[Author’s note and apology. I know I told you that I was done writing blogs. At least that was my intent. But I found that my fingers didn’t know what to do with themselves after I had used them to comb my hair in the morning. (Yes, I still have my hair. I am not so sure about what lies beneath it.) And after all, I can only watch so much tennis. So, forgive me, friends, if I inflict another blog on you. I probably won’t write too many more, but I hope you’ll find the one that follows to be of interest.]
If you were asked to name the most celebrated scientist of the 20th century, no doubt you would immediately think of an old man with wild hair by the name of Albert Einstein. But suppose I were to ask you the same question, only for the 19th century. Who would come to mind then? You might have to think for a moment before the obvious answer occurred to you: Charles Darwin.
But if you named the co-founder of the theory of evolution (the other one, as you probably know, was Alfred Russel Wallace), you would be wrong. Care to try again?
Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, you get a gold star.
These days, Humboldt is not exactly a household name. I confess that until I read Andrea Wulf's marvelous and enlightening book, The Invention of Nature, about him several years ago, I myself had only a vague sense of his reputation. But during his lifetime, he was not only the most outstanding scientist of his day, but apart from Napoleon (who was born the same year as Humboldt, 1769), the most famous man in the world. And he remained so even after his death in 1859.
Indeed, to commemorate his centenary, hundreds of thousands around the world held celebrations to honor his achievements. Let me take just a moment to quote a passage from Wulf’s book about the festivities that took place just in New York City where….
The cobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colorful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honor a man “whose fame no nation could claim” as the New York Times reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colorful Chinese lanterns.
Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, President Grant joined 10,000 celebrants who brought the city to a standstill. And in Europe, even vaster throngs assembled to sing Humboldt’s praises. One of the largest of these involving some 80,000 revelers was held in Berlin where Humboldt was born. And they had turned out in such numbers despite torrential rain.
Such was the measure of the man in the year when Darwin, himself a fervent admirer of Humboldt, had published his book, On the Origin of Species. If you were to read Wulf’s book, you would learn that more places and cities have been named after Humboldt than anyone else. From the Wikipedia article about him, I counted at least ten such cities in the United States alone.
Why was Humboldt so important during the 19th century? You would really have to read Wulf’s book about him to appreciate the tremendous scope of his achievements as well as his prodigious physical feats of exploration, but the short answer is, to quote Wulf again, “Humboldt gave us our concept of nature.” Remembered today, thanks in no small measure to Wulf’s book, as the father both of ecology and, more broadly of environmentalism, he influenced scores, if not hundreds, of important writers and other explorers interested in the natural world.
But all this is only so much background to what this blog is all about. And what the heck does Humboldt have to do with the King of Morocco? Well, read on, dear reader, because it is with Humboldt that this story begins when we find him in the very early years of the 19th century passing a few idle hours down by the docks of Callao, Peru’s major port, just west of its capital, Lima.
What had caught Humboldt’s eye – or rather what had assaulted his nostrils – was a powerful nauseating stench emanating from boats loaded with what looked like yellowish clay. Inquiring the locals, Humboldt learned that the material was bird poop from nearby islands, and that it was highly prized by farmers in the area.
Intrigued and always curious, he decided to investigate, so a few days later, he was on his way to one of these shit-ridden islands. One can only imagine Humboldt’s revulsion when he found some five million nesting seabirds which had deposited millions of bird craps on the island. Some of this disgusting dung was in a mound more than a hundred feet high. Despite the vigorous objections of his crew at the powerful, sickening stink, Humboldt was now keen to take a batch of this stuff home with him to have it analyzed.
Miracle-Gro. It was called guano.
It took a while before a Prussian chemist was able to identify the composition of guano that made it a kind of El Dorado for farmers, but even before that, there was already the beginning of a kind of guano craze as people realized what a godsend it was for the flourishing of crops. Soon, the English got involved and made a deal with the Peruvians for them to ship millions of tons of guano to England. The harvesting of guano is ghastly and noxious work and it was done mainly by Chinese workers who toiled almost as virtual slaves. The Americans eventually got into the act, too, and after the Peruvian islands were exhausted, they laid claim to as many other shit-filled Pacific islands as possible to provide their own bounty of this wonder-food for American’s farmland.
By the 1880s, the supplies of guano were pretty much exhausted, but by then, it was well understood what had made guano such a powerful catalyst for plant growth. It turned out to be rich in phosphorus as well as nitrogen and potassium, which are now recognized as being the three essential ingredients for fertilizers. But of these elements, the most intriguing – and worrisome – is phosphorus, and this is what this blog is really all about.
Do you know what happens if you plan crops without phosphorous?
The Devil’s Element, which was published this year by an environmental journalist named Dan Egan. Listen to what he has to tell us about the vital importance of phosphorus:
Phosphorus is essential to plant growth, and that makes it essential for us, but the element is important beyond helping to grow our food. Phosphorus helps turn the meals we eat into the chemical energy that moves our muscles. Phosphorus is also crucial to our physical structure, in the biggest ways and in the smallest. Our bones and teeth are made with phosphorus. Phosphorus is also in our DNA. In fact, it is our DNA … From the corn we grow, to the animals that eat it, to the people who eat those animals, phosphorus is critical every step of the way.
No phosphorus, no life on Earth.
But phosphorus also has a dark side, which is why it is sometimes referred to as “the devil’s element.” Like fire, which when controlled can keep us warm, but when escaping our control, can rage and ravage our lands, so it is with phosphorus. While it may be a panacea for plants, when it begins to leach into our waters, it can quickly turn not only toxic but deadly.
Egan begins his book by recounting a dramatic incident in which a 22-year-old Florida resident named Abraham Duerte was fleeing from cops who were chasing him down for excessive speeding. At one point, Duerte had to ditch his car, and had no choice but to jump into a nearby canal and swim away to elude his pursuers.
But, actually, Duerte didn’t know how to swim, and besides, the surface of the canal “was smothered in a brilliant green algae goop thick as oatmeal – and poisonous.”
Duerte began screaming for help, shouting “I’m going to die.” He was covered in slime. One cop shouted back, “You need to get out of that stuff, that is going to mess you up. Seriously, man, that is going to kill you.”
Duerte was finally rescued, covered with stinking green slime that “smelled like feces,” and then taken to a hospital, where he was to suffer further from gastrointestinal and respiratory distress (and eventually arrested). He did indeed have a close call with “the devil’s element.”
And here we come, finally, to thrust of Egan’s book and why he is so worried about what happens when phosphorus escapes the land and trickles into our waterways – and oceans. I will try to sum up the gist of the problem as succinctly as I can.
You may be aware that just about a half century ago, the U.S. Congress passed The Clean Water Act. It did a lot to reduce pollution for some years, but it always had one troubling loophole: it exempted farmers. So, in time, the fertilizers that farmers use, which or course contain phosphorus, would eventually find their way into surrounding waters. And that would cause a real problem because just as phosphorus promotes plant growth on land, it continues to be potent in water as well in causing the growth of something very noxious: blue-green algae blooms.
cyanotoxins, you will.” This is what causes of our waters to form “dead zones,” and they are becoming more common and widespread.
Egan’s book reports on his investigations of a number of these troubled waters, including Lake Erie and the Gulf Coast. But just in 2021 in the U.S alone, there were some four hundred bodies of water infested with these slimy wastes, which was a 25% increase over the proceeding year. And people who live close to these polluted waters, even if they don’t enter them, can become sick enough to be sent to the emergency room. Between 2017 and 2019, more than 300 people required such treatment. These infected waters stink – just like the guano that Humboldt insisted on transporting back to Europe. If you were to read Egan’s book – and I encourage you to do so – you will soon come to realize why the author is so alarmed at the spread of these contaminated waters.
But there is still another, quite different, problem with phosphorus that Egan is very much concerned with. We are running out of it.
While we have an abundance of potassium reserves and nitrogen is also plentiful, it’s a different story for phosphorus, which comes from sedimentary rocks scattered around the globe. But the problem is, according to Egan:
peak phosphorus” in just a matter of decades at which point we risk … chronic food shortages.
Almost all our domestic reserves of phosphorus are located in Florida, but Egan warns that that lode will probably be exhausted in as little as thirty years, making us more dependent on foreign sources about which more in a moment.
Can we find a substitute for phosphorus? Unfortunately, no, says Egan flatly:
“Phosphorus is the elemental link that completes the circle of life. Literally nothing else can do the job.” Famed science writer Isaac Asimov concurs:
“We may be able to substitute nuclear power for coal, and plastics for wood, and yeast for meat … but for phosphorus there is neither substitute nor replacement.”
Where could we get the phosphorus we need to sustain us should our own reserves run out? Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the world’s remaining reserves are located in Morocco or in the Western Sahara, territory that Morocco seized control over, not without difficulty, since the 1970s. And who controls Morocco? The king of course. Egan is apoplectic over this situation:
“For one country, essentially one guy – the king of Morocco – to control so much of something every soul on the planet so desperately needs is a recipe for global instability, or worse.”
Egan goes on to paint a damning portrait of this king on whose beneficence we may find ourselves dependent. Drawing on a government publication, Egan comes across this encomium: “His Majesty Mohammed VI May God Glorify Him.” And then goes on to comment witheringly: “Under M6’s rule, you can be imprisoned for speaking ill of Islam, for speaking ill of the king, or for engaging in homosexuality.”
Finally, Egan goes on to quote the famous British billionaire investigator, Jeremy Grantham, who warns:
“This share of reserves makes OPEC and Saudi Arabia look like absolute pikers, and phosphate is much more important than oil … We simply cannot manage for long under currently configured agriculture without Morocco’s reserves, perhaps 35 or 40 years.”
Many years ago, the Chicago writer Saul Bellow won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Humboldt’s Gift. But it wasn’t about Alexander von Humboldt’s toting guano to Europe. Instead, it was a novel based in part on the life of the doomed but brilliant poet, Delmore Schwartz. [Full disclosure: I never read the book, but I happen to know a lot about Delmore Schwartz. Never mind.]
But in fact Humboldt did bring a gift of incomparable world-changing importance to Europe in the form of guano. I don’t think he could have been prescient enough to suspect that it would turn out to be a gift that would ultimately be a threat of the ecology of our waters. But maybe he wouldn’t have been surprised because even in the early part of the 19th century, he was already warning of environmental disasters to come because of humanity’s seemingly unstoppable penchant for mistreating the earth and violating the sanctify of nature. In any event, we are left to ponder the irony of a man so devoted to nature who nevertheless was serendipitously led to discover the carrier of “the devil’s element” that would come to ravage our planet.
Now for the good news and some important qualifications.
First, not everyone agrees that we will run out of phosphorus so soon. Some experts aver that we might have enough to last centuries. There appears to be no consensus on this issue.
Second, although there may be no substitute for phosphorus, there are certainly other ways to amass it without depending on physical reserves. I will discuss some of these promising methods in my next blog.
Finally, I have only grazed the surface of this issue. Egan’s book has much more in it than I had space to describe, and I have probably oversimplified some of the complexities. If you don’t have the interest to read Egan’s book for yourself, I recommend Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent article in the February 27th issue of The New Yorker, entitled “Phosphorus Saved Our Way of Life – and Now Threatens to End It.” It was in this article that I learned about Dan Egan’s book.