ROME, Italy - Practitioners of religion and spirituality often operate in a sphere quite separate from that of science, but in mid-October a diverse group of environmental experts, water managers and others will meet with spiritual and religious leaders at Vatican City to see what they can learn from each other.

Organizers of the conference say they hope to explore the process of spiritual transformation and see what lessons it could provide for conflict resolution with some of the world's most pressing problems - particularly environmental issues, but perhaps other concerns as well.

The event is sponsored by the Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican, the International Water Academy in Oslo, Norway, and the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in California.

The list of attendees include people you don't often find in the same room - water management scientists, a Catholic bishop, government agency leaders, a Jewish rabbi, experts on Hindu philosophy, a military leader, a Muslim scholar and more.

According to Aaron Wolf, associate professor of geosciences at OSU and an expert in water resource issues as well as conflict resolution, this event should provide a unique opportunity to explore real-world environmental problems from a more philosophical, even spiritual perspective.

"In resolving conflicts over water management, there actually is a very high success rate and a global history of peaceful negotiation, rather than armed hostilities," Wolf said. "But the process itself can be painfully long and drawn out, sometimes taking decades while ecosystems are falling apart. We need to find ways we can more quickly move towards the needed compromises and agreements."

A breakthrough in such processes, Wolf said, often comes when the parties begin to look beyond their own demands and see what the broader societal needs are, in something like a water basin that may cut across many political and cultural boundaries. And that process of "getting outside of yourself" and trying to consider the greater world around you, the needs of the broader community, is also found in one other important area - spiritual transformation.

"The tools we often work with, such as rational discussion and economic inducements, are fine up to a point," Wolf said. "But the breakthroughs in these conflicts are often rooted in philosophical and psychological change of the participants.

"We think there's a great deal here we can learn from the spiritual and religious community," Wolf added. "And the science community, in turn, may have some ideas that will be useful to problems rooted in religious differences. I'm optimistic that this discussion could lead to something profoundly important."

Among the ideas to be explored at this meeting are:

  • Does the world of spiritual transformation have tools or approaches that may help bolster the difficult dynamics of international environmental negotiations?
  • Does the rich record of success in water negotiations offer approaches to other complex problems, including those with a religious underpinning?
  • How do the world's religions address environmental protection?
  • What does personal transformation in a spiritual context offer to the process of watershed transformation?
  • Can aspects of spiritual transformation - guided imagery, prayer, ceremony, silence or transformative listening - be of value in resolving environmental conflicts?
  • How does personal faith affect decision making?

There are 25 invited participants in the conference, including religious, political, agency and even military leaders.

They represent countries from the United States to Nepal, Jordan, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Botswana, the Netherlands and others. The event will be from Oct. 13-15 at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the Vatican.

It is supported by an $800,000 grant from the Carnegie Corp. of New York, for this conference and others like it on the general topic of conflict resolution. With that funding, OSU and the Pacific Institute also recently brought together a different but equally diverse group - arms control experts and water resource managers.

The immediate and practical goal of the conference, Wolf said, is to identify mechanisms that could reduce the risks of water conflicts, improve the success of negotiations between groups and nations, and develop new tools for conflict resolution.

But those tools, he said, will likely have a wide range of applications far beyond the problems of water resources.

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Aaron Wolf, 541-737-2722