A Contribution to  the " Global Pact on Education”

(English translation of a presentation at “Nature and Environment in the Pact on Education” ,Roma, Pontifical University Antonianum, 14-16 Jan. 2020)   


Thanks for the kind invitation, and for having me talking immediately after this video-address by the president of the European Parliament. I understood that the invitation was to talk about how a scientist who has been working for the European Commission became a director of a museum. So that is what I will do and please forgive me if the talk will not be very “institutional”.

I worked for the European Commission, at its Joint Research Centre where, for the past 15 years, I lead scientific research on climate change. It was applied research in support of the development of European-wide policies dealing with the matter.

Apart from doing our research with colleagues scientists in Europe and the world, we believed it was also our task to go up to Brussels to our colleagues policy makers, who were often not hard scientists, to explain the latest in climate research.

I always liked doing this, and that has undoubtedly to do with the fact that I come from a family of teachers: both my parents, both my grandfathers, a sister and a brother: they are all teachers. So when they asked what I was actually doing in my job, I would say that I was teaching, like them.

Simply said: teaching is making somebody understand something. But with my colleagues in Brussels, that teaching became quickly a two-way activity. We together were creating an understanding about the issue of climate change and what it meant for society, etc.. My scientific facts were only one contribution in this understanding. Their insights as economists or financial experts or sociologists were equally relevant in creating that understanding.

I also realized that our discussions took place within a cultural framework, and that through our discussions and creating a common understanding we were somehow contributing and maybe changing that culture.

I might have a too simple definition of what is “culture”, but for me culture is the story that we tell ourselves and that explains and justifies the way we live on our planet: live among ourselves and with the rest of nature. It is a story of which we are part of and in which we can feel at ease, safe and able to function. I think I can safely say that there are many stories and cultures, without necessarily become branded as a relativist.

Now. We are in many to believe that cultural development is running behind technological and economic developments. For instance: we do not yet have a good narrative in which information technology, artificial intelligence, robotics, etc.. are properly linked with humanity: humanity in the sense also of caring, of charity and love for one another.  

In the same way we do not have a good narrative that makes us sensitive, makes us interiorize, the fact that the sum of our individual local actions does have an impact on our planet as a whole. We scientists talk about a new geological epoch: the Anthropcene, but that is probably not enough to make us care for our planet. Papa Francesco talks about our “common home”, which has a very different ring.

I read the initiative of Papa Francesco for a global pact on education as an invitation to think about how we can close that gap between technological and economic evolution on the one hand and cultural evolution on the other. How to bridge that gap through education.

As a scientist who tries to understand a bit more about our world than just the greenhouse effect, I have found in Laudatio Sì of Papa Francesco very lucid answers to some of my questions. Our world is rapidly changing, it has become extremely complex, hard to understand, we therefore feel insecure. ut despite this, Papa Francesco still talks about the existence of a paradigm that is “homogeneous and uni-dimensional”. It is the paradigm which permits the “Subject to possess the Object”, Man to possess Nature, Us to possess the Others.  

This paradigm is clearly rooted in our Modern Culture (Cat. Nr. 48). Again: I think culture is a story we tell ourselves, and what we keep telling ourselves is that in life, in society, in the world, things are neatly divided: humans are largely separated from the rest of nature, there is a subjective world and an objective world, there is science on the one side, religion the other, there is us and them, … . Modern culture is based on an amalgam of dualisms, that were constituted during the Enlightenment in the 16th and 17th century in order to get out of the chaos left by medieval thinking that was based on legends, superstition and magic. Paradoxically that modern thinking is now again leading to chaos.

I learned yesterday and the day before that inside this university, and more in general: in the academic world,  many models are being discussed to go beyond Modernity. Outside our academic world there is  obviously a very different world.

Let’s look at this nearly banal example that tells about the separation between Man and Nature. This is a publicity for cars, last winter. The message is clear: nature is simply a scenography for our activities. (*I want to open a parenthesis here: by now, every car maker is investing a lot in making their cars safer and less polluting. I have a great respect for the engineers who work on this and do make progress.) But when the moment comes to sell and buying cars, we align ourselves to the story that driving cars has nothing to do with glaciers and snowy mountains. These are the publicities of another brand, last winter and this winter. They changed it a bit, maybe they are learning, but the message is still the same: in our modern culture we do not have to bother about Nature.

This is obviously bad advice, because the reality about cars is the following: cities that are cluttered with them, bad air quality, emissions of greenhouse gases, global warming, melting of glaciers, inundations and landslides that eventually destroy our very cars.

The truth is that we are linked with nature, we have always been. The sad truth is that during the past 100 years or so we have become linked with nature through auto-destructive cycles. Not in the sense that we are destroying auto’s, but that we risk of destroying ourselves together with the rest of nature.

The challenge is to turn these cycles into virtuous cycles. In which we do not talk about cars and their possession, but about mobility and accessibility, creating more space again for nature, more space and time for ourselves, which, many would agree, would lead to a better quality of life, asking more of the same.

The technology for achieving this does exists: but it looks like that implementing these technologies on a large scale will require also something else: we need to rethink the purpose of our economy, our relationship with nature, we need to change culture. Changing culture will not require only engineers, but also creative people of all sorts: scientists, artists, educators, politicians, … There is in fact work and opportunities for everybody.

That brings us to the need and difficulties of working in an inter-disciplinary way, which we discussed yesterday. My approach to inter-disciplinarily is that we have to become children again. Children are inter-disciplinary by nature, at least they are pre-disciplinary. So at our age, at my age, the challenge is not to stay young but to become children again: to look at the world with the experience of a lifetime but with the big eyes of a child without prejudices.

In this sense I like the etymological interpretation of education: “ex-ducere”, lead out what is inside. In educating children, can we lead out what they have inside, listen to it and give it a voice?

A number of my colleagues at the European Commission, after having had a professional live at the interface of science and policy, write a book, at least they start with it. They feel the need to summarize their experiences and to give a sense to it. I did not write a book, but I have created a museum. There are a number of reasons for doing that. The first is that I am not a good writer. The second, according to some of my former colleagues, is that I can now finally call myself a “director”. The real reason is, however, that since I was a child, I had a fascination for collections of objects and more in particular for the fact that there are always infinite possibilities to order such collections. If you have 10 different objects on this table, then there are 3,6 million ways of ordering them. For the mathematicians among you: the number is: 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8x9x10. The fascination about this is that among these millions of possibilities there might be a few that are more beautiful or more significant than all the others. In a collection of things you can, you have to continuously rearrange things, experiment with different exhibits, with the aim to find unexpected links, other coherences and possibly different meanings.

In this sense, the Museum of Anthropocene Technology, which I set up, wants to be a sort of Wunderkammern, a Cabinet of Wonders like the ones that were popular during the Renaissance. Also the Renaissance, especially the one in Europe during the 16th century, has been a time of upheaval, a total chaos that dominated Europe for more than a century. But it was also a time of wonder (think of the discoveries of the America’s) and a crucible of new ideas. Some of the Wunderkammern were instruments to think about this chaos, to find a new order, new workable categories. Some of them became in fact instrumental in the transition from medieval thinking to modern thinking.

Now that the categories and dualisms of modern thinking have become counter-productive, we at the Museum believe that collections of things of today can again raise marvel and doubt and contribute to a new culture that is better fit to address our collective problems. We also cherish the vague idea, shared with others, that aesthetics can be the basis of this new understanding. However, I am afraid to say that we might become contradicted by the very work done at the Museum.

The Museum is tackling old dualisms like Man - Nature or Art - Science and it is experimenting with new ones: such as Local - Global, or Inside - Outside. Let’s take the last one.

The Museum holds a copy of a well-known engraving (Cat. Nr. 29) that many of us would like to situate in the 16th century. However, it only appears for the first time in 1888. It anyway shows a renaissance man and his quest for knowledge, his desire to look outside, venturing into the heavens and the beyond. But at the same time he is turning his back to the world he actually lives in: with its fields, forests and nature and cities.

This second picture (Cat. Nr. 22) is a copy of a collage made by the architect Aldo Rossi in 1976. It seems to have an opposite message: an angle points form the heavens at our complex and messy world with its naturalia and artificialia. This is what we need to be interested in, the angel seems to say. But in the centre of the drawing there is again the starry sky with people wandering below it. Rossi seems to play with the idea that it is never either or, but that one leads at the other, with the other leading again to the first.

This is a piece in the Museum (Cat. Nr. 68) that further elaborates on this and that might be helpful in dealing with dualisms. It is a ring of Moebius. Maybe you cannot see it: but I will give you a demonstration. If I take this strip of paper and join the ends: I make a normal ring: it has an inside and an outside, and the inside and the outside never meet. If we put Nature on one side and Man on the other, they will never meet. If I twist the strip before joining the ends. I get the ring of Moebius. This is an interesting surface because it has no inside an no outside. If you think you are on the inside, but you keep following that surface you quickly find yourself on the outside. So, if we put Man here on what we think is the outside and Nature below, we quickly find out that Man becomes Nature and Nature becomes Man. Or if we put Aesthetics on this side and Ethics here, we need to conclude that one leads to the other in the same way the other leads to the first. Or in the language that was often used yesterday: Aesthetics embodies Ethics in the same way Ethics embodies Aesthetics.

A visit to the Museum is a pretext to discuss issues starting from the things shown. It is about discussing with the visitors how to rearrange the exhibits, experiment with new categories in the hope to find new ways to tackle our collective problems.

I invite you to visit the museum, or, if you cannot find your way to Laveno Mombello, you can always visit its website.



In the above presentation I often talked about the need for inter-disciplinary approaches in order to come to “a new understanding”. What I took away from the days at the Antonianum is that inter-disciplinarity is not about “giving answers and creating understanding”. We can leave “understanding” to the individual disciplines and their tools. Inter-disciplanrity is rather about finding a new “style”  or "common responsibility" for  a “common project”.