Accepted Paper:

Doing and re-doing phosphorus relations  


Claire Waterton (Lancaster University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper traces some contemporary doings and re-doings of the chemical element, phosphorus (or 'P'). I pay especial attention to the indeterminate and ambivalent nature of P connections in two agricultural situations in the UK in order to make spaces for re-considering and re-ordering P relations.

Paper long abstract:

STS research traces how things are done and re-done through practices and heterogeneous relations. Here, I trace some contemporary doings and re-doings of the chemical element, phosphorus. I trace this element because phosphorus matters - in more and less controversial ways - to primary agricultural production and to the quality of the environments in which such production takes place. This is a worldwide mattering: applications of inorganic fertilizers (through the treatment of phosphate rock) have vastly increased the global mobility of phosphorus since the middle of the C19th. Global phosphate fertilizer production has increased 5-fold from 1960 to 2014 (FAO 2017; tonnes of total nutrient production/year). As Smil (2000) writes: 'No other element used in large quantities by modern civilization has such a peculiar fate as P: millions of tonnes of P are taken every year from just a score of places in the Earth's crust in order to be processed and distributed thinly over an area exceeding one billion hectares of the world's cultivated land'. The account I will give in this paper relates, however, to the spaces and places in which P is being done through routine agricultural practices in the UK. These practices have histories and path dependencies but also tensions and possibilities. P threatens ecological boundaries, but is essential for growth. Phosphorus has become an 'ambivalent object' (Widger 2014). I will trace the ambivalent and indeterminate relations of P in two specific agricultural situations in order to make spaces for re-considering and perhaps re-ordering them.

Panel A20
Chemical entanglements: exploring ontologies at the atomic level