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This paper combines approaches from the history of science and policy, and science and technology studies to examine the global transformation of the nitrogen cycle. Reactive nitrogen released to the environment from agricultural practices during the second half of the 20th century is considered today a leading ecological concern. I study the expansion of global research on nitrogen science and policies during the last three decades and place Chilean scientists and scholars within this global debate.
I focus on two main areas of this debate. First, the concept of the “nitrogen cascade” within other scientific narratives about planetary boundaries and the Anthropocene. The concept marks a turning point in the history of scientific knowledge about the human transformation of the global nitrogen cycle. Previous studies mostly focused on the effects of nitrogen on particular ecosystems. The concept of the nitrogen cascade, however, synthesizes all this scientific knowledge and emphasizes that nitrogen lost into the environment circulates and accumulates within global terrestrial, aquatic, and atmospheric ecosystems across time and space with effects that we do not fully understand yet.
Second, since one atom of reactive nitrogen causes a cascade effect on humans, plants, and animals across time and space, nitrogen is a privileged arena to study non-human agencies on a transnational scale. Historians of Latin America have generally studied environmental change following what has been called the “coffee paradox.” The paradox describes how a “commodity boom” in consuming countries is paired with a “commodity crisis” (labor conditions and ecological destruction) in its productive zones. Nitrogen, however, presents challenges to this binary approach and to where these accounts have positioned Latin America in global environmental change. This forces a shift in the way scholars have thought about center and periphery, north and south, in both planetary ecological change and transnational environmental governance.