Effects of phosphorus to be discussed Feb. 15 for Center for Politics and the People

New York Times best-selling author and environmental journalist Daniel Egan will discuss “The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance” Feb. 15 at Ripon College. The Center for Politics and the People presentation will begin at 6:30 p.m. in Great Hall, Harwood Memorial Union, on the campus. Admission is free and open to the public.

Co-sponsors of the event are the Green Lake Association, the Department of Chemistry and the Environmental Studies Program.

Phosphorus is a source of great bounty — and now great peril — all over the world. It has played a critical role in some of the most lethal substances on earth: firebombs, rat poisonand nerve gas. But it’s also the key component of one of the most vital: fertilizer, which has sustained life for billions of people. In this major work of explanatory science and environmental journalism, Pulitzer Prize finalist Dan Egan investigates the past, present and future of what has been called “the oil of our time.”

The story of phosphorus spans the globe and vast tracts of human history. First discovered in a 17-century alchemy lab in Hamburg, it soon became a highly sought-after resource. The race to mine phosphorus took people from the battlefields of Waterloo, which were looted for the bones of fallen soldiers, to the fabled guano islands off Peru, the Bone Valley of Florida, and the sand dunes of the Western Sahara.

Over the past century, phosphorus has made farming vastly more productive, feeding the enormous increase in the human population. Yet, as Egan reports, our overreliance on this vital crop nutrient is today causing toxic algae blooms and “dead zones” in waterways from the coasts of Florida to the Mississippi River basin to the Great Lakes and beyond. Egan also explores the alarming reality that diminishing access to phosphorus poses a threat to the food system worldwide — which risks rising conflict and even war.

With “The Devil’s Element,” Egan has written an essential and eye-opening account that urges us to pay attention to one of the most perilous but little-known environmental issues of our time.

Egan is a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin. He graduated from the University of Michigan in 1989, with a degree in history, and the Columbia School of Journalism. He worked as an assistant park historian at Yellowstone National Park and then wrote for newspapers in Idaho and Utah before moving back to Wisconsin in 2002. He has been the Great Lakes reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and the Brico Fund Journalist in Residence at the Center for Water Policy in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences.

He is the author of Death and Life of the Great Lakes and The Devil’s Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance. He has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize twice, and a winner of the Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award, John B. Oakes Award, AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

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