Looking Out the Window: The Political, Intellectual, and Moral Necessities of Modern Environmentalism

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In the beautifully illustrated The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, author Andrea Wulf and illustrator Lillian Melcher depict Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s arrival in Cumaná, South America, in 1799. While unpacking their scientific equipment and remarking on the species they had already seen (and just on their way to their lodgings!), Bonpland turns to Humboldt and says, “But have you looked out the window?”[1]

It was a slave market.

Modern environmentalism is failing us. At this point, this is not some novel statement. We are witnessing it as the Amazon burns. We are witnessing it as millions of refugees flee hunger, violence, and harsh environmental conditions. We are witnessing it as millions of species have been lost to extinction, and millions more are staring into the precipice.

But the Amazon—or the ancient boreal forests of the Arctic, or the peatlands of Indonesia, or the Australian bush, or the urban forests of California—did not choose to burn. Refugees are not fleeing their homes because they choose to be poor, hungry, targeted, and abused. Species do not choose extinction. Someone is making the choices that determine the fates of vulnerable people, species, and places everywhere. And these decisions, which create or manipulate the systems that we all live by, are taking us to an existential crisis.

We must look out the window.

We are witnessing power, greed, and division that poisons our entire relational world. We must connect our conservation crises with our governance crises. We must recognize that the harm we do to Nature is intimately linked to the harm we do to humanity, and the harm we do to humanity is intimately linked to the harm we do to Nature. If you follow the path of the plants, you follow the path of human civilizations—and of greed, exploitation, colonialism, barbarism. It is all connected.

We must look out the window, and we must walk out the door.

We must bear witness to the harms happening around us, against man and Nature, and we must share our stories of success and failure. We must learn from one another and from Nature, and we must take our knowledge to the legislators, the power-holders, the decision-makers—the ones who define “harm” or “humanity,” “justice” or “peace,” “violence” or “war” and create governance systems upon those definitions. Is an economic system that creates vast inequalities not a violent harm against humanity—and the Nature that it exploits? Are those who seek to civilize and save by ensnaring and enslaving moral? Is an environmentalism that embraces systems that harm still environmentalism? If you follow the path of power, and particularly power without wisdom, it is easy to see what has brought us to our knees, in pain and in protest.

We must look out the window, we must walk out the door—and when we are ready, we must also look into the mirror.

We are witnessing our own failed attempts to save the foundations of life. We call ourselves environmentalists, yet we are not achieving our purpose. We must look inward and acknowledge that even those with the best of intentions may be perpetuating a harmful system. We must do more than care, we must care thoughtfully. What language are we using? Who are we allowing to set the frameworks for our arguments and our actions? Are we making the necessary connections, seeing the common threads, to all who are targeted and harmed?

In the spirit of critical loyalty, this essay calls for a review of modern environmentalism and what is politically, intellectually, and morally required to better respond to our crises. To do this, it is only appropriate to look through the lens of a man considered a founding father of environmentalism, Alexander von Humboldt.[2] Is environmentalism today a true representation of the values it was founded upon? And if not, why not? The essay will open with a brief exploration into the decisions and the systems that have brought us to our current conservation crises, our current governance crises, and our current values crises. It will then argue for a Humboldtian approach to environmentalism that forces us to look out the window, go out the front door, and look inward to understand and advance a living history, a living Nature, and a living law. Our forms and systems today are a result of what came before us. Our place within the cosmos dictates that we should act with humility, intellect, respect, and imagination. Our governance systems need to evolve as Nature evolves and to be the living representation of the best of humanity and the truth of our interconnected and interdependent relationships with one another and the entire organic and inorganic world. We must advance justice, “the beautiful with the good,” and build a better society for all.[3]

In 1808, Humboldt published Ansichten der Natur (Views of Nature) to show the intricate and related beauty of Nature in order to provide hope and knowledge “to embattled minds particularly.”[4] In celebration of his 250th birthday, we shall now look to him to help heal our embattled minds through these embattled, uncertain times, where the only certainty is that if we continue to do what we are doing, we will not survive. We must seek alternatives.


The Issues That Entangle Us, Impassion Us—and Enrage Us!

Unlike many scientists—and scientific journals—today, Humboldt had no fear of the exclamation point. For love and horror, incredulity and amazement, this blend of scientific inquiry with personal passion offers the reader an intimate representation of himself in his writings and the emotions within him when connecting with peoples, cultures, and Nature, or even arriving at conclusions to the data he had gathered:

How numerous may be the smaller plants, which are not visible to the observer’s eye? And what colors the birds have, and the fish, even the crabs (sky-blue and yellow)! We run around like fools; in the first three days, we could not categorize anything because we would always toss aside one object in order to pick up another. Bonpland assures me that he will lose his mind if the wonders do not soon cease.[5]

Nature was alive! And he, as part of Nature, in his friendships, his adventures, and his writings, was also alive. “The mind is invigorated by the acquisition of new ideas,” and this truth of self and of what he was witnessing was equally excitedly received by people around the world.[6] Poets, philosophers, and political figures—those who birthed nations, drafted legislation, preserved natural spaces, and ignited revolutions—sought a political, intellectual, emotional, and even physical, connection to him. But his words were not just for the likes of Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, Walt Whitman, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Simón Bolívar, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, to name a few of his admirers; they were for everyone. Passion is a powerful, motivating, international language, free of social or economic castes. After all, isn’t it only human to be impassioned in the face of great beauty, or in the face of great harm?

Today we are witnessing profound emotion with profound knowledge. We see it in the worldwide protests that raise the banner for climate emergencies and extinction rebellions, alongside the well-supported scientific and geopolitical knowledge shared by thousands of activists, scientists, lawyers, politicians, and academics. However, we are not moving closer to an adequate global response to our shared crises. If we have the passion and knowledge to move millions of global citizens, then why are the governance institutions—those in power—not moving? What are we—those who advocate for the protection of life—doing wrong? We must first identify the challenges in order to confront the challenges.

The Rationalizations of Greed[7]

Humboldt did not save his emotion for only the beautiful landscapes and colorful species around him; it also arose when he saw how the “cultivations of the soil”[8] led to the atrocities of colonialism, the hypocrisies of “civilized” nations, and the “morality” of Christian missions,[9] “But how sad a spectacle it is to see Christian and civilized peoples discussing among themselves who, over the course of three centuries, has made fewer Africans perish by reducing them to slavery!”[10] The indigenous peoples of South America were also pushed further and further into the forests because of the missionaries: “Though tiger and crocodile battle horses and cattle in the steppe, we see on its forested bank, in the wildernesses of Guyana, man forever armed against man.”[11] If the colonists did not enslave them, the missionaries would ensnare them, forcing them to work for little or no pay to help advance their brand of morality and civilization.

Colonialism is nothing more than the greed of humanity realized. It is a greed for land, for money, for power, for self.[12] It is a cult of wealth that rationalizes the worst of humanity.[13] It is a hateful thirst that is never sated.[14] It is violence perpetuated by violence that often ends with violence.[15] It is the antithesis to life. We must be more than the cold calculations, the valuation of life that ultimately devalues life, the consumption of humanity that also consumes Nature,[16] “May a lasting peace replace partisan strife! May the seeds of civil discord, sown for three centuries to assure the dominance of the metropole, be gradually smothered!”[17]

While traveling through the Incan ruins and roads to the fertile valley of the Cajamarca, Humboldt was joined by the son of an ancient royal line, who were now “living in conditions of great need . . . through no fault of their own.”[18] He told Humboldt the story of a hidden city of wealth just below their feet, the subterranean golden gardens of Inca. Humboldt shares this story in Views of Nature:

“Do you and your parents not feel,” I asked the boy, “since you so firmly believe in the existence of this garden, an occasional desire, in light of your want, to dig for the treasures that lie so near?” The boy’s answer was so simple, so much the expression of the quiet resignation that characterizes the aboriginal people of this land, that I put it down in my journal in Spanish: “Such a desire (tal antojo) does not come to us; my father says that it would be a sin (que fuse pecado). If we had all of the golden branches with all of their golden fruit, then our white neighbors would hate us and harm us. We possess a little field and good wheat (buen trigo).[19]

Powerful nations sought abundant wealth—abundant natural wealth—and so abundant wealth brought powerful nations, and powerful nations brought great violence. It was the greed of man, and it beget a fearful curse on those who had the unhappy circumstance of living in the splendor of Nature.

The Ravaged Soil, the Ravaged Soul

When his Political Essay on the Island of Cuba was published—a critique of colonialism and slavery—it was banned in the United States, a land that had just adopted a Constitution that declared the equality of all men. Humboldt, known as the leading naturalist in the world, afforded his criticism of slavery “far greater importance than to the arduous labors of determining locations through astronomical observations, experiments with magnetic intensity, or statistical statements.”[20] He made the connections, he embraced the human condition within his studies of the natural condition.

In a private letter to a friend, Julius Fröbel, and after assuring him that their differences on mountain elevations was just one of words, Humboldt turned to “other things which come nearer my heart than those elevations.”[21] “My book against Slavery,” he wrote, “is not prohibited in Madrid, but cannot be purchased in the United States, which you call ‘the Republic of distinguished people,’ except with the omission of everything that relates to the sufferings of our colored fellow-men. . . . Add to this, forgetting that the most ancient cultivation of humanity . . . was the work of colored men.”[22]

Slavery was an act of inhumanity, an act of evil, “rendering both the conquerors and the conquered more ferocious.”[23] And their industry—based on profit and ignorance of the land—destroyed the life of the land, and the people who relied on it.[24] Humboldt saw this poverty of soil, this lack of food in a once-abundant land, as evidence that the “the Europeans’ imprudent activities have upset the natural order”:[25]

300 years of colonial policy and an unreasonable public administration have left a country whose natural endowments are as marvelous as anything on the face of the earth in such shambles that to find a comparably depopulated region, one must look either to the frozen northern regions or west of the Allegheny Mountains to the forests of Tennessee, where the first clearings were made only half a century ago![26]

Humboldt knew that soil, altitude, and climate is what cultivates the particular plants of a particular region, not men and their profit-driven motives. Nature intends her consequences; man has little control over such powers. Therefore, when the Europeans introduced their new crops and the system of slavery that accompanied them, Humboldt believed that “far from being beneficial, [they] increased the immorality and the misfortune of the human species. The introduction of African slaves, ravaging a part of the Old Continent, brought discord and vengeance to the New Continent.”[27] The soil and soul of the nation were being ravaged.

Power without Wisdom

The cosmos is a source of infinite learning and infinite hope, particularly for the embattled minds of the here and now. We are constantly seeking knowledge to better our particular or common life on Earth, and we are constantly trying to share that knowledge with the present and future decision-makers. Yet despite our attempts, even with some of the most fundamental truths (for example, that all life is connected), we are falling upon deaf, or perhaps purchased, ears. The power of Nature, “the influence of the physical world upon the moral, the mysterious interworking of the sensory and the extrasensory . . . remains too little acknowledged.”[28]

Darwin recognized the danger of such a “profound ignorance in regard to the mutual relations of all the beings which live around us,” for “these relations are of the highest importance, for they determine the present welfare, and, as I believe, the future success and modification of every inhabitant in this world.”[29] Nature is the older, wiser, more stable life force, and man should ever be humbled before her, willing to learn from her, needing to learn from her. “She (Nature) can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends.”[30]

Knowledge of a land, and of our relationships to it, can only help to expand our circles of care. When something we love is being harmed, we have a natural, almost primal urge to defend it. Indeed, most cries for righteous action throughout history have been in response to great injustices. Bolívar led the independence of many South American states from Spanish colonial rule, and his words, his writings, and his revolutions were greatly inspired by Humboldt. He, like Humboldt before him, made political, intellectual, and moral calls for action. And he used Humboldt’s vibrant descriptions of his own land to inspire protective love and care for one’s home, a home threatened by a foreign nation:

Vast regions furrowed by mighty rivers, inexhaustible springs of agricultural and mercantile riches, these will all be rendered null by Spanish malice. Entire provinces are transformed to deserts; others are become frightful arenas of bloody anarchy. Passions have been aroused by every stimulus, fanaticism has turned people’s minds into volcanoes, and extermination will be the result of these chaotic elements.[31]

Yet Bolívar also knew he could not topple power without the assistance of those with power. In his call for help to other nations, and in true Humboldtian form, his words were given legitimacy through eyewitness, and truth through emotion:

I was witness, dear friend, to the devouring flame that is swiftly consuming my unfortunate land. Unable to extinguish it despite innumerable and unheard of efforts, I have come out to sound the alarm to the world, to beg for help, and to announce to Great Britain and to all humanity that a large part of the human race is going to perish and that the most beautiful half of the earth is going to be reduced to a state of desolation.

Please view with indulgence these emotional transports, which must seem like the exaggerations of a madman rather than expressions of hard truth and reasonable predictions of what is to come. But no, it is no more than a faithful representation of what I have seen and what is inevitable.[32]

Humboldt believed that those who bore witness to harm have a particular responsibility to act: “It befits the traveler who witnessed up close the torment and degradation of humanity to bring the laments of the wretched to the ears of those who have the power to allay them.”[33] We must look to those who have the purpose to allay our harms, and to those who have the power to allay our harms, and consider whether they are making decisions that protect us from harm, or whether they perpetuate that which harms us all.

A Peaceful Harm

Between nations, there is calm and there is chaos—and sometimes one has more cause to fear the peace than the chaos.[34] Chaos may be righteous people revolting against an evil system. Calm may be the result of unjust, powerful political actors forcing others into a subservient, peaceful servitude. It can be seen when those in power—either through political leaders or the power of the purse—silence dissent, criminalize protest, remove themselves from meaningful dialogue, or actively work against an informed citizenry and informed decision-making. In democracies, we are told that there is representative rule and the power is in the people. But is it?

Humboldt believed that “barbarity is the same in all ages, when men can indulge their passions without restraint, and when governments tolerate an order of things contrary to the laws of nature, and, consequently, to the welfare of society.”[35] From the roots of colonialism and slavery, we seek a better way forward, not understanding that the same values and systems that defend barbarity and inhumanity still exist today. Is our lifeline soil, air, water, relationships—as Nature has so provided? Or is it selfishness, money, competition, cruelty—as those with power are leading us to?

Bolívar extended the concept of slavery from physical enslavement to political powerlessness, to citizenship in a land where unjust rules ruled. He wrote, “People are slaves when the government, by its essence or through its vices, tramples and usurps the rights of the citizen or subject.”[36] What power does a people—or, in global governance, weaker nations—have when votes and voices are manipulated, when truth and science are denied and mocked, and when the systems of economy and justice foster inequality, injustice, and discriminatory imprisonment? In global governance, powerful nations control negotiations, decisions, and harm. Their decisions harm others, and yet there is no recourse; in other words, there is no justice in global governance—the largest body of human relationships on our planet. We may not be politically powerless to our national governments, who may differ in their rights and responsibilities, but what are we in global governance, when none of us have actionable rights? When—as we see with greenhouse gas emissions—even states are allowed to harm without consequence?

We must look inward. Instead of demanding real, meaningful change, are we embracing a system that makes the harmful powerful, the wrong right, the unjust just? Are we embracing the language of the systems that harm—ecosystem services, carbon markets and sinks—while abandoning the language of a movement that motivates—Nature, life, harmony, systems, the sacred? Do we turn a blind eye to donors or dollars that are antithetical to our powerful and purposeful missions and visions? Are we complicit in the harms to humanity and Nature?

We must also ask, in our hopeful visions, in our constant struggles, are we being manipulated? We are sold democracy, yet we purchase plutocracy, and the harmful systems continue. We believe that if we play the game of the powerful, if we speak the language of markets, then maybe we can get closer to achieving our hopeful aims. And if our organizations accept the money (a symbol of power) from those whose actions harm our visions and missions—then maybe they will listen to us, then maybe we can get closer to achieving our hopeful aims. We see the power of power (decision-making!) and wish to play with the powerful to get to that end, yet to do that, we place self-made blinders over our eyes to keep us from seeing how they became powerful, how they became the decision-makers.

For the truth is much harder to swallow: in playing their game, speaking their language, taking their money, cleansing their identities, we have become a part of the harmful system. The power players have not changed, their missions and visions—and profit motives—have not changed (at least in the amounts to effect real change), and now those who work against harm and injustice have taken and ingested the fruit from the poisonous tree. Our cause has been ultimately harmed, and the harmful systems will continue unless we change our course. Our care must be as thoughtful as our cause. We must demand profound structural change to the harmful systems that govern us. After all, every great evil is “not self-correcting, but self-perpetuating, and [can] be ended only by concerted moral and political action.”[37]

A Humboldtian Way Forward

It is our duty—as advocates for life—to strongly and courageously respond to the harms against life. With courage and excited adventure, Humboldt faced jungles and volcanoes; with duty and persistence, he faced colonial powers and masters of men. If we are to be advocates for Nature, then we must embrace Nature, her power, her mystery, our relationships to her, and our dependence upon her. It is time to stop playing games and start standing up for what is right and just—and true—in this world. Goethe said that Humboldt lit the sciences into a “bright flame.”[38] Let us learn from Humboldt, through Nature and with Nature, and let us light truth, justice, and democracy into a bright flame.

A Living History

Follow the path of plants and you follow the path of nations, of human migration, of shifting continents,[39] “The impact of food that can be more or less stimulating to the character and strength of the passions, the history of navigations and wars carried out over the products of the plant kingdom; such are the factors that link the geography of plants to the political and intellectual history of mankind.”[40] We—as individuals, a nation, or a human family—are a continuation of our past, into the present, laying down the foundations for our future. Indeed, “we cannot form a just conception of [our] nature without looking back on the mode of [our] formation.”[41] And like one who studies nature, we “cannot form a conception of the present without pursuing, through countless ages, the history of the past. In tracing the physical delineation of the globe, we behold the present and the past reciprocally incorporated.”[42] History is alive, it is experience and observation,[43] and it is all connected. “Thus does dead material, animated by the Life Force, go through an innumerable succession of generations; the same material in which once a puny worm momentarily enjoyed his existence may well have encased the godlike spirit of Pythagoras.”[44] Within each of us is more than we can ever imagine.

Humboldt—his perspective and his writing—was a product of his times, the good and the bad. Political events often dictated his routes,[45] wars often dictated his funds,[46] and the world was often closed.[47] He was born into a prominent family with wealth and connections, not something many of us can also claim, yet his connections pointed him to working in the mines, where his adventurous spirit saw the magic in geology, and his empathetic spirit wanted to help the workers. Not only did he see history in geology—“their form is their history”—but he saw the need for care in all our relations, opening a school for the miners, inventing safer breathing apparatuses, and creating technologies that allowed for more oxygen to enter the mineshafts.[48]

And—like Humboldt, like each of us—I am a product of my time. I argue that nationalism is an obstacle to state responses to global crises because I, as an American, am bearing witness to nationalism being an obstacle to state responses to global crises. It affects my life, it affects my perspective on the relations of humans and Nature, and it affects my writing. I argue that truth is manipulated, experts are mocked, justice is being made unjust, and science is targeted as an enemy, a threat to the acquisition of and stranglehold on corrupt power, because I am bearing witness to the political, intellectual, and moral being targeted by the corrupt and powerful.

Nature is our home,[49] and our perspectives are a product of what we are experiencing, from all senses, from our particular points in history. And our history guides us—and frees us:

Sustained by previous discoveries, we can go forth into the future, and by foreseeing the consequences of phenomena, we can understand once and for all the laws to which nature subjected itself. In the midst of this research, we can achieve an intellectual pleasure, a moral freedom that fortifies us against the blows of fate and which no external power can ever reach.[50]

Our form is our history,[51]and our history—and place—is not just a story of harms, but a source of life and inspiration that has birthed the character of entire civilizations:

How powerfully the sky over Greece affected its inhabitants! Where else but in the happy and beautiful region between the Euphrates, the Halys, and the Aegean Sea did the peoples who came to settle awaken so early to moral dignity and more tender sensibilities? And did not our forebears, when Europe was sinking into new barbarism, when religious zeal had suddenly opened the holy Orient, bring back once more from those gentle valleys gentler customs? The poetic work of the Greeks and the rougher songs of the Nordic tribes owe much of their individual character to the forms of the plants and animals, to the mountains and valleys that surrounded the poets, and to the airs that swirled around them.[52]

Even Humboldt looked to Greece when he saw the world sinking into barbarism. A man who was closer to Nature than most can ever dream of—its details, its whole, its language, its spirit—chose “Cosmos” for his ultimate description of the world around us, “in the Homeric ages, [it] indicated an idea of order and harmony . . . [and] was gradually applied to the order observed in the movements of the heavenly bodies, to the whole universe, and then finally to the world in which this harmony was reflected to us.”[53] Humboldt’s writing was an evolutionary process in itself, “a process of never-ending adjustments and revisions, in which diverse pasts and presents permeate each other. His writing is restless, projecting events backward into the past and forward into the future; like his mind, his prose is always in motion.”[54] Humboldt’s writing was as alive as he was and even breathes life into him well after his death.

It is also important to note that in each of our stories is also a story of relationships. All life needs relationships—all life is relationships. And Humboldt had Bonpland—an explorer, a naturalist, and a friend. Together, they traveled South America, sailed across oceans, met with royals and indigenous peoples, climbed mountains, fell ill, collected data, formed arguments. They shared their passions and their passion for knowledge—and the world is better for it. Some call this friendship, some call it solidarity, but it is life alive. We all need a Bonpland.

History—time—also gives perspective. Each of our individual lives is so incredibly short when coming from the cosmological, and historical, perspective. One night, after checking his defenses along the Peruvian border, Bolívar fell asleep into a feverish dream. When he awoke, he wrote My Delirium on Chimborazo.[55] In the dream, time appeared to him: “I behold the past, I see the future, and the present passes through my hands. Oh, child, man, ancient, hero, why such vanity? Do you think your Universe matters?”[56] Bolívar, humbled before him, asked what such a “wretched mortal” can do before Nature.[57] Time replied, “Observe, learn, hold in your mind what you have seen. Draw for the eyes of those like you the image of the physical Universe, the moral Universe. Do not conceal the secrets heaven has revealed to you. Tell men the truth.”[58] Through Nature, our descriptions of her, our relationships to her, our awe before her, we can find truth.

A Living Nature

We are not only tied to time, we are tied to one another, and to all of the diverse organic and inorganic matter that together makes life, “each organism as a part of the entire creation, and [we] recognize in the plant or the animal not merely an isolated species, but a form linked in the chain of being to other forms either living or extinct.”[59] And in our diversity, there is unity, “a harmony blending together all created things, however dissimilar in form and attributes; one great whole animated by the breath of life.”[60]

In Humboldt’s preface to his second and third editions of Views of Nature, he wrote that the dual purpose of his text was to “heighten the enjoyment of Nature through living depictions, while simultaneously increasing insight into the harmonious cooperative effect of forces according to the state of scientific understanding of the time.”[61] Through the “combination of a literary with a purely scientific goal,” he aimed to speak to the imagination and increase knowledge.[62] He saw the importance of inspiration and information, and how Nature provided both to those seeking it:

Everything announces a world of active, organic powers. In every shrub, in the cracked bark of the trees, in the loose earth where live the hymenoptera, Life audibly stirs. It is one of the many voices of Nature, discernible to the solemn, receptive mind of humanity.[63]

And Nature was “an inexhaustible source of investigation,”[64] “ever growing and ever unfolding itself in new forms,”[65] where “each step that we make in the more intimate knowledge of nature leads us to the entrance of new labyrinths; . . . the excitement produced by a presentiment of discovery, the vague intuition of the mysteries to be unfolded, and the multiplicity of the paths before us, all tend to stimulate the exercise of thought in every stage of knowledge.”[66]

A Living Law

But we must find a way to bring this knowledge, these relationships, our humility, our awe, into our governance systems. We need a living law that represents the good and the just, the particular and the whole, but also one that evolves with knowledge and time. When nations are in upheaval, “calm can only be restored by a power that knows how to control events by itself initiating improvements out of a noble sense of its strength and its right.”[67] Yet, “to improve a situation without causing upheavals, it is necessary to let new institutions grow from institutions that have evolved during centuries of barbarism.”[68]

Humboldt knew that knowledge must seek some greater purpose—simply look at the themes he chose and the evolution of his body of work—to name a few titles, Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807)to expand our knowledge, Views of Nature (1808)to expand our senses and sensibilities to that knowledge, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (1825–1827) to use knowledge and sensibilities to condemn inhumanity, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America (1844)to highlight the importance of bearing witness and sharing what you have seen, Cosmos (1845)to connect it all, and Political Essay on the Island of Cuba (1856)to connect it all for a purpose—to change unjust laws and inhumane systems of governance. Essays, views, political critiques, personal narratives—the cosmos itself—all a product of passion, purpose, and person.

George Perkins Marsh, who grew up reading Humboldt, and who so deeply and powerfully captured the harm being caused to Nature by man in Man and Nature, referred to Humboldt as the “great apostle of nature.”[69] From the Greek apostolos, an apostle is a messenger that bears witness and sends forth to others what he has seen. An apostle is not just one who thinks, but one who acts: “a person who initiates a great moral reform or who first advocates an important belief or system.”[70] Inspired by Humboldt, Bolívar freed nations. John Muir, who desired to be “a Humboldt,”[71] created the first national parks. Madison spoke passionately about the complexity and linkages of species and even the atmosphere when seeking new policies, [72] and Jefferson not only argued against the global slave trade, but argued for stewardship through usufruct, or preserving the fertility of soil from landowner to landowner.[73] Together, we must learn from Nature and the heroes of Nature; we must address the harms being done to humans and Nature; and we must transform our systems of governance for the protection of all life. Let us each aspire to be a Humboldt.


Humboldt is considered a father to environmentalism, but how closely are we following our founder? He was a man unafraid to blend care with thoughtfulness, passion with science, knowledge with mystery, and human governance with the human—and ecological—condition. He saw connections and dependencies everywhere, he saw the value of the particular and the whole, and he knew that we must look behind us to better understand our present and find guidance to our future.

We are in the midst of an existential crisis of our own making. We rationalize and empower greed. We ravage soils and souls. We allow the powerful to make decisions without wisdom. And in our search for the power to do good, we take away the power of words such as justice and morality, life and harmony. In that, we perpetuate harms for a harmful peace.

We cannot change our past, but we can change our path forward. Learning from Humboldt, we must not fear or avoid or silence what moves us; indeed, we must rely on it. The desire to learn more, protect more, see more is what motivates more. We must share stories of goodness, and of harm, as we have witnessed it. We must have courage to point out political and moral hypocrisies, those who claim to civilize or save through inhumanity. We must acknowledge that the roots of harmful systems, of colonialism and slavery, remain today, just as deeply embedded as any of the plant systems that Humboldt documented. And we must see that the welfare of our human systems is directly related to the welfare of the systems of Nature.

Nature is our source of life, from our very breath to our eternal struggles for what is right and good—liberty, fraternity, and equality. Together, let us promote a living history—understanding that we, too, are history alive. Let us promote a living Nature—understanding that we, too, are Nature alive. And let us promote a living law—understanding that within each of us, individually and as one humanity, is the capability to create and adjudicate a law for life.

In Bolívar’s powerful fever dream, he “left Humboldt’s tracks behind and began to leave my own marks on the eternal crystals girding Chimborazo.”[74] Let us pick up where this great man left off, where he guided us, where his words continue to guide us. Let us continue this living history in—and for—this beautiful living world.

[1] A. Wulf, Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt (New York: Pantheon Books, 2019). Note: the graphic novel does not include page numbers.

[2] A. Wulf, “Op-Ed: Alexander von Humboldt: The Man Who Made Nature Modern,” Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-wulf-rediscovering-alexander-von-humboldt-20150705-story.html.

[3] A. von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Vol. 1, reprinted ed., trans. E.C. Otte (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1858; Baltimore, MD, and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 32.

[4] A. von Humboldt, Views of Nature, reprinted ed., eds. S.T. Jackson and L. Dassow Walls, trans. M.W. Person (London,: Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1849; Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014), preface to the first edition (Berlin: Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1808).

[5] A July 16, 1799, letter from von Humboldt to his brother Wilhelm von Homboldt, cited in the introduction of A. von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba: A Critical Edition, eds. V.M. Kutzinski and O. Ette, trans. J.B. Anderson, V.M. Kutzinski, and A. Becker (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2011), xiv.

[6] von Humboldt, Cosmos, 31.

[7] This phrase is taken from von Humboldt’s Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 91: “I have heard coldhearted discussions about whether it would be better for the owner not to wear out slaves with excessive work and have to replace them less often as a result, or to take from them everything possible in a few years and be forced to buy negros bozales more frequently. Such are the rationalizations of greed when humans use other humans as beasts of burden!”

[8] A. von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, trans. John Black (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, and H. Colburn, 1814),184. Full quote: “Mexico is the country of inequality. No where does there exist such a fearful difference in the distribution of fortune, civilization, cultivation of the soil, and population.”

[9] E.g., “Slaves were forced into celibacy under the pretext of avoiding moral disorder!” In von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 86; and e.g., “During our journey we could not escape conversations, in which the missionary pertinaciously insisted on the necessity of the slave-trade, on the innate wickedness of the blacks, and the benefit they derived from their state of slavery among the Christians!” In A. von Humboldt and A. Bonpland, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Year 1799–1804, vol. 1, trans. T. Ross (London: George Bell and Sons, 1907), 347.

[10] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 90.

[11] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, 41.

[12] E.g., “A recent visitor to the island commented that the landowners have no other care than to bury in their coffers the money that their overseers make and to exhume it for the card games and court cases that they pass on from one generation to the next”; in von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba85.

[13] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 137. Full quote: “The spirit of trade, carrying with it the cult of wealth, probably leads people to devalue what money cannot buy. Yet, human affairs are fortunately such that man’s most desirable, noblest, and freest qualities come from the soul’s inspirations and the intellect’s development and improvement. The cult of wealth, were it to seize all levels of society absolutely, would inevitably lead to the evil that those lament who look with sadness upon what they call the domination of the industrial system.”

[14] E.g., Bolívar, “Fields for the cultivation of indigo, grain, coffee, sugar cane, cacao, and cotton, empty prairies for raising cattle, wilderness for hunting ferocious beasts, the bowels of the earth for excavating gold that will never satisfy the lust of that greedy nation”; in S. Bolívar, El Libertador: Writings of Simón Bolívar, ed. D. Bushnell, trans. F.H. Fornoff (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 20.

[15] See von Humboldt, “The colonial system’s hateful logic of safety founded upon enmity between castes, which has been propagated for centuries, is now exploding with violence”; in von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 146.

[16] E.g., von Humboldt, “These dreadful calculations about the consumption of human beings do not even account for the number of unfortunate slaves, who either died during the Middle Passage or were thrown overboard like damaged goods”; in von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 148.

[17] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 305.

[18] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, 280.

[19] Ibid, 280-81.

[20] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, xxii.

[21] “Baron Humboldt on American Slavery,” The Anti-Slavery Reporter,vol. 6, third series (1858): 192. Humboldt’s voice “adds one more to the host of witnesses who have raised their voice in condemnation of this inequity.”

[22] Ibid.

[23] von Humboldt and Bonpland, Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America257.

[24] See von Humboldt, “Such is the composition of these societies established on the most fertile soil that nature can offer for the nourishment of men; such the management of agricultural enterprises and industry in the Antilles that, in the most fortunate climate of the equinoctial region, the population would fall below subsistence level without free and unimpeded foreign trade”; in von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 131.

[25] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 131.

[26] Ibid, 252.

[27] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, 134.

[28] Ibid, 161.

[29] C. Darwin, On the Origin of Species, ed. G. Beer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 8.

[30] Ibid, 65.

[31] Bolívar, El Libertador, 154.

[32] Ibid.

[33] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, xvii.

[34] “I fear peace more than war.” in Bolívar, El Libertador, xl.

[35] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, 182.

[36] Bolívar, El Libertador, 19.

[37] L. Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America(Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 176.

[38] Wulf, The Invention of Nature, 130, citing Goethe’s review of Humboldt’s Ideen zu einer Physiognomik der Gërwachse, January 31, 1806.

[39] See also, “Plants can reveal all kinds of things that have nothing to do with the kind of botany you learned. The migration of the human race, crops, vegetables, fruits and grains, have followed our footpaths for thousands of years. Or take politics and economics . . . all shaped by plants Empires have been built on tea, sugar, and tobacco”; in Wulf, Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt.

[40] A. von Humboldt and A. Bonpland, Essay on the Geography of Plants, ed. S.T. Jackson, trans. S. Romanowski (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press), 72-73.

[41] von Humboldt, Cosmos, 43.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., “In the zoological writings of Aristotle, that the word ‘history’ presents itself as an exposition of the results of experience and observation. [Footnote] *Aul. Gell., ‘Nect. Att.,’ v., 18.”

[44] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, 264.

[45] E.g., “I thought myself on the point of embarking for Egypt, when political events forced me to abandon a plan which promised me so much satisfaction”; in von Humboldt, Cosmos, 41.

[46] E.g., “. . .when the war which broke out in Germany and Italy, determined the French government to withdraw the funds granted for their voyage of discovery, and adjourn it to an indefinite period. Deeply mortified at finding the plans I had formed during many years of my life overthrown in a single day . . .”; ibid.

[47] Wulf, Invention ofNature, 44, citing Alexander von Humboldt to Josef Franz Elder von Jacquin, April 22, 1798.

[48] von Humboldt, Cosmos, 43. Full quote: “If I may be allowed to borrow a striking illustration from the geological relations by which the physiognomy of a country is determined, I would say that domes of trachyte, cones of basalt, lava streams (‘coules’) of amygdaloid with elongated and parallel pores, and white deposits of pumice, intermixed with black scoriae, animate the scenery by the associations of the past which they awaken, acting upon the imagination of the enlightened observer like traditional records of an earlier world. Their form is their history.”

[49] See von Humboldt: “Nature, in the manifold signification of the word—whether considered as the universality of all that is and ever will be—as the inner moving force of all phenomena, or as their mysterious prototype—reveals itself to the simple mind and feelings of man as something earthly, and closely allied to himself. It is only within the animated circles of organic structure that we feel ourselves peculiarly at home”; in von Humboldt, Cosmos, 48.

[50] von Humboldt and Bonpland, Essay on the Geography of Plants, 75.

[51] “. . . domes of trachyte, cones of basalt, lava streams (‘coules’) . . . animate the scenery by the associations of the past which they awaken, acting upon the imagination of the enlightened observer like traditional records of an earlier world. Their form is their history”; in von Humboldt, Cosmos, 43.

[52] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, 160-61.

[53] von Humboldt, Cosmos, 41.

[54] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, xviii.

[55] S. Bolívar, “Bolívar’s Delirium over Chimborazo,” 1822, https://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/hi216/documents/bolivar/sbchimb1822.htm, extracted from R.W. Slatta and J.L. de Grummond, Simón Bolívar’s Quest for Glory, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003), 238-40.

[56] Bolívar, El Libertador, 135-36.

[57] Ibid., 136.

[58] Ibid.

[59] von Humboldt, Cosmos, 26.

[60] Ibid., 15.

[61] von Humboldt, Views of Nature, preface to the second and third editions, Berlin, 1849.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid, 147.

[64] Humboldt and Bonpland, Personal Narrative, vol. 1, 181.

[65] Humboldt, Cosmos, 25.

[66] Ibid.

[67] von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Island of Cuba, 154.

[68] Ibid., 145.

[69] G. Perkins Marsh, “The Study of Nature” (1860) in So Great a Vision: The Conservation Writings of George Perkins Marsh, ed. S.C. Trombulak (Hanover and London: Middlebury College Press, 2001), 82-83.

[71] Wulf, “Op-Ed: Alexander von Humboldt: The Man Who Made Nature Modern.”

[72] J. Madison, Address to the Agricultural Society of Albemarle, May 12, 1818.

[73] T. Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, Paris 06 September 1789,” The Papers of Thomas Jeffersonvol. 15: March 27, 1789 to November 30, 1789 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958), 392-98, https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/thomas-jefferson-james-madison. In speaking of the debts of past generations, Jefferson said, “[Man] might, during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come, and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living.”

[74] Bolívar, El Libertador, 135.

  • Kathryn Gwiazdon

    Kathryn Gwiazdon, J.D., Esq. is Executive Director, Center for Environmental Ethics and Law, a member of the Steering Committee of the Ecological Law and Governance Association, and Deputy Chair, Ethics Specialist Group, IUCN World Commission on Environmental Law.

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