We Have No Idea What Happens Next

To grasp how hard it is to predict what will happen after the world is thrown upside down – as it has been this year – you have to know the absurd story of how one of the most important agricultural developments of modern history came to be.

It started in 1815 when the volcano Mt. Tambora in Indonesia erupted.

Tambora was an utter disaster – the more you read about it the more you realize few adjectives suffice. It was the largest volcanic eruption in human history, 100 times more powerful than Mount St. Helens. Ten thousand locals died instantly. Most of those who survived the blast went on to die of starvation after nearly all vegetation on the island of Sumbawa was destroyed.

Then came the real catastrophe.

The volcanic eruption column surged 26 miles into the sky, pushing debris deep into the stratosphere – one of only a handful of times it’s happened in human history. And there was an epic amount of debris: Tambora ejected enough ash to cover the equivalent of California two-feet deep.

Ash then drifted around the globe, where it caused havoc. You’ve probably seen pictures of San Francisco this summer when smoke and ash from wildfires temporarily turned the sky dark crimson. Tambora did that to much of the world. And it did it for several months.

Thus began what became known as The Year Without A Summer.

The sun blocked by ash, global temperatures fell an average of 1.5 degrees in 1816, marking the coldest year of recorded history. Europe saw snow through July, much of it coming down not white but greyish orange, mixed with ash. New York saw frost in August. New Englanders began referring to the year as Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.

Freezing temperatures and low sunlight became an agricultural disaster. Crops failed throughout the world. Famine followed.

Europe – already struggling in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars – was hit particularly hard. Germany had it worst. Hunger and surging food prices turned a desperate, agitated population into rioters. A German mayor wrote:

The inflation and hunger was felt so hard by many that in order for them and their children to survive, they boiled snails and cooked green cabbage from so called pig’s ears and ate them, whereby they became enfeebled and often could no longer work, and even worse could not walk, and as a result of the hunger their feet swelled and their heads swelled.

One of those starving Germans was a 13-year-old boy named Justus von Liebig.

Liebig was an unremarkable child, labeled in school as “hopelessly useless.”

But he liked to tinker and experiment. Liebig’s father was a paint manufacturer, and introduced the boy to industrial chemistry, which he fell in love with.

Justus von Liebig then decided two things.

One was that he wanted to become a chemist. He received his PhD when he was 21 years old.

The other was more ambitious: Deeply affected by his experience during the famine of 1816, he would devote his chemistry career to improving agriculture.

Which is exactly what he did.

Liebig was one of the first to understand the mechanics of how important nitrogen was to plant health and crop yield, and how ammonia could be used to supply it artificially. He also popularized the law of the minimum, or the idea that the total amount of plant nutrients wasn’t important; a single scarce nutrient could depress yields, and that nutrient was usually nitrogen. Ammonia was the missing ingredient needed to maximize yields and grow healthy crops during years Mother Nature didn’t cooperate. Like in 1816.

Liebig’s work – improved upon in the following decades, particularly by scientists who learned how to manufacture ammonia synthetically – gave rise to the ammonia-based fertilizer industry that still dominates global agriculture.

It’s hard to exaggerate how big a deal it’s been. Vaclav Smil writes in his book Enriching The Earth:

The industrial synthesis of ammonia … has been of greater fundamental importance to the modern world than the invention of the airplane, nuclear energy, space flight, or television. The expansion of the world’s population from 1.6 billion people in 1900 to today’s six billion would not have been possible without the synthesis of ammonia.

Liebig’s story is impressive in any context. But it’s fascinating when you ask the question: Would he have pursued a career in chemistry, focused on agriculture, and discovered nitrogen-based fertilizer if it weren’t for Mt. Tambora’s eruption 7,000 miles away that caused a German famine?

Probably not.

Which is wild.

A volcano explodes, then a kid on a different continent becomes inspired to figure out how to feed the planet more efficiently. No reasonable person would make that connection in 1816. But it’s what happened.

And Liebig wasn’t alone. Tambora’s plague set several unintentional paths in motion.

Looking for an alternative to horses after feed prices surged during the famine, German inventor Karl von Drais invented the bicycle.

Migration from New England to the central plains – which were less affected by Tambora’s ash – surged. Historian Lawrence Goldman argues that crop-driven migration into western New York in 1816 was critical to coalescing the anti-slavery movement.

All instigated by a god-awful volcano.

Which should make you wonder: What unintentional paths will 2020’s god-awful virus set in motion?

There’s a theory in evolutionary biology called Fisher’s Fundamental Theorem of Natural Selection.

It’s the idea that variance equals strength, because the more diverse a population is the more chances it has to come up with new traits that can be selected for. No one can know what traits will be useful; that’s not how evolution works. But if you create a lot of traits, the useful one – whatever it is – will be in there somewhere.

The same thing applies to the diversity of events a society faces.

It still feels hard, if not reckless, to imagine the upside of Covid-19. We may not have even seen the worst of it yet.

But everyone in the world has suddenly been exposed to problems they had never seen before. They’ve become aware of new risks. New constraints in how they live, work, and play. A whole new set of perspectives on how to keep your family safe, run a business, and use technology.

Some of the changes that will bring are obvious. We’re already better and faster at creating vaccines than we were a year ago. Doctors are more knowledgeable. Remote work is more efficient. Travel is less necessary.

Then there’s a second tier of change: perhaps using our new knowledge of mRNA vaccines to treat other diseases, like cancer. It seems likely, but who knows.

Then there’s the big unknown: the crazy, disconnected, counterintuitive change set in motion this year that we’ll only be able to piece together in hindsight. The kinds of things that only happen when seven billion people have their lives thrown upside down, experience a bunch of stuff they’d never imagined, and are either motivated or forced to do something completely different than they had considered in January.

No one should even guess what that might be. The unpredictability is the point.

But when good vaccine news came out this week, several people said, “there’s light at the end of the tunnel.” Maybe. But I suspect we have no idea what happens next.