The Reverend Jose Ramon Villarin radiates wisdom and wit. Father Jett, as he is better known, is not just president of Ateneo de Manila University, the oldest Jesuit school in the Philippines, but he is also a scientist and advocate for environmental sustainability.

Father Jett edited the 2001 book Disturbing Climate, which won the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award, and was honored by the Philippines’ National Academy of Science and Technology. He shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the team of scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Climate Change Science.”)

Villarin will speak about the challenges that confront the world—and the Philippines in particular—at a conference Thursday in Manila focused on the intertwined issues of energy, water, and food. The Powering Progress Together forum, sponsored by Shell,* features more than a dozen speakers on the mounting tensions faced by nations, especially those in Asia, over supplies of fresh water, energy, and food. The setting could not be more appropriate, as the Philippines struggles with these stresses as it attempts to recover from Typhoon Haiyan, known here as Yolanda.  (See related, “Q&A With Philippines Climate Envoy Who’s Fasting After Super Typhoon Haiyan.”)

Father Jett agreed to share his views on caring for people and the planet, especially on the role of youth action on environment and climate change. Here are excerpts of our email conversation:

Why is it vital to engage universities on sustainable development?

Universities produce people and knowledge, including technology via research. The first challenge of sustainable development lies in having people who will propel development, while having this mindset and concern for sustainability—that is, development with concern for nature and its lifelines. The second challenge is in developing and deploying the proper kind of knowledge—and technology!—that will help us grow without taxing unduly the resources we will continue to need for the future, and without increasing the likelihood of harm that will imperil that growth.

What should young people be doing to protect our environment?

They can learn from our mistakes, then teach and influence their parents, elders, and teachers. They can invent new ways of relating to nature, new and better processes, new and better products and services that do not have a huge ecological footprint.

They can use their techno savvy in social media to heighten environmental awareness, propose solutions, and even transform the market—the purchasing habits of people—so that people make the right choices for sustainability. They can organize themselves, form groups among their peers that will help shape the political and development discourse at the local, national, and even global levels.

They can use multimedia to create powerful symbols that can move people to action. They can tap science, culture, and the arts to create default, or business-as-usual, scenarios and alternative pathways to a better world.

You say sustainability is vital to building a better nation. Why?

Development is a long-term undertaking. Short-term, quick-return development is volatile and shallow. You don’t build a better nation by building without nature. You don’t develop merely on labor and capital. You need to factor in nature in the equation of development. You need to consider the full life cycle of production processes, which includes inputs from nature and waste expelled into the environment.

When you include nature and sustainability in building the nation, you also cultivate key values that are deeply spiritual, communal, and ultimately human. You cultivate citizenship, sharing, stewardship of the commons, simplicity, and other important values both at the local and global level.

What are the pressing issues for Asia?

The Asian region is the fastest growing region in the world today. One pressing issue is the degree of inclusiveness of this growth, that is, the pace of social mobility and equality in emerging economies. Exclusive growth—growth that is concentrated on a few—is not sustainable in the long term.

This region is also one of the most culturally diverse in the world. The pressing issue here is fostering harmony and understanding amid the presence of these cultural divides—in religion, politics, et cetera. Unless we address being able to get along and live with diversity, development will always be on a knife edge.

Another important issue is the sustainability of this growth. What tradeoffs are we making in the process of growing? And what risks are we bearing as we head into the future? We should look particularly at how our development pathways, global climate change, and changing land use, including urbanization, will locally affect our water, food, and energy lifelines. We neglect these issues to our peril. (See related “Quiz: What You Don’t Know About Cities and Energy.”)

What are the lessons of Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan)?

Typhoon Yolanda taught us many lessons. Because it is unprecedented, we learned to unlearn what we have always held about typhoons and our capacity to endure and recover from disasters. It taught us humility; it taught us to respect the power of nature; it taught us how little we know and how vulnerable we are.  (See related, “5 Reasons the Philippines Is So Disaster Prone.”)

We learned about the importance of governance and leadership in moving people out of harm’s way, in organizing disaster relief, and in rebuilding communities in its aftermath. We saw how disconnected we were, and thus learned the importance of networking and communication, and of clearing physical and governance bottlenecks. We saw how disasters can bring out the best and worst in us.

We learned about the adverse impact of certain development pathways, such as building along coastlines and stripping them of their mangrove cover. We learned the painful consequence of underestimating or not even knowing the impact of storm surges. Now we know the importance of wisely using our land and caring for the commons—that is, the things that we share and use, like roads, waterways, open spaces, and parks, energy supply lines, et cetera.

Does Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, have any messages that stick in your mind as you work on environment and sustainability?

He said, “Simple is better.”

Imelda V. Abano, founder and president of the Philippine Network of Environmental Journalists, is reporting from Manila.

*Shell is sponsor of National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative. National Geographic maintains autonomy over content.