Now Reading
American Dead Seas: Dan Egan’s “The Devil’s Element”

American Dead Seas: Dan Egan’s “The Devil’s Element”

Dan Egan writes, “An exquisitely balanced phosphorus exchange existed for billions of years before humans corrupted the element’s flow through the environment.” Egan’s task in his new book, The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance, is to explore that “exquisite exchange,” detailing the element’s breakdown and passage through wetlands and across continents. Within that narrative, he builds a story of innovation, failure, recovery, and looming catastrophe. Phosphorus-infused fertilizers feed nations, yet also they fuel toxic eruptions, at times happening on the other side of the continent from where they were utilized. Globally driven processes enhance food production, but also set off ecological disruption and economic crisis. As a journalist, Egan attempts to recognize the consequences of human impact on local and wider ecologies. The Devil’s Element is the story of human inattention and corruption, but also an invitation to reimagine waters’ movements both across and underneath land and thought.

The book details the edge of crisis, chronicling the history of human manipulation of phosphorus, its adaptations as weapon, fertilizer, and in this present crisis, farm runoff. He maps the progress and explosive growth of algal blooms—not actually algae, but bacteria of blue-green color that “smother” bodies of water, withdrawing oxygen and producing “dead zones” from the Gulf of Mexico to northern lakes. These “blooms” also produce multiple toxins that make water undrinkable, even deadly. Lake Erie, which is a source of drinking water for Toledo, Ohio, is seasonally infected with algal blooms. The source of these blooms can be traced to fertilizer and manure runoff from along the Maumee River in northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio. Fed by ditches cut from the region’s Great Black Swamp to make it suitable for farming, the Maumee, as Egan notes, “functions more like a syringe that each year mainlines thousands of tons of excess agricultural phosphorus” into the Lake.

Recognition of the source of the blooms leads Egan into the history of the development of phosphorus as a component within fertilizer. He details the bone mills of nineteenth century England, guano-caked islands along Peru’s coast, Midwestern farms’ impact on the Mississippi coastline, and Morocco’s western desert, where upwards of 80 percent of the planet’s known phosphorus deposits reside. He recounts the element’s value, particularly as something that depends upon geologic process, a breakdown of organic tissue requiring death and time. As he writes, these deposits “do not regenerate on a human time scale.” Of course, neither do the habitats impacted by compounds produced by agricultural and industrial processes. Egan explores the tensions of scarcity and ecological compromise that drive human beings to mine, process, and utilize phosphorus. The Devil’s Element narrates what people are willing to reclaim or sacrifice in their use of this element. It is a story of striking accomplishment and looming catastrophe.

The development of phosphate-rich detergents and their impact on waters in the United States occasioned the Clean Water Act in 1972. Phosphates in laundry detergent waste waters fueled the growth of algal blooms in Lake Erie in the 1960s, turning it into an “American dead sea.” In our own moment, the industrialization of livestock production at localized levels has similarly driven ecological degradation on scales unimagined by previous generations. As Egan writes, agriculture itself has traditionally been exempted from clean water regulation. Intensive lobbying has entrenched agribusiness’s interests.  The scale of livestock operations has reworked the ecological equation here. Egan writes that livestock production in the Maumee region itself doubled between 2005 and 2018, resulting in an increase of phosphorus-rich manure by 67 percent. Spread across farm fields both as fertilizer and also as a simple means of offloading the manure itself, this runoff reaches Lake Erie in concentrated forms that propel explosive growth in bacterial populations. This effect is mirrored nationally, regular and devastating to waters across the country. 

As with Egan’s 2017 book, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, a deep humanity resides in his writing.  That book is punctuated by a photo of Egan’s son, John, and his first fish caught in Lake Michigan. The Devil’s Element examines shifts in the border between the human and nonhuman worlds, a line that human beings have always drawn arbitrarily and without full awareness of our engagement with the ecological spaces that enhance our own health. Egan maps not only the devastation of runoff from human activity, but also introduces the ways in which our phosphorus-rich waste itself is being managed or recycled. He puts into focus a central question: how do we not only feed ourselves on a warmer, crowding planet, but also reimagine the concept of “waste” itself? The question forces us to again account for human impact on the ecological spaces that sustain us.

See Also

Egan painstakingly details the ecological crises that American agribusiness has produced. His work is also cognizant of human innovation and its complex legacies in both feeding its consumers and leaving them hovering on the edge of unimaginable loss. How do we rethink our own waters’ locality against others’ coastlines, lakes, and rivers? How close is “downstream?” As it navigates that edge, The Devil’s Element further uncovers that increasingly slim line between the human and nonhuman worlds.

The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance
By Dan Egan
W.W. Norton & Company
Published March 7, 2023

View Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

© 2021 All Rights Reserved.