A Political Economy of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s Essay on the Fluctuations in the Supplies of Gold

In his “Essay on the Fluctuations in the Supplies of Gold” (1838) Humboldt presents a global history of the flow of precious metals from antiquity to the 19th century. This paper traces Humboldt’s economic thinking within his natural and historical research, starting with an outline of his educational background which incorporated late mercantilist and early liberal influences. It then discusses a world map and four charts drawn by Humboldt, which combine historical and contemporary statistical data into a cartographical vision of a global economic circuit. In a next step, the article explores Humboldt’s application of natural and historical research methods in the field of political economy, using the example of his 1838 essay. Finally, the article addresses Humboldt’s discussion of platinum, a precious metal whose limited natural distribution contradicted the idea of free global exchange.

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