Vatican sustainability summit urges action on ecological devastation

Tiananmen Square sits under a thick blanket of smog, darkening the afternoon sun in Beijing Jan. 18, 2012. (UPI/Stephen Shaver)

Assisi, Italy — I sat for a long time in front of the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, reflecting as my intense eight-day trip came to a close. The next day, I would fly back to Washington, D.C., from Rome, where for four days I attended "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility," a joint workshop of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Science.

More than three dozen of the world's top natural and social scientists focused May 2-6 on the conundrum facing humanity at this particular moment in history. It is a moment of profound technological wonder, yet one facing an utterly frightening future.

What would the patron saint of those who promote ecology -- as Pope John Paul II named St. Francis -- think of our world today? There is deep poverty in many parts of the globe, but also extreme wealth. Francis, born into an upper-middle-class family but choosing to live fully a vow of poverty, surely would recognize these extremes today.

But he certainly never experienced the ecological devastation we have brought about by our own actions. The stories chronicled by his earliest followers showed that he delighted in the cosmos and creatures.

Yet he clearly never knew pollution on the scale that we know today, where islands of plastic drift about the oceans and air is so thick in some countries it prematurely kills tens of thousands of people each year. And surely St. Francis never conceived of a time when our economic development, driven by the voracious appetite for fossil fuels, would burn through the very threads that hold together fragile and intricate ecosystems.

Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, chairman of Caritas Internationalis, summed up our current predicament nicely on the first day of the conference, when he said that "man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child."

Intentional or not, the rest of the meeting explored that reality.

We have technology that has, miraculously many would argue, advanced our physical human well-being. Yet as we look around and contemplate our future, we realize pretty quickly that our planet and its people have paid an enormous price for all these miracles of technology. They have also led us to a fairly dramatic separation from nature, where we isolate ourselves in our climate-controlled homes, cars and businesses. Technology has convinced us that nature's threats -- from rising sea levels and stronger storms, to germs and bugs and the like -- all have architectural, geological, chemical or biological engineering fixes.

This leads us and the brilliant minds gathered at the Vatican to ask: What is the condition of our spiritual well-being when we are completely detached from nature and fail to recognize the damage we are doing to our "kin" as St. Francis called our sun and moon, flowers and earth?

The Vatican sustainability summit focused on "a triplet of fundamental, but interrelated" human needs -- food, health and energy -- and charged the two academies with bringing together natural and social sciences experts "to speak of the various pathways that both serve those needs and reveal constraints on nature's ability to meet them."

To that aim, the conference pulled from a wide spectrum: from scientists studying humanity's geo-engineering of the atmosphere (i.e., the greenhouse gas pollution exacerbating climate change) to threats to the oceans; to economists insisting that the "externalities" of our mining and burning of fossil fuels be factored into national measurements of gross domestic product; to philosophers promoting virtuous living as a way out of our current predicament.

For me, the summit vacillated between hope and despair.

There is hope in that there are real solutions -- scientific and technological, ready for implementation or needing more research and development, economic and spiritual -- to move us forward.

But there is despair in that many of the economic, political and even religious strategies available have not yet internalized the urgency of the situation. Or as British astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees stated at the conference, "A billions-of-years-old planet needs action by humans this century."

As I sat in front of the tomb of the much beloved saint, I also gave thanks to the people and institutions that support the work of our organization, the Catholic Climate Covenant. We are a small band of concerned Catholics steadily working in the vast middle of Catholicism, where parishioners, pastors, principals and pupils are not yet aware, don't really care, or simply haven't made care for creation a priority in their daily lives. It is here that the most work is needed.

We realize that we will never convince the 5-10 percent of Catholics who are ideologically opposed to seeing -- as our three most recent popes have -- the reality of climate change. We also are enormously grateful for those Catholics who are already doing what they can to lower their carbon footprint and who recognize that the poor and vulnerable are already suffering the worst consequences. But the "middle pew" is where we devote our time and energy.

Back in Washington, I am also grateful for the powerful and succinct summary statement that emerged from the Vatican meeting. Allow me to quote heavily from it while urging you to read the entire statement:

Human action which is not respectful of nature becomes a boomerang for human beings that creates inequality and extends what Pope Francis has termed "the globalization of indifference" and the "economy of exclusion" (Evangelii Gaudium), which themselves endanger solidarity with present and future generations. ...

In view of the persistence of poverty, the widening of economic and social inequalities, and the continued destruction of the environment, the world's governments called for the adoption by 2015 of new universal goals, to be called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to guide planetary-scale actions after 2015. To achieve these goals will require global cooperation, technological innovations that are within reach, and supportive economic and social policies at the national and regional levels, such as the taxation and regulation of environmental abuses, limits to the enormous power of transnational corporations and a fair redistribution of wealth. It has become abundantly clear that Humanity's relationship with Nature needs to be undertaken by cooperative, collective action at all levels -- local, regional, and global. ...

We need, above all, to change our convictions and attitudes, and combat the globalization of indifference with its culture of waste and idolatry of money. We should insist upon the preferential option for the poor; strengthen the family and community; and honor and protect Creation as humanity's imperative responsibility to future generations. We have the innovative and technological capability to be good stewards of Creation.

We can, as the statement says, work for a better world. Let us start by redirecting our lives along the path of St. Francis, which includes a love of creation, the ability to see in it our loving God, to care for those who are lost, lonely and forgotten, and to work for peace in our hearts, our communities and our world.

[Dan Misleh is the executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant. View his blog from the Vatican's sustainability workshop.]

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