Vatican Journal – Day 1

by Danny Richter

VATICAN CITY—Well, today begins my conference at the Vatican. The title of the conference is “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility”. It is a joint meeting between the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (PASS). If you did not know that such things existed until just now, you are not alone.

Entrance to Casina Pio IV - Home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

Entrance to Casina Pio IV – Home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

In the journal that follows, I’ll try to relay some of my impressions of the meeting on this first day, as well as some of the highlights of the proceedings. I won’t give you everything, just the highlights. If you are left with questions about how things are to proceed, or what will come of this meeting, it may very well be because I have those same questions! The meeting and the process that will be followed has not been well-explained. And by “well” I mean “at all”.

Having arrived in Italy two days earlier at 9:10 am local time (12:10 am by my biological clock), I successfully managed to navigate to my rented Air B&B apartment, buy a SIM card for my phone (so I can make Italian phone calls and use Google Maps when I get lost), and actually get to see some of the sights around town. I found Rome to be surprisingly manageable. Also manageable was staying up until 9 pm local time, at which point I fell asleep for 11 hours and thus pretty much took care of my jet lag.

On the grounds of Vatican City, heading to Day 1 of the meeting.

On the grounds of Vatican City, heading to Day 1 of the meeting.

So, by the time the opening session rolled around, I was doing pretty well. Also staying at the apartment with me are Emily and Matt, two current grad students in Oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, from which I graduated last year. Our apartment is directly across from the Vatican wall, and so it was an easy 20-min walk around the perimeter to one of the gates. The gendarmes had our names on a list, so it was a simple matter of showing some ID, and we were into the Vatican—Earth’s smallest independent state (many jokes about walking across the country have been made). We wandered around, being kindly directed by various gendarmes when we looked lost. Our destination was the home of the Academy of Sciences on the lush grounds of the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV.

The proceedings started out somewhat slowly. You could tell that everyone was trying to get a handle on how best to proceed, what was expected, and the format of the thing. All 86 participants and observers were in the same room. This was apparently a larger-than-usual conference, so many of the observers (including your correspondent) were in corners on relatively uncomfortable chairs the benefit of translations for talks or questions in another language (my chair has a spring right in the middle of the cushion).

There were opening statements by the heads of the PAS and the PASS, and Cardinal Rodriguez Maradiaga gave introductions. I don’t believe I had ever seen a Cardinal in person before, so that was kind of cool for this Catholic. He also had what I found to be an interesting comment: “Today, Man finds himself a technical giant, and a moral child”. This seemed like a great framing for what the participants were trying to tackle over the subsequent days. I also particularly enjoyed it when he spoke of evolution in his 40-min opening address (you could tell why this guy made it to the rank of Cardinal). The Catholic Church has not really had a problem with evolution since 1896, when Fr. John Zahm wrote a book reconciling the teachings of the Church with Evolution. The world should be reminded more often!

Generally, the rest of the talks during the day followed the pattern of a 20-min talk, followed by 20 min of discussion, and general discussion afterwards. People had a hard time staying on time. The role of “observer” was also poorly defined. We were under the impression that we would be joining participants for both lunch and dinner, as suggested in the schedule. However, we were not invited to either, and indeed had to pay to have lunch in the Vatican cafeteria. None of this was welcome news to the observers, who very rapidly felt like 2nd-class citizens. In thinking about the process, however, I suspect much of this could have been avoided by some clearer and advance communication. If anyone is reading this who might be involved in arranging future meetings, please take note!


The president of the PASS made an interesting comment about how she enjoyed the presentation on biology, especially since the last time she had a biology class was 50 years ago. In this particular sense, what is true for presidents of social scientific academies is also probably true for members of Congress. Another interesting talk by one of the conference organizers, Dr. Dasgupta, included the interesting observation that humans tend to compare with others and modify their behavior to conform to the mean. But, who sets the mean? What we are conforming to is generally not well-enough thought-through. This observation is particularly pertinent in the case of our environmental consumption. Another observation that follows is what type of goods to we focus on as points of comparison? A topic for future research.

Probably the best talk, and subsequent discussion, of the day was from Jeffrey Sachs. Full disclosure: I have read Jeffry Sachs’ book, The End of Poverty, and it was a life-altering read. Thus, I have kind of an intellectual crush on him. This is common in the sciences; it was common for my fellow students to speak of having a “science crush” on this professor or that. Same thing, just cross-disciplinary.

Professor Sachs began by stating that humans now live in an era of extraordinary choice. Specifically, the extraordinary choice of choosing not just the direction for our species, but also for our planet. It is within our power to dramatically re-make our Earth. Also, and remarkably for an economist who has spent a career working to lift the poor out of poverty, he stated that he believes the environmental impacts of the time we are in are probably greater than the social impacts we are going through.

Another thing about Professor Sachs is that he has been intimately involved with the crafting and implementation of the UN Millenium Devleopment goals. He shared with the conference that UN Member states are now negotiating Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace them in 2015! I found it remarkable that they used the word “sustainable” to describe these goals. I think it reflects a growing recognition by the international community of just how interrelated and reliant humans are on our natural environment. There are now apparently 16 SDGs being considered, down from 240. Prof. Sachs chose to share with us 10 (in no particular order except first one, which has been universally adopted): 1. End extreme poverty 2. Promote sustainable growth and jobs 3. Education for all. 4. Social inclusion. 5. Health for all 6. Sustainable agriculture. 7. Sustainable cities. 8. Sustainable Energy and climate change. 9. Sustainable biodiversity. 10. Good governance and global partnerships

Less inspiring, but obvious, Prof. Sachs spoke about how international treaties have not worked for addressing the challenges we face. He also emphasized that the world yearns for global ethics to underpin SDG’s, and that the Vatican is uniquely positioned to help provide that.

An excited observer at the Vatican conference.

An excited observer at the Vatican conference.

After all the talks, Matt, Emily and I got a shuttle to the gates of the Vatican, where they dropped us off in the rain. We were there with a few other observers, and feeling some urgency for getting out of the rain we went to a close Italian restaurant. It was a wonderful 2-hour dinner with good wine, good company, and good discussion. It is my hope that there will be much more of all in the days that follow!

[ May 2, 2014 ]

Joe Robertson is the Global Strategy Director for Citizens' Climate Lobby. He is also the author of CCL's booklet, "Building the Green Economy."