Humboldt on scientific collaboration and climate change

In September of 1828 Alexander von Humboldt organized a conference for the German Association of Naturalists and Physicians. He invited hundreds of scientists from across Europe, using an interdisciplinary approach that reflects very much the philosophy of a research institute with which I have the good fortune to be affiliated: IIASA (International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis) in Laxenburg, Austria.

Unlike previous such meetings at which scientists had endlessly presented papers about their own work, Humboldt put together a very different programme. Rather than being talked at, he wanted the scientists to talk with each other. …. Humboldt encouraged the visiting scientists to gather in small groups and across disciplines. …. He envisaged an interdisciplinary brotherhood of scientists who would exchange and share knowledge. ‘Without a diversity of opinion, the discovery of truth is impossible,’ he reminded them in his opening speech.

Similarly, Humboldt foresaw the work of IIASA and other research centres when he highlighted the relationship between human activity and climate change:

Humboldt wrote about the destruction of forests and of humankind’s long-term changes to the environment. When he listed the three ways in which the human species was affecting the climate, he named deforestation, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, 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.

These quotes are from Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Knopf, 2015), pp. 196, 213.

This is a follow-up to my TdJ post of two-weeks ago.

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