Enriching the Earth, but for how long?

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production
Vaclav Smil, 2001

In a book that has recently been discovered and promoted by Bill Gates, Vaclav Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without the abundant nitrogen fertilizer provided by the process invented by Fritz Haber and brought to commercial scale by Carl Bosch, Smil says, the world population would not have been able to grow from roughly 1.6 billion in 1900 to the current 6 billion plus. Smil does mention that this human population explosion has not been without consequences for the rest of nature, and he notes that the Haber Bosch process is extremely energy-intensive. The reader gets the impression that if energy shortages drive up the value of natural gas, the cost of fertilizer -- and food -- can be expected to rise with it. But Smil doesn't really explore the question hanging in the air: did global population rise in the last century beyond a level that can be sustained? I imagine this is a question that doesn't seem serious if you believe that energy production and consumption will continue to increase -- perhaps changing forms as society transitions from fossil fuels to something new, but never really decreasing. Maybe it's best left to science fiction writers to wonder what happens to basic stuff like fertilizer and irrigation, if energy becomes scarce or very expensive.

The history of fertilizer is a rich (pun intended) story that has only recently begun to be told. Those with access to academic journals can read more about the earlier, guano-based fertilizer boom in my friend Ted Melillo’s award-winning article, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930.” It’s unfortunate this type of material is locked behind academic paywalls, but you can also read about guano in Charles C. Mann's
1493 (which quotes Ted's article). Melillo tells the story of the early 19th century, when the concentrated nitrogen of seabird droppings made islands off the western coast of South America hot commodities. Long before the Haber Bosch process, there was a global trade in nitrogen. After the guano period described by Melillo and before the Haber Bosch era, the Chilean deserts provided nitrate to the world agricultural and munitions markets. Chile had a virtual monopoly on Nitrate at the end of the 19th century, after winning a war of conquest against its northern neighbors, Bolivian and Peru. So yeah, there’s a lot of history surrounding how we fertilize our fields.

There’s little doubt Smil is correct in his claim that at least 40% of the people now living owe their continued existence to the cheap fertilizer produced by the Haber Bosch process. There’s also no doubt that questions about issues like quantity vs. quality of life, humanity’s impact on the ecosystem, and the distribution of the fruits of progress, which Smil avoids addressing, are valid ones. Maybe another question we ought to ask has to do with the role of Environmental History. Should it be about simply recording the things humans discovered they were able to do, and the positive consequences? Or should it call attention to unintended consequences like the ones Smil avoids, and suggest people think about these questions. Since we continue to develop technologies that allow population to rise, it’s a question about the future as well as the past. The way books like Enriching the Earth mix the history of science and technology with economic, social, and cultural history creates an interesting opportunity to really use environmental history (broadly conceived) to understand the present and speculate about the future.


In the postscript Smil mentions that in addition to his work on nitrogen fertilizer, Fritz Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service. Ten days after Haber supervised the first German gas attack at Ypres (4/22/1915), when he returned home, Haber's wife Clara shot herself through the heart with his army revolver. A brilliant scientist herself, Clara left behind not only Haber but their thirteen year old son, Hermann. “By the war’s end,” Smil says, the casualties of gas warfare amounted to about 1.3 million” (227). So there’s definitely a way to tell this story, as a sort-of Faustian tale of the double-edged nature of technological progress. Smil chooses not to focus on that interpretation, but to his credit he provides readers with all the details necessary to draw their own conclusions.