This morning, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church, announced that he is stepping down.
This is not normally the kind of news that would be of much interest to Rolling Stone readers. But Williams is an extraordinary man, a rare example of a powerful religious leader willing to speak out with courage and authority on controversial issues, like homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Back in 2009, on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit, he also gave the single best and most thoughtful argument for why we need to take action on climate change that I’ve ever read.
Unlike the shopping-mall evangelists who dominate the debate over climate change in America, Williams has no patience for the faith-based nonsense about how God put fossil fuels on earth so that humans could burn them and grow rich and buy bigger flat-screen TVs. In Williams’s view, this fundamental arrogance that the earth was created by God for us to mine and burn and consume is at the heart of what he calls “our ecological crisis.” If we trash the planet, no one cares. We think the world was built for us, that it is our dominion. But it is not. “It can survive us,” Williams argues. “We are dispensable.”
Williams is a deeply religious man, but in his speech he challenges us to be reasonable and recognize that limiting our material appetites does not diminish us as humans. He doesn’t argue that our modern way of life is evil – just that it’s mindless and, ultimately, suicidal. “For us to be reasonable and free and responsible is for us to live in awareness of our limits and dependence,” he says. “It is no lessening of our dignity as humans, let alone our rationality and liberty as humans, if we exercise these ‘godlike’ gifts in the context of bodies that are fragile and mortal and a world that we do not completely control.”
In Williams’ view, we need to take action on climate change – not simply to save the planet, but because it will make us better humans. In a sense, the climate crisis is the ultimate IQ test for civilization. And if we fail it, we’ll deserve what we get. “In the doomsday scenarios we are so often invited to contemplate,” Williams argues, “the ultimate tragedy is that a material world capable of being a manifestation in human hands of divine love is left to itself, as humanity is gradually choked, drowned or starved by its own stupidity.”