(Roughly) Daily

“The longer I live the greater is my respect for manure in all its forms”*…

Two crucial and interconnected resources—human feces and arable soil—face crises of mismanagement…

… the problem of how to deal with our “dark matter” has plagued humanity for millennia. As soon as people stopped moving around in pursuit of prey, the stuff began to pile up. Neolithic farmers may have had no idea of germ theory, but they were smart enough to know they didn’t want to live next to—or on top of—their own shit. They dug pits or ditches out in their fields to serve as open-air toilets. As the number of people living in close quarters grew, pits no longer sufficed. People turned to more sophisticated waste-disposal methods, usually involving water.

Sewage treatment plants… manage, by and large, to keep raw sewage out of waterways, and this has mostly eliminated outbreaks of cholera as well as typhoid. But the practice of washing nutrients down the drain remains as big an issue as ever.

Of all the nutrients we’re redistributing, probably the most significant is nitrogen. It’s difficult for plants—and, by extension, plant eaters—to obtain nitrogen. In the air, it exists in a form—N2—that most living things can’t utilize. For hundreds of millions of years, plants have relied on specialized bacteria that “fix” nitrogen into a compound they can make use of. When people started farming, they figured out that legume crops, which harbor nitrogen-fixing bacteria in nodules on their roots, replenish soil. Manure and human waste, or “night soil,” also provide nitrogen for plants.

When synthetic fertilizer was invented, in the early twentieth century, the world was suddenly awash in nitrogen. This enabled people to grow a lot more food, which, in turn, enabled them to produce a lot more people, who produced a lot more shit. Via our wastewater treatment plants, we now introduce vast quantities of nitrogen into coastal environments, where it’s wreaking havoc. (Fertilizer runoff also contributes to the problem.)

Jo Handelsman, a plant pathologist who runs an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, is also interested in “dark matter.” Handelsman, however, uses the term to refer to soil. And the problem she’s concerned with is not that we have too much of the stuff, but too little. “The plight of the world’s soils is a silent crisis”… Agriculture requires rich soil, but most modern practices are, unfortunately, terrible for it…

From the estimable Elizabeth Kolbert (@ElizKolbert) and @nybooks: “The Waste Land.”

Elizabeth von Arnim

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As we go back to basics, we might recall that it was on this date in in 1874 that Lewis H. Latimer received his first patent (U.S. Patent 147,363), for an improved water-closet for railway cars.

Latimer went on to develop an improved process for manufacturing carbon filaments for light bulbs, to write the first book on electric lighting, and to invent an evaporative air conditioner, a forerunner of today’s systems.

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