Green Grass Without Synthetics

There are benefits to having grass in parks and residential properties. When taken care of, grass becomes a natural carpet on which one can easily rest, play or walk. But to keep Poa pratensis green and thus in a juvenile state requires an investment of energy, an amount that is exaggerated by our questionable habits.

The typical high maintenance option involves buying synthetic fertilizer for spring and autumn applications, herbicide for weeds and pesticides for grubs. Some hire a company to drive around the neighbourhood to periodically spray lawns with the necessary concoction. To avoid the nuisance of a long electrical wire, people buy  gas-powered mowers.  And to prevent leaves and tree seeds from accumulating on lawn, blowers come to the rescue.

Even if people with such habits are aware that making fertilizer is an expensive  process partly because nitrogen does not spontaneously react with molecular hydrogen; even if they know that some fertilizer-pellets inevitably get sprayed onto sidewalks where they damage concrete, induce diarrhea in dogs and end up in storm drains and eventually into waterways and contribute to eutrophication; even if they suspect that the use of pesticides has ecological consequences;  even if they are aware of  the carbon footprint of synthetics and mowers and of the noise pollution of blowers, there is a possibility that they persist with their habits because they believe there is no alternative.

But when there is a will to change, there are always other options. One reason people turn to mass-maintenance techniques is that they plant more grass they can handle. City parks or residents can instead plant more trees, shrubs and cultivate gardens, which is what we did with 2/3 of the lawn we originally had in our backyard. I never spray any of our fruit trees or apply any pesticides to our garden. Instead of synthetic fertilizer, we rely on  a combination of household compost and composted chicken manure.  Grass cannot be eaten, but from July to October we have not needed to buy any tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil, thyme or Swiss chard. We still have frozen cherries from our tree and we’ve also enjoyed arugula, fresh beans, onions and Mexican peppers, most of which were grown from seed.

P1150783.JPGA city bylaw prevents us from cultivating the front yard, but I manage to sneak in some oregano and bird’s-foot trefoil. They require less water and nitrogen than Kentucky bluegrass and displace  weeds. Since our city does not use pesticides on the grass between our sidewalk and road, dandelions, crabgrass and plantains find their way into our property. But I just pull them out with a hand tool. As an alternative to synthetic fertilizer, mulch from the electric mower is left on the lawn so that essential elements like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium can be recycled. To supplement the lawn with more natural fertilizer, we let the dog pee on it and then immediately add collected rainwater to prevent “burning”. Due to their carnivorous diets, dogs’ urea is highly concentrated so it easily creates a hypertonic solution that needs to be diluted. In the spring the melting ice and snow takes care of that. Spots that don’t receive their share of dog pee get coffee grounds, which also keep the lawn green.

Abating the effects global warming involves more than reducing the use of fossil fuels for transportation and electricity-generation. They only account for a combined 45% of greenhouse gases(see pie chart below). Just about everything else ranging from reproduction to growing grass and food also impacts climate change. To solve the problem, regardless of the field of human activity, green or technical, we have to conserve and act more benignly towards ourselves and our surroundings.

AFOLU is an acronym for agriculture, forestry(deforestation) and other land uses. Its large contribution to greenhouse gases is often ignored in media reports about climate change. Source:

Choices in the Aftermath of Society’s Commitments

I was struck by the following blog entry from an inorganic chemistry enthusiast:

I couldn’t help reading >another article on Fritz Haber today.
Like every person, he had a personal life and he made choices. All I am interested in is his science, and I admire his science.

It’s a common attitude among students and professionals. Scientists’ biographies are perceived to contain irrelevant details that get in the way of learning science. Particularly, when the details are negative, an enthusiast will likely dismiss them because it conserves mental energy. But is it a responsible attitude?

The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. source imdb
The 2004 film about Fritz Haber written by Ragussis. The actor portraying Haber in the picture is Christian Berkel. (source: imdb)

The biographical essay in question, Fritz Haber, the damned scientist, emphasizes not only Haber’s personal life and choices, but it examines his status, social context and the choices that his country and its opposing countries were making before, during and after World War I. We can neither ignore history and contemporary events nor pretend that science is a process independent of all other forces in society. It would be like trying to understand a forest without learning about the geochemistry and climate that partially determine its fate. It is very easy to quickly judge individuals, but their social context cannot go unexamined. In fact, in a previous blog, in comparing different attitudes of the Via Panispernia Boys towards the applications of nuclear science, I was guilty of overfocusing  on scientists’ decisions and not on the commitments of society and the contingencies that lead to new dilemmas for individuals.  Such an approach is counterproductive if we are to learn from the past.

For readers unfamiliar with Fritz Haber, he was a German-Jewish chemist born in 1868 and famous for a number of achievements. He sparked another stage in the “agricultural revolution” by laying the groundwork for the production of ammonia (NH3) from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen. He recirculated the reactants,  found the right catalysts and controlled temperature and pressure. With the help of others such as engineer Carl Bosch, a large scale process was then developed, and the NH3 was converted to nitrates, which supplied an essential element to crops. Prior to that, countries were relying heavily on imports of South American guano, which contains uric acid (has nitrogen) as well as phosphates and potassium. Today, it is estimated that more than 50 per cent of the nitrogen atoms in the average human body derive from the Haber-Bosch process.

Some writers have unfairly used the negative consequences of large scale fertilizer-production as more ammunition against Haber’s character. But his contemporaries also had no idea that eutrophication could arise. And few predicted that 40 years later,  the Haber process would combine with other inventions, medical advances and attitudes to produce a sharp growth-spike in population.

from Wikipedia:

The Haber process is yet another tool, which despite good intentions at the onset, becomes more likely to have serious complications in a society devoted far more to blind economic growth than to setting up adaptive cycles.

But why was Haber harshly judged even by his contemporaries? Although the value of his discovery was recognized by the Nobel Committee in 1919, many scientists did not show up for the presentation of the award presumably because of the role that Haber played in developing poison gas in the first World War. The committee officially dubbed it the “1918” prize, but it was actually handed out in 1919, after the armistice. According to W.A.E. Mc Bryde of the University of Waterloo, Haber’s use of chlorine as a weapon was not their focus.

In America a swarm of editorials and letters challenged the suitability of the award to Haber; the point was not the gas warfare, but the extended duration of the war made possible by the manufacture of nitric acid from synthetic ammonia.


If both reasons provided grounds for protesting the award,  those who condemned Haber’s role as “Doctor Death” ignored Grignard’s subsequent use of phosgene (COCl2 ) in the war. Grignard, also a Nobel Prize recipient for chemical synthesis that was unrelated to wartime exploits, was of course working for France. Their soldiers had been the first victims of the chlorine attack. But France had used either xylyl bromide(methylbenzyl bromide) or ethyl bromoacetate as a tear gas before Haber had proposed chlorine as a death agent. Both sides believed that the shocks of chemical warfare would end the war quickly (a cynic would say, to win it promptly). Of course that did not happen. The perception of Haber as the callous scientist was reinforced by the fact that his wife was ardently opposed to his use of chemical weapons, and after Haber let his plan materialize on the battlefield, she fatally shot herself .

But as in many suicides, there were other factors at play. For instance, she was intellectually frustrated by being a PhD in chemistry but never being able to practice it. Her only contribution to the field involved translating Haber’s work into English. Contemporary women in Germany, regardless of their education-level, were still expected to serve exclusively as housewives. Yet Haber wasn’t callous to her depression. He had tried to get her a university teaching position, but she froze in front of her first class and gave up.

Let’s now examine the resentment towards Haber for making nitrates for ammunition. As Dunikowska and Turko point out, even before the alliances had brought Germany into the war, the government and most of industry had committed themselves to building a war machine, one that was opposed not only by humanists and social democrats but by some business people. Once engaged in militarization, inevitably, any country’s scientific research will be focused on the awful business of death, and scapegoating one individual is mostly an emotional response that won’t later serve as a preventative strategy. While so much hatred towards Haber and fellow Germans persisted after the end of World War I, the unfair Treaty of Versailles was signed. The exaggerated burden placed on the defeated country led to widespread instability, eventually facilitating the Nazis’ rise to power. Their new war machine soon led to an even more pernicious world war.

Haber’s response to the Treaty was to focus only on his country’s gargantuan debt. His simplistic approach was to mine the oceans for gold. Eventually after a costly 8-year project, he realized the concentration of gold was too low. For his unsuccessful hypothesis, he became vilified by his own country men. Professionally, however, he made important contributions in areas of pure science such as chemiluminescence and the formation of radicals in combustion. Unfortunately, some sloppy journalism has recently claimed that Haber when on to discover Zyklon B (an HCN-based gas used in concentration camps). In fact his institute developed it as a pesticide, and he was not its individual discoverer.


In April of 1933, three months after Hitler came to power, laws were passed, forbidding Jews to occupy government positions. Although still working for the government, Haber, was exempt from the law, despite being born Jewish. He and some of his colleagues were conscientious enough to oppose the law on principle, and later in the summer of that year, he left the country for London. There he continued to be scorned by scientists like Ernest Rutherford. Eventually he settled in Basel, Switzerland, where he soon died of a heart attack.

Indeed Haber made wrong ethical choices during the war. But he had plenty of company since the probability that anyone in such a position behaved likewise was highly increased when government and industry had already surrendered intellect, spirit, economy and technology to nationalism and militarism. It’s something to bear in mind when analyzing our current society. We have to deconstruct mechanisms that are committed to an illusive growth that ignores social and environmental expenses. At the same time, we have to reinforce policies and strategies that value modesty and stability. Such commitments will make it less likely for individuals to choose paths of consumption and greed and more likely to opt for paths that are, at all levels, productive and green.

BMAA and ALS: A Close Look at Eutrophication

The overall equation representing one of life’s ultimate achievements, photosynthesis, is the biggest oversimplification you will find in any basic science book on the planet. It shows water, carbon dioxide and sunlight as reactants and glucose and oxygen as products. It does not hint at the intricate cascade of events that have to transfer electrons from water to carriers to chlorophyll; on to more carriers and other chlorophyll molecules and still more shuttle bus-like molecules and eventually to carbon dioxide and other reactants of the Calvin cycle.


It overlooks the accessory pigments that help chlorophyll capture more energy from the sun. It ignores the components of the membranes that separate hydrogen ion concentrations supplying the voltage needed to make the reaction facilitator, ATP, and all the enzymes that accelerate the entire food-making process of plants.

Reaction rates in chemistry are controlled by their slow intermediary steps. Photosynthesis and subsequent plant growth rates are controlled by the amount of light, which initiates the process; by temperature, which controls the carbon-dioxide fixing rate; by water-availability and by certain limiting ions. In other words, there is usually ample carbon dioxide available, but other minor, yet crucial substances are often scarce and control the growth of both land and aquatic plants. For algae, such limiting ions, mainly phosphate(PO43- and nitrate(NO3) are needed to make those behind the scene-molecules just mentioned: nitrogen-containing enzymes and ATP, which have N-compounds and phosphate, and they are also needed to synthesize genetic material.

But what happens when limiting ions suddenly become available in greater quantities to bodies of water? They cause eutrophication, which is a state of excess plant and algal growth. Although the process can occur naturally, humans are masters at accentuating it. Runoff fertilizer from nearby agricultural activities, sewage and industrial effluents all contain nitrates and phosphates, which directly lead to population explosions of algae, so called algal blooms.


As algal growth goes out of control, light has a harder time penetrating the water and its pH rises, both of which impact certain predators and shore plants. When excess algae die as part of their life cycles, their decomposition consumes dissolved oxygen, killing fish. Such hypoxic events are affecting over 245 000 square kilometers worldwide.

The foul smell of algal blooms is also a sign of more chemistry gone awry. Depending on the algal species that proliferate, eutrophication at times produces toxins that threaten drinking water supplies, recreational swimming and consumption of seafood. More specifically species of a group of photosynthetic bacteria, cyanobacteria,  produce compounds such as an enzyme-binding microcystin and the neurotoxin anatoxin-a, which mimics the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.

One of several microcytins, the LR refers to variant amino acids
One of several microcytins, microcystin-LR— the LR refers to the variant amino acids leucine and arginine.

In Canada, the Federal-Provincial-Territorial Subcommittee on Drinking Water recommends a maximum acceptable concentration of 0.0015 mg/L for total microcystins in drinking water, based on the toxicity of microcystin-LR. That is equivalent to 1.5 parts per billion, attesting to their high toxicity and to the fact that these compounds resist boiling.

Another cyanobacterial neurotoxin , β-methylamino-ʟ-alanine (BMAA), found in contaminated seafood and shellfish, drinking water supplies, and recreational waters—may be a factor in Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and possibly other neurodegenerative conditions.


The toxin is produced by 95% of the cyanobacteria genera tested, and although it is not one of the 20 amino acids building blocks used by organisms, it does get mistakenly incorporated into proteins.

Accumulation of BMAA in the proteins of nerve cells, which need to last a lifetime, would provide a mechanism for how the toxin might biomagnify. “The problem with neurons is they do not divide, as a general rule, so over time they accumulate damaged proteins, and once they reach a critical level, it causes the cell to undergo apoptosis [cell death],” explains Rachael Dunlop, a researcher with the Heart Research Institute in Sydney, Australia.

Dunlop and others also found that at least in test tubes, a transfer RNA enzyme mistakenly picks up BMAA and incorporates it into proteins. More recently Dunlop and another researcher have mentioned that genes in certain individuals make them more sensitive to BMAA, which unfortunately is not presently screened for in municipal water analyses.

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