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Twelve Steps to P Recovery

December 19, 2014

Tens of thousands of people worldwide have overcome addiction using the Twelve Step Program originally proposed by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.  They have used these guiding principles to overcome deep challenges, and may have a lesson to teach the world about breaking its dependence and misuse of finite stores of phosphate.   Here we discuss a few of the most pertinent steps, and how they may illuminate a path to a sustainable phosphorus future.

Step 1: Admission. Gaining wide acceptance that we have a phosphorus challenge, and that we are the ones causing it is the first step toward a sustainable phosphorus future.  Humans, not nature, are now the primary driver behind cycling in the phosphorus system.  We liberate more than 20 million tons of phosphate rock each year, more than seven times the natural geochemical rate (1).  Since the earth can only recycle phosphorus lost to aquatic systems on the timescale of millennia, we must admit that we are the only ones who can fix this disconnect.  Saying that we have enough for now and that we’ll figure it out before it becomes a problem is just delaying solutions.  Admitting we face a challenge enables us to strive to implement the solutions.

Step 4: Inventory. Taking a searching, or comprehensive, inventory of our phosphorus situation is a process that is well underway and needs to continue.  The last decade has seen great increases in understanding the quantity and quality of phosphorus ore available, where the mined phosphorus is used, and tracking it through environmental and industrial systems.  Critical information still to be gathered includes understanding where phosphorus flow inefficiencies occur, characterizing known sinks, and evaluating policies and regulations that effect phosphorus cycling whether they are directly aimed at nutrients or not.

Step 5: Mentorship. There are lessons to be learned from previous environmental resource challenges that have successfully been overcome.   We have shifted away from previous dependence on chlorofluorocarbons in refrigerants, lead in solder or paint, and dioxins in insulation for example.  These followed a path from scientific investigation to international conventions and protocol, demonstrating a roadmap for sustainable phosphorus.  Unique to the phosphorus challenge is that no viable substitute exists, barring the simple solution of ‘stop using it and find something else’.  However the experience gained will enable completion of becoming a mentor in Step 12, informing other difficult-to-replace limited resources like oil and coal.

Step 9: Amends. Now that we have embraced and characterized the challenge, we can start to make things right.  New technologies allow for phosphorus efficiency in agriculture and recovery from waste streams, but need to be employed at scale sufficient to rectify the problem.  Policies and protocols at global and regional scale can be enacted to make meaningful change, providing for a more secure food future.  Taking inspiration from the Twelve Steps can lead to recovery from phosphorus misuse.

More on Alcoholics Anonymous at

1) Falkowski, P. et al. Science 290, 291–296 (2000).

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