Ethical imperative to save the Earth and humankind

Niki Goulandris, co-founder and president of the Goulandris Natural History Museum and GAIA Center for Environmental Research and Education, received an honorary degree from Uppsala University’s faculty of science and technology this week. In these excerpts from her acceptance speech, Goulandris speaks of her background in the «Greek natural world,» her long partnership with her late husband and their decision to found the museum, and the work of the GAIA Center. According to Aristotle, «nothing happens by chance.» But the same philosopher also says, «Fortune follows action and the prerequisite of practical activity is choice.» It is this choice and this activity which I would like to place before you, since it is for these that I consider the academic title is bestowed. Therefore this speech, in appreciation of the honor you have given me, has the character of introspection, a confession «de profundis.» It is in a broadly holistic – I should say ecological – frame of mind that I connect the journey of my life with my activities and my beliefs. Holistic because it derives from a vision of Nature, as it was conceived by the ancient world, through myth, philosophy, science and art… … Ever since my childhood the Greek natural world has been the determining factor in shaping the attitudes and purpose of my life. I had the good fortune to approach it with the fascination which the years of childhood provide, first through myth and poetry, then with a scientific approach and later with aesthetic appreciation. Specifically, it was my relationship with the wealth, diversity and unparalleled beauty of the Greek plant world that molded my attitudes and beliefs. The painting of plants, to which I devoted much of my time, was for me a means of communication, an understanding of their ontological existence, their classification, hierarchy and their ecological position according to their genetic code. Above all, it was their beauty and their aesthetic and geometric reference to life and form that inspired me. I had the good fortune to live in the same space and speak the same language as those ancient pioneer rhizotomists and herb-gatherers who approached native plants with awe and wonder and tapped their benevolent powers for the benefit of man. They gave them names and connected them with myths and beliefs, to real or imaginary examples of therapeutic healings. These few hundred herbs of the ancient world became the basis of Botany and Medicine on a global scale, and their Greek names in Latin transliteration prevailed throughout the world. The inventive power of the Greek language gave each plant its functional and conceptual name. About 600 Greek plants – known from the Homeric epics, the works of Hippocrates, Theophrastus and Discourides – were included in the work of Carl Linnaeus’s «Species Plantarum.» Let me refer to one paragraph in the preface to that work which Linnaeus wrote in 1753 – exactly 250 years ago. «In order to go forth as guests worthy of our world, we must examine carefully these works of the Creator which the Supreme Being has in such manner bound up with our well-being that we need not lack any good things, and the more we understand these, the more they yield for the use of humanity.