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  • Lex van der steen

On fertility and productivity

As I started doing some research on the topics and signifiers that I will talk about here, I quickly realized that this area is incredibly fertile for growing new questions and research. Therefore, I will have to hold myself back in order for my writing not to shoot root in completely different ways and lose any sense of direction. I am sure that in the future I will post texts that work with similar, if not the same, themes and lexicon. However, the fact that each of these might be interwoven with a very obvious potential to be developed in different directions, since they will inevitably leave out many interesting details, will hopefully render them all the more potent for new thinking.

The thoughts elaborated in this text make a start in bringing together the conceptual structure of ‘fertilizer’ and the phenomena of social acceleration and productivity. I had the intuition that, perhaps by bringing these two together, a fruitful and new starting point can be established to think about the socially accelerated lives we live, and reveals the philosophical potential of the fertilizer lexicon.

What are fertilizers? I first asked myself this question because at some point I became aware of a certain contrariety: why does the term ‘fertilizer’ have, at least for me, bad connotations? Should the term fertilizer not be related to somewhat more positively sounding terms like ‘fertile’ and ‘fertilization’ (as in, the creation of a new organism)? Basically, a fertilizer is an organic or inorganic material that people add to soil in order to provide it with more nutrients that plants require to grow. Fertilizers thus stimulate the growth of plants and the eventual harvest. New research has shown that fertilizers, manures in this case, were already used 8000 years ago in Europe (Balter, 2013). The Egyptians, Romans, Babylonians, and Early Germans also already made use of fertilizers like minerals and manure (Scherer, Mengel, Kluge, & Severin, 2009). The history of fertilizer is incredibly interesting, but I will not elaborate on it here. It was also, by the way, incredibly violent; look for example at the Chincha Islands War or at the use of the Haber-Bosch process for the production of chemical weapons in the First and Second World War.

The only historical element that I will mention is the increased use of chemical fertilizer after the Second World War. In response to the widespread hunger and malnutrition problems of the 1960’s, especially in Asia, the U.S. President’s Science Advisory Committee concluded that a huge effort to stimulate and spread scientific advances was needed (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2002). What followed was the ‘Green Revolution’: an immense growth of agriculture world-wide. The two most important elements of the Green Revolution have been the breeding of improved varieties – that produce more crops, grow quicker, grow at any time of the year, and are more responsive to nutrients – and the expanded use of (chemical) fertilizers and other chemical inputs (idem). In fact, while the world-wide use of fertilizers in 1961 was 52 million tons, in 2019 the use of fertilizers was 215 million tons (Ritchie, Roser, & Rosado, 2022). It has even been estimated that, in 2008, half of the human population could be fed due to the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer (Erisman, Sutton, Galloway, Klimont, & Winiwarter, 2008). Ironically, the production of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer only became possible after the invention of the Haber-Bosch process (allowing for the industrial production of ammonia), which has also become the central foundation of the world’s ammunition supplies (idem). Fertilizer, to put it very mildly, is undoubtedly important for human existence today. It is the chemical – that is, material – ground responsible for a large amount of human life and death in modernity.

Now, for the conceptual structure that underpins the signifier ‘fertilizer’. The reason why the term ‘fertilizer’ has a bad connotation today, despite making it possible to feed almost 50 percent of the human population, is because of its negative effects on soil and ecosystems in general. The problematic consequences that follow from using too much chemical fertilizer are many. Specifically interesting, and worrisome, is that they contaminate the soil in which food is produced, which “is responsible for decreasing the soil biodiversity and fertility and hence, decrease soil health by obstructing the breakdown of soil organic matter and altering nutrient cycling” (Bisht & Singh Chauhan, 2021). So, simply put, inorganic fertilizers, when used excessively and over a long period of time, renders the soil infertile. This is a huge problem, obviously: “soil contamination is responsible for reducing crop yields and for turning productive agricultural land into unproductive areas … As a result, the food availability and stability dimensions of food security are affected by this” (idem). And not only is food security under pressure, even the quality of the food itself suffers from the excessive use of inorganic fertilizer. Research has shown that the quantity of nutrients in crops, like protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin, and vitamin C, has been declining over the past 70 years (Colino, 2022).

Inorganic fertilizers render a possibly already fertile soil more fertile for the moment, but thereby also affect the soil in such a way that it starts losing its original fertility. This, I think, is conceptually interesting, since a clear distinction between fertility and infertility no longer holds in a system that relies on chemical fertilizer. Furthermore, the adjective ‘inorganic’ (or chemical, artificial, etcetera) implicitly already implies an opposing, organic fertilizer. Organic fertilizer can indeed be seen as the other side of inorganic fertilizer: “bioorganic fertiliser not only improves soil fertility through the contribution of beneficial microorganisms and organic materials, but also eliminates many of the environmental problems caused by chemical fertilisers” (Bisht & Singh Chauhan, 2021). Thus, fertilizer can be divided into organic and inorganic fertilizers. In one of these, the inorganic fertilizers, the distinction between fertile and infertile breaks down, while in the other, the organic fertilizers, the distinction between fertile and infertile remains steady. The inorganic fertilizer ‘fertilizes’ through a process that also renders infertile, while this is not the case with organic fertilizer, which renders fertile and fertile only (this is not to say, of course, that within ‘the fertile’ there are no ‘infertile’ elements, just as it would be wrong to say that there are no ‘dead’ elements inside biological ‘life’; what matters here is the difference between the effects of organic and inorganic fertilizer).

Now, as I mentioned earlier, I believe the lexicon of fertilization and fertility are incredibly … fertile. Here, I would like to make a tiny beginning in projecting it on the sphere of productivity and social acceleration. If I search in the Online Etymology Dictionary for the adjective ‘fertile’, I find that it comes from the Latin fertilis, which is said to mean “bearing in abundance, fruitful, productive” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020). Then, if I search for the adjective ‘productive’, it tells me that it comes from the Latin producere (to bring forth), and that it (the adjective ‘productive’) means “fertile, producing abundantly” (Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020). Although this connection has today been somewhat covered up by the use of the terms productive and productivity in the context of non-agricultural labor and work, any quick internet search suggests a historical connection between the semantics of fertility and productivity. It would be interesting to do serious research on their connection through time. For now, I will simply take these two concepts and bring them together, and see whether doing so can open up new directions of thought.

Hartmut Rosa defines productivity as “a quantitative increase of output per unit of time (e.g., per hour worked) and thus as acceleration” (Rosa, 2013, p. 162). The aim of fertilizer can be formulated in a very similar manner: to produce a quantitative increase of crop yields (output) per unit of space. Productivity, according to Rosa, is a form of acceleration. And taking into account the semantic overlap between productivity and fertilization, it seems that fertilization, as the excessive use of its chemical version, can also be interpreted as a form of acceleration. With (social) acceleration, Rosa refers to the fact that society is increasingly speeding up in many different dimensions. Overall, things are getting faster. Specifically, Rosa signals three different types of social acceleration. First, technical acceleration, which involves the acceleration of goal-directed processes like transportation, communication and production. Second, social acceleration, which refers to the acceleration of changeovers in not goal-directed social relations, like love-relationships, jobs and hobbies. Third, the acceleration of the pace of life, which comes about by the need to realize more actions and experiences per unit of time. These three accelerations, according to Rosa, form a self-propelling cycle. Particularly interesting in relation to chemical fertilization, is the paradoxical relationship that Rosa signals between technical acceleration and the acceleration of the pace of life:

“The [accelerated] dynamics and the temporal compulsions of social and psychic life in industrial and postindustrial society cannot be derived from achievements in technologically supported acceleration, since in fact the latter stand in direct logical contradiction to the former. The heightening of the “pace of life,” the temporal scarcity of modernity, arise not because but rather even though enormous gains in time through acceleration have been registered in almost all areas of social life.” (Rosa, 2013, p. 67)

In most “pop science literature”, the problem of our increased pace of life is directly attributed to new technological developments, but according to Rosa this is too simplistic since most new technologies actually make goal-directed processes quicker, and hence less time-consuming. “On the basis of this insight”, Rosa writes, “it is clear the acceleration of the pace of life or the growing scarcity of time is a consequence of a quantitative increase that has to be logically independent from the processes of technical acceleration” (ibidem).

Like fertilizers, new technologies should, in first view, provide that which we desire, namely more time (or more crops). But, like chemical fertilizers, they ultimately do not fulfill this task. Rosa unfolds the paradox by focusing on social acceleration. The introduction of new technologies brings about social change. He writes that

“the technical acceleration of processes simultaneously changes the socially established standards of temporal rationality: to wait seven days the answer to a letter taking eight days to arrive appears just as appropriate as the same length of time appears inappropriate when answering an e-mail that turns up in its recipient’s mailbox after a few seconds. Technical acceleration does not force a heightening of the pace of life, but it changes the temporal standards that underlie our actions and plans.” (Rosa, 2013, p. 127).

The new possibilities brought about by technological developments brings about a new social norm. This increased social norm outgrows technological acceleration, and hence the difference needs to be compensated by increasing one’s pace of life, through taking less time to rest or through multitasking. And, again similar to chemical fertilizer, because technology is still seen as that which opens up time (since, directly, it does), the increased pace of life makes people desire more new technologies that can save them from a constant lack of time. Yet, as mentioned, these new technologies actually cause social acceleration, and thus accelerate the pace of life. Hence, a self-propelling cycle is established.

There is a symmetry between the use of chemical fertilizers and technological acceleration. When comparing technological acceleration directly with the acceleration of the pace of life, it is not immediately clear why they tend to happen simultaneously, since new technologies open up time rather than take time. The same can be said about drawing a direct comparison between chemical fertilizer and crop output: chemical fertilizer offer more nutrients to plants and should therefore result in more and better crops, but in the long turn this is not actually the case (by damaging the larger system in such a way that the system as a whole becomes unstable). Rosa overcomes the paradox (which actually is not a paradox) by focusing on the acceleration of social relations, in which the pace of our lives is situated and determined. In the case of chemical fertilizer, one has to take into account soil health to understand the relation between chemical fertilizers and crop output (in the long run). We can draw a similarity, then, between the soil in which crops grow, and the network of social relations within which individuals’ lives are embedded. Both new technological developments and the use of chemical fertilizers affect their ‘soil’ (either social or physical) in such a way that the ‘need’ it started off with only increases in the long run. Thus, they affect their soil, their ground, in such a way that they, the fertilizers and the time-saving technologies, are increasingly more desired. In both cases, then, a self-propelling cycle is established.

This is the point where, for now, I will abandon this inquiry. The obvious question that remains is: if inorganic fertilizer has a similar effect on its soil as technological acceleration does, is there an ‘organic acceleration’ that we can think of? I think, like I already emphasized strongly in the beginning, that the comparison between fertilizer and acceleration, and productivity (and the lexicon of fertilizer in general), are incredibly fruitful for producing new philosophical questions. I will proceed with them later.



Balogh, A. (2021, December 13). The rise and fall of monoculture farming. Retrieved from

Balter, M. (2013, July 15). Researchers Discover First Use of Fertilizer. Retrieved from

Bisht, N., & Singh Chauhan, P. (2021). Excessive and Disproportionate Use of Chemicals Cause Soil Contamination and Nutritional Stress. In M. Larramendy, & S. Soloneski, Soil Contamination - Threats and Sustainable Solutions. InTechOpen.

Colino, S. (2022, May 3). Fruits and vegetables are less nutritious than they used to be. Retrieved from

Erisman, J., Sutton, M., Galloway, J., Klimont, Z., & Winiwarter, W. (2008). How a century of ammonia synthesis changed the world. Nature Geoscience, 1., 636-639.

International Food Policy Research Institute. (2002). Green Revolution: Curse or Blessing? Retrieved from

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2020, December 7). fertile (adj.). Retrieved from

Online Etymology Dictionary. (2020, November 28). productive (adj.). Retrieved from

Rakshit, A., Singh Meena, V., Parihar, M., Singh, H., & Singh, A. (2021). Biofertilizers, Volume 1: Advances in Bio-inoculants. Cambridge: Woodhead Publishing.

Ritchie, H., Roser, M., & Rosado, P. (2022). Fertilizers. Retrieved from

Rosa, H. (2013). Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press.

Scherer, H., Mengel, K., Kluge, G., & Severin, K. (2009). Fertilizers, 1. General. In Ullmann's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry. Weinheim:


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