Fresh Ideas: Science, nature and Earth Day
I just finished reading a book about a man who had an outsized influence on the way we look at the world: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf.
Barely remembered now, Alexander von Humboldt was a scientist of enormous stature in his time: a rock star 19th Century scientist. Contemporaries called him “the greatest man since the deluge.”
Dozens of places throughout the world are named after him, including, in Nevada, the west and east Humboldt Ranges, Humboldt County, Humboldt Peak, and the Humboldt River. Humboldt influenced the thought and work of Charles Darwin, the South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, Johannes Wolfgang von Goethe, and many others. It’s reported even Napoleon was jealous of his intellect and influence. In America, Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, knew and admired his work.
Charles Darwin wrote, “My admiration of his famous Personal Narrative determined me to travel in distant countries, and led me to volunteer as naturalist in her majesty’s ship Beagle.” He brought Humboldt’s books along in his tiny, cramped cabin.
Humboldt introduced the idea of the natural world as a system, as interlocking processes rather than as a collection of things. This notion was likely the beginning of the science of ecology.
Humboldt also recognized human activities can disrupt the functioning of natural systems. In his historic journey of scientific exploration up Venezuela’s Orinoco River, Humboldt was told by locals the water level of Lake Valencia in Venezuela’s Argua Valley had been falling rapidly. Humboldt made the connections: “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by European planters, the springs are entirely dried up,” and described in detail the effects of deforestation.
These two ideas — of the natural world as systems and of the effects of disturbing those systems — have, like the waters of the Orinoco, come down to us in two interweaving streams. One stream is the natural sciences: studying, observing and describing the natural systems of the earth.
The other is the stream of conservation: the idea we humans have a responsibility to maintain the health of the earth’s natural systems — its lakes, rivers, mountains and forests, its atmosphere — so they continue to function and support all life — including our own.
Just as natural science and conservation are two channels of the same stream, denial and mistrust of science and the backlash against conservation also are two strands of a stream.
Humboldt’s early insights about the effects of human activity on the health of ecological systems were a result of his observation of those systems, just as our current insights into the dangers of human-caused climate change are results of the careful observation of the interlocking natural systems that make up our ecosphere. To challenge the conclusion we need to stop producing so many greenhouse gases to avoid climate disruption, many dismiss, deny, and dispute the science that led to that conclusion.
Earth Day, celebrated this week, is a distant descendent of the ideas first articulated by Humboldt. The first Earth Day took place in 1970, when U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson and Representative Pete McCloskey (a Democrat and a Republican — those were the good old days), after seeing the environmental damage from the Santa Barbara oil spill, decided “the time was ripe for a movement to strengthen and support public consciousness about air and water pollution.”
“On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans to demonstrated for a healthy environment in massive rallies throughout the country.” Some of our nation’s landmark environmental legislation — including the Clean Water Act and amendments significantly strengthening the Clean Air Act — were passed soon after the first Earth Day.
For me as a lifelong conservationist, Earth Day is a reminder of my forebears: from Alexander von Humboldt to Charles Darwin to Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and Gaylord Nelson, people who were unafraid of science, despite scary or unpleasant conclusions, and who recognized our obligation to care for the natural world.
It’s also a reminder both of how far we’ve come in caring for our environment, and of how far we still have to go.
Anne Macquarie blogs about clean energy and climate change in Nevada at nevadanscleanenergy.org.