, it can’t be used to make anything, for instance fertilizers. It also doesn’t do anything when we breathe it. It goes in, it goes out, but it doesn’t combine with any other atoms or molecules to form the life-sustaining molecules we need.
An enormous push was made at the turn of the century, therefore, to “fix” atmospheric nitrogen—to get it out of the atmosphere and combine it with something in a liquid or solid form, so it could be worked with and used. This book chronicles that effort, but it does so complete with history, culture, and characters.
Though I’m only half-way through the book, it has already changed my thinking in a couple of ways. For one thing, it’s the first fairly complete story I’ve read about what’s involved in taking a process from the invention stage to the production stage, and my appreciation for engineering in all its forms has risen enormously. Very few of those books out there about the discovery of penicillin or electricity bother with what goes on after that initial discovery—all the hard work of converting an idea into a useable product. In a way, therefore, this book resembles David McCullough’s The Great Bridge, the marvelous book about the building of the Brooklyn bridge.
The other area in which I’m being stretched is more uncomfortable, and more important. As a dedicated organic gardener, I’m no fan of synthetic fertilizers. But Hager argues that without them, the world could only support four of its six billion people. I don’t know if his figures are correct, but even if they are, this strikes me as primarily an argument for reducing our burgeoning population. Doing so may be essential for our survival as a nation, a culture, and a species. But mass starvation is not the way to go about it, and if we simply stopped using synthetics worldwide, that’s what we’d have. The transition to organics is likely to be at least as complex as the production of synthetics.
As my July post made clear, Hager is well aware of the many problems associated with synthetic fertilizers, nitrogen especially. It washes into the ocean, causing dead zones. It off-gases as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Some gases it forms drift through the air, returning to earth with precipitation, thus bringing nitrogen fertilizer to regions it was never meant to reach. What is the impact, for instance, of fertilizing the tundra of Canada and Russia?
When I started the book, these were the issues on my mind. I’m still eager to see Hager’s discussion of these problems, but I’m not impatient, because this writer interests me in everything he chooses to present. The journey itself is worthwhile.
Click here to read an excerpt from The Alchemy of Air.