A smokeless flame of fire; a wetness that is not water.
In the ideology of nitrogen, all life is pestilent by the fact of its birth: its quantifiable presence within a larger pathological demographic bloom or “bomb.” All of us are counted within an outbreak of fecundity: an algae bloom or a reserve army of labor, all fueled by the same source of synthetic fixed nitrogen: The Dead God. It needed to be able to reincarnate in the living realm, as biomass available to be consumed as food and then metabolized into animal flesh. Hydrocarbons had to be convertible into sugar. Photosynthesis.
This was a smaller project, in many ways, than oil’s conquest of human politics, but this chemical reaction was a precondition for the hegemony of petrocapitalism over the globe in the 20th century. Only through nitrogen could exosomatic fuel become again somatic, creating a hybrid form—petrosomatic—that could support a radically growing population by converting chemical heat into consumable calories. This is how exosomatic energy increased the amount of labor there was to support its regime. Druj needed to feed people, more people all the time, with her own body, if possible, for that ancient flesh was the main resource available in sudden excess within the Kingdom of Prussia.
Hydrocarbons, themselves devoid of nitrogen, had to enable a production of nitrates. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch made it possible. Haber developed the process and Bosch did the industrial design, which turned out to be more important in many ways. And so now we have two named founding fathers of industrial agriculture, a narrative opportunity seemingly designed to be irresistible to writers like me. Giving me the Legend of Fritz Haber, the Father of Chemical Warfare: a too-perfect metaphorical matrix given that War Machines are dissolved within oil. As if it came from the PR department of the Fourth Reich. From what or whom am I being made to look away? Maybe Carl Duisberg. Nonetheless, both Haber and Bosch rise to godlike power in terms of their footprint upon history and the genealogy of the Deep State.
So although I do feel manipulated into it, I must write about Fritz Haber. The raw facts of his life seem to point to a man of extremist nationalism. Only such an ideology could support the meatgrinder of the First World War. But perhaps he simply lived in a place and time that was defined by such fanaticism. He grew up in and could not imagine a world that wasn’t structured around the kaiserreich. Simply what was expected of Fritz, what he expected of himself: authority. He, like Germany, just wanted for himself what the English had: colonies. The right to have an Empire. Haber’s favorite activity was telling other people what to do, a predilection that was well catered to at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where his employees jumped out of windows to avoid talking to him. But that’s getting ahead.
N2 is 78% of the atmosphere. That simple molecule has an equally simple actancy by virtue of its existence. When it hits you in the face as wind, it can drop you to the ground, when it’s in a hurricane it can destroy a city. But chemically inert. That N2 molecule is so structurally self-contained, with electrons comfortably buzzing around in a low-energy three-way Möbius strip, that it will not interact with any molecule around it. No reason for it to ever look outside of itself. It is the medium of our breath, the substance from which our lungs pluck oxygen and plants absorb carbon. Understood as “almost perfectly noxious” air by Daniel Rutherford in 1772, because if you take out all the carbon and oxygen from air, the remaining N2 will kill the plant simply by depriving it of anything useful to life.
All living things need bioavailable nitrogen, which means it’s not locked up in an inert N2 configuration. In a homeostatic earth system—referred to as Gaia by the boomers—soil nitrate is a key regulatory limit; the main check on photosynthetic growth of all kinds. Liebig had gotten this far in 1840. The key practical question became how to synthesize ammonia on an industrial scale in order to violate that natural order and escape its physical limitations.
Ammonia (NH3) is the simplest nitrate—a molecule in which the nitrogen atom is held at a high energetic state, quick to bond and react and explode. The body of Druj is to be found in ammonia’s hydrogen, which need not, but in practice always does, come from coal, oil, or methane. Nitrogen is not in petroleum, or in coal or gas, not in any commercially significant amounts–it’s certainly not a part of any hydrocarbon molecule. But that energy was given to the molecule in the form of heat and pressure, by the combustion of the dead god. And the hydrogen that carries the nitrogen also came from the flesh of the dead god directly, starting (in parallel with the historical trend) with coke (coal), moving through oil, and now from methane. Through synthetic nitrogen, the dead god was able to nurture an industrialized agriculture to feed its growth—a growth both of the number of human bodies alive at any one time (population), but also in the amount each body consumed and produced. In the form of fertilizer, the dead god is both metaphorically and materially reincarnated into biomass, into recognizably-alive, at-least-potentially conscious organisms, or at least undead monocultures. Nitrate is also humanity’s favorite explosive, by far, the heart and soul of gun-power.
The process of fixing an atom of nitrogen—cleaving it from its partner and mounting it on three hydrogen atoms— pushes it to the edge of a cliff, giving it tremendously more potential (chemical) energy and therefore vastly increasing the impact it can have upon the world; it gains actancy by becoming incorporated into a new molecule at a higher energetic state. At what point does that actancy accumulate in dense enough clusters to call it “sentience” or any number of other associated, highly-valued homocentric categories?
Like everything else, the dead god makes fixed nitrogen cheap enough for farmers to radically oversaturate their soil with it, leading to runoff at a massive scale. Algae blooms have taken their place as an agent of death, as overfertilized corpses that leach all the oxygen out of the water. Overfecundity continually morphs into overkill in a biological recreation of an artillery explosion: a bomb in coastal waters. The red tide. If it’s not already a horrible fact of life for you, it will be soon. Can’t swim in the lake. The water is toxic, and when it floods into the cities, it is supertoxic; and not from industrial discharge, but because of agricultural discharges of nitrate, allowing algae to overproliferate. Yes, it briefly absorbs carbon from the water and the air, but only temporarily, as the ecosystems it poisons fail to digest and sequester that carbon. An ailing biometabolism.
Synthetic fertilizer replaces the earth’s soil, exhuming agriculture “(ex + humus: un-ground)” (Cyclonopedia 44). Ammonia itself is not a petroleum product in the way that plastic is—not carbon—but its synthesis requires industrial quantities of energy, which are denotationally provided by exobiotes. And so food was brought into the industrial age, and calories could be generated at high enough rates to sustain a “population bomb.” And this is how the exosomatic regime and its actors brought human bodies into the realm of ecological destruction: by supporting physical reproduction at high levels. This only had a secondary impact on the degradation of the ecological system—the real harm was to be found in petroindustry. But here we are talking about animal bodies and their food.
Fritz Haber was an embittered, ambitious young man, full of grievances against his father, who blamed him for his mother’s death following his birth into a secular, wealthy Jewish family in Breslau (known today as Warsaw), then a firmly German (Empire) city. People debate about why he converted to protestantism after he graduated university, or whether it was truly possible, in that anti semitic cultural context, to convert from being a secular Jew to a secular protestant. Haber told a friend his conversion was driven by his “boundless enthusiasm for Bismark. We felt 100% German, and no longer felt any ties to the Jewish religion.” He cited Theodor Mommsen, who argued that all Germans had an obligation to fully assimilate into the dominant German culture. It is easy to believe Haber, especially since had ambitions to get rich and powerful in Germany.
He felt left out of organic chemistry, booming in those days as scientists designed protoplastics, pumping out patent after patent for materials to be synthesized from “coal tar.” He was more interested in physical chemistry, which focused on the energy-levels of molecules—a matter of understanding that some substances existed at a higher energetic state than others, and that energy could be absorbed or released from a chemical in various ways. Absorbed (at high temperatures and pressures) into high-energy molecules, and then exploded back down into N2 through a number of processes that could be either sudden and fatal or alive and delicious. You see how fungible energy, life, and munitions are, and how easily an accumulation of bioenergy could become recognizably sentient and introduce capital into this system as an accelerant.
Ammonia is a key transit in the metaphysics of oil; the gateway from the undead to the alive, and also the primary material at the heart of warfare: the explosive. Consider: if Haber hadn’t completed his patent in time for Bosch to build the works at Oppau, the Kaiser’s army would have run out of nitric acid very quickly. The supply of saltpeter coming in from Chile was easily blockaded out by the Allies. They would have simply run out of bullets and mortars to shoot back. The Western Front would have fallen All Quiet years earlier without Haber. And that was the product of his actions before he started committing war crimes. He was keenly aware of this, and swelled with patriotic pride.
Synthesis of ammonia was the big-ticket chemical research project at the turn of the century, because the colonial world was rapidly burning through the world’s natural stores of fixed nitrogen. Guano was first exported from the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, with great loss of life, but it soon ran out because the unique ecosystem that produced it was destroyed. Vaclav Smil describes the Guano market in the 1850s: “rising prices in an oligopolistic market, fears of resource exhaustion, attempts at price controls, the U.S. government getting involved in schemes of armed intervention, American entrepreneurs—taking the [sic] advantage of the 1856 Guano Islands Act—rushing to explore and exploit new deposits on tiny islands and reefs in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.” Guano was discovered by white people in 1840 on the island of Ichabo off of Southwest Africa (today Namibia). By 1843, three years later, the island had been scraped down to the bedrock and effectively sterilized of all life. You can still see today, nothing grows there anymore. Ecocide is forever.
Around that time, they discovered that they could use sodium nitrate, which they called saltpeter and could be mined in Chile. This became the colonial world’s main source of nitrogen worldwide until the days of Haber. It was used in fertilizer, but mostly for munitions. With the violence of colonialism peaking, times were good on the Atacama plateau.
In 1901, Henry Louis Le Chatelier, a weapons researcher, had developed the theoretical basis for synthetic ammonia production, and tried it in his lab. However, his lab exploded and nearly killed his assistant, and he gave up the effort. That was the year that Fritz married Clara Immerwahr.
She was the first and only woman to get her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Breslau, which was functionally all-male since it required prerequisites only taught at all-male high schools. Finally, she got herself noticed by Richard Abegg who got her enrolled in the university and at his lab, where she published papers breaking ground on the frontiers of knowledge for its own sake. By all accounts, a feminist; by some accounts, a pacifist. Her dissertation defense was reported upon by the Breslau newspaper. She had known Fritz for a long time since they both grew up in Breslau’s tight-knit secular Jewish upper class. She converted to Christianity when she married Fritz—I don’t know if he made her do so—who consigned her into a joyless life.
When they married, Fritz was a professor of chemistry at the university in Karlsruhe, in southern Germany, and she moved there from Breslau. Their first and only son Hermann was born in 1902. In 1903, the (Jewish) Margulies brothers of the Österreichische Chemische Werke in Vienna hired Haber to work on the problem of ammonia synthesis, and Haber began reproducing le Chatelier’s work in his lab. His work was fueled mostly by his monstrous ego, in the form of a rivalry with Walter Nernst. In 1908, Haber received major funding BASF, the biggest chemical company in the world at the time and the antecedent of I.G. Farben, tripling his professor’s salary and turning an academic into a private entrepreneur. He succeeded in 1909. The Process is a matter of synthesizing a mixture of H2 and N2, and then pumping it at high pressure and temperature around a piece of metal—osmium or uranium or something like that—and heated between 500-1,000 degrees.
A month after Fritz’ breakthrough in the lab, Clara wrote to Abegg, “What Fritz has achieved in these 8 years, I have lost—and even more…Fritz’s overwhelming assertion of his own place in the household and in the marriage simply destroys any personality that’s incapable of asserting itself against him even more ruthlessly. And that’s the case with me.” She continued, “All of Fritz’s human qualities apart from this single one [his research] are nearly shriveled up, and, as the expression goes, he is old before his time.”
Carl Bosch, who had hired and (indirectly) supervised Haber at BASF, mobilized the company to begin building the first ammonia production plant at Oppau in 1909. As such, he was charged with deciding on the cheapest feedstocks for each of the chemical components – the hydrogen and the heavy metal catalyst. For the latter, Haber had used osmium, Bosch found that he could use uranium which was much cheaper. Hydrogen was available from a few different sources – you can get feedstock hydrogen from water, of course, and that was probably the source of the hydrogen that Haber used in his experiments. But Bosch determined that it would most cheaply be gotten from coal in the form of coke. This was determined as much by historical circumstance than anything else; the plant at Oppau had a guaranteed German supply of coal, and the plant would consume a great deal of coal for the energy-intensive process anyway, so there was an economy to the plan to separate hydrogen from hydrocarbons. That process would remain fundamentally the same as it moved through first crude oil and now methane, which is the dominant supplier of feedstock hydrogen today. Each of crude oil’s many components has its own role to play in the erotopetrolocization of history, down to the very hydrogen: the most common element in the universe.
In 1910, with most of his work for BASF complete, Fritz Haber was summoned to Berlin to become the President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Dahlem, which was to serve as the military’s lab throughout World War I. This was funded and arranged by the “reclusive banker” Leopold Koppel. Koppel, like both the Habers, was a Jew who had converted to Christianity.
Haber embraced the Great War with the psychotic fervor of a true believer, signing the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three, which stated, among other provocations, “The German army and the German people are one.” He understood before 1912, as the generals didn’t, that it was going to have to be a very short war indeed if Germany didn’t find an alternate source of nitric acid. They needed it for every bullet fired, every explosive. Everyone got it from Chile, but imports would be blockaded by the enemies. They had stockpiled enough ammunition to last for, they thought, six months of war, but it would have been used up in a week of trench warfare in the war as it actually unfolded. So he wrote to Bosch, convinced him that it was possible to convert ammonia (NH3) into nitric acid (HNO3; turned out to be quite easy indeed), and the output at Oppau was officially commandeered, from its very first tanker, by the German army. Later to be supplemented by another facility at Leuna. Since Haber’s contract with BASF included a royalty on every ton of nitrate produced, he got paid for every single bullet and mortar that was fired by the Germans in the war. So, perhaps not just the Father of Chemical Warfare, but rather the Father of Warfare itself.
These were the “best years of his life,” earning that honorific title, The Father of Chemical Warfare. He had great fun traipsing about the Western Front, releasing clouds of first chlorine and then phosgene and then mustard gas. His first victims were Black, killed at Ypres on April 15, 1915, when his division released clouds of chlorine on two divisions of Algerians that the colonial French had drafted into their army to die on the front lines, killing 1,100.
The next day, April 16th, Fritz went back home to Dahlem, and was still there seventeen days later, when Clara walked into her garden and shot herself. Their son Hermann heard the shot, and rushed downstairs to find her body.
Historians like to argue that it was not what it seems, that Clara didn’t kill herself in protest against the first use of chemical weapons. Of course she was otherwise miserable; she was married to one of the most notorious patriarchal assholes of his time. Also, it is likely that she caught him cheating on her in the days before her death. But the thought of her complicity in the clouds of chlorine that drifted across the battlefield could not have been healthy. I have seen it said of her death, “It was a time when life was cheap.” Certainly that was how Haber behaved; he was back at “work” at the Western Front two days later. He didn’t let a small thing like his wife’s suicide ruin the “best years of his life.” He remarried, and his second wife was also miserable because he treated her terribly. The pain he released on the world was only an expansion of a much more concentrated abuse at home. Everything he did was about the reproduction of violence.
That his victims at Ypres were Black doesn’t feel accidental. World War I was a profoundly colonialist war, and its real victims were the colonized, on both sides. The German pathology in the leadup to World War I is presented as a lack of colonies, the desire for a “place in the sun;” of course, the Germans weren’t entirely without colonial holdings, as Gravity’s Rainbow’s Blicero/Weismann was able to run wild with his dick out in Sudwest Africa before returning to the War at home. But the English and the French had more, so much more, and rapidly-industrializing Germany felt the need for “dusky natives” on whom they could exercise all the sexual violence they wanted. In Gravity’s Rainbow, the schwarzkommando begins as a fantasy, a desire projected onto film by Gerhardt von Göll, who uses blackface makeup (plus the White Visitation psy-section resident Gavin Trefoil who can change his skin color at will), to shoot the original footage. Meanwhile, Blicero makes Enzian and his schwarzkommando real through importing his homicidal colonial exploits in the Sudwest back to Germany for the War.
Colonies are the outhouses of the European soul, where a fellow can let his pants down and relax, enjoy the smell of his own shit. Where can he fall on his slender prey roaring as loud as he feels like, and guzzle her blood with open joy. Eh? Where he can just wallow and rut and let himself go in the softness, a receptive darkness of limbs, of hair as wooly as the hair on his own forbidden genitals. Where the poppy, and cannabis, and coca grow full and green, and not to the colors and style of death, as to ergot and agaric, the blight and fungus native to Europe. Christian Europe was always death, Karl, death and repression. Out and down in the colonies, life can be indulged, life and sensuality in all its forms, with no harm done to the metropolis, nothing to soil those cathedrals, white marble statues, noble thoughts…no word ever gets back. The silences down here are vast enough to absorb all behavior, no matter how dirty, how animal it gets…(GR 317, ellipses in original)
It’s not clear what message the 1931 Nobel Prize Committee in Chemistry thought it was sending by splitting the prize between two men, co-winners. They were both German industrial chemists: Carl Bosch and Friedrich Bergius. Bergius had owned patents in the coal hydrogenation process that was to play a major role in the next World War; he sold the patents to I.G. Farben sometime after the prior one. Carl Bosch had been the president of I.G. Farben since 1925, when the company was created out of a merger of eight German chemical companies. Maybe they thought that Carl Bosch’s name was too politically toxic to stand on its own but didn’t want to inflame international tensions by making him share it with a Brit. So perhaps the venerable Committee wanted to offer commentary on the two historically parallel chemical processes; for at that time, it looked like coal hydrogenation was going to be the key to unlock history, since it could fuel Germany through another disastrous war. After the allies bombed the Blechhammer plants in 1944, “synthetic oil” largely disappeared from history as natural oil got cheaper and cheaper. The Haber-Bosch Process does not.
After the War, there was a rumor that Haber was on a list of wanted war criminals, but those concerns evaporated when he was given the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1920. His position at the Institute, as its head boss, was safe for years to come. His labs were bound by the Versailles Treaty not to conduct any weapons research, especially chemical weapons, and his labs were subject to weapons inspectors from Britain, whom he befriended. But he arranged and funded on the side a separate scientific group, ostensibly to research insecticides for agriculture. One of their products, they called Zyklon A. You write the rest of the story. Yes, Haber’s own family–his nephews and nieces–would be killed in the Holocaust by a chemical that came out of his labs.
And so, through the latter half of his life, his influences diffuse into every chemical transition of the 20th century–if not as a result of his own work, then as a result of his leadership at the Institut. And then, the Nazis took over, and it was difficult to ignore his thoroughly Jewish heritage. He had a lot of favors to call in, both in Germany and abroad; he spent time in England and elsewhere in Europe. Then, in 1933, the Zionist Chaim Weizmann offered him the directorship of a research institute in then-Palestine. Haber accepted in January 1934, leaving his home in Dahlem to travel to Palestine, and died on the way. Carl Bosch died in 1940, having collaborated closely with the Nazi party on their rise to and first years of power.
Norman Bourlag is next, and I’ll do him quickly. He used nitrogen fertilizer to spread industrial agriculture around the world. Or rather, was the face of the effort to do so. Winner of a Nobel Peace Prize (note: not science). His lab was converted to military use after Pearl Harbor, and after that, he bounced between public and private jobs within the greater Cold War complex. Then, in 1964, the Rockefeller Foundation funded him to set up a lab in Mexico to work with the Gustavo Ordaz government to grow engineered wheat. The genetically engineered varieties of wheat he was giving the Mexicans to plant were designed to be excellent at absorbing large quantities of nitrogen into the soil, and using that nitrogen to produce calories. From there, directly to India, where the legacy of the Green Revolution taints everything, every day: it’s felt in the daily toll of farmer suicides, it’s felt in the roti and in the rice.
The Green Revolution was nitrogen imperialism. The masses on the global periphery had remained in the somatic energy regime to some degree or another through the early 20th century; this represented both an opportunity to the ever expanding machine of global capitalism which necessitates a perpetual frontier, and a threat to the hegemony of the exosomatic energy regime. The countries that posed the greatest resistance to the ascendance of American capitalism–led by the USSR–were largely agrarian societies, peasant societies. The core project of bolshevism from Lenin forward was incorporating and satiating the tremendous power of the somatic economy across the vast expanse of land inside the Union. This was also perhaps Bolshevism’s great failing: never really succeeding in incorporating the peasants into the industrializing economy, and thus into its polity. Where they failed, Monsanto easily succeeded in roping peasants around the world into the capitalist market, as consumers of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. These people have been taking food out of the earth for generations without any need for cashflow, and now you’re suddenly going to demand that they buy on credit? Every time, it results in suffering and death, and the farmer suicides are only the most visible symptom. There was a reason that this was a focus of activism in the 1990s.
Although industrial agriculture is capable of mass producing empty calories, it is notably antiproductive from any ecological view that places value on biodiversity, nutrient density, carbon sequestration capacity of an ecosystem, and so on. It makes the land radically unproductive for true human survival, for sustaining in the long term. That doesn’t matter, because the industrial, exosomatic economy isn’t about life, even if it necessitates an increase in the production of life–it is ultimately a production of death and algae.
In algae blooms we see the underlying violence of life in an exosomatic energy regime. But the true virulence of algae blooms today truly comes from the chemical inputs into industrial economies, from synthetic nitrogen, to be specific. Much of this algae secretes highly toxic chemicals—toxic to humans and many other living things besides. The trenched fields of the Western Front, where chlorine gas pools around Algerian bodies and the seafloor beneath the Mississippi thermocline are equally dead zones of capitalism. Algae in this form is a monoculture without profit; its only production is death. But a direct byproduct of the profitable monocultures on land industrially producing edible calories.
Cyclonopedia doesn’t much touch on any of this, because it is a book of the desert. Nonetheless, tellurian bogs exist; the earth is host to a wet fecundity that provides the precursors of oil, to be submerged and synthesized by gravity and heat. The War Machines that oil smuggles through the pipeline are converted into sugar that can be eaten and incorporated into our flesh. They infect us with gas-station food. The war machines remain active with each conversion of energy, each burst of heat that shapes our synthetic world; they give Capital flesh. They have succeeded spectacularly. No other mass extinction event in the history of the planet has proceeded as quickly as this one, not even close.
Daniel Charles, Master Mind: The Rise and Fall of Fritz Haber, the Nobel Laureate who Launched the Age of Chemical Warfare. Ecco: 2005.
Bretislav Friedrich & Dieter Hoffman. “Clara Immerwahr: A Life in the Shadow of Fritz Haber.” In One Hundred Years of Chemical Warfare: Research, Deployment, consequences. Springer: 2017 https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51664-6_4
John Robert McNeill. Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. W.W. Norton: 2000.
Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials. Re.Press: 2008.
Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production. MIT: 2001.