When Science and Values Met at the Vatican

Andy Revkin
8 min readJun 17, 2015
Pope Francis met in May 2014 with scientists, economists, theologians and others exploring humanity’s development path.

Recalling a May, 2014, Vatican Workshop Aiming to Chart a Sustainable Human Journey Through a Mix of Science, Spirit, Will and Love

Below I’ve posted the remarks I presented at the conclusion of “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility” — a remarkable 2014 meeting at the Vatican that laid the foundation for many of the concepts included in “Laudato Si’ — On the Care of Our Common Home,” Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on humanity’s obligations to protect the environment, avoid dangerous climate change and overcome poverty and inequity. The meeting was only the second joint session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. There’s more on the conference in my Dot Earth posts at the time. (Video of my talk is here.)

Dozens of scientists, theologians, economists and other analysts spent four long days and evenings exploring global trends and the role of scientific findings, politics and spiritual leadership in forging environmental and social progress that can endure for the long haul — a trajectory often described by the shorthand phrase “sustainable development.” The presentations are all online here.

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As a generalist informed by three decades of reporting on the interface of science and society, from the North Pole to the Amazon, I approach this task with the advice of the Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann in mind. When faced with complex problems, he has said, the wisest course is to take a “crude look at the whole.” That’s what I’ll attempt to do.

In convening experts from across the natural and social sciences under the mantle of one of the world’s great faiths, Chancellor Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo and the other organizers have beautifully reflected the realities underpinning our species’ challenge at the dawn of an era of Earth history that is increasingly under our influence.

That Pope Francis chose to greet us today reflects his passion for harmonizing human relations and our relationship with this living planet. In this focus, the Pope is building on a foundation laid by Saint Francis, who — as several here have noted — called creatures and creation kin.

Our predicament in an age some have named for us — the Anthropocene — was nicely captured by Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga on the first day here when he said, “Nowadays man finds himself to be a technical giant and an ethical child.”

Humanity, in essence, is in a race between potency and awareness. The outcome will determine the quality of our species’ journey and will leave an indelible mark, for better or worse, on the planet we inhabit.

A few years ago, I proposed that we are experiencing “puberty on the scale of a planet.” Global trends echo that awkward, sometimes damaging, transition from teenage-style ebullience to the more measured norms of adulthood.

And just as a teenager resists calls from elders to grow up, societies — only naturally — have been initially resistant to scientists’ warnings of irreversible damage to the planet’s biological patrimony, risks attending unabated climate change and long-distance impacts of consumptive resource appetites.

In many ways, science has done its job.

The physical and biological sciences, along with revolutionary advances in technology — from satellites to supercomputers — have provided a clarifying picture of human-driven environmental changes.

Psychological and sociological studies have revealed deeply ingrained human traits, many shaped by our evolutionary history as a “here and now” species, that prevent us from acting rationally in the face of threats with long time scales, dispersed impacts and inherent complexity.

Possible paths have been delineated in recent decades using ever more sophisticated models. But that is where science’s task ends. It is up to individuals and societies to choose which paths to pursue.

Scientific knowledge reveals options. Values determine choices.

That is why the Roman Catholic Church — with its global reach, the ethical framework in its social justice teachings and, as with all great religions, the ability to reach hearts as well as minds — can play a valuable role in this consequential century.

This is particularly true for planet-scale problems like human-driven climate change, in which national governments tend to put national interests ahead of planet-scale interests.

Decisions at the scale of cities, towns, school boards, corporate boards — even households — will, in a cumulative way, be enormously influential and are more apt to be directly shaped by the world views and priorities of individuals.

In a prismatic way, those gathered here have made the compelling case that it is a combination of knowledge, faith, will and love that will determine the quality of the human journey in this consequential and complicated century.

Yes, love.

More on that in a moment.

Of course, as so many of the participants have conveyed, sustaining humanity on a verdant planet is not an either/or choice.

While data matter enormously, number crunching will not determine the resulting balance.

While choices are shaped by values, values are shaped by upbringing and experience. That means there is room for positive change, particularly through commerce in ideas and information.

As Nancy Knowlton explained in the context of the ailing oceans, revealed connections between causes and effects, together with empathy and a menu of solutions, can spark shifts in behavior.

The commitment to remain true to a choice and to pursue it through thick and thin requires more than values, however. It is a function of individual and communal will, as well, as Archbishop Minnerath aptly noted.

But the research and ideas presented here revealed another important reality. Given the variegated nature of cultures, worldviews and conditions around the world, it’s clear that humanity will follow many paths in the decades ahead.

Calls for global and enforceable standards are creditable, but face huge hurdles.

Just consider Stefano Zamagni’s point about the many different forms of ethics in different countries, or Professor Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber’s description of the wickedly complex array of interests and development stages perennially clashing in climate treaty negotiations.

Another reality is that global environmental and social challenges are not the work of a single generation, not problem to fix — but issues to work on perennially as a normal part of how we live and develop.

I’ve written before that what the world needs is an improbable mix of “urgency and patience.”

To grasp why this will take time, consider Edith Brown Weiss’s sobering conclusion that, as a starting point, “Earth has become a global commons” knowing that, as Charles Perrings explained, “If we value things at zero they’ll be wasted.”

And consider Joe Stiglitz’s sobering data on the widening gulfs between haves and have-nots.

Navigating these questions can lead one feeling sapped and paralyzed.

But in these sessions I also saw abundant reason for optimism, empowerment and, most importantly, action.

There were Gretchen Daily’s many examples of successful efforts to incorporate previously unmeasured values of living resources into decision-making at many levels.

Then there was Ram Ramanathan’s extraordinary work grounding atmospheric science in the sooty kitchens of Himalayan villagers.

Then there was Dan Kammen’s description of university students’ efforts to convince boards of trustees that true fiduciary responsibility transcends a strictly financial calculation of a university’s return on investments.

The most important merit of the growing focus on climate-related divestment, to my mind, is that it prompts us all more deeply to consider the definition of an institution’s “endowment.” Is it stocks and bonds alone or something bigger?

The work of Partha Dasgupta also puts a spotlight on this question.

Finally, Janice Perlman’s work reveals the vitality and potential in those caught up in humanity’s astounding high-speed reorganization into a mainly urban species and Juan Grabois’s efforts to give a say to those carving an unaccounted living amid that urban rush show that inclusion matters enormously.

My personal enthusiasm derives mainly from the work of people like Antonio Battro on expanding educational opportunity with a mix of online tools and novel teaching practices.

In a world with 1 billion teenagers and 1 billion more younger children, you can’t build schools fast enough, or train teachers fast enough, to keep up. And failing to keep up will lead to unemployability, disaffection, turmoil.

As Professor Battro noted, the key is expanding basic resources like Internet access — not educational content. In the end, those of us who are professors may be an endangered species. And that can be a good thing, as long as there is equal opportunity for all to become lifelong learners on a planet bathed in information.

Along with alleviating energy poverty, a prime challenge at this moment should be alleviating “information poverty.”

Some factions will fight this, as is the case in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram extremists, whose very name (the translation is “Western education is a sin”) stands against a basic right, are threatening to sell hundreds of kidnapped schoolgirls into slavery.

But there’s never been a greater chance, through collaboration and communication, to imbue our varied human journeys with a shared sense of priorities — including the importance of conserving Earth’s biological bounty, spreading the gifts that come with access to information and safe sources of energy, and limiting the scope of human-driven climate change.

We are building the “noosphere,” the “planetary mind” envisioned in the early 20th century by the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin.

But it is up to each of us to use this set of tools for good, not just gain or ill.

This is what the Passionist priest Father Thomas Berry meant when he wrote of “The Great Work” — “to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”

It says much that even some of the most accomplished scientists at this meeting articulated that progress on climate, energy, equity, education and conservation of living resources will be driven by values and faith more than data and predictive models.

In a discussion over dinner, Walter Munk, at 96 one of great oceanographers of modern times, spoke not of gigatons of carbon or megawatts of electricity:

“This requires a miracle of love and unselfishness,” he said.

Bravo, Professor Munk.

[Disclosure note: My travel costs were covered by the United Nations Foundation, but there were no constraints on what I wrote or said.]



Andy Revkin

Pursuing progress on a finite planet at @columbia @earthinstitute. The rest? Family, friends, books j.mp/revkinbooks, songs j.mp/revkinmusic