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The Story of N

A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability

Hugh S. Gorman

Publication Year: 2013

In The 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.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Series: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment

Title Series Information

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p. 2-2

Title Page

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p. 3-3

Copyright Page

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p. 4-4


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pp. 5-6


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

The word sustainability has, for good reason, come into common use over the past decade or so. It suggests, among other things, that the planet Earth is fi nite and that our interactions with the planet should be structured so as to sustain the integrity of Earth systems in a way that is economically viable and socially just. But what will it take to make our interactions with the ...

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pp. xiii-16

The idea for this book took shape while I was on sabbatical as the John Haas Environmental Fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia (2003–4), and the book was finished seven years later while I was on sabbatical as a Fulbright scholar in Panama, hosted by the Centro Internacional para el Desarrollo Sostenible at the Ciudad del Saber (2011). In addition to ...

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pp. 1-8

On the eastern shore of Mobile Bay in Alabama, they call it a jubilee.1When conditions are right, usually in late summer and often at night, crabs and shrimp and fi sh head for shore and spill onto beaches. There, residents carrying flashlights and coolers arrive at the beach amid calls of “jubilee” For a long time, nobody understood the underlying causes of this ...

Part I. The Knowledge of Nature

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pp. 25-26

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Chapter 1. The Emergence of a Biogeochemical Cycle

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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 term nitrogen cycle, we are imposing a pattern on nature that suits our own interests. What we choose to incorporate into or leave ...

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Chapter 2. From Adaptation to Innovation

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pp. 22-29

By the time Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa 100,000 years ago, nitro-gen had been cycling through the biosphere for hundreds of millions of years. As with earlier migrations of fire-wielding hominids, such as Homo neanderthalensis and Homo erectus, the arrival of anatomically modern humans caused barely a ripple in the gentle fl ow of nitrogen from the soil ...

Part II. Learning to Bypass an Ecological Limit

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pp. 47-48

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Chapter 3. Innovation within an Ecological Limit

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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 ...

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Chapter 4. N and the Emergence of Market Capitalism

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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 ...

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Chapter 5. N and the Rise of Science

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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 ...

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Chapter 6. Bypassing an Ecological Limit

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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 per-cent. To be sure, not all of the food fl owing into English cities came from the ...

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Chapter 7. Industrializing a Biogeochemical Cycle

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pp. 84-97

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 ...

Part III. Learning to Establish Human-Defined Limits

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pp. 115-116

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Chapter 8. N in the Well

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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 ...

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Chapter 9. N in the Air

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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 ...

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Chapter 10. N in the Law

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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 ...

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Chapter 11. N and the Seeds of an Ecological Economy

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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 CO2 as a significant concern, provoking public focus on the ...

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pp. 162-171

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 ...


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pp. 173-208


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pp. 209-233


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pp. 235-241

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About the Author

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pp. 259-260

HUGH S. GORMAN studies the historical interaction between technological innovation, changes in human uses of the environment, and policy choices, with the goal of informing current policy discussions about sustainability. He is the author of Redefining Efficiency: Pollution Concerns, Regulatory Mechanisms, and Technological Change in the U.S. Petroleum Industry and teaches in ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813554396
E-ISBN-10: 081355439X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813554389
Print-ISBN-10: 0813554381

Page Count: 260
Illustrations: 2 figures
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Studies in Modern Science, Technology, and the Environment