Alexander von Humboldt: the first Solarpunk

Alexander von Humboldt served as a role model for Goethe’s Faust and helped Thomas Jefferson build the agricultural power of the United States. He inspired Charles Darwin to hop on the beagle to follow in his steps, Thoreau to seek close connection to nature at the Walden Pond, and Muir to create the national park system.

He has sown the seeds for the environmental movement of today, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospects:

“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

Humboldt was captivated by lush nature but loved humanity and the new technological developments. He believed that if we understand Nature and the laws governing her, we can create a sustainable future. He was the first Solarpunk and here are his ideas:

#1: Everything is Connected

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

John Muir wrote, summarizing Alexander von Humboldt’s ideas.

The idea of interconnectedness is central to Alexander von Humboldt’s intellectual pursuits. His relentless curiosity drove him to explore the messy reality of nature. Before Humboldt’s time, the role of the scientist was like one of the librarian – classify, label, and shelve facts. The most recent breakthrough of the natural sciences was the binomial classification – a system of grouping species originating from counting how many teeth or hooves they may have. Humboldt quite prophetically was opposed to such one-dimensional treatment of Nature and relegating science to forever slicing up the world into smaller pieces so they can neatly fit on a bookshelf.

Probably his most influential concept was the Naturgemalde: A vision, painting, and a scene illustrating how different parts of the ecosystem influence each other.

Humboldt’s Naturgemalde: the cross-section of Chimborazo volcano with the entire ecosystem explained.

Naturgemalde was not only a new way to showcase facts and figures like the altitude, vegetation, and snow cover of the Chimborazo volcano but the first piece of art illustrating the influence of these facts over each other. It was during the assembly of Naturgemalde that Humboldt first introduced the idea of vegetation zones – the altitude and temperature range suitable for certain species of plants, creating similar ecosystems in similar places around the globe. 

The evocative nature of the painting has inspired a generation of artists to seek unity and deepen our understanding of Nature instead of resigning ourselves to classify it.

#2: What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements

“What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Humboldt was a scientist through and through. But as Leonardo Da Vinci before him and Richard Feynman two centuries later, he found beauty in discovering the truth about the world. Nature was a value in itself for Humboldt, not just a means to an end or something to conquer.

It is that emotional bond with the world that let him create the Naturgemalde.

“Nature every where speaks to man in a voice familiar to his soul.”

Alexander von Humboldt, from the Invention of Nature

Poets and authors like Coleridge, Goethe, Thoreau, and Verne were deeply moved by Humboldt’s descriptions of the natural world and paid him homages in their own art. Goethe based Doctor Faust on his dear friend Humboldt, and Julius Verne made sure that Nautilus contained “the complete works of Humboldt”, as Captain Nemo was a great fan.

#3 Humanity has to work WITH nature.

During his travels, Humboldt saw the ruthlessness with which humans treated nature.

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.

The Invention of Nature

Humboldt understood the connections between different parts of the ecosystem and it was clear that short-sighted exploitation of nature will not only destroy habitats but also have dire consequences for humanity. He wasn’t opposed to technology (in fact, he was very excited by the advancements of the 19th century), but he advocated for a nuanced approach towards nature rather than plantations of cash crops.

Solarpunk

252 years after the birth of Alexander von Humboldt birth, the world hasn’t changed much. His prophetic warnings about Humanity’s devastating impact on the natural world have unfortunately came to pass, and we are still trying to find our way out of this mess. I believe that way is the Solarpunk – a trend focusing on inspiring a sustainable future through art, and finding a way for modern technology to coexist with lush nature.

Solarpunks believe that this way is through Art and Technology. Humboldt believed in the power of art to capture and express more than formulas ever could and to inspire others to appreciate the complexity of Nature. Solarpunks believe that this Art can also inspire technologists to create sustainable solutions and policymakers to implement them. Humboldt believed that technology not only can, but has to coexist with Nature:

Humboldt, however, warned that humankind needed to understand how the forces of nature worked, how those different threads were all connected. Humans could not just change the natural world at their will and to their advantage. ‘Man can only act upon nature, and appropriate her forces to his use,’ Humboldt would later write, ‘by comprehending her laws.’

Andrea Wulf, the Invention of Nature

Solarpunks believe that technology coexisting with nature is the only way out of our climate predicament. Alexander von Humboldt was the first member of the Solarpunk movement.

One more thing: I am helping to fund a Solarpunk Art Contest and we are waiting for your Naturgemalde.

5 Comments

  1. Indigenous communities have long held these beliefs making them, not Humboldt, the first solarpunks. Otherwise, Humboldt could likely be the first European solarpunk.

    1. Indigenous communities were largely primitive and so too their technology. Solarpunk is a way to grow technologically while still in balance with nature. This means we don’t suffer high child mortality but have a functioning ecosystem around us that isn’t too negatively affected by our presence. Do not pretend that Europeans did not have these beliefs before Christianity was imposed on us at the expense of our traditional druidic beliefs and culture.

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