Chelsea Corbin (Medill '14) and Mark Silberg (Weinberg '14)

"International Mother Earth Day is a chance to reaffirm our collective responsibility to promote harmony with nature at a time when our planet is under threat from climate change, unsustainable exploitation of natural resources and other man-made problems. When we threaten the planet, we undermine our only home – and our future survival. On this International Day, let us renew our pledges to honour and respect Mother Earth."
  -Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Message for the International Mother Earth Day 2013

At the turn of the 21st century, the United Nations established eight Millennium Development Goals poised to achieve the most comprehensive solutions to the global community’s gravest challenges. All 193 members of the U.N. agreed to work toward the eradication of extreme hunger, the achievement of universal primary education, the promotion of gender equality, the reduction of child mortality, the improvement of maternal health, the combating of disease, the work toward environmental sustainability and the development of global partnerships to achieve these goals.

Addressing the challenges laid out by the U.N. creates substantial opportunities for empowering and enabling human progress and well-being at international, local and personal levels. These issues require the involvement of both heads of state and minds of people. It involves each of us at Northwestern just as much as it involves each president and prime minister. Through this shared responsibility, we are provided the opportunity to contribute to global advancement.

The magnitude of this charge is both inspiring and daunting, making it difficult to know where and how to begin. We are guided by a vision for a better world, but our obstacles are great. Life on Earth has always required an accommodating physical environment for nutrition, security and happiness. In order to properly address the world’s most pressing social challenges, we must first guarantee the foundations of human progress supplied by a healthy and nurtured ecosystem. Underlying a healthy and well-fed society is an agriculture system that considers the welfare of producer, consumer and crop alike; 21st century public health considers climate change adaptation and mitigation as tools to reduce risk and minimize harm; racial, gender and cultural equality requires fair pricing of negative externalities so that the beneficiaries of environmental damage pay for their pollution. The problems we face can be overwhelming. However, there is comfort in the plain reality that our common humanity shares a common planet, and protection of the two are self-reinforcing and paramount to global development.

As we have for 45 years, Students for Ecological and Environmental Development—Northwestern’s oldest and largest environmental group—asks you to care about the environment. But we now do so in the context of your anthropocentric passions and missions in life. A stable environment is necessary for humans to flourish. The environment is presupposed in every global development challenge. Northwestern cares profoundly about the well-being and progress of our world, and we do too. And so we call on you to work together, to learn from one another and to identify—as the U.N. has—how our collective endeavors align. Together, we can eradicate poverty and improve education around the world. Yet without a sustainable environment, our solutions to global development are, by definition, unsustainable. If our impacts are to be long-lasting, we must work toward social and environmental health in tandem.

The U.N. acknowledged the bond between global development and the environment in the 2013 Human Development Report, saying "Environmental inaction, especially regarding climate change, has the potential to halt or even reverse human development progress. The number of people in extreme poverty could increase by up to 3 billion by 2050 unless environmental disasters are averted by coordinated global action. A clean and safe environment should be seen as a right, not a privilege."

Poverty, disease and environmental degradation do not exist in vacuums; they are all interrelated and all require sustainable solutions. Sustainability calls for productive harmony between society, economy and the environment. It is about building a human society that is resilient and capable of surviving changes and challenges. In a more tangible sense, it means agricultural systems that meet the needs of local populations; it means economics that consider environmental damage as human harm; it means a world in which human and environmental flourishing are no longer in conflict. Sustainable solutions require experts in diverse fields to analyze a problem together to find a solution; it is inherently interdisciplinary.

Let us step into the roles of those experts. Let us build on the privilege of education and our world-class access to resources to impact environmental and human health in productive and meaningful ways. As students, the opportunity to learn, to discover and to act is in our hands. As global citizens we should, to put it simply, leave this Earth better than we found it—and that drive does not have to wait until we graduate to begin.

In the coming year, SEED will focus on the intersection of environmental and social justices. We will collaborate with students across campus to make explicit the relationships between human and environmental health. In doing so, we will explore the wide-reaching topics of biodiversity, sustainable living, environmental justice, environmental politics and sustainable development. We envision a Northwestern community that understands how humanity and the planet are systematically interdependent in order to prepare our graduates for tackling the most substantial development challenges of our lives.

Global climate change is the greatest issue our generation faces, and it is indeed the greatest threat that we face as a species. It is a self-inflicted wound, a condition that calls into question the very power of mankind, the consequences of which will not only lead to the heartbreaking death of thousands of plant and animal species, but also destabilize and augment the many tangible, horrible human tragedies we face every day. Famine and disease, long considered curable, will only intensify as our agricultural systems and disease vectors migrate elsewhere. Our shoreline cities, centers of trade and culture alike, await rising seas that will challenge their existences within our lifetimes. Climate change undermines the very objectives of human progress, and thus our generation must rise to combat it.

Our legacy begins here through learning and understanding. We are willing to provide the platform through collaborations and listening, but we ask you also provide attention and action. Work with us to promote social justice and environmental protection together.

Join us in this optimistic venture as we look to a future of health, justice and sustainability.
 

    Authors

    Chelsea Corbin and Mark Silberg are the co-Presidents of Students for Ecological and Environmental Development (SEED)