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The Story of N

The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 260
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  • Book Info
    The Story of N
    Book Description:

    InThe Story of N, Hugh S. Gorman analyzes the notion of sustainability from a fresh perspective-the integration of human activities with the biogeochemical cycling of nitrogen-and provides a supportive alternative to studying sustainability through the lens of climate change and the cycling of carbon. It is the first book to examine the social processes by which industrial societies learned to bypass a fundamental ecological limit and, later, began addressing the resulting concerns by establishing limits of their own

    The book is organized into three parts. Part I, "The Knowledge of Nature," explores the emergence of the nitrogen cycle before humans arrived on the scene and the changes that occurred as stationary agricultural societies took root. Part II, "Learning to Bypass an Ecological Limit," examines the role of science and market capitalism in accelerating the pace of innovation, eventually allowing humans to bypass the activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Part III, "Learning to Establish Human-Defined Limits," covers the twentieth-century response to the nitrogen-related concerns that emerged as more nitrogenous compounds flowed into the environment. A concluding chapter, "The Challenge of Sustainability," places the entire story in the context of constructing an ecological economy in which innovations that contribute to sustainable practices are rewarded.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-5439-6
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    On the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama, they call it a jubilee.¹ When conditions are right, usually in late summer and often at night, crabs and shrimp and fish head for shore and spill onto beaches. There, residents carrying flashlights and coolers arrive at the beach amid calls of “jubilee” and scoop up as much seafood as they can.

    For a long time, nobody understood the underlying causes of this phenomenon; many thought it had something to do with the moon.² We now know that jubilees are associated with hypoxic conditions in the bay. In essence, the fish...

  6. PART I The Knowledge of Nature

    • 1 The Emergence of a Biogeochemical Cycle
      (pp. 11-21)

      How did the nitrogen cycle come to be the nitrogen cycle? That is, how has this biogeochemical cycle evolved over time? Strictly speaking, the nitrogen cycle is not an entity capable of evolving. It is not even an entity. After all, when we use the termnitrogen cycle, we are imposing a pattern on nature that suits our own interests. What we choose to incorporate into or leave out of the cycle is somewhat arbitrary. That said, what we call the nitrogen cycle depends on the activity of a wide variety of organisms, each carrying evolutionary-acquired knowledge embedded in its...

    • 2 From Adaptation to Innovation
      (pp. 22-30)

      By the timeHomo sapiensmigrated out of Africa 100,000 years ago, nitrogen had been cycling through the biosphere for hundreds of millions of years. As with earlier migrations of fire-wielding hominids, such asHomo neanderthalensisandHomo erectus, the arrival of anatomically modern humans caused barely a ripple in the gentle flow of nitrogen from the soil into plants and back again. The bacteria that fixed, nitrified, and denitrified nitrogenous material continued on, unaffected by the occasional human foot that passed by.¹

      Homo sapiensproved to be even more highly skilled at adapting to new environments than their ancestors...

  7. PART II Learning to Bypass an Ecological Limit

    • 3 Innovation within an Ecological Limit
      (pp. 33-41)

      All ancient societies had to live within the limits of an important ecological constraint: the capacity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria to resupply agricultural soil with nitrogen. Even the great river valley civilizations, blessed by floods that routinely delivered nutrient-rich silt to agricultural soils, depended on the services of these single-celled creatures. The fertile alluvial soil along the Nile River, for example, depended upon the activity of nitrogen-fixing bacteria scattered throughout the entire 3.2 million square kilometers drained by the river, one-tenth of the entire African continent.

      Ancient societies did not greatly alter the quantity of nitrogen moving through regional ecosystems. For...

    • 4 N and the Emergence of Market Capitalism
      (pp. 42-51)

      Europeans’ exposure to black powder is inextricably linked to a wide range of societal changes, many of which were well under way before the arrival of this explosive material. However, subsequent efforts to secure its main ingredient, nitrogen-rich saltpeter, serve as a good lens for viewing these changes. Of special importance is the emergence of market capitalism in Europe, a socially constructed cycle of variation and selection that facilitates the production of technological knowledge. Among other things, this new system of knowledge production rewarded innovators for developing more efficient methods of production, including those associated with the production of saltpeter....

    • 5 N and the Rise of Science
      (pp. 52-63)

      In the nineteenth century, technological change, fueled by the engine of market capitalism, dramatically altered the ability of industrializing nations to extract, process, and transport the material that flowed through growing economies. Just as important was another type of change, one that accelerated the pace of innovation in directions rewarded by markets. That change involved using the positivist predictive knowledge generated by the process of science to guide the trial-and-error development of new technologies.

      Before the nineteenth century, scientific theories played a relatively small role in the process of technological change. Those who worked to make the production of saltpeter...

    • 6 Bypassing an Ecological Limit
      (pp. 64-83)

      Over the course of a century, England’s population more than tripled, rising from about 9.1 million people in 1800 to 32 million people in 1900. Just as important was the increasing percentage of people who lived in cities: the urban-rural ratio climbed from 28 percent to an unprecedented 77 percent. To be sure, not all of the food flowing into English cities came from the nation’s own farms. Imports now accounted for more than half of the total food supply; but that food still had to come from somewhere, and urban-rural ratios were on the rise in all industrializing nations....

    • 7 Industrializing a Biogeochemical Cycle
      (pp. 84-98)

      In the years between World War I and World War II, a major change occurred in the perception and use of fertilizers. Before World War I, most agricultural scientists and farmers saw them as a way to maintain good soil so as to sustain crop yields at typical levels. The development of the Haber-Bosch process for producing ammonia, however, encouraged agricultural scientists to think about fertilizers in a new way: as a tool for increasing yields. In the 1920s and 1930s, agricultural experts demonstrated that such increases were both possible and practical; and by the mid-1940s, when ammonia-producing plants constructed...

  8. PART III Learning to Establish Human-Defined Limits

    • 8 N in the Well
      (pp. 101-116)

      In 1957, researchers at Michigan State University conducted a straightforward experiment involving the application of nitrogenous fertilizer to fields of sugar beets. They found that “300 pounds of nitrogen an acre applied at planting time” did not supply enough of the nutrient for the entire growing season. But plants that “received the same total amount of nitrogen fertilizer at three different times—one at planting time and two later—were well supplied with nitrogen the whole season.” The experiment also showed that, in the first case, only 50 percent of the nitrogen could be accounted for in plant tissue; in...

    • 9 N in the Air
      (pp. 117-131)

      Nitrogen follows a complex path as it flows from the atmosphere through living systems and eventually back to the atmosphere, and any diagram that attempts to depict this route is bound to be confusing. The full biogeochemical cycle contains several inner loops, alternate pathways, and reservoirs that involve many chemical reactions and compounds. To represent activity in the soil, a tangle of arrows connects one set of bacteria to another. Add details of crops, animals, sewage-treatment plants, forest fires, groundwater, coal, and oceans, and the diagram becomes practically unintelligible.

      Thus, to keep things simple, most diagrams do not depict the...

    • 10 N in the Law
      (pp. 132-147)

      An ecological economy recognizes that Earth is finite and rewards activity that respects ecological limits. Although constructing such an economy involves far more than controlling the release of pollution-causing wastes, pollution-control laws passed in the 1970s were an important first step. Aimed at sustaining air and water quality, they established systematic limits on what individuals, companies, and municipalities could release into the air, discharge into the water, and bury in the soil, with the underlying assumption being that neither the atmosphere nor bodies of water could serve as an endless sink for municipal and industrial wastes.¹ The laws also laid...

    • 11 N and the Seeds of an Ecological Economy
      (pp. 148-161)

      In the 1990s, more scholars began writing about the complex entanglement of human activity with natural systems, and more people began to listen.¹ Several factors fueled this interest. First, world leaders attending the 1992 U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro identified emissions of CO2as a significant concern, provoking public focus on the issue. The 1987 Montreal Protocol, which facilitated the phase-out of CFCs to prevent significant change to the stratospheric ozone layer, also emphasized the link between human activity and changes to Earth systems. Second, the collapse of the Soviet Union encouraged people throughout the...

  9. Conclusion: The Challenge of Sustainability
    (pp. 162-172)

    The planet Earth did not come with a nameplate bolted to its side, complete with a serial number and carrying capacity. Nor did it come with a user’s guide that includes a recommended nitrogen-flow diagram or step-by-step directions for sustaining the integrity of the complex, interconnected Earth systems we call nature. However, if many billions of people are to live on Earth peacefully and equitably in thriving economies, not just in the twenty-first century but in the twenty-second and beyond, industrialized societies have no choice but to construct a guide that places ethical and practical boundaries on human interactions with...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 173-208)
    (pp. 209-234)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 235-242)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-244)