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History Disrupted

In today’s excerpt – a disruption in history. Most people assume that history is a gradual continuum from the past to the present, each century being a little better and a little more populous than the prior one, with certain notable exceptions such as the so-called “dark ages”. In fact, the growth of the world’s population and the improvements in man’s technologies were slight until the most recent 200 plus years – the period after the industrial revolution – and have exploded since. As a manifestation of this, the world’s population was well under one billion in 1800, reached roughly two billion in 1900, and now stands at a staggering seven billion (though that population growth is now decelerating).

The average wealth per capita, which stood virtually unchanged in 1800 after several millennia of civilization, has also exploded over the last 200 years. And the rate of introduction of new technology has been even greater. Other than the steam engine itself, the production of synthetic nitrites has had the largest impact on the world, but has largely gone unnoticed.  It was the synthetic production of nitrates, which led to both the gunpowder and thus 80 million casualties in World War I and II, and fertilizer, which led to massive population growth. In fact, World Wars I and II can be understood as Europe fighting the same type of provincial wars it had fought for two thousand years – but with new, massively powerful technologies – as much as the product of any unique twentieth century ideologies:

“For all the guns that their factories could produce, Europeans could not manufacture nitrates, the stuff that made gunpowder explode – they had to find it in the natural world. … Nitrogen is also crucial to the growth of plants. … [T]he largest sources of naturally occurring nitrates are produced as animal waste. … Paradoxically, then, both the size of the global human population and its ability to conduct modern warfare depended on and were limited by nature. That fact led to a global search for naturally occurring deposits of nitrates, mostly in the form of bat and bird guano. …

“The first clump of Peruvian guano was brought to Europe in 1804 by the German naturalist and world explorer Alexander von Humbolt, and then extracted in ever greater amounts and exported by British merchants. By 1890, the supplies of Peruvian guano were mostly exhausted, but another natural source (sodium nitrate or ‘saltpeter’) that could be mined was found in southern Peru; in 1879, Chile had gone to war with Peru to gain control of the sodium nitrate and exported it to the industrializing world, which used it to make both fertilizer and gunpowder. …

“In 1909, a chemist named Fritz Haber synthesized ammonia (which contains nitrogen that could be processed into nitrates) in his laboratory, and a year later the issues of industrial production were resolved by Carl Bosch of the German firm BASF. The process of synthesizing ammonia known as the Haber-Bosch process shaped the subsequent course of world history.

“The synthesis of ammonia made possible the growth of the world’s population. … [B]y 1900, most of the good arable land in the world was already being farmed, so that increased food production could come most readily from the application of additional fertilizer. … The Haber-Bosch process for synthesizing ammonia made it possible to increase the food supply and support the world’s current population of about 6.2 billion people. In other words, in the twentieth century the population of the world increased from about 1.6 to 6.2 billion largely because of the Haber-Bosch process. That increase in the human population alone makes the twentieth century unique in all of human history. … More than that, it also made possible the industrial production of explosives and, because Germany was the first to use this new technology, increased the confidence of its military leaders. And that was to be a crucially important factor contributing to the outbreak of world war in 1914.”

Excerpt from Robert B. Marks, The Origins of the Modern World, Published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, from 157-159


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