“Humboldt would get involved – and how?!”

A festival was held at the Humboldt University of Berlin in honour of the man who lent the institution its name. “Humboldt would get involved – and how?!” – this was the question addressed by Anita Engels, Rahel Jaeggi, Cem Özdemir, Erck Rickmers and Nora Milena in a discussion about challenges facing the world – and the role of science

Nowadays Alexander von Humboldt might tweet. “Against climate change sceptics, exponents of fake news, and populists.” Perhaps he would even enter the social media fray against Donald Trump himself. Hans-Christian Pape, the president of the Humboldt Foundation, recently suggested as much. The scholar and cosmopolitan as a scientist for future?

It is of course only speculation to wonder how intellectual giants who are no longer alive may have behaved today. But in Humboldt's case it is tempting, because his writings are so very topical. And because his vision and popularity is sorely missed today.

This was also the subject of the forum “Humboldt would get involved – and how?!”, which enquired into the “relationship between science and politics today” as part of the week of events at Humboldt University. The question raised in the title as to what Humboldt might do in these days of climate crisis and nationalism was readily answered by Green politician Cem Özdemir: “Humboldt would try – without being elitist, not from an ivory tower – to speak to broad sections of society. Including people who didn't already share his beliefs.”

Along with Özdemir, the other panel participants were sociologist and climate research Anita Engels, philosopher and director of the Center for Humanities and Social Change Rahel Jaeggi, activist and student Nora Milena Vehling, and entrepreneur and philanthropist Erck Rickmers. Their task was above all to determine ways in which science and politics can work together more fruitfully. Or, as Rickmers suggested, how interaction between actors in many different fields could successfully “reflect social diversity” in view of the fact that scientific discourses sometimes tend towards the incestuous. Definitely a step backwards compared to Humboldt's time, when his Cosmos lectures gained their mass appeal.

“Our problem is not one of knowledge. Our problem is one of implementation” is how Cem Özdemir framed the dilemma of the present day. There is, he said, no lack of valid statistics on the climate crisis, of global reports on the devastating fires in the Brazilian rainforest, of attempts to explain the growth of right-wing nationalism around the world. The challenge is just to translate this into action.

In the view of the philosopher Jaeggi, the problem is that the issues are not sufficiently considered in context. The climate crisis, for example, cannot be discussed in isolation from the social question: “We're not all in the same boat – there's an upper and a lower deck” – i.e. groups in society that would be harder hit economically by political measures against the destruction of the environment. Recognising the greater contexts and connections was undoubtedly a concern of Humboldt's, who in 1803 penned the famous phrase: “Everything is interconnected.”

Activist Vehling picked up the thread: “Humboldt recognised that what happens in South America has an impact on Europe.” Vehling's activities include her work with the Fashion Revolution initiative, which fights for ecologically and economically sustainable production conditions in the textile industry. An industry revealing like almost no other the dark side of globalisation. In the discussion with the audience, one listener mentioned that India accounts for 20 percent, China a staggering 40 percent of global CO2 emissions, and Europe just seven percent: “Humboldt would have cited these figures.”

Vehling countered that in Bangladesh, for instance, 80 percent of goods are produced for foreign markets. The emissions involved are therefore hardly a purely local problem. She knew that Humboldt the universalist and internationalist would be on her side on this one. Of course the scientist hadn't yet studied the destructive effects of greenhouse gas in his era. That only came later, in 1896, when the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius investigated the consequences of the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. But Humboldt's summation in a climate study on the felling of trees at Lake Valencia in Venezuela was no less farsighted: “Human nonsense that disturbs the natural order.”

Do we need someone like him again who “advocates for an issue as an individual”? The question is put to the panel in the Humboldt University's Fritz Reuter auditorium. The sociologist Engels argued that there are still plenty of scientists who are very much in the public eye. But they lack “structures [to enforce] a systematic exchange of knowledge and ideas" between science and politics. Humboldt, in his day a political advisor with close contacts to the Prussian state apparatus, would probably have concurred.

Entrepreneur Erck Rickmers' apt summation meets with general agreement: “Alexander von Humboldt would get involved. Scientists have to get involved.”

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