Kosmos Lecture

Where is the safe space for humanity?

In the winter of 1827/28, Alexander von Humboldt presented his famous Kosmos lectures in Berlin. Berlin's Humboldt University is revisiting the series in the anniversary year. The lecture series features talks by a number of pioneering scientists. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Brazilian environmental physicist Paulo Artaxo spoke at the opening event about Humboldt as an idol and climate change.

“In the tropical world I am in my element,” Alexander von Humboldt noted, almost euphorically, “and I have never been as continuously healthy as in the past two years.” The scientist set out in 1799 from La Coruña in Spain for the Amazon jungle, accompanied by Aimé Bonpland – a journey that was to form the basis not only of a 30-volume work, but also of Humboldt's world renown. “Oh that I never have to see the towers of Berlin again”, he sighed in a letter from South America to his brother Wilhelm.

That was not how things turned out. Financial necessity forced him to return, but Alexander von Humboldt went on to become an “international superstar” in Prussia, as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it. Steinmeier has said that this “different Prussian” and "greatest German cosmopolitan” – whose very cosmopolitanism and Francophilia garnered him enemies during his lifetime – is one of his personal heroes.

Steinmeier was speaking at the Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin, the very building that once housed the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, venue of the “Kosmos” lectures that Humboldt began in winter 1827/28 before an audience of over a thousand and which saw his popularity grow far beyond the city limits. This was not only because Humboldt knew how to entertain his audience with descriptions of exotic worlds. He opened up a new, universal perspective on science, on the interplay of nature and culture, ecology and economy.

Steinmeier quoted Humboldt's “Everything is interconnected”, and in an age of implacable globalisation and networking, this sentence of course implies an inherent imperative: “To draw from scientific knowledge the right conclusions for the preservation of the world.”

This is also one of the concepts at the heart of the new “Kosmos” lectures initiated by the Humboldt University in the anniversary year, which opened at the Gorki Theater. The theatre's managing and artistic director Shermin Langhoff praised the series' high-calibre international lineup, which showed “that science seems to have emerged from the self-incurred immaturity of its Eurocentric fixation”. It certainly has.

Brazilian environmental physicist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Professor Paulo Artaxo of the University of São Paulo invited us to take research to the next level in his presentation “The Scientific Challenge on Amazonia and Global Environmental Changes”.

As inspirational as Humboldt's life and work can be for the present day, the distance between the 19th and the 21st century is dispiriting. The days when Humboldt found a thriving flora and fauna in the Amazon rainforest and the biggest problem was “mosquitoes darkening the air” are long gone.

Artaxo used charts and diagrams to illustrate the devastating consequences of deforestation and slashing and burning of the rainforests on the global climate, and he documented rising levels of CO2 and methane. He described the potential 5°C of global warming by 2050 as a catastrophe. And he posed the rhetorical question: “Where is the safe space for humanity?” – Where will humanity find the space it requires for life, growth and protection, when rising sea levels due to the melting of the polar ice caps swallow whole swathes of land, not only in South America?

Artaxo presented his scientific findings with the urgency of someone accustomed to wilful blindness. On the subject of climate change, common sense does not prevail – instead, ideologically charged debates hold sway. The “Fridays for Future” movement alone is, regrettably, unlikely to change this. So the more authorities we have to tirelessly spell out the gravity of the situation, the better. Humboldt, Artaxo firmly believes, would certainly have supported his demand for “more intelligent and efficient use of natural resources”.

The “Kosmos“ lectures will continue over the coming months with subjects like “Making oneself related – Relationships between Human and Environment“, “A journey to Chimborazo, cradle of plant geography“ and “Criticism and compromise – Humboldt as a politician“.

The Humboldt University furthermore celebrates the anniversary year with a conference on global challenges and sustainability as well as with a festival week.

The closing lecture (28 November) will then take us back to the original idea of universal interconnectedness. In a presentation titled “Entangled Worlds“, New Zealand professor Dame Mary Anne Salmond of the University of Auckland explores how Alexander von Humboldt's idea of a "web of life" in connection with the philosophies of Oceania can suggest new directions for the future.

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