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Alexander von Humboldt: A sustainability pioneer?

September 28, 2021

reading time: 7 minutes

by Tilmann Schaal, LGT

Ursula Finsterwald

The nineteenth-century polymath Alexander von Humboldt inspires sustainability expert Ursula Finsterwald with his foresight.

The idea of sustainability has only made it into the social mainstream in recent decades. All the more surprising that Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) recognized many of the central sustainable themes a long time ago. Ursula Finsterwald, Head Sustainability Management LGT Private Banking, took a closer look at the natural scientist – and has since been convinced of his visionary creativity.

Alexander van Humboldt
In 1807, Alexander von Humboldt was the first to depict how plant habitats in the Andes depend on altitude. © KEYSTONE/akg-images

1. Alexander von Humboldt lived around 200 years ago. What kind of person was he?
Alexander von Humboldt was the last polymath and a celebrity in his time. He was a tireless naturalist, inquisitive to a ripe old age. He understood nature as a web of life, as a living whole, as a cosmos. Humboldt was an opponent of the at the time widespread slavery, and it depressed him that he had no influence to change this. His nature painting of Chimborazo and the ideas on which it was based had a lasting influence on future generations' understanding of nature.

2. Why is Alexander von Humboldt still relevant today and what can we learn from him?
Alexander von Humboldt warned about pollution, deforestation and environmental degradation even in his own time. He understood the connections between environmental destruction and the climate. From today's perspective, he could be called a sustainable and ecological visionary.

3. What would Alexander von Humboldt say if he could comment on the present time?
Humboldt would be shocked that although his understanding of nature has been further developed, the destruction of the environment is nevertheless progressing ever more rapidly. It would pain him that profit and greed have so much influence, that global warming as well as the loss of biodiversity are simply accepted by many, and that people today, as in the past, are not prepared to attribute untouched nature the importance it should have.

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