Channeling Humboldt

How the lost hero of science can help us fight climate change.

by Ben Abraham



In the post-Paris Agreement environment, the locus of climate action has returned to the domestic sphere. While each country’s Nationally Determined Contribution and the agreement itself were produced by technocrats, implementing them will require fundamental shifts in the way people live their lives. A report from the Grantham Institute at the London School of Economics estimated that $5 trillion per year in green infrastructure investments are needed over the next 15 years to have a chance of meeting targets to limit global warming to 2oC. The changes such investments will entail in how we move, live and produce energy will be profound. However, the political will and public mobilisation for such change, simply put, does not yet exist. This is not surprising when one considers the fact the science has never been more technically specialised – or its findings less accessible – to a public that is also increasingly disconnected from nature.


Our perceptions of the natural environment are fundamentally shaped by our experiences with it. Worryingly, we spend less and less time in nature. According to a recent Ipsos MORI study, the UK public believes that 47 percent of the UK is densely built-up. The true proportion is only 0.1 percent. As populations become more urbanised, consciousness of nature is fading fast. The National Trust report in 2012 highlighted that fewer than one in ten children regularly play in wild places, compared to about half only one generation ago. The need to invigorate public connection with nature and the importance of tackling climate action has never been more pressing; people are unlikely to make changes to protect something they do not know or love.


But where can we look for inspiration? Despite the well-known negative medical, social and environmental consequences of what Richard Louv famously dubbed “Nature Deficit Disorder”, the forces of urbanisation and modern pressures to live indoors and in front of screens can appear insurmountable. The author Andrea Wulf offers a suggestion in her impressive biography The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science. In it, Wulf makes the compelling case for restoring Humboldt, who has become lost to most of the English-speaking world, to the pantheon of science. It traces Humboldt from his origins as a restless young mind, suffocated by the restrictions of Prussian noble life, to becoming the most famous explorer and intellectual of his time and to his posthumous legacy. The book has been glowingly reviewed many times already, but something critical has been largely overlooked: how Humboldt’s approach to understanding the natural world could help inspire a reconnection to nature and inform modern efforts to tackle climate change.


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Despite being the most important scientist of his generation, Humboldt would be unrecognisable as one today. He was one of the last great polymaths, whose knowledge and expertise spanned from his early work in geology, to animal biology, astronomy and what would become known as the field of ecology. He also wrote on politics, poetry and art. Furthermore, Humboldt at his best was not found in the university, but outside pushing his physical limits to the extreme in an effort to satisfy his unending hunger for exploration, data collection and comparison.


The pivotal voyage of Humboldt’s career, to which the second section of Wulf’s book is dedicated, was to the Spanish colonies of the Americas from 1799-1804. Across modern day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico and Cuba, Humboldt documented and collected countless new species of flora and fauna that the academies of Europe had never seen. However, he was not focused on classifying new things, but searching for how “all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven”. This culminated in his idea of nature as a “web of life”. According to Humboldt, all living systems are connected and interdependent, which also makes them vulnerable to disruption. This concept was a radical break from the established wisdom at the time, which saw the natural world as series of clockwork mechanisms divinely designed for humanity’s exploitation. It has stood the test of time and remains at the core of both popular perceptions of nature and the study of ecology.

Humboldt’s explorations also showed him the potential of human activity to drastically impact nature. He was one of the first to connect colonialism with environmental destruction, documenting how colonial monoculture plantations were taking a devastating human and environmental toll. For example, Wulf writes that, in the valley of Lake Valencia, Humboldt “observed how the world’s lust for colourful clothing brought poverty and dependency to the local people”. Indigo, used for blue dye, had replaced food crops in the region and, as Humboldt documented, was impoverishing the soil to the extent that he predicted, in a few years, nothing would grow there. The land, he described, was being exploited “like a mine”. Humboldt also wrote about the prospect of man-made climate change as early as 1800, documenting the climate supporting role of forests and observing the effects of their destruction on the region’s soils, water and atmosphere. He described the impact of human intervention into these systems as “incalculable” and worried about the implications for future generations if it continued.


One of Humboldt’s great talents was connecting people with nature through writing. His texts were both scientific and engaging, brimming with facts, analysis and poetic prose, which sumptuously transported every sight and smell back to the reader. Contemporaries called him the “Shakespeare of science”. The legendary German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was among his closest confidents and each new publication by Humboldt was considered essential reading for artists, poets and musicians across Europe – as well as for scientists and intellectuals. His seminal work was Cosmos, which brought together his life’s work across all subjects. As Wulf describes it “no other scientist had written about poetry, art and gardens, and about agriculture and politics, as well as about feeling and emotions”. Nature, Humboldt wrote, had to be described with both scientific accuracy and “the vivifying breath of imagination”. Modern scientists could learn from his example. There are many words one could use to describe the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but “vivifying” is not one of them.


The specialisation of science over the past two centuries has yielded critical and increasingly precise insights into the forces of nature. We continue to need this expertise to understand our warming world, but if the scientific consensus has not already mobilised people, simply providing more specific insights will not spur action. Scientists bring authority to discussions about nature, but rarely inspire. Artists, in contrast, move hearts and minds but often lack intellectual authority. To build a coherent and publicly supportive narrative about restructuring our societies for a carbon neutral world we need the best of both approaches. Wulf does a great service by reminding us of Humboldt, who was an unparalleled master at weaving both together.


Humboldt’s life was dedicated to understanding connections. His journeys to the Americas were tainted by his witnessing of slavery and colonialism. He became a fervent abolitionist, and never missed a chance to express his disgust of slavery to his American admirers. He was also a supporter of independence for Europe’s colonies in the Americas. In his eyes the two were shared struggles, both linked to environmental destruction. Indeed, the South American independence leader Simón Bolivar once told Humboldt that his evocative depictions of South America’s landscapes inspired the revolutionary forces to take pride in their homelands.


According to Wulf, Humboldt also constantly supported the efforts of his fellow scientists, both financially and intellectually. He did so without hesitation and to such an extent that, to the despair of his own family, much of his life was lived in precarious financial situations despite his success and inherited wealth. Such generosity should be embraced by the climate movement today. It would help make climate change a unifying force for social and environmental struggles rather than one that diverts attention from other causes. Environmental justice groups have led the way in this regard and projects like the People’s Climate March continue to demonstrate that unity is both powerful and possible, even within a movement of great diversity. The limited window to address many environmental challenges simply leaves no time for turf wars which, unfortunately, continue to arise.

Climate change is an extremely future-focused issue, but just as climate models depend on observations from history, so our efforts to combat it must be informed by thinking from the past. Inspiring science that moves heads and hearts; intersectional thinking and generosity are all aspects of Humboldt’s life that are needed today. The Invention of Nature does a spectacular job of memorialising the lost hero of science. It now falls to us to apply his lessons.


Illustration by Rory Maclean


Ben Abraham reads a DPhil in Public Policy at St Catherine’s. He is from New Zealand and likes sloths.

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