Sunday, July 31, 2022

The nitrogen fertilizer monkey trap

More than a century ago two German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, perfected a technique for taking nitrogen from air and combining it with hydrogen to make ammonia, now widely used to make nitrogen fertilizers. What came to be known as the Haber-Bosch process unleashed a revolution in crop yields which were no longer limited by natural inputs of nitrogen.

So important is this process to crop yields that it is estimated that without it half the people alive today would starve. If the worldwide application of nitrogen fertilizers had no adverse consequences, there would be no problem continuing business-as-usual. But the consequences have become worrisome:

But, there is no movement comparable to the climate change movement to champion solutions. One reason is that few people know and understand the significance of the imbalances being fostered by our widespread use of nitrogen fertilizers. A second reason is that the consequences of weening ourselves off such fertilizers would be nothing short of catastrophic. There is simply no readily deployable substitute for nitrogen to grow crops in quantities sufficient to feed the current world population.

We have therefore unwittingly created a monkey trap for global human society. A monkey trap consists of a coconut with hole just large enough for a monkey to get his hand in. The coconut is fastened securely to a stake. Food is put into the coconut. When a monkey tries to withdraw his hand now full of food from the coconut, he finds that the opening is too small. So, the monkey is stuck. His instinct tells him to hang on to the food and keep trying. But doing so endangers him every second he stays put.

The widespread availability of nitrogen fertilizers is like the monkey trap. We need those fertilizers desperately to feed the growing human (and animal) population. Evidence tells us that with every day we continue, the dangers from their use grow. But we cannot stop ourselves.

This is just part of a more general conundrum for the human community which knows that abandoning the highly productive industrial way of life we have built would entail immense suffering for some and maybe most people alive on the planet today. However, waiting for the collapse that is inevitable along our current unsustainable trajectory will entail even greater suffering.

Right now we are simply whistling past the graveyard hoping that something will come along and prevent the worst. So far, nothing has; nor is there anything on the horizon. Regarding agriculture, there are small experiments in regenerative farming around the world. But, there is no widespread move to bring human society back into balance with the soil it depends on for its existence.

Doing that would require a reorientation of our thinking away from regarding the soil as just another industrial platform for obtaining our needs, but rather a system of which we are an integral part and with which we must harmonize.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


SomeoneInAsia said...

Had there been no Industrial Revolution, would we and our children be confronted by these terrible ills (and more) now looming on the horizon? No. Frankly, I think we're better off without that stupid thing called 'progress'.

The Industrial Revolution was basically a bargain with the Devil, to whom Western man had sold his soul (and compelled everyone else to sell his soul as well). Sure, the Devil pays well in the short run. But the long run is now.

Glad I have no kids of my own, by the way. Imagine (knowingly) letting a human soul into this wretched world. A world (about to be) brought to ruin by a bunch of fools professing to be our leaders.

Joe said...

@ SomeoneInAsia,

"A world (about to be) brought to ruin by a bunch of fools professing to be our leaders" is certainly true, but those fools were the only people given the chance to become leaders by their societies. Now we reap what "we the people" have sown.

On the other hand, had any large society selected leaders that saw through the false promise of industrial 'progress', leaders who kept their society sustainable and non-industrial, then that society risked being taken over by societies who reaped the short-term advantage of industialism (guns, germs and steel).

This means that no society could ignore the existence of fossil fuels, the huge store of energy they made available and the industrialism that energy allows. Fossil fuels have been a curse on the entire living world.

Robert Brown said...

Of course, there is the universal explanation for all human behavior:

"It seemed like a good idea at the time".

I bring this up because our use of nitrogen fertilizers kept growing and growing, without much in the way of thought about the impact of these chemical changes on the broader environment, a recurring theme in our use of technology. Now, when it's too late, we see the folly.

It would have been possible to use the Haber process up to a limit, and guide ourselves btween total abstinence and total exploitation, had we known or cared about consequences. That we did not is testimony to our own limited vision and thinking about how to best employee what we discover.