The Devil's Element: Phosphorus and a World Out of Balance (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

It’s almost like a child’s riddle: What’s one thing you can have too much of and not enough of at the same time? The traditional sources of phosphorus are disappearing, and the element, a key fertilizer ingredient that is vital to keeping the world fed, is being overused in agriculture. Today’s prime villains are corporate mega-farms that are exempt from the Clean Air Act, leading to runoff that is poisoning our waterways. As in The Death and Life of the Great Lakes, Egan’s historical research, expert reporting, and storytelling skills combine to lay out a problem that must be addressed before it’s too late. 

— Daniel Goldin


The New York Times best-selling author on the source of great bounty—and now great peril—all over the world.

Phosphorus has played a critical role in some of the most lethal substances on earth: firebombs, rat poison, 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 seventeenth-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 harrowingly 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.

About the Author

Dan Egan is the author of New York Times bestseller The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, he lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with his wife and children.

Praise For…

A cautionary history…This will ignite readers’ curiosity.
— Publishers Weekly

Product Details
ISBN: 9781324002666
ISBN-10: 1324002662
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: March 7th, 2023
Pages: 256
Language: English