Dear College of Science Faculty and Staff,
Earth Day was started on April 22, 1970, to affirm the importance of protecting the environment. It gets a lot of participation, a billion people, but I have always been puzzled by the event. One day? To acknowledge the beautiful land, waters and sky on which we and all Life is totally, utterly dependent, and that we humans have fouled. It seems a pathetic effort, really.
When I was a student, a requirement for the Zoology major was the Insect Project. You had to collect at least 100 different insects, kill them in a bottle with ethyl acetate, and mount them according to convention using pins and a cork board. I collected 100 exactly, because I did not want to kill more than the minimum, but some of my classmates built elaborate cabinets and presented thousands of different species, some quite rare. Professor Passmore told our class that insects would be the last animal group to survive on earth (after the feared nuclear wars). You can irradiate them and they are untouched, he told us. They will survive anything.
I must have had that notion firmly in my mind, because it was an enormous jolt to learn a few years ago that the insects of our planet were in drastic, devastating decline. There has been a 2.5% decrease in insect mass per year for the last 25-30 years, even in what are considered pristine forests. Extrapolating, within a century there will be none, zero insects. This outcome is thought to result from destroying habitats, especially by agriculture, compounded by pesticide use. Without insects as food, huge numbers of bird, frog, lizard and mammalian species will not survive. Neither will the many predators of the insect eaters. Many flowers will not be pollinated, impacting our food and crops. With this knowledge, last summer, while driving along I-93 towards Vermont, I noticed a butterfly flying on the side of the highway, and realized how daunting to be that small animal, confronted by a wide, busy road with nowhere to alight.
Professor Passmore, you were wrong. Insects are actually very delicate. They are small and vulnerable. They need flowers for food, some nice rotting wood, leaves or fruits, or smaller grubs and insects. They need places to shelter, and they are sensitive to toxic chemicals. It’s true, some of them carry disease or otherwise harm people, and we should try to limit that. But it’s not all about us. We humans have messed up their earth, their home as much as ours. We have been irresponsible, and we should try our best to mitigate the damage.
We must indeed, look after our fellow humans with greatest respect and caring. We must fight against discrimination, against racism and systemic injustices. In this context, we are relieved that the killer of Mr. George Floyd is convicted, and hope this will deter future racial violence. We must promote Science that produces new medicines, better health, cleaner energy and more efficient food production. But if we are the most powerful species, we must also be the most caring, and the most respectful of all others.
At Northeastern, we have had the insightful goal of ‘sustainability’, and we have made effective contributions in this regard. In the College of Science, members of our Marine and Environmental Sciences department are making leading education and research contributions, highlighted in the Cross-COS Colloquium this week from Professor Jennifer Bowen. Our Center for Renewable Energy led by Professor Sanjeev Mukerjee is innovating ‘green’ energy sources. Across the University, a formative discussion is focusing on moving ‘beyond sustainability’, towards a Northeastern University Commitment to Action that promotes economic vitality, justice and environmental well-being.
People can be smart, compassionate and innovative. There are whole countries binding their economies to environmental sound-ness. Let’s make every day Earth Day. Let us consider what we can contribute together, as researchers, educators and administrators in the College of Science and at Northeastern University. Let us be responsible citizens of the Earth.
Hazel Sive PhD
Dean, College of Science