New Book: The Story of N

Hugh Gorman’s The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability examines the process by which humans, first, learned to bypass an important ecological constraint and, second, are learning to address concerns associated with having done so.


The ecological constraint, which existed up to the early twentieth century, involves a limit on the capacity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to place nitrogen compounds into circulation. Given that protein is about sixteen percent nitrogen, this constraint translated into a limit on how much food and fiber could be produced by agricultural societies and, ultimately, on the size of cities. Indeed, by the nineteenth century, the demand for nitrogen compounds in Western Europe, not only for food and fiber but also for explosives, had exceeded the capacity of bacteria to supply what was needed. Imports of nitrogen (in the form of food, cotton, and material such as Peruvian guano) helped, but scientists and national leaders realized that flows of this material could be interrupted by war. They, and the late-nineteenth century scientists who informed them, spoke of an impending nitrogen crisis.

The introduction in 1913 of the Haber-Bosch process for converting inert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia freed humans from their dependency on nitrogen-fixing bacteria and put an end to the nineteenth-century nitrogen crisis. However, this innovation (and the unintentional fixing of nitrogen through combustion processes) had consequences. Today, societies fix nitrogen on the same scale as the world’s bacteria, resulting in (from a human perspective) too much nitrogen entering circulation rather than too little. The second half of the The Story of N examines the process of societies learning to address these concerns. It suggests that the notion of sustainability involves, at least in part, in societies adaptively learning to establish limits when innovations push them into uncharted ethical territory.

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