Phosphorus is the fifteenth element of the periodic table of elements, and was the thirteenth to be discovered by science. Like the oxygen in the air we breathe and the water we drink, phosphorus makes us up in the flesh. Without it, all living things would perish. Unlike oxygen, however, phosphorus is relatively rare within our everyday environments. This makes phosphorus life-limiting and arguably the most precious of all mineral resources.
Phosphorus is a key constituent of the technosphere—the human mobilization of materials, energy, and environments into technological systems of planetary scale and impact. As an irreplaceable ingredient in chemical fertilizers, as well as a host of other synthetic compounds from plastics to pesticides, phosphorus also embodies industrial society and makes possible its seemingly endless supply of cheap food and consumables.
Whatever and wherever phosphorus is, it is not just a molecular building block. In the twenty-first century, phosphorus has a shape-shifting identity as it travels an engineered life course from mined rock, to bagged fertilizer, to crop biomass, to supermarket commodity, to human body, to blooms of toxic algae, to Anthropocenic sediments on the bottom of the sea. Its circulation is omnipresent yet invisible—an essential operational element of our modern, industrial creative apparatus.
“And the Lord God formed man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah) and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and adam became a living being. . . . And the Lord God took adam and put him into the garden he had planted at the confluence of rivers in the eastern lowlands to work it and take care of it. . . . And then the Creator of Creators blessed them, man and woman, and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28, 2:7, 15)
In the creation myths of the Abrahamic religions, human flesh and bone originate from the earth itself, and to dust we all return. According to one version, the Creator of Creators Elohim gave humanity the mission to subdue the planet. In another, the Lord God of Israel Yahweh gave earth-man the duty to care for a garden growing out of the stuff of his own creation.
From this ontological perspective, humanity is made of earth, but was given two contradictory duties toward it: to care for it, or to conquer it. Phosphorus, from the moment of its naming by the German alchemist Henning Brandt in 1669, also embodied this contradiction. In its Greek form phosphoros, it was “the light giver,” the morning star, son of the goddess of dawn and herald of the promise brought by each new day. In its Latin form Lucifer, the element is the Tempter responsible for humanity’s downfall, the brilliant being who almost convinced the Son of God to sin by turning desert rocks into bread.
Much ink has been spilled within the humanities and social sciences on the question of power and its origins, yet very little work has been done on the nature of fertility. The invention of agriculture at the dawn of the Holocene, 12,500 years ago, involved, among other things, a revolution in the relationship between soil phosphorus and human fertility.
In Mesopotamia and other hearths of civilization, early horticulturalists were able to concentrate phosphorus into their bodies and societies by farming in the fertile silts of river floodplains. Pastoralists concentrated phosphorus with the help of livestock that roved the wilderness converting indigestible grasses and leaves into milk and meat. Armies of women, pounding and peeling, kneading and mashing, turned this bounty into edible form around the world’s hearths.
Human populations prospered and expanded. By learning to engineer phosphorus hotspots into the landscape, our agricultural ancestors created surpluses—in the form of grain, roots, and livestock, serfs, slaves, and soldiers—that gave life to the agrarian state and fed cults to Mother Earth and the Creator of Creators.
Fast forward to the Green Revolution of the twentieth century. The cult of fertility has taken new form. Lithospheric, rather than biospheric, phosphorus is captured from the bowels of the earth at an increasing pace. The Great Acceleration is on. Human populations soar. In US-styled suburbia, the cult of the nuclear family and microwave dinner proliferates as supermarkets become an everyday technology of phosphorus distribution.
In this revolutionary epoch, phosphorus has become a fetish of the capitalist sciences: how to find, mine, and refine it; how to ship it, mix it, spread it; how to price it; how to market it; and—lest we forget—how to flush it. From the Neolithic to the Anthropocene, human excrement has always been one of the richest sources of phosphorus. But now, through agricultural runoff and sewage discharges, we are abandoning most of it to vast societies of microbes. Fed by this earthly treasure, massive algal blooms are transforming marine and freshwater environments, starving water bodies of oxygen, creating environmental toxins, and upending ecosystem relations.
Yet, the crisis of eutrophication—like the looming crisis of phosphate rock scarcity that could overturn our whole industrial system—is barely on our political radar. Will our modern quest to create a planetary empire and the sin of turning stones into bread end up laying waste to the garden that feeds us?
In this investigation of the modern phosphorus apparatus, we excavate the ontologies and ethics of phosphorus within the technosphere of late-industrial food systems. To do so, we have braided together stories, videos, images, and diagrams that track the becoming of phosphorus and its social worlds through commodity chains stretching from mine to field to fork and beyond.
Phosphorus was the first element to be discovered during the modern era, by a German alchemist experimenting with urine in 1669. The element’s name refers to its tendency to spontaneously give off light, or phosphoresce, in its unstable “white” elemental form.
The industrial uses of phosphorus have a notorious environmental history. The London matchgirls' strike of 1888 helped bring public attention to the disfiguring occupational illness known colloquially as “phossy jaw” caused by repeated exposure to white phosphorus. The subsequent movement to substitute less volatile red phosphorus for white phosphorus in match heads resulted in an early international environmental agreement: the 1906 Berne Convention.
Phosphorus compounds have also been weaponized, first as incendiary bombs during World War I, later as “nerve gas” in the wake of experiments by German insecticide researchers just before World War II. After the widespread banning of persistent pesticides like DDT in the 1970s, organophosphate insecticides such as malathion have come into widespread use for control of mosquitos and agricultural pests, even in household “flea bombs.” Although they break down quickly and do not bioaccumulate, organophophate pesticides are far more immediately toxic to humans. Like their close relative sarin gas, they are potent neurotransmitter disruptors, and have been strongly implicated in causing multiple chemical sensitivity, a debilitating environmental illness that makes sufferers sensitive to a wide range of otherwise benign
Other prominent industrial uses of phosphorus compounds include: as a detergent and degreasing agent (e.g., trisodium phosphate), as a water softener that enhances detergent activity in hard water (e.g., sodium triphosphate), as a flame retardant used in everything from children’s pajamas to sofa cushions (e.g., tris(2,3-dibromopropyl)phosphate), and as a fuel additive (e.g., tri-ortho-cresyl phosphate).
These uses have all been negatively implicated in the severe pollution of waterways and The broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (N-(phosphonomethyl)glycine)—better known as Roundup—has played a notorious role in the controversy over genetically engineered “Roundup-Ready” soybeans, maize, cotton, canola, and cotton. Glyphospate use has been implicated in the decline of monarch butterflies, and despite its reputation for low toxicity, has been recently categorized by WHO cancer researchers as a probable carcinogen and blamed as a catalyst for an epidemic of chronic kidney disease in Central America and
Nevertheless, it is highly deceptive to think of phosphorus as an inherently diabolical element. Phosphorus is potentially dangerous because it is absolutely necessary to life. This is especially true of the highly reactive molecular form combining one phosphorus and three oxygen atoms known as phosphate (PO34-).
The phosphate ion is a key structural component of nucleic acids, our genetic code. Phospholipids form the semipermeable bilayer that makes up cell membranes, while adenosine triphosphate (ATP) acts as the basic source of energy exchange in cell metabolism.
Phosphates are also a key structural component of bones and teeth. In fact, they are so prominent in human urine and other organic debris produced by our everyday activities, and so lasting in the local environment once they are released, that soil phosphate analysis has become a standard method for identifying and mapping archaeological sites—dating all the way back to the beginnings of Phosphate is so indispensable that its scarcity will place a fundamental limitation on organic growth within an ecosystem. It is fundamental to what every one of us eats and what we excrete. It is a finite resource with no possible
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, widespread experimentation with bone, urine, excrement, and other organic materials for agricultural and industrial purposes inspired an ever-expanding search for phosphate-rich substances for investigation. John Bennett Lawes (1814-1900) and Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) became demigods within the histories of science, technology, and agriculture thanks to their role in the initiation of research into the phosphorus cycle and encouragement of use of phosphate fertilizers in high-intensity farming.
Large-scale exploitation of marine bird excrement (or guano) as a commodity of international trade between 1840 and 1880 played a pivotal role in generating transnational interest in new fertilizers. The widening search around the globe for sources of phosphate supply during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was marked, in turn, by a gradual transition from relatively limited supplies of recent, biological origin (such as bones and guano) to much larger and far more ancient supplies of geological origin (such as coprolites and rock phosphate).
Meanwhile, the geography and geopolitics of these interventions into the biosphere and lithosphere that industrialization has been fundamentally based on the predatory colonization of distant environments and peoples and mainly accrued to the benefit of a modest number of northerners and European-derived southerners.
These trends are of fundamental importance for modern history because they have enabled dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and the growth of human numbers, but they also played a pivotal role in a much broader transition in the basic ecology of industrial civilization. The Second Industrial Revolution dating from circa 1850 to World War I is best known for its path-breaking innovations in use of materials, chemicals, transportation, and energy resources that rapidly expanded the reach of industrialization beyond its earliest centers in Western Europe and the United States.
But the Second Industrial Revolution also had a potent ecological dimension involving a switchover from reliance on potentially renewable or biologically based fuels, chemicals, building materials, and modes of transport, to those fundamentally derived from mineralogical sources. This switchover also involved the partial abandonment of ecological relations reliant on the biosphere and premised on recycling, and the embrace of those reliant on the lithosphere and premised on extractive mining, throughput, and waste.
These lithospheric interventions played an important role in connecting industrialization to colonized regions, but their significance transcends their significance for human history alone. Both in kind and in scale, these lithospheric interventions are also hallmarks of the opening of a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—when industrial societies have attained unprecedented influence as geological agents, and when human activities have emerged as the dominant force of planetary environmental change.
By quantifying regional and global patterns of extraction and use of phosphorus, we can identify exactly when this transition from biospheric to lithospheric interventions occurred for this vital element within industrial societies—and when the planet began to enter the Anthropocene.
The Table traces the advent of new phosphate resources available to British agriculture and industry during the nineteenth century. The initiation of large-scale manufacture of breakage-resistant “bone china” by the Spode Company in the mid 1790s, which was keyed on the transformation of ground bone using high heat to create ultra-strong tricalcium phosphate bonds within the porcelain, provided an important stimulus for the commodification of ground bone in England, some of which was diverted to agricultural experimentation. Before this, recycled urine, feces, and plant matter had been the almost exclusive suppliers of phosphate to British industry and agriculture.
The initiation of guano exports almost doubled the availability of phosphate above that provided by domestic and imported bone during the 1840s and 1850s. Rapidly increasing bone imports from the Continent, Russia, the South American Pampas, and other distant locales after 1859 would have made bone the most important phosphate source for the next period, if not for booming production of mineral phosphorite from so-called coprolites mined along the southeastern coast of England in order to manufacture superphosphate fertilizer.
The abrupt end of the Peruvian guano trade after the outbreak of the War of the Pacific in South America in 1879 and parallel onset of a decades-long agricultural depression in the UK entailed the reduction of phosphate consumption from biospheric sources of all kinds, including bone and livestock manure.
Driven by British demand, global phosphate rock production came to far outpace Peruvian guano production during the 1870s, when phosphate mining began to rival ground bone as the number one source of phosphorus within input-intensive agriculture and industry in North America and Europe. (Guano production from other worldwide locales was only a fraction of Peruvian production).
Circa 1880, phosphate contained in green, animal, and human manures used by farmers around the globe probably still outranked lithospheric supplies by an order of magnitude. But the use of traditional manures involved a distinctly different relationship with the phosphorus cycle. It is vital to recognize that the use of traditional manures typically involved the recycling of nutrients on a highly localized scale, while the use of bone, guano, and rock involved resources extracted from ever more distant environments.
Through their embrace of bone and guano imports during the nineteenth century, northern farmers began to adopt the input-intensive practices typical of modern industrial agriculture. In switching from bones and guano to mineralogical sources of phosphate, northern agriculture and industry moved from exploiting some of the earth’s remotest locales to the exploitation of distant eons of planetary time.
My estimation of global production and use of phosphate resources results in humanity’s overall reliance on lithospheric phosphate in farming and industry almost certainly came to outrank biospheric resources sometime between 1949 and 1961, at the very beginning of what Anthropocene researchers call “the Great Acceleration.” The tremendous scale of increase after the Second World War should not blind us to the scale and importance of earlier growth, however.
If we look more closely at the seemingly uneventful tail of the exponential curve of phosphate rock production between 1850 and 1940, we find that the industrial development of phosphorus production from lithospheric sources actually had its first, most rapid, and sustained period of growth during the six decades leading up to 1913. From 1881 to 1913, phosphate rock production grew by more than an order of magnitude. When available phosphorus from basic slag (a phosphorus-rich byproduct of steel smelting first marketed in 1886) and phosphate rock are combined, global lithospheric extraction increased by more than an order of magnitude, from 30,000 metric tons in 1863 to 3.032 million metric tons of phosphate on the eve of the First World War. In 1913, production of concentrated phosphate fertilizer from bone, guano, and other organic sources only amounted to 4.3 percent of production from minerals.
Lithospherically sourced phosphates were also fast approaching the quantities contributed by animal manure recycling on a global basis, which would have amounted to substantially less than the eight to twelve million tons of phosphate in the world’s livestock manure forty years after this. For world locales integrated into these new networks of supply, these new lithospheric sources completely shattered bottlenecks of phosphorus supply that had previously limited agricultural intensification and industrial development. By 1913, phosphate run-off also must have begun to fundamentally alter the nutrient ecology of waterways wherever it was used.
It is possible to draw similar diagrams for world production of nitrogen fertilizer and explosives, coal and iron, rail and steamship transport, the growth of large cities, and other key measures of the growth of industrial civilization, international trade, and lithospheric extraction during the period from 1830 to 1913.
By these critical measures of our species’ changed relationship with the minerals that constitute the earth, I propose that industrial civilization’s unprecedented exploitation of the lithosphere in the decades leading up to 1913 as part of the Second Industrial Revolution should become our primary marker for the onset of the Anthropocene—at least from the perspective of what we can find in the documentary strata accumulated in the world’s libraries and archives, and by seeking to identify the historical origins of the new human behaviors that are responsible for our transformative impact on planetary processes.
The methodology leading to such a conclusion is actually little different from that used by Anthropocene researchers favoring 1945 as a starting point, who seem unduly influenced by the advent of nuclear weapons and energy, which are insignificant to global environmental change when compared to the phosphorus cycle.