The Nitrogen and Water Logic Behind Why I Find Soil Depletion 1000x Scarier than “Global Warming”

Kumar Thangudu

October 28, 2019

Photo by Daniil Silantev on Unsplash

TLDR: Mankind needs a ton of nitrogen, which requires a lot of fossil fuels, and the depletion of soil is 1000x scarier than “global warming.”

Our population is closing in on 8 Billion people because of mankind’s ability to produce nitrogen fertilizer.

The Human Nitrogen Relationship

  • Humans need Protein.
  • Proteins are made of amino acids.
  • Amino Acids are made up of 50%-70% nitrogen.
  • Humans need nitrogen.

Humans acquire nitrogen via 2 methods:

  1. Consuming Plants
  2. Consuming animals that have consumed plants.

Natural Nitrogen

There’s only 4 “natural” or traditional methods of pushing nitrogen into the soil:

  1. Manure
  2. Composting (1% to 3% nitrogen)
  3. Only growing Beans/Legumes
  4. Rain (marginal amount of nitrogen)

If we embraced “natural only” methods of agriculture, mankind could support about 3bn-4bn people.

Plants only need 5 things which we can make a lot of:

1. Water — straightforward

2. Potassium — just dig it up

3. Phosphorus — just dig them and treat them with acid to make them easier to use.

4. Nitrogen — — Up until 1913, civilization didn’t have a good solution for this at scale.

Mankind’s Innovation

Photo by Chromatograph on Unsplash

Even though something like 75%-85% of the atmosphere is nitrogen, the problem is the only way to make ammonia out of it is to break apart the nitrogen triple bond and combined it with Hydrogen to make Ammonia.

In 1909, Haber did it in a lab.

In 1913, Bosch scaled it for industrial production.

3% to 5% of all natural gas is spent to produce fertilizer.

In 2010, “the U.S. nitrogenous fertilizer industry consumed more than 200 trillion Btu of natural gas as feedstock and another 152 trillion Btu for heat and power.” To put that into perspective, total U.S. Solar energy consumption in 2010 equalled just 125 trillion Btu — not even enough to provide for the heat and power necessary to synthesize this fertilizer. –


All Of these Processes Require Water and That’s Worrisome

Every few months, you might find some sort of hyped up news article about a new desalinization technology. I see a lot of these in Israeli publications because they’re known for desalination technologies, but I remain mostly un-impressed. The cost of goods of living in Israel will rise

The two simple reasons that none of these items mean anything to me for:

  • It takes 10–14 KW to desalinate 1000 gallons of water.
  • It takes even more if the water is chemically polluted.

The other type of hype you’ll see is “we’ll use hydroelectric power.”

The only problem is that the number of hydroelectric potential sites is a known quantity and small.


It is hard to easily explain and fully assemble the notion of my eschatological fears for civilization without mentioning Soil.

The soil beneath your feet is scarier than global warming.

  • It takes 300–500 years to make about 2–4 centimeters of topsoil.
  • You need a depth of at least 2.5cm to grow stuff..

Fertile soil is non-renewable at the rate we’re consuming it vs. generating it.

  • Topsoil Generation: 0.005cm every year.
  • Topsoil Consumption: .09cm every year.

To Sum Up:

  • Nitrogen production is a necessary evil that consumes gobs of fossil fuel.
  • Water pollution has an accumulating disadvantage to civilization and mankind.

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