Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Introduction: Goethe and Environmentalism

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Introduction: Goethe and Environmentalism

Article excerpt

In Memoriam

Martin Harrison (1949-2014), poet and critic


Ein Blumenglöckchen

Vom Boden hervor

War früh gesprosset

In lieblichem Flor;

Da kam ein Bienchen

Und naschte fein:-

Die müssen wohl beide

Für einander sein. (Goethe, MA 9:105)


A little bellflower

Forth from the ground

Had sprung up early

In charming full bloom;

There came a little bee

And finely nibbled:-

They must both surely

Be made for one another.

Goethe and the Onset of the Anthropocene

Over a decade ago, the scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer applied the term "Anthropocene" to describe the current geological era, which they regard as the first era in which large-scale transformations of the earth are driven by human impacts.1 As Steffen et al. put it in a more recent article, human influence "has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system." In addition to influencing the carbon cycle, they explain, "humans are (i) significantly altering several other biogeochemical, or element cycles ...; (ii) strongly modifying the terrestrial water cycle ..., altering the water vapour flow from the land to the atmosphere; and (iii) likely driving the sixth major extinction event in Earth history."2 The great task of the future, they agree, will have to involve major changes in the way we think about and behave toward the natural world; it will require us to develop new strategies for sustainability that involve intensive research, and, as Crutzen and Stoermer put it,"wise application" of this research (18).

Crutzen and Stoermer as well as Steffen et al. date the beginning of the Anthropocene to 1800, coinciding with the rise of industry and hence of energy-dependent processes, which significantly increased the human imprint on the environment. Whereas in 1750 the Industrial Revolution had barely begun, by 1850 England and much of Western Europe had been completely transformed. The year 1800 thus marks an important turning point and a fundamental reorientation in the history of the earth and humanity. As Steffen et al. write, the beginning of the Anthropocene is "one of the great transitions ... in the development of the human enterprise" (847).

The time around 1800 was also one of the richest periods in European cultural history, a period that is often identified with Goethe and his influence. Importantly, the Goethezeit was the source of some of the most intense and significant considerations of the natural world and the human place within it. It was, in short, not only a time of scientific discovery and technological advances but also a time of serious philosophical and liter-ary engagement with the natural world-an engagement that was, more often than not, critical of mechanistic science and technological manipulations of nature. This coincidence is not entirely surprising. Rather, as four authors from this special section of the Goethe Yearbook remark, during the onset of the Anthropocene, writers, philosophers, and artists turned a critical eye on the dominant views of the natural world and the human relationship to nature. Goethe was at the forefront of this turn. As Ryan Feigenbaum suggestively puts it in his contribution on Goethe's nonanthropocentrism: "In the same moments, then, in which the human relation to nature became formidable enough to presage a new geological epoch, one can also find an antidote of sorts: Goethe's criticism of that very relation and an alternative to it."

Goethe's critique of the sciences of his time, his contrasting qualitative approach to the study of nature, along with his endeavor to bridge the everwidening gap between literary and scientific approaches to nature, make him a particularly relevant thinker for our time. While Goethe's methodological views, as well as his practice as a poet-scientist, were criticized in his own time,3 from our current perspective they appear to be significant and even prescient: a growing number of scientists and humanists have come to realize that the only way to seriously address the environmental crisis is to join forces. …

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