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Book cover photo shows an agricultural field above the book title and a kayak on a reflective body of water below the title
December 2020
Oxford University Press


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Past and Future
Jim Elser
Phil Haygarth

Phosphorus is essential to the production of our food, and it also triggers algal blooms in lakes, rivers and oceans when it slips through our hands. An understanding of this essential resource and how we have used and misused it over the years is crucial to the sustainability of our well-being on our planet.

"Phosphorus" chronicles the sustainability challenges phosphorus both poses and solves in various contexts. The book begins with its discovery over 350 years ago, moving to its basic chemistry and the essential role it plays in all living things on Earth. Chapters go on to explain the rise in the usage of phosphorus in agriculture and how the increase in the mining of rock phosphate in the mid-20th century was essential for the Green Revolution. However, phosphorus emissions from human wastes and detergents triggered widespread algal blooms in the 1960s and 1970s. While such emissions have been brought under better control with wastewater treatment, diffuse emissions from farming continue to cause water quality degradation. The authors explain how these diffuse phosphorus emissions may worsen with climate change.

Ten concise chapters offer engaging explanations of our historical use and abuse of phosphorus, including the phosphorus sustainability movement and new efforts to sustain food benefits of limited rock reserves following the phosphate rock price shock in 2007–2008. Highlighting new approaches for phosphorus, the authors turn toward the emerging set of sustainable phosphorus solutions necessary to achieve a sustainable "phosphoheaven" and avoid "phosphogeddon." The book provides an insider's take on why all of us need to wrestle with the wicked problems this essential resource will cause, illuminate, or eliminate in years to come.


Jim Elser is a limnologist with research focused on the effect of key limiting nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in lake ecosystems. At ASU he is a research professor in the School of Life Sciences, a distinguished sustainability scientist and director for the Sustainable Phosphorus Alliance. He is also director of the Flathead Lake Biological Station of the University of Montana.