3 ways Alexander von Humboldt influenced the literary canon of 'Cli-Fi'
Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the most significant figures in the history of science. How did he influence the rising genre of 'cli-fi'?
*** Humboldt predicted human–induced climate change in 1800
Because he understood that everything was connected, Humboldt also realised nature’s vulnerability. He was, for example, the first to understand the forest as an ecosystem – explaining the forest’s ability to enrich the atmosphere with moisture and its cooling effect as well as its importance for water retention and protection against soil erosion. After he saw the devastating environmental effects of monoculture and deforestation in Venezuela, Humboldt realised that the human species was destroying the environment and changing the climate. 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 humans and nature like this before.
** Cli-Fi novelists today are influenced by Humboldt
Humboldt created a completely new genre which combined evocative writing and rich landscape descriptions with scientific observation and emotional responses – a genre which became the blueprint for much of today’s nature writing. For Humboldt, nature was a painting drawn on a canvas of empirical observation, but infused with the magical colours of poetry, imagination and subjective perception. At a time when thinkers were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that ‘nature must be experienced through feelings.’ Cli-fi writers today remain firmly rooted in Humboldt’s vision as they bring together memoir, emotions, descriptions of the natural world and scientific knowledge.
** Humboldt pre-dated UK scientist James Lovelock's ideas about 'Gaia' by 150 years
Humboldt came up with the idea of nature as a web of life. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism was looked at on its own. Humboldt regarded nature as a living organism and as a global force. Cli-fi writers in 015 rely on Humboldt’s vision, although most do so unknowingly. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is based on Humboldt’s concept of interconnectedness, and scientist James Lovelock’s famous Gaia theory of the earth as a living organism bears remarkable similarities. When Humboldt described the earth as ‘a natural whole animated and moved by inward forces’, he pre-dated Lovelock’s ideas by more than 150 years. Humboldt called his book describing this new concept ‘Cosmos', having initially considered (but then discarded) ‘Gäia’ as a title.