Re-connecting with nature

What we as designers can learn from Alexander von Humboldt to contribute to a meaningful climate discussion. Because: “Who cares about climate change?”

In late 2016 the magazine NewPhilosopher published In Awe of Nature by Andrea Wulf. The issue’s general headline provocatively asks Who cares about climate change? and by that it points out one of the biggest challenges humankind is currently facing: we have become so divorced from nature that we do not seem to care about the damages we do to it anymore.
To be able to have a meaningful and effective environmental discussion it might not only be interesting but vital to look at this topic from a design perspective – for how can we find solutions that work for the people and the planet they live on if we do not understand the relation between the two. In this context it is interesting to go back in time to look at the learnings we can draw from the work of one of the first environmentalists – scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).

Alexander von Humboldt largely influenced the way we view nature until today. The insights he gained from his 5-year expedition across Latin America strongly contributed to the idea of nature as a ‘web of life’ where everything works in relation to other factors and species. As also Wulf describes, this ability of understanding complexity enabled him to become one of the first environmentalists, pointing out the effects of early deforestation and allowing him to warn about future environmental issues such as gas emissions from industrial centres.

Humboldt is ever so often described as a meticulous scientist and as Wulf mentions, he did after all travel with 42 scientific instruments across America. But what the author manages to capture in her article is that Humboldt not only believed in grand theories as a way of understanding nature, but viewed imagination and the celebration of magnificence as an equal part of it: He had the ability to understand nature both like a poet and a scientist: “Pleasure lies in feeling not in reasoning”.

It is important to clarify though that Humboldt did not view nature through a misty-eyed veil but that it was his ability to see both sides – the carefully collected scientific data and the discussion of the charms of a landscape – that made his investigations extraordinary. Humboldt’s observations, collected in his many publishings, founded a completely new genre that combined poetic descriptions with scientific observations.
Through this, Humboldt sparked true excitement and love for nature:
‘One look at the heavens, he said, proved his point: the brilliant stars “delight the senses and inspire the mind”, yet at the same time they move along a path of mathematical precision.’

This ability of Humboldt is in what might be lacking in today’s environmental debates. Scientific data is vital for global as well as local climate discourses, observations and action plans. But as Wulf criticizes in her article: statistics do not connect with people on an emotional level. Thereby we do not acknowledge an essential character trade of human beings – that they will only protect what they love.

It is thereby not an exaggeration to wonder how it will be possible for humankind to save nature as rising numbers of us spend our lives far removed from it. If people do not access nature and experience the admiration for it that Humboldt described, how will they be able to connect with it emotionally, if only this can make them want to protect it?

Andrea Wulf does not provide ideas or examples for how this emotional connection could be re-established but I believe that great potential lies in the creative industries’ ability to change the way we interact both with things and the world around us. Re-establishing contact with nature and its resources in non-natural environments is a new challenge for the design world and in the future it will need to provide ways to work with challenging our attitudes towards natural resources to be able to positively influence how we treat the environment we live in. This might happen in various ways but early signs of there products and services are already visible, such as the armature The Sea and the Shore by Werner Aisslinger. It’s way of leading the water, like a fragile stream opening up in a greater lake-like basin enables reflection on the quality and worth of the resource.


Andrea Wulf In Awe of Nature in: Zan Boag (ed.) NewPhilosopher, (Pineapple Media (UK/EU), Issue 14, pp.76-79, Nov 2016-Feb 2017)