Reclaiming Humboldt’s Vision for Today

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Photo Credit: By Alexander von Humboldt

September 14, 2019 was the 250th birthday of Alexander von Humboldt, and celebrations have been going on all around the world, from Lima to Quito and Bogota to Victoria, BC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Durham to Paris and Halle and, of course, Berlin. In March 2020, the Smithsonian Museum will open a special exhibit on Humboldt and the United States that will keep the celebration going through next August, even as the wave of new books and articles about Humboldt shows no sign of slowing down.

On an infinitely smaller scale, fall 2019 was also the ten-year anniversary of my book Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (University of Chicago, 2009). This coincidence has me reflecting on why we are finding our way back to Humboldt after a lapse of some 150 years. When I first discovered him in a graduate seminar in 1988, I, too, had no sense of who he was beyond some vague recollection of Humboldt penguins and the Humboldt Current. Yet the more I looked, the more I found his name: in his own time he was popular, beloved, honored, even revered—a kind of nineteenth century Einstein. But in the United States, wherever I raised his name I was met with blank stares. Passage to Cosmos was my attempt to help repair this great absence, and to ask how this nation, which had been dearer to him than any other outside his homes in France and Germany, had erased him from national memory.

But now, Humboldt is back. The difference is not just the new wave of publications, it’s the new word in our vocabulary: the Anthropocene. Humboldt was a student of the Earth above all, and his life’s work encompassed how the terrestrial “system of cooperating forces” generated everything from the formation of Earth and the unfolding of life across geological time to the reciprocal agencies of land, water, atmosphere, and plant life in creating Earth’s many climate zones and in shaping the historical migrations of plants, animals, and peoples across continents and oceans—peoples who are all, he admonishes us in Cosmos, “in like degree designed for freedom.”[1] Humboldt, in short, was Western science’s first planetary theorist—the first to pull together a full range of interdisciplinary sciences, along with literature and the arts, to synthesize a holistic and complex understanding of Earth’s bio/anthro/geo/chemical processes. To understand the Anthropocene historically and culturally leads us, it turns out, directly back to the paradigm first proposed by Alexander von Humboldt—a paradigm that was arrested midstream by decisions favoring industrial modernity and the cornucopian economic thinking that feeds it. In fact, the industrial revolution may have been Humboldt’s blind spot: while he warned that Europe’s coal-fired industries, left unchecked, would change the continent’s climate, to imagine that this could expand exponentially and destabilize the entire planetary climate system was beyond his wildest nightmares.

We don’t need Humboldt today for his science; his scientific heirs, today’s ecologists and Earth systems scientists, have long since surpassed his understanding, though they forget that Humboldt was their teacher. What we do need Humboldt for is his philosophy. He recognized that Earth is not a dead planet covered with a skiff of living organisms, but essentially a living planet; he envisioned Gaia over a century before Lovelock. But Humboldt’s Gaia—what he called Cosmos instead—is fundamentally different. First, it is Earth-centered, growing out of his deep understanding of a dynamic, “unquiet” planet in constant turmoil. Second, Humboldt’s Gaia not only includes humans, it bonds with humanity in a mutual, continuing process of self-creation. Humboldt saw that human beings are writing ourselves into the Earth at the deepest level, even as he saw that the Earth is writing itself into us as well; this partnership, the basis of his aesthetics, imbues all his popular writings.

When I wrote Passage to Cosmos, I aspired to convey all this to my readers. I thought then, and still think, that Humboldt’s cosmology was the road that readers and scholars of his work had missed (or swerved to avoid) and that it offers us both inspiration and guidance. What I didn’t foresee—and in 2009, who did?—was the terrifying speed of Anthropogenic climate change, mass extinction, and ecosystem collapse. The Earth, our scientists are warning us, is in the early stages not of a slow linear shift but of a rapid, non-linear phase change unlike anything seen before by Homo sapiens. And yet humans persist in easing ourselves into plans to decarbonize by some ever-later and more convenient date. But Earth, or Gaia, is unwilling to wait. As Humboldt knew, humans and nature are bound by reciprocal relationships in an ongoing dance, and he tried to deflect the self-centered notion that humans are the only dancers who matter. This makes the project of recalling Humboldt more urgent than ever. His was, once, a living option that riveted the attention of the world, inspired entire research programs, launched literary and artistic movements, and offered tools to help end slavery and colonialism. But soon after his death, Humboldt’s vision of Cosmos was recalled, in two senses: recollected, by many, as the sign of something once valued, but now lost; revoked, by many more, as irrelevant to the project of modernity. Today we need to recall Humboldt’s Cosmos in a third sense, summoning it out of our past not as a blueprint for our future, but as one vision of sustaining, and being sustained by, what he called “the horizon of life.”[2] We need, that is, to reinvent Humboldt’s Cosmos—to translate his thinking into a cosmology for the twenty-second century, a cosmology that can guide us toward living as if life on Earth actually mattered.

Acknowledgment: I owe my deepest thanks to Strachan Donnelley, who not only believed in my work on Humboldt but facilitated a grant from the Center for Humans and Nature that allowed me to finish Passage to Cosmos. My thanks also to John Tresch for pointing us toward Humboldt’s new cosmology.

Related essays:
Prologue: Humboldt’s Bridge, by Laura Dassow Walls
Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos, by Laura Dassow Walls

[1] A. von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, trans. E.C. Otté (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997) I:161-63, 359.

[2] Ibid., 344-45.

  • Laura Dassow Walls

    Laura Dassow Walls is William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame. She is a graduate of Indiana University (1992), and she taught at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania from 1992-2004, where she directed the Values and Science/Technology Program and first became involved with the Center for Humans and Nature.

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