Vatican hosts five-day sustainability summit

A Vatican conference kicking off Friday has brought together academics and experts from across the globe to address sustainability issues related to both people and the planet.

The conference -- “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility” -- is a joint venture of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. It runs through the weekend and concludes Tuesday.

Participants include scientists and experts from 14 countries and a range of backgrounds: microbiology, law, labor, economics, philosophy, business and astronomy. In addition, 31 people are attending as outside observers, including Dan Misleh, executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga gave the opening address Friday morning on ethics, what he viewed as an emerging crisis.  

"Every great economic or political crisis is coupled with a disruption of principles: societies feel that the ground has been shaken from under their feet, and that thehave lost their knowledge of priorities and the verymeaning of things," Maradiaga said. 

"Nowadays man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child," the archbishop of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, said.

In his conclusion, he said the solution to sustainability issues must not be improvised but found through developing discerning citizens that are committed with the ideals of democracy, justice, and respect for one another and the environment." 

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is live streaming the event on its website and You Tube channel.

An introductory document offers a glimpse at the types of questions guiding the workshop: Are humanity’s dealings with nature sustainable? How should we perceive nature and what is a good relationship between humanity and nature? Should we expect global economic growth seen in recent decades continue for the foreseeable future?

“There is no single environmental problem, there is a large collection of interrelated problems,” states the organizers, offering numerous ways to view the problems, in terms of population growth, economic growth, through urban pollution or poverty.

But cataloguing environmental problems is not the intent of the sustainability summit. 

“We propose instead to view Humanity’s interchanges with nature through a triplet of fundamental, but inter-related Human needs -- Food, Health, and Energy -- and ask our respective academies to work together to invite experts to speak to the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on nature's ability to meet them. That requires a collaborative effort of natural and social scientists,” the organizers said.

The document noted that the world’s growth, in terms of population, economy, energy use, consumption, has pushed nature to its constraints. While economic and environmental interests are often pitted against one another, the document suggests positive links. For instance, increases in scientific knowledge, technology and public infrastructure has made more known about environmental hazards and ways to avoid or mitigate them.

“There should be no question that Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with nature so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic and social development,” the organizers said.

At the Catholic Ecology blog, William Patenaude said what makes the gathering special is not that the Vatican is tackling the subject of sustainability but that it has brought together two academic fields -- natural sciences and social sciences -- that aren’t always talking to one another.

“The hope is that in bringing together leaders in these respective fields, the subsequent dialogue will encourage new and bold insights about how we all might live in sustainable, healthy, and environmentally friendly ways,” he wrote.

The workshop spends a large portion of Friday on examining the drivers of food, health and energy needs, with a discussion on climate change spilling into Saturday.

Day two will focus on competing demands on nature, the cryosphere, and the biosphere. On Monday and Tuesday, attention turns to societal questions, from the response to current unsustainable growth rates, to issues of inequality, the ownership of nature,

Andy Revkin, author of The New York TimesDot Earth blog, will offer closing comments. He will also be tweeting (@Revkin) and providing updates on his blog. Misleh of the Catholic Climate Covenant will be tweeting (@dan_misleh) and blogging insights, as well.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]