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Abstract

This article is a meditation on the overlaps between environmentalism, post-colonial theory, and the practice of history. It takes as a case study the writings of the explorer-scientist-abolitionist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the founder of a humane, socially conscious ecology. The post-colonial critique has provided a necessary corrective to the global environmental movement, by focusing it on enduring colonialist power dynamics, but at the same time it has crippled the field of environmental history, by dooming us to a model of the past in which all Euro-American elites, devoid of personal agency, are always already in an exploitative relationship with the people and natural resources of the developing world. A close reading of Humboldt's work, however, suggests that it could provide the basis for a healthy post-colonial environmentalism, if only post-colonial critics were willing to see beyond Humboldt's complicity in colonial structures. In particular, this article attempts to rehabilitate Humboldt's reputation in the face of Mary Louise Pratt's canonical post-colonial study, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. Humboldt's efforts to inspire communion with Nature while simultaneously recognizing Nature's “otherness” can be seen as radical both in his day and in ours. In addition his analysis of the link between the exploitation of natural resources and the exploitation of certain social groups anticipates the global environmental justice movement.