Last Thursday, we hosted a book club conversation with friends at The POOP Project and Rich Earth Institute about Jim Elser, Phil Haygarth’s new book Phosphorus: Past and Present. Our group had a lot of passionate feelings about this book, but not always of the good kind. Let's get into the elementals of Phosphorous.
This book was a science book that sequenced the story by following phosphorus through the cycle of life. The book describes what phosphorus does for living things in our bodies and the environment and how we use it to feed ourselves. It also dove into what happens when we have too much phosphorus in the wrong places and the challenges it can cause. In the end, the authors discuss how to reduce the amount of phosphorus wasted while optimizing the phosphorus we already have available in the environment. In a big way, the book highlights how humans are overloading phosphorus into our watersheds from fertilizers and laundry detergents.
Before the Read
The book club started off our session by remarking how our readers are probably better informed about phosphorus than most laypeople in the world. After all, we are a toilet-themed book club. Before reading the book, we already knew that phosphorus is important for healthy agriculture. We can harvest it out of our poo and pee. We also know that phosphorus and nitrogen can get into waterways as pollution, a major environmental concern. One reader mentioned that coastal areas have more issues with nitrogen because of leaking sewage. In contrast, phosphorus is more of a pollution concern inland where there are farms. For example, Vermont deals with both pollution concerns in different parts of the state.
Interesting Nugget & Good Frames
The readers felt like some interesting nuggets and factoids in the book were still new information for us. We learned that phosphorus is biologically important in our DNA and RNA because it has a role as a communicator. Because of its electronic instability, phosphorus can more easily connect with different chemical elements, making it effective at bringing together and communicating to other aspects of the body that need to work together.
We also appreciated that the authors discussed phosphorus both in terms of reducing its overuse (particularly in agriculture) as well as how to harness where it already exists (particularly in human waste). There is a great opportunity to bring more detailed conversations to circular sanitation and agriculture that are important to creating healthier environments.
Science vs. Reality
Readers’ key challenge was that reading the book was difficult because of its structure and content. Ultimately, the book felt like it was trying to straddle two opposing tones – the using a light nature to make it an approachable general-interest science book versus a more academic dive into the chemical and biological mechanisms of phosphorus. Often, the book was more for science experts who could get really excited about phosphorus from a technical place. In contrast, it went too far deep into the details and advanced science concepts that most people either wouldn’t fully understand or be interested in knowing. Despite the book being sold as something accessible for laypeople, the authors are clearly academics. They are more comfortable writing for their science colleagues (rather than making it readable for everyone). Sometimes the authors started talking about phosphorus science conferences, which did nothing to get us interested in the story of phosphorus. One reader even joked that it sometimes felt like reading a science textbook peppered with dad puns.
Maybe a better approach would have been for the authors to write a feature article about phosphorus – taking out the highlights and key messages from each chapter of the book to create a much shorter story for laypeople. That likely would have been a more effective way to appeal to non-specialists without feeling like the details were sacrificed for the scientists reading the book. The details lost us as readers and made us wonder while reading the book, when are we going to get to how all of this matters for reality? A big focus on the real-life phosphorus issues described was about laundry detergent, but that felt like a concern that wasn’t necessarily shocking enough to make us want to do much about it.
We also read that a lot of phosphorus is wasted in food waste, but we didn’t get the full context of food waste and why it matters. We wanted the phosphorus facts to be more grounded in human stories to make us care about it more.
Lastly, we wanted to better understand the relationship between phosphorus and nitrogen; the two elements came up together often in the book, but the authors didn’t explain why they were a pair to make the science or reality clearer.
What Laypeople Need
The reading group ended by talking about what would have made the book more accessible for everyone else. The big conclusion was that we needed a stronger call to action to care and advocate for better phosphorus practices. The authors finally explained the phosphorus crisis and the real-life implications at the end of the book, and the bigger thinking about what it all means only happened in the epilogue, which made it feel like maybe they weren’t that invested in the bigger thinking after all. How do we recover and recycle phosphorus to prevent it from getting into our water?
The list of things individuals could do to help with the phosphorus crisis was okay. Still, it could have equally been a list about how to lower your environmental footprint for climate change, which felt anticlimactic. Some were too large and theoretical for people to feel empowered to act on, like changing one’s diet. Action steps must be really clear, concrete, and easy to do to make a real human movement that shifts behaviors sustainably over time. Incremental change is important for this, but the ease of action is critical to its success. We felt like that could have been better thought out.