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A Man Named Fritz, A Process Called Fracking . . . And Your Front Lawn

Fritz Haber, one of the two men who made cheap synthetic chemical lawn fertilizer possible.

Fritz Haber, one of the two men who made cheap synthetic chemical lawn fertilizer possible.

IF YOU’RE LIKE MILLIONS OF NORTH AMERICANS this weekend, you might have mowed your lawn for the first time. It probably felt good and smelled good, too, with all that freshly cut grass emitting an pleasant aroma that’s become widely emblematic of spring. It’s almost strong enough to overcome the odor of exhaust from the gas-powered mowers.

Then, maybe, you fertilized your lawn. Because the first mowing of the year is so invigorating, many folks forget how annoying the 25th mowing will be and they head out to the garden supply store to purchase a 40-pound bag of pure granular sugar for the lawn. Just like your child on three lollypops and a can of soda, your lawn will begin to behave frenetically. Soon enough a sea of green may well have you mowing again by Wednesday.

It’s spring, America! Wake up! It’s what we do! Of the roughly half a billion dollars in lawn advertising that’s spent in the U.S. each year, the vast majority of it is airing right now to remind us to fertilize our lawns at precisely the time of year when they need it the least.

But I digress from the point of this story.

ONCE UPON A TIME, a German chemist named Fritz Haber was widely hailed as the “father of chemical warfare” for his work developing and deploying chlorine and other poisonous gases during World War I. In 1918, he won the Nobel Prize for what is now known as the “Haber-Bosch” process that allows for the creation of ammonia from two abundantly available atmospheric sources of nitrogen and hydrogen.

To manufacture the ammonia with Fritz’s process also requires another once abundant resource: natural gas. Most typically methane is compressed to 400-500 pounds per square inch and heated up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit in a reaction furnace that also involves the creation of the greenhouse gases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. When it’s all said and done, out comes anhydrous ammonia that can be used to make bombs for war, or fertilizer for your lawn.

For that invention, which is now credited with helping to feed the population explosion of the last century, many folks call Fritz Haber and his buddy, Carl Bosch, the most influential men in history. A century after its invention, their process allows for a half a billion tons of fertilizer to be produced each year — as long as we have access to enough natural gas to fuel the reactors.

You may recall a few years ago, though, when that access to natural gas seemed in great peril. Gas wells were running dry and the talk on the floors of gardening industry trade shows often centered around the notion that maybe we weren’t going to be able to count on cheap synthetic chemical fertilizer any longer because the factories were going to lose access to the natural gas.

NOT LONG AFTER THAT, THOUGH, the natural gas industry in the United States would have had us believe that all was well in supply to meet demand of their product. From 2006 to 2008, in fact, estimates of available natural gas reserves in our country went up an astonishing 33 percent. Energy companies were jubilant; the International Energy Agency in 2011 went so far as to call this a “golden age of gas.”

The industry was not, however, comparing apples to apples. In the past few years, our nation is counting shale gas as a readily available source of natural gas. A technology known as hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — allows companies to essentially drill down and shatter the rock formations below ground. This releases natural gas that was previously unavailable.

The industry conveniently ignores the fact that underground rock formations play the rather important role of keeping water reserves pure. When you blow up the rock, water becomes contaminated — especially when the chemicals used to shatter rock are in themselves horrible poisons.

And this isn’t just in theory. It’s happening. While many in America spent this weekend mowing, many others were bemoaning the fact that their water is no longer safe to drink. They can’t sell their homes. Their hair is falling out. Their children are ill.
frack-ireland

And it’s all because the energy industry has become relentless in its pursuit of this new shale gas, with promises of “cleaner” technology and a brighter future. Many other nations, it should be noted, have already banned the process.

“Fracking is not a bridge to the future,” wrote Dr. Sandra Steingraber in a recent letter that denounced the Sierra Club’s support of the natural gas industry. “It is a plank on which we walk blindfolded at the point of a sword. There is no right way to do it. And the pirates are not our friends.”

A woman called the modern Rachel Carson, Dr. Steingraber lives in an area of New York that is literally under seige from the energy companies. Millions of acres have been fingered for fracking, just has hundreds if not thousands of doctors and public health officials are calling for a moratorium on the process.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

IT’S ALL SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT, now that spring is here. Caring for your own lawn and garden should be the most apolitical process on the planet. Lord knows it’s considered heretically un-American in many circles to even suggest more bans of synthetic chemical lawn fertilizers that contribute to algae blooms in our ocean just as they increase our dependence on natural gas.

Lord knows, too, that there won’t be enough advertising dollars available in anyone’s lifetime to convince everyone to use organic fertilizers that are derived from plants and animals rather than fossil fuel supplies. We probably can’t talk everyone back into allowing clover to grow so that the little three- and four-leaved plants feed our lawns naturally.

Then, again, we could at least try to talk about electric lawn mowers that are at least 90 percent more efficient than gas models and don’t spew hydrocarbons into our neighborhoods. If we have smaller lawns, we could embrace human-powered “reel” mowers that don’t require any fossil fuel at all.

We could put our mowers’ bagging attachments in storage for the summer and allow the grass clippings to fall to the ground, where they biodegrade and give us fertilizer for free. We could take the bags out in the fall and use them to collect all of our leaves, which we then add to the compost pile for even more free fertilizer in the future.

We could talk about planting grass seed that, by nature, grows more slowly so that we only mow a few times a year and barely water at all, if ever.

IMAGINE THAT . . . A SUMMER where you only had to mow four or five times. Where’s the half a billion dollars in advertisement for that program? It’s not coming, of course, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t all do our part.

For some, that will mean joining the growing protests about fracking and calling out our President on his misleading claim that we have enough natural gas under our lands to last a century. If we have to poison our water in the process of harvesting that gas, it’s not a good bet for the future.

For others, we’ll just keep talking about a kinder, gentler way of gardening and caring for lawns that involves organics. I, for one, have been talking about the Haber-Bosch process for years around North America, making the point that all that extra nitrogen from the fertilizers has been nothing but bad for the planet.

Beneath the heroic story of Nobel Prize winner Fritz Haber lies a tragic truth. His own family understood that many of his gaseous creations were poisonous, allowing humanity to inflict great harm unto itself. Both his wife, Clara, and their son, Hermann, committed suicide due to their embarrassment over their husband and father’s work.

It’s a sobering way to end a Sunday story about lawns, isn’t it . . . But a full century and hundreds of billions of pounds of cheap fertilizer later, we really ought to realize that the original motives that made synthetic chemical fertilizer possible were really quite sinister to begin with.

About The Author

Paul Tukey

An international leader of the green movement, Mr. Tukey is a journalist, author, filmmaker, TV host, activist and award-winning public speaker, who is widely recognized as North America's leading advocate for landscape sustainability and toxic pesticide reduction strategies.

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