Alexander von Humboldt’s Unique Significance in 2017


Alexander von Humboldt (portrait by Joseph Stieler, 1843)

As the debate continues with regard to global warning, depletion of natural resources, and cataclysmic natural disasters, I decided to re-read a book published two years ago. In The Invention of Nature,

Andrea Wulf has this to say about Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859): He “was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable,’ Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally.’ ”

As Wulf explains, these are among Humboldt’s most important theories, accomplishments, and legacies:

o He revolutionized the way we see the world.
o He is the forgotten founder of environmentalism.
o He predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800.
o Was an interdisciplinary thinker and thus the most modern of all scientists.
o He spent years in the field and was the most experienced and adept mountaineer of his age.
o He invented isotherms.
o By 1807, he had grasped the idea of shifting tectonic plates.
o There were more places, plants, and animals named after Humboldt than anybody else.
o When he gave lectures, Berlin came to a standstill.
o Humboldt raced through Siberia faster than could any European express courier.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
was published by Knopf (September 2015).

To learn more about Alexander von Humboldt, please click here.

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