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August 10, 2009

Unintended Consequences

The complex "natural" method by which plants acquire the nitrogen required by animals (including humans) dependent upon them for nutrition involves soil bacteria. It has been estimated that without supplementary fertilization, the human population would be limited to between 3 and 4 billion.

Thus an estimated 40% of the world's human population owes its existence to nitrogen fertilizers, without which the calories necessary to sustain them could not be produced. Less well known is the story of their inventor,Fritz Haber the German chemist who discovered the process used to fertilize plant growth by adding free nitrogen to the soil. Haber's story, an amazing sequence of triumphs and tragedies, is less well known than that of his contemporary and friend, Albert Einstein, who was also awarded a Nobel Prize and whose work also led to the development of weapons of mass destruction. Einstein's legacy was nuclear weapons; Haber, who invented both chlorine gas and Xyklon B, left us chemical warfare.

However, the supreme irony may be that Haber's discovery of nitrogen fertilization, which also prevented the Malthusian warning of widespread famine from being realized, may be his most deadly legacy. By enabling the human population to grow beyond its "natural" limits, the increased agricultural production enabled by nitrogen fertilization has allowed us to pursue energy consumption to a point that may "control" the human population through a combination of the dire consequences now being debated (but not effectively addressed) by our species.

If that should happen, let us hope that the survivors will be chastened enough by their experience to learn from it, and diminished enough in numbers to do so.

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at August 10, 2009 05:17 PM