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

Dan Egan is a great storyteller, and this is the full story of phosphorus, an essential ingredient to all life on Earth. From the opening page when a Florida man almost dies of the effects of too much phosphorus, to the contrasting crisis over the depletion of this limited natural resource, Egan describes the broken natural cycle of what many people know simply as fertilizer. Personally, I’m deeply committed to the topic, having spent years teaching children about the environment, and yet I confess that I was not expecting Egan to captivate me with phosphorus. He did. The plain-spoken and dramatic way he conveys information is what works the magic. Well, that and amazing tales of alchemy, battlefield scavenging, the human population explosion, soap bubbles, algae blooms, and so much more. Ok, so here’s my second confession in a row. I haven’t read Dan Egan’s The Death and Life of the Great Lakes. That mistake will soon be corrected!

— Tim McCarthy

Egan makes phosphorus a fascinating and easily digestible subject. Run-off from fertilizers is a problem many of us near Lake Michigan know about, but the green stuff often seen blooming today is not algae. It’s photosynthesizing bacteria (cyanobacteria), which is highly toxic to man and animals alike. These outbreaks are now common in places as different as the Gulf of Mexico, Florida water canals, and natural pools of water where elephants drink. Once phosphorus enters non-sewage waterways such as these, it is pretty much unrecoverable. Add to that a fixed, rapidly dwindling supply of phosphorus, and a new environmental crisis is making news. Egan does offer several avenues of hope in this fast-paced, true thriller. 

— Kay Wosewick


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 the 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…

An enjoyable, lively, and thought-provoking read…[P]eppered with fascinating details…I highly recommend The Devil's Element, which presents an easily digestible introduction to a major global issue.

— Robert W. Howarth - Science

In the tradition of environmental clarion calls like Silent Spring and The Sixth ExtinctionThe Devil's Element urges readers to confront another quietly unfolding disaster…Egan, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work chronicling the threats facing the Great Lakes, has a knack for telling big, unwieldy stories through absorbing personal narratives.

— Julia Rosen - Undark

In his crisply written new book…Dan Egan sounds alarms on both the scarcity and overabundance sides of the phosphorus-human equation.
— Jim Higgins - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

[Egan] builds a story of innovation, failure, recovery, and looming catastrophe…[A] deep humanity resides in his writing.
— Garin Cycholl - Chicago Review of Books

A revelatory book that exposes human use of [phosphorus] as a double-edged sword capable of sustaining and destroying life.
— Booklist (starred review)

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

Disquieting…A fine account, worthy of fertile discussion, of yet another environmental disaster.
— Kirkus Reviews

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