Cornhill Magazine,  9 (1864), 334–36.

Phosphorus and Civilization

[George H Lewes]




Fear, Futurism, Prognostication, Heat, Force, Philosophy, Language, Nomenclature, Disciplinarity, Degeneration, Race, Chemistry, Ancient Authorities, Ecology, Agriculture, Natural Economy, Death, Rationalism

People mentioned:

Pliny , Justus von Liebig

    Complains that 'Science [...] has the bad character of being an alarmist; it is constantly prophesying terrible consequences', even though, as in the case of the future exhaustion of our coal supplies, the 'predictions concern our descendants rather than ourselves'. Philosophy, on the other hand, 'serenely relies on Science finding a substitute for coal when the coal is exhausted', for 'Heat having been declared to be merely a mode of Motion, some other means of getting the requisite motion will surely be found' (a footnote adds, '"Heat only a mode of Motion!" Such may be the dictum of Science; but Philosophy, jealous of accuracy in language, may not improperly ask, And pray, what is Motion a mode of? Surely it is the manifestation of Force, and Heat likewise is a manifestation of Force, most probably of the same Force, but assuredly not of Motion, otherwise it would be the manifestation of a manifestation' [334n.]). Another 'alarming state of things' is evident in 'the gradual degeneration of the race consequent upon a gradual exhaustion of our stock of phosphorous', which is 'sequestered from the earth, and never returns to it'. Already 'millions upon millions of pounds' have been 'drawn away from the primitive stock'. In the absence of phosphorus 'men and animals cannot exist; and without abundance of phosphorus they will be stunted and rickety'. (334) By 'constantly robbing the soil of precious material which has not been returned to it, as nature requires', we are ensuring the imminent degeneration of human stature as well as future 'national bankruptcy' (335). Proposes that only a 'judicious system of agriculture' can begin to restore this essential element to the soil 'by careful distribution of the sewage, and by using the bones as manure' (335–36). Indeed, the amount of phosphorus used up by man might be 'restored, if the sewage were skilfully distributed, and if our practice of burial did not annually hide away the enormous quantities stored up in man's bony structure', although it is 'not probable that men will give up the practice of burial'. It is, however, 'probable that the growing necessities of men will force them into something like a rational use of sewage', and the end which 'Science foresees' may be averted. (336)

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