The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability

The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability

The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability

The Story of N: A Social History of the Nitrogen Cycle and the Challenge of Sustainability


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.


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 finite 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 planet more sustainable? Will a simple nip and tuck of existing environmental policies, along with some clever technological advances and new educational initiatives, do the trick? Or are more fundamental changes needed? These are the questions, framed historically, that lie at the core of this book.

The past, of course, is relevant to these questions. By examining change over time, it is possible to gain a better sense of not only the trajectory that we are on but also the options and possibilities available. With that goal in mind, I examine the history of society’s changing interactions with one particular slice of nature: the nitrogen cycle. Anybody familiar with this biogeochemical cycle knows that the history of our interactions with it is rich and complex. Today, flows of nitrogen are intimately entangled with a wide variety of human activities, ranging from growing food and processing sewage to manufacturing explosives and combusting fuels. in many ways, it would be difficult to find a better lens for examining society’s changing interactions with the rest of nature.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the main purpose of this book is to examine the notion of sustainability. the nitrogen cycle is simply a powerful organizing device, a stand-in for the rest of nature. One could, of course, focus on any ecological, geophysical, or biogeochemical system. the issue of climate change, for example, has centered attention on how human interactions with the carbon cycle have changed over time. Focusing on the nitrogen cycle serves as an alternative way to examine important changes in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

The first half of the story takes place over millennia and involves humans learning to bypass an ecological limit, one associated with the capacity of bacteria to place nitrogen compounds into circulation. By the late nineteenth century, efforts to secure increasingly large quantities of . . .

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