It was the Prussian polymath, scientist and writer Alexander von Humboldt (1767-1835) who paved the way for biogeography – the study of species and ecosystems across space and time – becoming established as an empirical science. The publications that emerged from his many expeditions are recognised as foundational to our present understanding of nature as a single great cohesive network of life. As far back as 1807, he noted: “In the great chain of cause and effect, no piece of matter, no activity should be observed in isolation.”
Humboldt was the first scientist to voice the notion of man-made climate change. In Venezuela he witnessed the detrimental effects of surrounding colonial plantations on the ecosystems of Lake Valencia. Deforestation had rendered the soil barren, water levels in the lake had diminished, and the eradication of scrub and undergrowth meant that rain washed away the soil of the mountain slopes. He understood how the forest was able to contain water, to give cooling moisture to the air and protect against erosion, and he warned that intervening in the systems of ecology would have immense and incalculable consequences – both in the short term and for future generations.
Humboldt’s method combines the collection of scientific data with the creative force of human imagination. His studies make use not only of the brain’s analytical capacity, but also of memory and intuition, and it is in such a way that he discovers climate zones – by registering similarities in climates occurring great distances apart. In the Andes, for instance, he encounters a species of moss reminiscent of another he once saw in the forests of what is today northern Germany, many thousands of kilometres away. And in the mountains surrounding Caracas he notes the way several rhododendron-like plants resemble species he has previously registered in the Swiss Alps.
Humboldt’s practice, then, combines rational, scientific thinking with sensitive, aesthetic thinking, registering connections, stirring up a complexity of scientific material and making it amenable to understanding. In everything Humboldt writes we find an enthusiasm for the formational principles of nature.
We have long been aware of the disruptive effects of human behaviour on the life of our planet, and science has repeatedly exposed the consequences of our continued massive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But we have yet to implement lasting change. Why? Is it because the structures of power and the economic system are so abstract to us that we feel unable to demand change? Or do our feelings of impotence at least in part derive fron the way in which the scientific prognoses are communicated to us, failing to seize and inspire us?
Ever since the Enlightenment and its recalibration of the religious ethos, we in the West have insisted that true knowledge is the domain of rational thought, consigning our more sensitive perceptions to the lower faculties where it was believed they belonged, alongside our sensory perceptions.
If we are to succeed in changing our societies and their economies, I think we must learn from Alexander von Humboldt.
I think the flow of scientific information we receive needs to be supplemented by more aesthetic representations, in a language better able to embrace our experiences of connection with nature and each other, a language that can express and convey the consequences of our failure to implement the changes we need to effect.
I believe that we can connect our critical responses – the anger and fear that we feel about climate change and the ways in which it impacts on our lives – with a heightened sensibility towards nature’s complex web, propagating genuine, widespread interest in protecting our natural environments in all their diversity. We must charge our politicians with radical decision-making, and demand that our media begin to represent the crisis conscientiously, shouldering the responsibility of cultivating public discourse and promoting a mode of public discussion that mobilises rather than pacifies. For there is something crucial we need to do together: we must, above all, find our way back to a state of humility towards the finely meshed network of connections of which we, belonging to nature ourselves, are a part.
For as Humboldt wrote, in what serves as a striking reminder of our mission to re-calibrate the science, economics and the poetic manifestations of our planet’s shared, breathing life systems:
The beasts of the forest retire to the thickets; the birds hide themselves beneath the foliage of the trees, or in the crevices of the rocks. Yet, amid this apparent silence, when we lend an attentive ear to the most feeble sounds transmitted by the air, we hear a dull vibration, a continual murmur, a hum of insects, that fill, if we may use the expression, all the lower strata of the air. Nothing is better fitted to make man feel the extent and power of organic life. Myriads of insects creep upon the soil, and flutter round the plants parched by the ardour of the Sun. A confused noise issues from every bush, from the decayed trunks of trees, from the clefts of the rock, and from the ground undermined by the lizards, millepedes, and caecilians.There are so many voices proclaiming to us, that all nature breathes; and that, under a thousand different forms, life is diffused throughout the cracked and dusty soil, as well as in the bosom of the waters, and in the air that circulates around us.
Josefine Klougart (b. 1985) is a Danish novelist, essayist and co-founder of the publishing house Gladiator in Copenhagen. She studied art and literature history at Aarhus university and was the 2018 Guest Professor in World Literature at the University of Bern. In recent years her writing has turned increasingly to the ecological and climate crisis.
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