International Conference on Religions and Sustainable Development Goals

International Conference on Religions and Sustainable Development Goals.

Fr. Sean McDonagh

From March 7thto 9th2019, I attended a conference on religions and sustainable development in the Vatican.
The conference was hosted by the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue. It was an extraordinary event which should have attracted much more media coverage. It brought representatives from religions around the globe and United Nations personnel to Rome to discuss their understanding of sustainable development in the light of the various religious traditions.

To emphasise the importance of the topic to the Vatican, the conference was opened by the Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.  He made the point that very often in discussions about sustainable development little emphasis is given to what religions can bring to the table on this topic. In the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – life is seen as a gift from God and every human being is made in the image and likeness of God.

On Thursday, March 7th, 2019, Rabbi David Rosen, International Director of Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee presented the Jewish perspective on sustainable development goals.
He was followed by Rev. Martin Junge, General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation, who articulated the Lutheran understanding of development.
The final speaker from the Abrahamic religions was Judge Sheikh Mohamad Abou Zeid, Islamic Sunni Court in Saida, Lebanon.

The second session on the fulfillment of the sustainable development goals in the areas of food, water, climate, health and urbanization was particularly insightful.
One of the speakers, Dr. Vandana Shiva, is well-known to development workers both in India and around the world. Vandana Shiva is an Indian scholar, with a Ph.D in nuclear physics.  She is better known as an environmental activist and food sovereignty advocate. She challenges the claims of the agribusiness such as Bayer and Monsanto who claim that their seeds and chemical compounds are responsible for feeding the world.  She argues, on the contrary, that they are systematically destroying the fertility of farmlands right across the globe.
Bayer and Monsanto, the makers of the weedkiller Roundup, have insisted their glyphosate-based herbicides are not toxic even though a jury in the US in March 2910 found that the company’s glyphosate-based Roundup does cause cancer.

Another very powerful speaker at the conference was Rev. Awami Agnivesh from India. For him, sustainable development goals must help the poorest groups in society.  He described the slave-like conditions experienced by bonded labourers in India. According to him, bonded labour affects the lives of tens of millions of people in India and, while the Indian Supreme Court has condemned the practice, the caste system keeps this form of forced labour in place.

Msgr. Robert Joseph Vitillo, the Secretary General of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), spoke on the future of work. Naturally, he talked about the dignity of work for both men and women,
However, neither he nor any other speakers at the conference spoke of the fact that automation driven by artificial intelligence, algorithms, robots, drones and 3D printing is currently reshaping the reality of work and that, in the future, 30 or 40 percent of people in a given area may not have paid work. The reason this is happening at such great speed is that Moore’s Law tells us that we double our digital capacity every 3 years.

I attempted to intervene on this topic, but one of the drawbacks of the conference was that, while we were given a lot of information, there was little room for debate. In fact, I tried on the third day to raise this issue, but again, there was little time and, therefore, it wasn’t addressed.

The conference on sustainable development goals included representatives from religions around the world and United Nations personnel, yet none of these groups seem to be focused on this area. Unfortunately, this is not new in the history of the Catholic Church.  In the 19thcentury, the factory system was destroying the lives of the poor from 1830 onwards as is clear from the novels of Charles Dickens. However, it was only in 1891 that Pope Leo XIII published his wonderful encyclical Rerum Novarum. Unfortunately, it was 60 years too late.

The same is true on the environment.
Rachel Carson’s bestselling book, Silent Spring, was published in April 1962. This book is often seen as the beginning of the modern environment movement.
The Second Vatican Council which began in 1962, and continued until 1965, brought about enormous welcome changes in the life of the Church. Still it had little to say on the environment.
We had to wait until the publication of ‘Laudato Si’ Care for Our Common Home in 2015for the Catholic Church to catch up on this vital area.
We are now at the beginning of the Fourth Industrial Revolution; will the Catholic Church be late this time in recognizing that robots and artificial intelligence and other technologies are drastically changing the workplace, and, in the process, staff are becoming more and more disposable?


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One Comment

  1. Frances Burke says:

    I think very few people are switched onto the dramatic changes that will happen in the workforce in the very near future. It is predicted that 800 MILLION people will lose their jobs to robots and AI by the year 2030. That is only 11 years away. The biggest casualties will be those working in haulage, health care, taxi services, agriculture, manufacturing, banking, warehouses, retail industry, insurance, soldiers and pilots.

    There are huge ethical issues to be addressed with this mass replacement of humans with machines. What will become of these people who will lose their jobs through no fault of their own? Will they get alternative employment? Will this alternative employment be in keeping with their abilities and interests? Will it provide them with similar incomes to their previous job, as no doubt these people will have mortgages to pay and have families to support? What if alternative employment cannot be found? Who is going to provide them with an income in keeping with the income they have lost through no fault of their own?

    We are all aware of the dignity of work. As Pope Francis said himself;
    “Not giving a job is not simply a question of not having the means to life: no. We can eat every day, we can go to Caritas, we can go to an association, a club, we can go there and they will give us something to eat. But this is not the problem. The problem is not being able to bring bread to the table at home: this is a serious problem, this takes away our dignity. And the most serious problem is not hunger, even though the problem exists. The most serious problem is that of dignity. For this reason we must work and defend the dignity that work gives us.”
    — Mass during a pastoral visit to the Italian region of Molise, July 5, 2014

    From reading your article Sean it seems the Church has not begun the work that is urgently required on defending the dignity of work. Given that dramatic changes to work practices are just around the corner, I feel that the Church will be once again ‘closing the stable door well after the horse has bolted.’

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