As the world burns — and as kids sound the alarm — the original environmental scientist is worth revisiting.
September 14, 2019 8:00AM (UTC)
Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769. In his day, he was a globetrotting, convention-defying hero — one of the first recorded individuals to raise environmental concerns. To make him hip for a new generation, all it takes is a rediscovery of Humboldt by the young climate strikers across the globe. Their numbers are growing, their task is huge, and they are now urging adults to join them. Why let parents fiddle when the house burns? On May 22, grown-ups at the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and The Guardian listened and launched Covering Climate Now, a project to encourage more coverage of climate change in the media. Bill Moyers, the keynote speaker, pointed out that from 2017 to 2018, major network coverage of climate issues fell 45 percent to a total of a mere 142 minutes. And on May 23, with her knack of being spot-on, 16-year-old climate activist and rising star Greta Thunberg promptly wrote of taking on the climate change challenge: “It’s humanity’s job.”
Finding a champion like Humboldt could be a joyous surprise for the young climate strikers. He has their back. He saw anthropogenic climate change coming more than 200 years ago. After all, he was the pioneering scientist who observed, documented and analyzed human-caused environmental damage in the early 1800s during his long journey of scientific exploration in Latin America. That’s when he blasted the methods of colonialism and warned about climate change caused by reckless deforestation and monoculture plantations. Back then, he investigated dried-up hillsides and the harm done by violent floods. He noted how once abundant water resources were wasted and fertile agricultural land grew barren. He saw things others overlooked.
It was at Lake Valencia in northern Venezuela where Humboldt developed his idea that humans were negatively impacting the climate. In his 1814 book, “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctal Regions of the New Continent,” he wrote:
“When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. The sward and moss disappearing from the brush-wood on the sides of the mountains, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loose soil, and form those sudden inundations that devastate the country.”
Humboldt came to search for and comprehend the unity of nature. He spoke up for the Earth and for social justice. We can learn from his battles for sustainable practices. Humboldt was an environmental scientist even before the words environment or ecology were coined (1827 and 1875, respectively).
Perhaps it is timely that kid-led, citizen-based, grassroots organizing, like the Sunrise Movement in the United States, the Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom and the global School Strike for Climate, have taken root in 2019, the year of Humboldt’s 250th birthday on September 14. Events, talks, conferences, exhibits, concerts, celebrations and the premiere of a musical “Humboldt!” are scheduled — but not so much here in the United States, where we remain force-fed and distracted by political burlesques. In contrast, the climate-striking school kids stayed focused. Each week on #FridaysForFuture,they walk out of their schools to demand a future. Other new groups have started their own activities. Scientists tell us that humans have only 12 years left to reduce emissions and limit global warming to an increase of 1.5° Celsius before things get really grim. And research on the rapidly shrinking biodiversity shows evidence that one million species face extinction. Big demonstrations are planned for September 20, just a few days after the festivities for Humboldt’s birthday are over.
The environmentalist David Attenborough said during a recent United Nations climate conference that we are facing the “collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.” Greta Thunberg also came straight to the point. Her comment on May 24, the day of the second global climate strike at 1,263 locations in 107 countries has only four words: “Activism works. So act.”
Humboldt represents the road not taken. He was a scientist who saw everything as interconnected. He called for good global stewardship and objected to the careless exploitation of resources. His warnings weren’t heeded. Soon a zeitgeist shift rushed things along on an opposing highway: toward massive development and depletion as if there were no tomorrow. So now it’s appropriate to recall that during the first decades of the 19th century, Alexander von Humboldt was the second-most famous person in the world after Napoleon. The books documenting his work were international bestsellers. As part of his lecture series and later five-volume treatise, “Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe,” he gave more than 60 free and lengthy talks to thousands of people from all walks of life. Workers and members of the nobility, men and women, young and old listened to him, rapt. He did not live in an ivory tower. Here in the United States, folks also knew very well who he was and what he did. They named their towns, counties, mountains, forests, schools and parks after him. Today he is still a big deal, but not for the general public. Now he is known almost exclusively only among specialist academic Humboldtians across the globe. There are several active institutions: The Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung/Foundation is one of them. It has 29,000 members. They are scientists and scholars from all disciplines in 140 countries.
An outstanding communicator, Humboldt hand-wrote thousands of letters per year and built an extensive worldwide network with correspondents during his lifetime. This networking continues today, enhanced by the electronic media. This helps in keeping his correspondence with Thomas Jefferson alive and available on digital platforms.
In her book “The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America,”Laura Dassow Walls, the William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, tells a little story about John B. Floyd, U.S. Secretary of War, and how in 1858 he visited Humboldt in Berlin to pay his respects. An advance gift had been sent to the old man. It was a fine album with nine maps showing all the Humboldt place names in the U.S. There was also a letter. It said:
“Never can we forget the services you have rendered not only to us but to all the world. The name of Humboldt is not only a household word throughout our immense country, from the shores of the Atlantic to the waters of the Pacific, but we have honored ourselves by its use in many parts of our territory….”
Just as he finished reading this florid ode, the American guest was shown in. A bit of toning down was required. “I wish you to know,” joked Humboldt, “that I am a river about 350 miles long; I have many tributaries, not much timber, but I am full of fish.”
Full of fish. There are still fish in Nevada’s Humboldt River: stocked fish. These days the young fish are grown in hatcheries and put into the stream by humans for the pleasure of the sport-fishing community. Other locations named Humboldt will face serious challenges. In northern California, for example, research and vulnerability studies predict that several communities in beautiful Humboldt County will be washed over by tides on a daily basis. This area has the highest risks of sea-level rise on the extensive U.S. West Coast.
Yet on the upside is the potential for constructing offshore wind energy projects. The northern coastline has long been regarded as ideal, even unparalleled in the U.S., but the local water depth was too deep for wind turbine installations. Now the latest technologies of floating platforms offer solutions. And Humboldt Bay also has California’s only deep-water port north of San Francisco, which will be essential in providing the infrastructure for renewable energy resources.
The good news is that apparently we already have affordable technologies, techniques and the science that can help us to save the planet from becoming uninhabitable. It will be difficult and a long hard slog. Dealing with the tobacco industry was easy compared to the contests to come, and the stakes are higher than they have ever been.
Humboldt’s groundbreaking 1807 “Essay on the Geography of Plants” was published in a complete English-language translation for the first time in 2009 by the University of Chicago Press. As the publisher’s description tells us, the book covers “far more than its title implies[. I]t represents the first articulation of an integrative ‘science of the earth.’” Walls calls it a work by “our first planetary thinker.” Those trying to find a trail “to the future should start with this book, Humboldt’s manifesto for the 21st century.” As a Humboldt fan, I agree. The 1807 essay is a powerful road map drawn by a prescient thinker, and it shows the author’s holistic understanding of the natural world:
“Botanists usually direct their research towards objects that encompass only a very small part of their science. They are concerned almost exclusively with the discovery of new species of plants, the study of their external structure, their distinguishing characteristics, and the analogies that group them together into classes and families. …
“[I]t is no less important to understand the Geography of Plants, a science that up to now exists in name only, and yet is an essential part of general physics.
“This is the science that concerns itself with plants in their local association in the various climates. This science, as vast as its object, paints with a broad brush the immense space occupied by plants, from the regions of perpetual snows to the bottom of the ocean, and into the very interior of the earth, where there subsist in obscure caves some cryptogams that are as little known as the insects feeding upon them.”
Although no one knows if the climate strikers will stumble into Humboldt and his ideas, I hope they do.
Erika Schelby is the author of “Looking for Humboldt and Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond” (Lava Gate Press, 2019) and “Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future?” (Lava Gate Press, 2013), which was shortlisted by the Berlin-based cultural magazine Lettre International. Schelby lives in New Mexico.