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If You Want To Understand The Anthropocene, Become A Humboldtonian

November 3, 2016

Humboldt and his fellow scientist Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo volcano, painting by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810).

A polymath, and an extraordinary scientist and explorer of remarkable breadth, Alexander von Humboldt  grasped the interconnectedness of the planet’s myriad ecosystems:

Humboldt was born during the era in which human beings stopped fearing nature and began to control it. The steam engine, the smallpox vaccine, and the lightning rod were rapidly redefining man’s relationship with the natural world. Timekeeping and measuring systems became standardized, and the few blank spaces remaining on world maps were quickly filling in. In New England, the colonists spoke of “reclaiming” North America from the wilderness, a project inextricable from the propagation of democracy. The jurist James Kent, seeking a legal basis for seizing land from Native Americans, argued that the continent was “fitted and intended by Providence to be subdued and cultivated, and to become the residence of civilized nations.” Explorers like James Cook and Louis Antoine de Bougainville circumnavigated the globe and published their journals, which Humboldt read avidly as a boy…..

Supported by the windfall of his inheritance, he abandoned his mining career and planned a “great voyage” to a distant location. The destination did not seem to make much difference—he considered the West Indies, Lapland, Greece, and Siberia, before settling on South America, once he was offered a passport to the Spanish colonies from King Carlos IV himself. Nor did he have any specific object of study. He would analyze everything, from wind patterns and cloud structures to insect behavior and soil composition, collecting specimens, making measurements, and taking temperatures. He wanted no less than to discover how “all forces of nature are interlaced and interwoven.” He took as the premise of his expedition that the earth was “one great living organism where everything was connected.” The insights that followed from this premise would be worth more than all of the discoveries he made.

His life and ideas are masterfully chronicled in a biography by Andrea Wulff, and I’ve just started digging into it. It is amazing how relevant his thinking and ideas seem today, in a world in which humanity’s domination of nature is destroying, instead of nurturing, nature.

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