Alexander von Humboldt: the first environmentalist

With the annual UN Climate Change Conference taking place in November, we take a look at the trailblazing scientist who first predicted climate change more than 200 years ago…

10th October 2017
Alexander von Humboldt: the first environmentalist © AKG Images

Alexander von Humboldt © AKG Images

Back in the early 19th Century, Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist and explorer, warned that humans had the power to upset the delicate balance of nature. While we are familiar with this concept today, the idea was completely radical at the time, because for centuries it had been presumed that nature was explicitly created for our benefit and use. While trekking through the rainforests of South America, Humboldt had witnessed first-hand how human destructiveness could wreak potentially irreversible havoc with natural ecosystems and climate. And it was during his travels that he began to appreciate both the interconnectedness of life and humankind’s capacity for destroying it. Humboldt said that nature had its own laws, and it is the duty and responsibility of humans to discover them, because otherwise we risk doing catastrophic harm. These were remarkably prescient observations, and ones which echo through to our current thinking around deforestation and climate change. Yet few people have heard of him.

Observation and imagination

Humboldt’s story reads like a romantic adventure. He braved alligators, giant spiders, jaguars and vicious insects to explore the South American jungles and savanna. He climbed the mountains of the Andes and went down into the mines of Mexico. He rode with Cossacks through the steppes of Central Asia to the Mongolian border. He met Napoleon Bonaparte (who hated him), and he befriended Thomas Jefferson and the Venezuelan revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar, liberator of northern South America from Spanish rule.

But there’s more to this story than romantic derring-do. Humboldt wanted to make sense of all he saw. With his lifelong friend, the German poet and natural philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Humboldt shared the view that nature might be understood not as a catalogue of wonders, but as a unified whole: a puzzle that could be decoded through careful observation and measurement combined with imagination.

He was a key inspiration for Charles Darwin. “Nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much, as reading Humboldt’s [travelogue] Personal Narrative,” Darwin wrote. Darwin’s vision of nature has come to be seen as one shaped by fierce competition in the struggle for survival. Humboldt’s conception of nature, in contrast, invoked balance and harmony: an integrated whole arising from the interplay of countless elements in the living and non-living worlds.

In 1856, artist Eduard Hildebrandt painted this watercolour of Humboldt in his extensive library, filled with haphazard piles of books and documents © DeAgostini/Getty Images
In 1856, artist Eduard Hildebrandt painted this watercolour of Humboldt in his extensive library, filled with haphazard piles of books and documents © DeAgostini/Getty Images

This picture of mutual interaction and sympathy resonates today among scientists who study the way the planet works. In this grand vision, the atmosphere, oceans, land masses, deep volcanic depths, plants, animals and microscopic life all play a part. But as Humboldt warned us two centuries ago, the balance can be lost – and we can be the cause.

Strange new world

Humboldt was born in 1769 to an aristocratic family who owned an estate near Berlin in Prussia, an historical German state. His father was an army officer and a royal official, while his godfather was the future Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm II.

Privileged and good-looking, Humboldt was also prone to melancholy and self-doubt. He was lonely and filled with a lust…


BBC Focus 313This is an extract from issue 313 of BBC Focus magazine. To read the rest of this article pick up a copy at all good newsagents, download the BBC Focus app or subscribe and get the latest issue delivered straight to your door.