Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859)

Historian and writer Andrea Wulf has written a prize-winning account of the complex personality, travels and companions of this Prussian naturalist, explorer and geographer. Alexander von Humboldt, though famous in his day, is now all but forgotten.

This is a fascinating book. Here is an excerpt from the epilogue.

[One] reason why Humboldt has faded from our collective memory – at least in Britain and the United States – is the anti-German sentiment that came with the First World War. In a country such as Britain, where even the royal family had to change their German-sounding surname … to ‘Windsor’ …, it is hardly surprising that a German scientist was no longer popular. Similarly in the United States, … in 1917, German-Americans were suddenly lynched and harassed. …. In Cincinnati … ‘Humboldt Street’ was renamed ‘Taft Street’. ….

So why should we care? […]

Humboldt’s insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain resoundingly topical. …. Just as Humboldt realized that colonies based on slavery, mono-culture and exploitation created a system of injustice and of disastrous environmental devastation, so we too have to understand that economic forces and climate change are all parts of the same system.

Humboldt talked of ‘mankind’s mischief … which disturbs nature’s order’. There were moments in his life when he was so pessimistic that he painted a bleak future of humankind’s expansion into space, when humans would spread their lethal mix of vice, greed, violence and ignorance across other planets. The human species could turn even those distant stars ‘barren’ and leave them ‘ravaged’, Humboldt wrote as early as 1801, just as they were already doing with earth.

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopt, 2015), pp. 335-337.

Andrea Wulf was born in India (1972) and moved to Germany as a child. She now lives in London, UK.

I live on Humboldt Street in Victoria, BC. The street kept its name during the First World War, but I suspect that many residents know little if anything about the man for whom the street is named.


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