What does Nature teach us?

We live within limits, and that’s not a frustration and not a tragedy. It’s like the experience of a poet writing a sonnet – the limits, the shape, are what give you the vehicle to say what you have to say. One of the dangers for the human mind is supposing that somehow humanity doesn’t belong within limits, within an interlocking system.

How can religious faiths lead to a more sustainable future?

Quite often in the past people have had the impression that the point of religion is to get you away from limits and the world and everything in it; but this has never been the mainstream teaching of any of the great religions. To be human is to be embodied spirit. To be embodied means to have a sense of responsibility and interconnection with the whole material universe. And the virtue of humility is not always thinking the worst of yourself: it’s thinking the most real of yourself. People often say humility comes from humus – the ground – so it’s down-to-earth thinking. Religion can really engender and foster a sense of connectedness with the stuff of the world and help us to put down roots where we are. Certainly in my own Christian tradition there is the long-standing feeling that the world around you communicates a message – that it speaks.

What were the highs and lows of your time as Archbishop of Canterbury?

A lot of the high points for me were travelling to contexts where the Church was doing unexpected and creative things in, say, Africa or the Pacific. I think of the time I had in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in the Solomon Islands. Some of those visits enabled me to see what the Church could do in terms of environmental responsibility and environmental spirituality in quite difficult circumstances. Looking at the farming projects in parts of Africa, especially Kenya – I learned quite a lot from those. And the low points were mostly related to international Church meetings – the sense of being tied up in political internal church squabbles that didn’t actually generate good news for anyone.

The style of the new Pope seems to be very different from that of his predecessors. What are your thoughts about how he is bringing simplicity to that office and how he is highlighting questions of social justice?

I am very impressed by his directness and his unfussiness: the fact that he emerged first and just said buona sera to everyone in St Peter’s Square and treated them like other human beings rather than giving the sense of speaking from on high; the fact that he takes the name Francis tells a story, as if he is saying, I am going to have a different style – a more uncluttered style, living in a couple of rooms in the Vatican instead of the Papal apartments. All of that gives me great hope. His simplicity of life offers a very important message.

What one piece of legislation would you introduce to address climate change?

Perhaps two things, if I may be allowed. One would be to see what kind of concessions could be given to businesses that were dramatically improving their environmental performance. How do you incentivise good practice? Then I would ask what national government could do to encourage every local authority to have a clear, serious and monitored environmental policy.

Nuclear power or renewable energy?

My instincts are not friendly to nuclear power because I feel there remain long-term anxieties. At the same time, it’s quite clear that traditional fossil fuels are at their peak or past it. We have to think radical thoughts about that. We’ve yet to see completely comprehensive, global plans about what real energy might mean. So, like a lot of people I’m in a bit of a quandary about that. Nuclear power looks like the quick fix and I’m always a bit wary of quick fixes.

Natural or GM seeds?

A strong preference for natural simply because I’m not convinced that it’s a good idea to alter a system of balances we don’t fully understand. A lot of attempts to introduce modification sooner or later run into the fact there are unforeseen consequences. That’s the question I would always want put – just how large is the area of possible unintended consequences here? There may be a gradient, but clearly with some kinds of modification you are altering an ecology.

The word ‘ecology’ actually matters quite a lot to me because it’s more than a slogan. Ecology is about – as the word suggests – the logic, the rationale of the household we live in, the balance. When we put that balance seriously at risk with policies we don’t fully understand or appreciate, we’re clearly on a difficult course. Difficult to have rational debates about this because sometimes it’s seen purely and simply as a stand-off between people who are being totally fundamentalist about the ‘natural order’ and people who are being totally utopian about the possibilities of scientific modification. Somewhere in between you have to ask the practical questions.

What can we do in our own lives to really make a difference?

More than anything else it’s important for us to believe we can make a difference. It’s very easy, where environmental issues are concerned, to feel overwhelmed by the scale of it. We mustn’t allow ourselves to feel overwhelmed. We must recognise that even a small gesture is worth making – because a small gesture is the honour due to the place we have in creation. It’s a truthful gesture. Even if we’re only able to turn the tap off when cleaning our teeth, or monitor our light bulbs or whatever it may be, that is all part of learning how to honour the kind of world we live in. So it’s worth doing. If it doesn’t make all the difference overnight, well OK, so it doesn’t. It’s that little bit of turning around attitudes or, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Mary Midgley, it is “changing the myths we live by”.

Which political party does the most for the environment?

Well, the Green Party would if it had any political power. That’s the problem. With all the parties we have the right noises made – because, interestingly, it’s now a possible vote-catcher in a way it wasn’t 15 years ago. And yet when it comes to it, the will to put robust protocols in place internationally is not very strong in any of them. There are champions in all the parties and yet there’s a dead weight. And at a time of recession, we’re all anxious about our own levels of economic security, which doesn’t make it easy for any party to take radical action. I’ve always said that a time of economic recession is actually the worst time to give up on environmental concerns. Because when we’re in a time of some stringency, we begin to live the limits in the world we live in. We begin to realise the toxic quality of some of the habits we’ve got into. So it’s a good moment to raise the question and keep it on the radar.

What do you think needs to happen to bring the fragmented environmental movement together speak as one voice?

If I could answer that neatly and briefly, I’d get some sort of global peace prize, but I think we need convergent strategies for the ordinary person. Where environmental bodies can come together most effectively is where they can say we can’t solve all the global problems, but we can tell you some things that will definitely make a difference in your context, that are not rocket science, that are based on fundamental respect for the environment you’re in and also build the skills you need to help one another. If environmental movements across the world were prepared simply to say, “Look, we have in common this set of practical priorities,” that would take us some way forward.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

When I’m asked that question, I always say neither: I’m hopeful. An optimist says it’s all going to turn out all right. A pessimist says it’s all going to turn out wrong. A hopeful person says it’s possible we can make it better. That’s a place I’m very happy to talk from, because I believe with all my heart that it’s possible we can make things better. The slogan I’ve often quoted in this respect is from Martin Luther, the great reformer who said that if he knew the world was going to end tomorrow, he would plant a tree – meaning, never mind what’s going to happen tomorrow: decide what’s a good thing to do today, and the future unfolds out of that.

What can the universities and academic institutions do to foster a new generation of committed and effective environmentalists?

Universities have a huge opportunity for encouraging environmental awareness, because they have first-class scientists, ethnographers and thinkers who can flesh out the arguments, and they also function as good platforms for robust public discussion. Since coming back to Cambridge, I’ve already taken part in two very high-profile and high-energy debates around this; both were very well supported by students. There is a real interest in the ethics and spirituality of these questions, and I want to do all I can to encourage this further.

Rowan Williams is Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University. He will be speaking at the Resurgence Festival of Wellbeing on 12 October 2013. For more details and bookings: www.resurgence.org/take-part/resurgence-events/wellbeing-festival-2013.html

Sharon Garfinkel works for The Resurgence Trust.