An Ecologist ahead of his Time


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It was in this world free of environmental impacts that Humboldt, at his most visionary, began to predict them. He didn’t proffer specific solutions at the time, more alerted people to the fact that human activities should be toned down. When he realized how the cascarilla tree was being exploited in southern Ecuador, for example, and compared the presence of the tree in La Condamine’s times with what he was seeing, he realized the species would not survive for much longer. A tree disappearing from the face of earth… what effect could that have on the grand scheme of the universe? If you thought like Humboldt, your answer, of course, would be that what happens here affects what happens anywhere. Everything is connected.

Two historical figures, central to our modern-day “green” thinking, were directly inspired by Humboldt. Ernst Heinrich Haeckel, a German scientist who, from fervently reading everything Humboldt published, would go on to invent the word “ecology”. John Muir, on the other hand, would be remembered as the “Father of the National Parks” in the United States. Both were Humboldt obsessed. Humboldt had rooted concepts such as environmentalism into his discourse — although never defined them as specific fields of science, let alone conceived them playing a role in public policies.

Today, we understand what in those times was still very difficult to comprehend. The harmful effects of human activity are beyond a shadow of a doubt. It’s almost hard to see a way for us to extricate ourselves. But could we actually be making the same mistake as those who, centuries ago, failed to understand the power of earthly connections? We need, more than ever, minds like Humboldt’s. Minds that can approach problems from new perspectives: because if everything is connected, surely the only way to solve them is by working together.

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