Jose Ramon Villarin S.J., known as “Fr. Jett” to many, is currently serving as the president of Ateneo de Manila University, a prestigious Catholic university in the Philippines. Fr. Jett has been giving his latest talk on "The Pope, The Poor, and the Planet: Overcoming Insularity in an Integral Ecology," his thoughts on Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si” and the changing global climate. This talk was presented in the West Coast early this year at the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University in San Jose, and Seattle University.
Fr. Jett was called to both priesthood and science. He graduated with a B.S. degree in Physics from Ateneo University before he entered priesthood. He was ordained as a priest in 1991 and before he took his final vows as a Jesuit in 2005, he felt a calling to pursue science again and went to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he earned his master’s degree in Physics from Marquette University and then got his doctorate in Atmospheric Sciences from Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia.
He has been studying and lecturing on global climate change, advocating for increasing awareness of our environment and way of life, both reflected in his endeavor as a priest and as a physicist. His work on greenhouse gas emissions resulted in his becoming part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (“IPCC”), the organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore. The IPCC won "for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
The science background, however, is not the only reason Fr. Jett’s insight is of interest to many. He lives in a country where global warming has become a serious threat to its people and environment. Fr. Jett, as chairperson of the Manila Observatory, a scientific research institute, and a member of the National Panel of Technical Experts of the Philippine government’s Climate Change Commission, is called to explore, understand and apply his knowledge of atmospheric physics as a scientist advocating for solutions to global warming. As an educator, part of his agenda is to elevate people’s awareness on living through a sense of social responsibility and accountability as a way of life. He believes it is important to take into account the total costs and risks of development, and the connection between religion or one’s belief system and science is essential in addressing the problem of global warming, echoing the Pope’s message in Laudato Si.
“On climate change,” Fr. Jett explains, “our concern has been the compounded way carbon levels have been increasing in the atmosphere. The accelerating trend has been quite relentless in recent decades. All this would have seemed harmless had we not detected a connection between carbon and our planet’s surface temperature.”
He illustrates an example of the direct impact of this on the Philippine ecosystem. “In our part of the Western Pacific, one concern is the risk of sea level rise, where sea levels are rising the fastest (at about 10mm/year). Rising sea levels are dangerous because of the possibility of saltwater intruding into our freshwater aquifers, the destruction of mangrove and coral habitats that sustain the fish, and stronger storm surges. Sea level rise (which is a physical impact of rising temperature) also poses the risk of contaminated water supply, diminished marine biodiversity, and more typhoon vulnerable coastal communities. The prognosis is a global average of about one meter of sea level rise in this century.”
In his musings, he notes where science and religion play an interconnectivity that is important in understanding the relationship between our spirituality, worldly pursuits and how they affect the human race. Similarly in Laudato Si, which Fr. Jett refers to, Pope Francis points out the consequences of the pursuit of money without ethics and suggests ways to counteract such global devastation through the concept of integral ecology.
Roots of the Crisis
Pope Francis has indicated in Laudato Si two principal forces at work that rise to these ecological problems. The first is technocracy, the delusion of having unlimited growth, the notion that resources can be extracted and renewed easily, with no respect for rhythms and cycles of nature; a disconnection between ourselves and nature; the segregation of matter and spirit or a loss of the sacred in material reality; and a tendency to divorce faith from social responsibility. Fr. Jett states that “the separation between nature and the human person makes our field of vision segmented so we will not see or want to see that what is external to one is internal to another. The fruits of modernization comes at a high cost: pollution of air, water and soil, plus loss of biodiversity.” Already in dismal surroundings, the poor suffer the consequences of materialism that raises their vulnerability and consequent risk of greater poverty – a message that environmentalists, regardless of religious beliefs, have been trying to get across to the population at times to no avail.
Second is misguided anthropocentrism, which manifests itself in, one hand, a false sense of superiority that sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings which lead to a utilitarian mindset and, on the other hand, a false sense of mediocrity that sees nothing special about human beings, simply as the product of chance or physical determinism, both mindsets harboring on indifference.
Pathways of Hope
Fr. Jett suggests four strategic actions to help overcome the risks of fragmentation and insularity that are the causes of our ecological crisis:
1. Integral way of looking at environment – the need to recognize the complex yet real connections among the environment, society (its politics, economy, and culture), and the human person. Seeing these inter-connections and how these strengthen the mutual resilience of ecosystems and social systems help us appreciate the vital importance of an integral approach to reality.
“Another way to help us look at things integrally is to care for children, even those who are not our own. A child has a way of awakening us not only to the future or the things that matter, but also to the things that need to be made whole.”
2. Leading the commons – development of leaders who are committed to cultivating and caring for the commons. For this to happen, it is important for us to relearn to appreciate and defend the value of the commons, that is, those spaces that we need to share and even create, in order to sustain and enrich life.
3. Environmental education – educating and forming the whole person. Any attempt to uproot the principal causes of the ecological crisis has to include the strategic transformation of mindsets and of the culture that arises from and sustains these mindsets.
4. Ecological spirituality – stewardship; contemplative-in-action. We can overcome fragmentation and insularity by renewing and strengthening an ecological spirituality that helps us recover our rootedness in God and creation.
Simple Steps to Change
Fr. Jett closed his talk with a list of (seemingly) simple steps that lead to inner transformation, starting, for example, with developing a sense of gratitude by saying grace before and after meals, realizing a sense of scale and size like climbing a mountain, finding inner peace through silence, etc. The steps suggest a rediscovery of the simple but important things in life that we have overlooked in our fast-paced world. He encouraged people to create their own lists based on their own experience and desires. The idea is to start looking outside ourselves and find ways to reconnect with society and our environment. In short, developing sensitivity and a caring attitude towards people and the environment.
Fr. Jett ends his talk with this story: “When the strongest typhoon ever to make landfall hit our shores in November 2013, massive amounts of relief aid were mobilized from all over the world. Among the smallest donors was a little boy from Japan. On November 15, 2013, six-year-old Shoicho Kodoh of Japan broke his piggy bank and gave all his savings to the Filipino victims of Typhoon Yolanda. If children from far away can see what needs to be broken, we may not be so far from hope and redemption; we can be trusted to cultivate and keep this wonderful gift of a garden.”
To sum it up, science can only do so much to save this ailing planet. The real change starts with an individual consciousness that has gone through a conversion from indifference to compassion and involvement, and the realization that one small mindful gesture can cause a giant ripple effect that can possibly save not just our planet but our inner spirit.