Villanova Working Session: Knowledge-based Climate Stewardship

On Thursday, April 23, the Villanova Center for Energy and Environmental Education (VCE3) hosted a Pathway to Paris working session with a focus on the ways Augustinian philosophy on truth, free will, learning and moral action, relate to climate civics and the global climate response. The working session was a small gathering intended to lay the foundations for a larger conversation over the summer and into the fall, regarding the most detailed, consistent and clear-thinking ways to match up moral motivation, scientific truth, and political action.

A central concern in the room was what appears to be an escalating and dangerous undervaluing of scientific inquiry at precisely the moment we are coming to really need urgent access to scientific findings. National Science Foundation grants are being cut, and the ability of scientists to explore and to make new discoveries is being compromised. This would come back in the discussion of Augustinian principles for learning and for moral action.

For Augustine of Hippo, it is only possible to do good by choice, and that requires genuine and thorough understanding. You cannot stumble into doing good or being virtuous; it has to be something you knowingly choose. What’s more, truth is not up for debate; it is as it is. We can learn what is true, but there is no such thing as poor learning or mistaken learning; these are simply error, and there is an obligation to acknowledge that there is something missing in such situations of error.

Science is knowledge. That there is controversy over whether climate science is knowledge raises serious moral questions about the state of public discourse itself. A healthy society requires a commitment to honesty in explorations and expressions of truth. The refutation of overwhelming evidence in defense of a narrow factional or financial interest is, from the standpoint of an obligation to learn and to know, morally indefensible.

Three major objections were brought forward, regarding the state of the debate about climate action:

  1. The discussion itself seems to alienate people;
  2. Complacency leads to less wise policy choices;
  3. The politicization of science is dangerous not only for the climate, but for many aspects of our politics and our technical capability in other areas.

A brief exploration of each can add perspective to the question of an ethical obligation to care for Creation.

Alienation from Discourse

The climate conversation has a lot of moving parts. Some like to talk about “whole Earth systems”, or a kind of ecosystem of ecosystems. For many, even for very technically advanced scholars and experts, this is difficult vocabulary, because it points to a space beyond our everyday reasoning. Even very advanced specialists are not generally asked to think in terms of whole Earth systems.

After the technical complexity, and the nuance of the comprehensive inclusion of detail from all related fields, there is the politics: major economic interests have, for a long time, defended their own interest by suggesting that unwanted competition for their business model will undermine everyone’s chances for a prosperous future. The result is a politics of factions, fighting over whether a project of necessary caution might better be described as a radical socialist agenda.

For some people, that all seems to make a lot of sense, and they engaged passionately in that conversation. But for many more, for the general population, such disdainful tones, and such controversy, generally sparks an urge to disengage. There is extensive social science examining these phenomena, and we know that the number one determining factor for whether people engage is not how important the issue is for their own life or livelihood, but rather how they feel about the venue and the players.

Below, we will look at ways these insights can help us to achieve a smarter and more inclusive discourse.

Complacency as Self-fulfilling Prophecy

It almost seems like circular logic to say that complacency undermines ambition, but there is something to this hairsplitting. And this is why we have these working sessions: not only to get into an abstract discussion about ideas, but also to work directly on how to respond intelligently and collaboratively, so that the Paris negotiating process does not suffer the same problems we have seen repeated across the landscape of the climate conversation.

Complacency is an attitude, not a strategy rooted in evidence. The proliferation of complacency—someone will deal with it, someday, when it becomes important; short of that, it really isn’t my domain to care too much about it—is a proliferation of choice. Individuals are choosing complacency over the hard work of putting their attention on something. Complacency frustrates those who care deeply about an issue, because it creates unnecessary roadblocks, which the complacent can’t see very well.

With a sustainability coordinator, the direct of a center for Augustinian studies, two co-directors of a center for energy and environment education, a peace and justice leader, some very bright advocates, and a global strategy director, in the same working session, it was clear that action options can overcome complacency. Without knowing how to impact the crisis, it is much more difficult for any given individual to understand how to negate the apparent wisdom of the wait-and-see attitude; with options for action on the table, it is much easier to manifest one’s own drive for problem-solving and service.

This was an important focus of the working session, because it allows for refocusing all engaged on the importance of creating those opportunities for action, even when generalized complacency suggests one should hold off.

Politicization of Science is Dangerous

The politicizing of science is not only an annoyance to people who “care about” solving the climate crisis; it is actually a danger to the stability of our climate system, and to the integrity of many other areas of human political and technical interaction. The first danger is that while science is not a belief system, the view that it might be treated as a series of more or less credible “beliefs” leads to the risk of underinformed decision-making, irresponsible claims of moral indifference, and factionalism that undermines cooperative civics.

In the space of an Augustinian university, it becomes necessary to think about science in part according to Augustine’s view of knowledge. One cannot have knowledge of something untrue. Knowledge is directly connected to truth. Otherwise, one is in error, and that error results from ones having turned away from learning. Science is knowledge; it is not a matter of opinion or belief. Science is a word we use to describe what is known.

Knowledge is also directly connected to virtue: one cannot make virtuous moral choices unless one’s choice is informed by actual knowledge. The scientific process is inherently skeptical, looking for evidence; what results from evidence is demonstrated to be so. The claim that one is acting from virtue while treating knowledge as subject to political interpretation raises serious questions about the importance of honesty, both about moral and political integrity.


We cannot build a politics of responsible action from a root structure that favors mistrust over collaborative intelligence. We cannot be more free if we know less; freedom of choice is rooted in our ability to choose through intelligent reasoning. Virtue flows from knowledge. Educational institutions have a responsibility to foster a culture of knowledge, so that human society can be organized around collaborative intelligence, and virtuous personal choice.

In the 1840s, in Philadelphia, a radical “nativist” movement called “the Know-Nothings” began attacking immigrants and institutions that were associated with immigration. Villanova College was founded in 1842, in this atmosphere of violent political tension. The first class was delayed in part due to concerns about attacks on Catholic institutions.

In May 1844, tensions in Philadelphia reached a fever pitch, inflamed partly by radical anti-immigrant journalism, and the city broke into open rioting. On May 8, 1844, the rioting mob set fire to the St. Augustine Church, burning it to the ground and incinerating one of the highest quality theological libraries in North America—an act we would clearly describe as hate-based terrorism today.

The period was tragically beset by a violent opposition not only to difference and to peaceable assembly, but also to free speech, the free exercise of religion, and specifically to learning. It was in this atmosphere that Villanova University was created: the university was consciously created to be an act of moral, intellectual, and spiritual defiance against the violent degradation of the human mind and of the human condition in society.

For the first time in world history, we can stand together as a global civilization, and we can bring the wealth and dignity of knowledge and capability to all people everywhere. To oppose this is not an option; to surrender to entropy is not an option; the ethical and moral approach to climate is clearly knowledge-based stewardship. This period in history is one of a deep exploration of Earth’s systems, one in which the knowledge that empowers us to be virtuous flows at least partly from our study of the atmosphere and oceans, geochemistry and economics.

This working session is the first in a series of events aimed at bringing the theological content of the forthcoming Papal Encyclical into a wider ethical and political context. 

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