'The Invention of Nature' positions Alexander von Humboldt as the godfather of environmentalism

Over the course of his life, however, Humboldt would slowly upend the Enlightenment idea of nature he was taught.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World By Andrea Wulf Knopf 496 pp.

For all the good that came out of the Paris climate summit earlier this month, one major question remained unanswered: What do fully developed nations owe the ones still catching up? India, the largest developing nation, demanded that advanced economies like the United States grant them more “carbon space” – more leeway to pollute – while they modernize. It was unfair, India insisted, for the West to have had two centuries to despoil the environment as it developed and then, just as the rest of the world was industrializing, demand that everyone else do so without using the cheapest energy source still available: fossil fuels. Similarly, a host of smaller countries wanted a guarantee of at least $100 billion per year from the wealthiest nations to help them modernize in an environmentally responsible way.

Neither India nor the smaller countries got what they wanted. Though some of their demands were met, the West made no firm pledges to finance clean energy for smaller nations; nor did they cut India much slack. That the West essentially avoided these problems reveals the extent to which it has still not fully grasped the damage it has done to the rest of the world, and the damage it continues to do by requiring much of developing countries while asking relatively less of itself in return. Of course, none of this prevented Western leaders from heralding the agreement as a historic achievement. And while in certain ways it was, we can no longer ignore the long history that has led us to the environmental conundrum we still find ourselves in.

One place we might start to unpack this history is at the turn of the 19th century, with Alexander von Humboldt. Though many recognize his name, few probably know why. The British historian Andrea Wulf gives us part of the answer in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. Humboldt, Wulf writes, “was not known for a single fact or a discovery but for his worldview.” In short, he gave us the view of the natural world we have today: as a unified, dynamic whole where all earthly matter, from the smallest microbe to the largest forest, impacts everything else. The entire universe, Humboldt, wrote, was woven together in a “net-like intricate fabric” and was full of “never-ending activity.” Wulf’s argument about Humboldt’s significance is not new. But she makes it with a rare ability to distill complicated ideas into graceful, pithy prose and a knack for timing: the genesis of our view of the planet has never been so relevant.

Humboldt believed that for humans as much as any other organism, every decision they made – from where they lived, to what they ate – existed in a reciprocal relationship with nature. Even when they died they continued to have an impact. Decomposing flesh, like decomposing leaves, enriched the soil, which in turn nourished plants that released oxygen into the air – and sucked carbon out of it. Bones became rock; and the wind, ocean, and rain beat that rock into sandy beaches and majestic mountains. This is what we now call ecology, and we can, in short, thank Humboldt for that basic concept. The irony is that his ecological view has “become so manifest that the man behind [it] has disappeared,” Wulf writes.

Like other recent historians, Wulf also sees Humboldt as the godfather of environmentalism and makes that case convincingly by tracing his impact on eminent environmental writers, from Henry David Thoreau and John Muir to forgotten ones like George Perkins Marsh. Wulf has tracked down these men’s journals and the books of Humboldt they kept, and has found, remarkably, many instances where they commented in his margins, cited him verbatim, or were clearly shaped by his work. Around the time Thoreau was writing "Walden," his notebooks were filled with phrases like “Humboldt says” or “Humboldt has written,” Wulf finds. Not long before Muir’s first trek to the Sierra Nevada in 1867, he wrote to a friend “how intensely I desire to be a Humboldt.”

But Humboldt was raised in a world markedly different from theirs. Born to an elite German family in 1769, he was given the best education money could buy. Over the course of his life, however, he would slowly upend the Enlightenment idea of nature he was taught. For much of the 18th century, Enlightenment scientists – or natural philosophers, as they were then called – believed that the natural world operated like a machine. Each part, each organism, worked in tandem with all the others but was nonetheless a discrete entity given a divinely sanctioned purpose. It was the job of the scientist to figure out the basic laws that kept the machine in motion, laws that God inscribed in nature at the moment of creation. The machine analogy worked for a time, and without it, the fervently religious Isaac Newton may never have discovered the laws of gravity. But it also privileged abstract theorizing and the biblical narrative of Creation over the direct experience of the natural world.

That was not for Humboldt. No armchair philosopher and cool to religion, he threw himself into outdoor adventures. With his family’s royal connections and the money he inherited (“I have so much money that I can get my nose, mouth, and ears gilded,” he wrote to a friend, in 1791) he was able to travel to places few Europeans had visited. The most important was South America. Between 1799 and 1804, the Spanish king sent Humboldt on a scientific mission throughout the continent. The king wanted to find a cheaper way to transport colonial goods – particularly Peruvian silver – across the continent and back to Europe. Humboldt’s mission was to find out whether the Amazon River, which reached Peru, met up with the Orinoco River, which ran through Venezuela. “All the scientific understanding of the day suggested that the Orinoco and Amazon basins had to be separated,” Wulf tells us, and for centuries the Spanish kept whatever knowledge they had about South America a close-kept secret.

Humboldt learned that the rivers did in fact connect, and when he returned to Europe, he was feted like a hero, a Columbus reincarnate. But all that paled in relation to everything else he began to notice on the trip. Visiting a slave plantation in Venezuela, he saw that planters recklessly drained the valley, destroying the surrounding forest. Witnessing slavery firsthand also turned him into a lifelong abolitionist – a “disgrace,” he called the practice. Moreover, he saw an intimate connection between slavery and environmental ruin: plantations “devastate the country,” he wrote.

Perhaps more important, Humboldt began to see the natural world in an entirely new way. Wulf beautifully captures Humboldt’s epiphany as he trekked up the 21,000-foot Chimborazo, about 100 miles south of Quito and then thought to be the tallest mountain in the world. Wulf made the climb herself for her research, so when she describes how the “icy wind had numbed their hands and feet” as Humboldt and his companion scaled the peak, how “they struggled to breathe in the thin air,” and how the “dark, almost perpendicular walls were covered with rocks that protruded like knife blades,” she knows it viscerally.

For Humboldt, having already hiked the Alps, he also began to see striking parallels between both mountain ranges’ geological structures, their animal and plant life, and their climates. “Looking down Chimborazo’s slopes and the mountain ranges in the distance, everything that Humboldt had seen in the previous years came together,” Wulf writes. “Nature, Humboldt realized, was a web of life and a global force.” At the time, most European scientists thought the plants, animals – and people – of the “new world” were younger derivatives of old-world archetypes, and that the new world’s climate predisposed its living organisms to be smaller and weaker.

But Humboldt saw more connections than contrasts. Over the next few decades, he would articulate, in dozens of elegantly written, widely read books, a new vision of nature that focused less on the differences between the old and new worlds and more on the similarities between them. He left the Americas – never to return – realizing that “Nature is a living whole,” as he wrote, not a “dead aggregate” of isolated facts. Humboldt would ultimately do away with the mechanical view of nature and inspire a whole new generation of explorers, beginning with Charles Darwin, to view nature as a dynamic, ever-changing whole. (Darwin’s sister teased him that he “had probably, from reading so much Humboldt, got his phraseology.”) The biblical narrative of Creation would no longer do, either. While Wulf tends to ignore the impact religion continued to have on Humboldt and his admirers, Darwin included, she is certainly correct that Humboldt and his followers were far more willing than earlier generations to explain the natural world’s workings without reference to God.

But Wulf’s reluctance to discuss religion is indicative of a larger problem that permeates the book. So committed is she to portraying Humboldt as a forefather of modern secular liberal values that she downplays or ignores what does not fit neatly into that paradigm. The problem becomes most apparent in her treatment of Native Americans. Perhaps no issue has aroused as much debate among scholars as the extent to which Humboldt saw natives through “imperial eyes,” as one critic has put it. Humboldt may have brazenly defended Native Americans from the most demeaning European scientists, but he nonetheless continued to view them through a Western lens.

While he insisted that the Incan and Aztec ruins he observed in the Americas reflected once powerful, sophisticated civilizations, he also thought that they lacked the brilliance of Europe’s self-proclaimed ancestors in ancient Greece and Rome. In 1813, he wrote that ancient Incan civilization must have encouraged “passive and spineless obedience without courage for daring acts” and fostered “no reach into the realm of ideas, no elevation in that of character.” By contrast, the development of ancient Greece “was so free and so rapid” that it led to the “progress of mass civilization” throughout the West. The implication was that the Native Americans of his day were similarly less civilized, if not exactly “savage.” Some have even argued that Humboldt’s attempted defense of Native Americans did more lasting damage than the attacks that came from their most malicious European critics. By explicitly defending Native peoples while insisting they needed improvement, he allowed even liberal Europeans to view any attempt to fashion the non-Western world after itself as nothing less than benign.

In barely acknowledging the ways Humboldt’s ideas remained tied to the Eurocentrism of his age, Wulf has given us, in the end, an incomplete portrait. Her Humboldt exists half out of time – parts of him fully enmeshed in his historical context but others yanked centuries beyond it. Had Wulf captured more of Humboldt’s contradictions, and had she given more credence to the ways even his likeminded friends – from Jefferson and Madison to Simón Bolívar – used his writings to justify their own appropriation and exploitation of Natives’ lands, she might have written a book more relevant to the times, not less.

Humboldt can indeed teach us something about the environmental problems we face, but more than Wulf fully realizes. His way of seeing opened eyes to the way some of our most egregious behaviors in pursuit of profit – from slave plantations to Native-worked silver mines – wreaked havoc on the environment. But he also left the impression that solutions lay entirely with a liberal vision of progress. He was unable to see that some non-Western cultures had other views about man’s relationship to the environment, and perhaps better ways of living in accord with it. One needn’t romanticize non-Western societies to appreciate this fact. Certainly many other cultures have degraded nature in ways similar to the West. But others did not. If we are to solve the climate crisis, we should come to terms with the full legacy Humboldt bequeathed to us – learning from his accomplishments, and his mistakes.

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