- The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability by Hugh S. Gorman
What history best represents humanity’s efforts at “mastery” of nature and the resulting complications? In The Story of N, Hugh Gorman argues it is that of the nitrogen cycle, as “it would be difficult to find a better lens for examining society’s changing interactions with the rest of nature” (p. ix). Gorman, who has previously worked on the environmental implications of the petroleum industry, makes a case that modern intervention in global nitrogen cycles has been of greater importance in human history—and for humanity’s future—than has any other technological development.
The book is organized into three parts. The first begins (in the best longue durée fashion) with the Big Bang and explains the prehistoric formation and functioning of the various nitrogen cycles, both terrestrial and oceanic. The second describes human efforts to understand and then modify the limits of available nitrogen, through incremental agricultural intensification, and then through the industrial processes to fix nitrogen on a previously unimaginable scale. Here Gorman summarizes the work of such well-known figures as Justus von Liebig, Humphry Davy, Alexander von Humboldt, Fritz Haber, and Carl Bosch. The final section examines a growing awareness of the problems created by surpassing natural limits and argues for the lessons for sustainability offered by the history of human conceptions and manipulations of the nitrogen cycle. By the mid-twentieth century, Americans began to worry about accumulating nitrogenous compounds in the water and air, as problems such as “blue baby” syndrome and Los Angeles’s photochemical smog became apparent. Later, algal blooms in lakes and the discovery of a growing hypoxic zone at the mouth of the Mississippi River would increase concerns about over-abundant nitrogen. Beginning in the 1970s, the response included comprehensive [End Page 970] legislation governing the emission of nitrogen along with other substances. According to Gorman, this meant that for the first time “flows of compounds between economy and ecology had become governable transactions” (p. 134).
Gorman’s treatment of the advent of industrially fixed nitrogen is evenhanded; although he outlines the histories of potential alternate paths, he also notes that the Haber-Bosch process increased global standards of living, even as it permitted population growth to the current level. And his tone is decidedly optimistic. The book does not shy away from the real problems presented by a surfeit of man-made nitrogen, but Gorman also points to the real regulatory and technological progress that has been made since the mid-twentieth century. He also expresses a belief that well-regulated markets, balanced with legal proscriptions, can provide the best solutions to the problems of surplus nitrogenous compounds. In his conclusion, Gorman suggests that expanding knowledge into ecological processes might allow humanity to utilize industrially produced nitrogen in beneficial ways, while minimizing the harmful results.
The Story of N primarily is an accessible synthesis of existing literature across a range of disciplines, although in a few sections Gorman uses original research to flesh out interesting stories that highlight the challenges of changing ideas about nitrogen cycles. In particular, his accounts of Milwaukee’s early-twentieth-century efforts to recycle sewage and of Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug’s ideas about the role of industrially fixed nitrogen in the green revolution are fascinating.
For each of the first two sections, other more detailed and satisfying treatments of most included subjects exist, but perhaps no better summary than the one Gorman presents. The third section is the longest, the most original, and the most engaging. The writing is accessible and often a pleasure to read, and this is a book that does real work. Gorman combines scientific summary with historical context, using both to inform contemporary policy discussion. All told, The Story of N provides a narrative framework on which to hang the disparate histories of modern environmental thought. In this way it...