The Father of Environmentalism

I’m reading the new biography of Alexander von Humboldt by Andrea Wulf at the moment. It’s a wonderful read and the book is highly recommended. Humboldt himself was a fascinating man who inspired Charles Darwin to take a particularly fateful trip around the world on HMS Beagle. He was centuries ahead of his time and some of his theories would easily justify his status as the Father of Environmentalism.

Humboldt first travelled to South America in the late 18th century after spending the best art of a decade as a mining inspector in his native Prussia. In Venezuela, he saw how deforestation to make way for agriculture had an extremely detrimental effect on soil quality and, it was argued by locals, had changed the weather patterns as well, making it even harder to earn a living by farming. In turn, “improvements” to irrigation seemed to have an equally devastating effect on water levels, causing even more hardship. He did not take long to make the connections between deforestation, desertification and increasing poverty.

Unfortunately, Humboldt’s opinion was very much a lone one in a world that believed it had a divine right to control and subdue nature for the benefit of mankind. Humboldt demonstrated the fallacy of that attitude and showed that to live in harmony with nature, rather than trying to conquer it, would bring greater long term benefits for all concerned. These days, we would call this permaculture – but to Humboldt, it was simply obvious.

Some two hundred years later, it seems that his ideas are still considered somewhat niche, despite the growing scientific evidence confirming his assertions. Environmental scientists have long been able to prove the devastating climatic effects of deforestation, and how it tends to promote and/or worsen existing desertification; they have also repeatedly shown how the loss of dense forestry has an adverse effect on atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Yet huge swathes of jungle and rainforest worldwide fall to the demands of loggers and intensive farmers desperate to make a quick buck. It is almost as if nobody has learned anything.

I’m only a couple of chapters into this book and already, I’m both fascinated and appalled that Humboldt’s name has been allowed to be forgotten quite so completely. He was a brilliant man whose theories and ideas are still applicable now, yet very few people outside of science are aware of him. I really believe it is not too much of a stretch to call him the Father of Environmentalism.


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