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Peak Guano
Alex Steffen, 8 Apr 08

Recently, we've looked at the ecological future of metals, the sometimes obscured truth that all our resources are either grown or mined, the sustainability challenges of biofuels and second-generation approaches to moving from a hydrocarbon to a carbohydrate economy.

Overall, we're beginning to grasp the myriad and tangled ways that energy availability, resource depletion, climate change and ecosystem services are all wound together -- which, in turn, informs our understanding of the degree to which the answers we put forward must themselves respond to a suite of issues, pushing energy efficiency, preserving ecosystem function, reducing emissions and aiming at closed loop resource use.

Jamais has posted a piece in his big picture series, this time about resource collapse, which brings us some historical perspective:

Bird poop provides an instructive example. In the 19th century, guano from birds native to Peru offered the world's best form of fertilizer -- so good that guano became the subject of imperial ambitions, national laws, and international tension. In "When guano imperialists ruled the earth," Salon's Andrew Leonard quotes from President Millard Fillmore's 1850 state of the union address:

"Peruvian guano has become so desirable an article to the agricultural interest of the United States that it is the duty of the Government to employ all the means properly in its power for the purpose of causing that article to be imported into the country at a reasonable price."

But by the end of the century, the market for guano had collapsed, along with Peru's economy, because of the development of industrial "superphosphate" fertilizer. It's worth noting that, even if superphosphate hadn't been developed, Peru would have been in trouble -- the supplies of guano were just about depleted by the time the market collapsed. That's right: The world was facing "Peak Guano," only to be saved by catalytic innovation.

Metaphorically at least, we're all living in a time of Peak Guano.

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As the story indicates massive exploitation leads to massive depletion. I wanted to add that I think that our social consciousness needs to evolve a bit before we go far down the hightech/nanotech road. I appreciate the efforts of CRN and its application of the precautionary principle but the hierarchical machinery of this death-wish civilization is currently dominant so any advance may be used to further destroy the planet more efficiently. Einstein did not build the atomic bomb, he just gave them the ability to do so, much to his chagrin. I think a real decentralized democracy needs to get a hold of the reigns of power before we can really do what needs to be done. Elite rule is still our biggest problem despite the efforts of Al Gore. It is also why Al Gore can't really see the problem, he is looking at its effects and trying to solve the problem of the ravenous monster by trying to get it to poop less. Instead it needs to be tamed, retrained or perhaps slain. We need to get at the source of the very bad decision making currently dominating the planet. As you have pointed out else where, the people need to be part of the process, not the victims of it.

Posted by: Howard Switzer on 9 Apr 08

The issue has not gone away. Phosphorus is one of three major nutrients required for plant growth, along with nitrogen and potassium. It is critical to our food production system.

Like peak oil, peak phosphorus is a harbinger for change. By some estimates we've already the production peak for phosphorus. As it becomes more scarce, costs of production rise and supply decreases, resulting in scarcity and higher prices.

More information is available at:
I've heard it said that phosphorus can be recycled, e.g., through use of animal manure, probably also through fire as in the swidden agriculture practices throughout the tropics. It strikes me that a phosophorus deficit may militate in favor of a systems approach to agriculture in which nutrients soil and water are recovered, with potentially dramatic benefits for watersheds. Is peak phosphorus the tipping point for sustainable agriculture? If there is a connection between sustainable agriculture and declining phosphorus availability, what should we be doing about it?

Posted by: John Waugh on 10 Apr 08



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