The birth of the GAIA Center

In the wake of growing ecological danger, the Museum’s 35th anniversary coincided with the worsening of environmental degradation in Greece and throughout the world. It was decided then that something specific had to be done to mobilize the few, sensitize many more and arouse out of indifference the great majority. In order to continue our task, we felt that the Museum’s scope had to be extended to satisfy the need for specialized environmental research and education. This meant the establishment of a center equipped to cope with immediate demands. A new relationship between research and education with new technical approaches for which we had been preparing for years had to be brought into operation as the 21st century approached. The new center was to support the proposals of international organizations, to implement Agenda 21 and the European policy on the environment by means of new, advanced scientific and educational work. The Center for Environmental Research and Education – GAIA – defined its task by the double meaning of GAIA as planet and GAIA as the Earth, as she first appears in the Homeric epics: Earth, as research into the soil, for the protection and health of plants, animals and man and the planet, as a new education in self-awareness and a holistic approach to the relationship between man and the world. In this double mission the GAIA Center has had to follow an innovative and bold course making the Center a means of combining Nature with Culture, undertaking a position and attitude of responsibility toward life, the management of the natural resources which nurture it, and the moral values it assumes. A new society At the GAIA Center the visitor is called upon to comprehend the limits of life, the sources of its continuation which are being exhausted, and is made aware of his responsibility to act as a citizen of the world in these crucial times. The GAIA Center introduces the visitor not only to the geographical and historical aspects of Greece but to its context in the world at large. It acquaints him with the duration of life on Earth and man’s evolution from the age of cave-dwelling to the present – a comparatively brief span in which man has evolved and at the same time overused the natural and biological resources of the planet. In the Center’s exhibitions halls the question present everywhere is: How are we to build a new society? How are we to revise our way of life? These are answered by specific and attainable scientific solutions. At the same time, they awaken moral responsibility and arouse the awareness of visitors – and especially of children. I would like to stress that environmental education is the foundation of any complete, enduring program to change the collective will and motivate people to assume their responsibilities. If children by themselves could be the decision-makers we would have won the battle. With their innate innocence and purity, children participate in and contribute to the everlasting cycle of creation. Our endeavors do not stop with environmental education. The re-provisioning of the planet’s depleted resources, through new techniques and new scientific approaches, is a constant quest. We therefore regard it as fundamental that the foundation of which I am president, continues to work toward a new enlightenment based on scientific responsibility and ethical values. To achieve this goal, the GAIA Center provides a forum in which scientists, thinkers and scholars can debate critical issues. A series of conferences, seminars and workshops has already been held with international participation. It is the GAIA Center’s intent to transcend the barriers between science, philosophy, art and tradition and thus reflect the totality of human culture. Knowledge shall become synonymous with ethics. Research projects To further this aim, the GAIA Center has established advanced technological laboratories where research focuses on the restoration of the natural resources which maintain life in correlation with the nourishment and health of man. The Soil Ecology and Biotechnology Laboratory of the GAIA Center initiated research on novel biomolecular and genetic techniques in order to link soil biodiversity with functions of terrestrial ecosystems. For this purpose, a network of international collaboration has been developed. Parallel research projects for the biological control of insect pests, the mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural land and the application of site-specific management practices by precision farming are under way in an effort to promote the sustainable management of agricultural systems on a European and global level. The Bioanalytical Laboratory was recently established to assess the effect of various environmental factors on food and human health, and to utilize the rich plant potential of Greece. Special interest has been taken in plants consumed in the traditional Cretan diet, such as Olea europea varieties. Epidemiological studies have indicated that plant components of the Cretan diet provide a clear benefit for longevity and healthy aging. In this connection we will be working closely with the Analytical Chemistry Department of your university. Several bioactive components of Olea europea will be evaluated for the prevention of amyloid beta protein plaque formation, which are responsible for Alzheimer’s disease. In addition to scientific research, the GAIA Center hosts conferences and seminars with distinguished speakers addressing academic audiences. Last year we held a seminar on biodiversity and its effects on health and diet. Biodiversity as a precious asset of the Greek earth has been a constant concern of the Museum’s policy since the time of its establishment. «In Greece we have a great botanical kaleidoscope, a mighty evolutionary engine generating floristic and vegetational diversity to a degree beyond anywhere else in Europe» (Philip Smith, 2000). One of the Museum’s main intents was to explore this unique biological wealth – terrestrial and marine – and provide the necessary information on species’ geographic distribution and population viability.

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