Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The 19th-Century Savior for 21st-Century Climate Change

The negotiators in Paris should've asked: What would Alexander von Humboldt do?

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) 
*oil on canvas 
*158.8 x 138.1 cm 
*signed b.r.:  Julius Schrader. 1859
Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) *oil on canvas *158.8 x 138.1 cm *signed b.r.: Julius Schrader. 1859
Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) *oil on canvas *158.8 x 138.1 cm *signed b.r.: Julius Schrader. 1859

Now that the speeches have died down and the champagne has been put away, it’s worth considering French President François Hollande’s note of caution at the conclusion of the Paris climate conference. “We will not be judged on a word but an act,” he declared. Actions, however, were not an emphasis of the final deal. The Paris agreement included pledges from 196 countries to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius but not any penalties for failing to reach the specified targets for emissions cuts.

Compared to the fiasco of the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the Paris agreement certainly counts as a success. But the negotiators who managed to gather everybody around a table failed at soliciting anything more concrete than promises. Perhaps this should not have come as a surprise. The envoys in Paris, after all, were mostly civil servants dispatched from federal ministries, experts in the art of compromise. That is to say, they were not experts in the deeper workings of human psychology nor, for that matter, the beauty of the natural world.

In that sense, the Paris negotiations were emblematic of environmentalism’s present political moment, which suffers from an excess of diplomatic reason and a deficit of passionate intensity. What it’s missing, in other words, is somebody like Alexander von Humboldt.

Now that the speeches have died down and the champagne has been put away, it’s worth considering French President François Hollande’s note of caution at the conclusion of the Paris climate conference. “We will not be judged on a word but an act,” he declared. Actions, however, were not an emphasis of the final deal. The Paris agreement included pledges from 196 countries to limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius but not any penalties for failing to reach the specified targets for emissions cuts.

Compared to the fiasco of the climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, the Paris agreement certainly counts as a success. But the negotiators who managed to gather everybody around a table failed at soliciting anything more concrete than promises. Perhaps this should not have come as a surprise. The envoys in Paris, after all, were mostly civil servants dispatched from federal ministries, experts in the art of compromise. That is to say, they were not experts in the deeper workings of human psychology nor, for that matter, the beauty of the natural world.

In that sense, the Paris negotiations were emblematic of environmentalism’s present political moment, which suffers from an excess of diplomatic reason and a deficit of passionate intensity. What it’s missing, in other words, is somebody like Alexander von Humboldt.

Humboldt, the forgotten father of environmentalism, was an intrepid explorer and the most famous scientist of his age. Born in 1769 in Prussia, he was less a cerebral scholar than a brazen adventurer, escaping to wilderness as often as he could and regularly pushing his body to the limit as he did so. Talking or writing about nature wasn’t enough; he needed to be in nature, whether that meant half-frozen and bleeding at almost 20,000 feet on Chimborazo, a volcano in Ecuador; paddling along the Orinoco, deep in the Venezuelan rainforest; or racing across the anthrax-infested Siberian steppe.

But what made Humboldt so revolutionary was that he came up with the idea that the natural world was a web of life — a unified, but vulnerable, whole where everything was correlated. In the early 1800s, as the world happily wrested fields from the wilderness and devoured forests for fuel and timber, Humboldt was the first scientist to talk about harmful human-induced climate change, speaking of “mankind’s mischief.” At the Venezuelan coast, he noted how unchecked pearl fishing had completely depleted oyster stocks; at Lake Valencia he commented how deforestation caused soil erosion; in Mexico City he observed how a lake that fed the local irrigation system had shrunk into a shallow puddle, leaving the valleys beneath barren; and how mines everywhere exploited indigenous people and the land. Humboldt linked environmental devastation to economics and politics, criticizing unjust land distribution, the destructive effect of monocul­tures, and violence against tribal groups (all powerfully relevant issues today).

Celebrated in his day across the globe, Humboldt is almost entirely forgotten in today’s English-speaking world. But the negotiations in Paris (and all those that preceded it) suggest that future environmental progress may profit from returning to the core of Humboldt’s past teachings.

Humboldt wasn’t just a prescient proto-environmentalist whose work happened to inspire emotion; he was a thinker who believed nature and imagination are inseparable. At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws to understand nature, Humboldt insisted that “nature must be experienced through feeling.” Those who wanted to understand the world only through reason, Humboldt wrote in 1810 to Germany’s most celebrated poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “will never get close to it.” Humboldt wanted to excite a “love of nature.” Nature, he explained, had to be described with scientific accuracy but without being “deprived thereby of the vivifying breath of imagination.”

I don’t believe it’s naive to say that what’s missing in the current discussion about climate change is a sense of awe for nature, a recognition that we will only protect what we love. There is a reason why the iconic photograph “Earthrise,” taken during the Apollo 8 mission in 1968, has been hailed as the beginning of the environmental movement. It was the moment when we first saw Earth in its wholeness. Here was a small blue and white marble set against the vastness and blackness of space — utterly beautiful, yet unimaginably fragile. It was a realization that was carried by a sense of wonder.

It’s the same sense of awe that has driven generations of naturalists and environmentalists — from Humboldt to Rachel Carson (who even wrote a book called The Sense of Wonder). In a world where we tend to draw a sharp line between the sciences and the arts, between the subjective and the objective, we require Humboldt’s insight that we can only truly understand nature by using our imagination. To imagine is to see, as the American farmer and poet Wendell Berry said a few years ago: “For humans to have a responsible relationship to the world, they must imagine their places in it.” This imagination, Berry said, leads to sympathy and affection.

Of course, a document like the Paris agreement is inevitably based on lengthy technical negotiations, dry statistical projections, careful legal wording, and endless redrafting to somehow keep all participants on board. The bureaucrats, diplomats, legal advisors, and linguists were obliged to pour over the draft text line by line to eradicate disputed passages and safeguard accurate translations. But the delegates’ hard work during those two weeks in Paris (and the many months before) would have benefited from the presence of a contemporary Humboldt — someone restless, energetic, and charismatic, advocating for our planet as a whole while rushing from one group to another, maybe talking too fast as he so often did, but with urgency and passion.

In his books, Humboldt took his readers into rainforests teeming with life, up snowy mountains, above stupendous waterfalls, and across enormous deserts. He created a completely new literary genre that is a blueprint for much nature writing today, combining evocative writing and rich landscape descriptions with scientific observation. For Humboldt, nature was a painting drawn on a canvas of empirical observation, but infused with poetry, imagination, and subjective perception. “What speaks to the soul,” he wrote, “escapes our measurements.” His readers agreed. Goethe told Humboldt, “I plunged with you into the wildest regions,” and the French writer François-René de Chateaubriand said about Humboldt’s description of nature that “you believe you are surfing the waves with him, losing yourself with him in the depths of the woods.” This almost visceral love for nature, needless to say, was missing from the diplomatic and legal negotiations in Paris.

Compare the Paris meeting to the conference Humboldt organized in Berlin in 1828, to which he invited hundreds of scientists from across Germany and Europe. Humboldt encouraged scientists to gather in small groups and across disciplines; he connected the visiting scientists on a more personal level, ensuring that they forged friendships that would foster close networks. There were convivial meals and social outings such as concerts and excursions. Meetings were held among botanical, zoological, and fossil collections, as well as at the university and the botanical garden. Humboldt cultivated an interdisciplinary brother­hood of scientists committed to exchanging and sharing knowledge. “Without a diversity of opinion, the discovery of truth is impossible,” he reminded them in his opening speech. There is no reason political negotiations can’t be more influenced by the tenor of such scientific discussions.

Humboldt is no longer around, of course, and our scientific, economic, and political world bears increasingly little resemblance to his own. But his enthusiasm and his ideas of nature’s interconnectedness and magnificent beauty remain relevant, especially as that beauty is threatened by extreme weather patterns, the acidification of oceans, glaciers melting, and hurricanes unprecedented in intensity and destructiveness, as well as torrential floods in some regions and long droughts in others. At the very least, it’s time for the world’s environmentalists to reclaim him as our hero. Perhaps reviving our admiration for Humboldt will be the first step toward reviving his awe for nature and his belief in the “wonderful web of organic life.

Parts of this article have been adapted from Andrea Wulf’s recently published book The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Andrea Wulf is the author of The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, which is published by Knopf.

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