In 1799, thirty-year old Prussian explorer / naturalist and polymath Alexander von Humboldt travelled to South America where he formulated accurate concepts of ecology and climate interaction through comparative and holistic observation.
Humboldt was the first ecologist.
Humboldt had practiced the science of ecology for fifty years by the time German scientist Ernst Haeckel created a name for it (ökologie) in 1869. Humboldt made his scientific observations with the eyes that polymath and poet Goethe had given him. He embraced Schelling’s naturphilosophie, which espoused an organic and dynamic worldview as an alternative to the atomist and mechanist outlook that prevailed at the time. During that time, Enlightenment thinkers and scientists based their observations on the idea of an unchanging Nature that functioned like a machine; Humboldt argued that Nature’s one constant was change.
During his journey through South America, Humboldt focused less on discovery and more on connection. Connection, relationship and consequence; these are the tenets of ecology. With the eyes of an ecologist, Humboldt formulated a new vision of nature that he depicted in his Naturgemälde—a “painting of nature” that implied a sense of unity or wholeness.
Humboldt’s 1807 Essay on the Geography of Plants, which he dedicated to his friend Goethe, promoted an entirely different perspective of nature; something none of his contemporaries saw, imagined or grasped. Humboldt wrote, “Nature is a living whole,” that interacts like a single organism with certain keystone species that are essential for that interconnected web to flourish. This maverick notion would later re-emerge over a century later as the Gaia Hypothesis of Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock.
Diverging from the current focus on static classification and taxonomy, Humboldt grouped plants into zones and regions, based on climate and geography. He had invented what would a century later be known as a biogeoclimatic zone—a region with a relatively uniform macroclimate and characterized by specific ecological properties such as energy flow, vegetation communities, and soils.
Humboldt saw nature as a living organism, animated by dynamic forces.
True to his holistic vision, Humboldt invented global temperature isopleths—still used today. It is no surprise that the world’s first ecologist would also predict humanity’s devastating effect on global climate. Only a scientist who integrated the greater relationships of natural forces could predict the impacts of a growing humanity on them. Humboldt did this by observing ecosystem loss and impacts on micro-climate and extrapolating to global proportions.
Humboldt was more than the world’s first ecologist; he was also the world’s first planetologist.
Deforestation & Climate Change
With an ecologist’s perspective, Humboldt astutely observed connections between human’s interference—particularly deforestation, over-cultivation, and industrialization—on ecological integrity.
During his excursion in the late 1700s from Caracas to the Aragua Valley, Humboldt observed dry soils and lower crop yields resulting from deforestation and monoculture. Where the trees had been felled, heavy rains had washed away the soil. This was “all connected,” Humboldt concluded. With the forests no longer there to shade and anchor the soil or keep in the moisture, inevitable flash floods and washouts occurred.
In 1807, after witnessing the devastation in the valley of Aragua at Lake Valencia in South America, 38-year old Humboldt formulated his notion of human-induced climate change:
When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, with an imprudent precipitation, the springs are entirely dried up, or become less abundant. The beds of the rivers, remaining dry during a part of the year, are converted into torrents, whenever great rains fall on the heights. [As] the sward and moss disappear with the brush-wood from the sides of the mountain, the waters falling in rain are no longer impeded in their course: and instead of slowly augmenting the level of the rivers by progressive filtrations, they furrow during heavy showers the sides of the hills, bear down the loosened soil, and from those sudden inundations, that devastate the country.
His excursions through Siberia twenty years later cemented his observations. In 1831 Humboldt listed the three ways in which human activities were already affecting climate: 1) deforestation; 2) ruthless irrigation; and 3) the “great masses of steam and gas” produced in the industrial centres. No one but Humboldt had looked at the relationship between humankind and nature like this before, observes his biographer Andrea Wulf in her book The Invention of Nature. This was because, throughout his scientific career, Humboldt searched for the “connections which linked all phenomena and all the forces of nature.”
The great irony is that for over two centuries after Humboldt’s observations in 1807, we are still learning this ecological lesson. Water and soil engineers, hydrologists, farmers, loggers, and politicians still need to acknowledge the consequences of these three activities on ecosystems and on macro- and global climate.
Humboldt astutely placed the burden of responsibility on the exploitive avarice of colonialists. He questioned their choices in exploiting the environment and their lack of sustainable practices. In Aragua, Humboldt witnessed how maize and other edible crops had been replaced with indigo, which “impoverishes the soil”—exploiting the soil like a mine and permanently robbing it of its goodness. In Mexico, he saw the devastation of deforestation from silver smelting. In Cuba, Humboldt witnessed the stripping of forests for sugar plantations—cash crops replacing “those vegetables which supply nourishment”—and criticized the unsustainable use of monocultures and high-yield or forced-yield cash crops.
With a sharp prescience, Humboldt predicted today’s pesticide-doused monocrops of giant biotech corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer, and Dupont, who have created a mafia-style monopoly on food production in the world.
Humboldt noted the devastating effects of deforestation, intense husbandry, and mining in the northern regions of Russia. He astutely predicted today’s devastating floods through the ignorant draining of swamps and lakes for fields and pastures. He witnessed and correctly predicted the consequences that we currently see in many parts of the world resulting from water removal and diversion, draining of wetlands, and removal of vegetation. An example here in Canada is Manitoba’s Red River, which constantly poses hardships by flooding farmland and urban Winnipeg as a result of wetland removal and diversion.
Why have we forgotten the lessons of Humboldt? Is it political will? Corporate short-term greed? The neoliberal model of Capitalism? Or is it simply that we have forgotten Nature: her importance and role in our own survival?
Ecology is the study of relationships and change. As a scientific discipline, ecology looks at how components of an environment (animate and inanimate) relate through a wide range of consequence, from species adaptations and ecological succession to climate change and evolution.
Unsustainable exploitation is the act of using something so thoroughly that it can no longer be used again. This is akin to a parasite or parasitoid that eventually kills its host. Examples that come to mind are monocrops and single-use plastics. There are many others.
Lovelock JE. 1972. “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere”. Atmos Environ 6(8):579–580. doi:10.1016/0004-6981(72)90076-5
Von Humboldt, Alexander and Aime Bonpland. 1807 (2013). “Essay on the Geography of Plants.” University of Chicago Press. Chicago. 296pp.
Wulf, Andrea. 2015. “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World.” Vintage Books, New York. 552pp.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice of Margaret Atwood.