Accepted Paper:

Hypermetabolic N: the social life of nitrogen  

Author:

Emma Cardwell (Glasgow University)

Paper short abstract:

Nitrogen makes up the bulk of Earth's atmosphere, but is also a dangerous anthropogenic pollutant. Reactive nitrogen both sustains life by feeding crops, and destroys life as a powerful explosive. It's also completely invisible. How, as a society, can we make sense of this chemical trickster?

Paper long abstract:

Chemicals are ontologically tricky. They are invisible, imperceptible and important; perhaps more than anything else, they depend on the equipment, transcriptions and practices of science to sustain their role in socio-ecological becomings. Chemicals are both too small, at the atomic level, and too big, at the level of their global cycles, for an individual human to experience. Chemicals surprise, they refuse to provide rules. They are characterised by movement and change.

And yet, despite this slipperiness, chemicals hold a key position in the modern constitution: as we all know, climate change is an issue of carbon, the ozone hole of CFCs, and we all must learn to think with our 'chemical footprints' to be good ecological citizens. This discussion explores how exactly we do this, using a case study of nitrogen. Nitrogen makes up the bulk of Earth's atmosphere, but is also a dangerous anthropogenic pollutant. Reactive nitrogen both sustains life by feeding crops, and destroys life as a powerful explosive. Nitrogen builds, feeds, pollutes, destroys, and a complex network of actors shape its metabolism in the world, from factories to biologists to water treatment plants to atomic illustrations. How, as a cosmopolitical society, do we socialise with nitrogen, and how can we make sense of this chemical trickster?

Panel A20
Chemical entanglements: exploring ontologies at the atomic level