We live in a profoundly unnatural world. Since the start of the industrial revolution, and rapidly accelerating throughout the twentieth century, the actions of humans have begun to influence the flow of energy and materials in the Earth’s biosphere on a global scale. Earth’s current human population and standard of living are made possible entirely by industrial production of nitrogen-based fertilisers and crop plants bred to efficiently exploit them. Industrial production of fixed (chemically reactive) nitrogen from the atmosphere now substantially exceeds all of that produced by the natural soil bacteria on the planet which, prior to 1950, accounted for almost all of the nitrogen required to grow plants. Fixing nitrogen by the Haber-Bosch process is energy-intensive, and consumes around 1.5 percent of all the world’s energy usage and, as a feedstock, 3–5% of natural gas produced worldwide. When we eat these crops, or animals fed from them, we are, in a sense, eating fossil fuels. On the order of four out of five nitrogen molecules that make up your body were made in a factory by the Haber-Bosch process. We are the children, not of nature, but of industry.
The industrial production of fertiliser, along with crops tailored to use them, is entirely responsible for the rapid growth of the Earth’s population, which has increased from around 2.5 billion in 1950, when industrial fertiliser and “green revolution” crops came into wide use, to more than 7 billion today. This was accompanied not by the collapse into global penury predicted by Malthusian doom-sayers, but rather a broad-based rise in the standard of living, with extreme poverty and malnutrition falling to all-time historical lows. In the lifetimes of many people, including this scribbler, our species has taken over the flow of nitrogen through the Earth’s biosphere, replacing a process mediated by bacteria for billions of years with one performed in factories. The flow of nitrogen from atmosphere to soil, to plants and the creatures who eat them, back to soil, sea, and ultimately the atmosphere is now largely in the hands of humans, and their very lives have become dependent upon it.More