Making Space: Community and Creation Care (Extract)

Jo Swinney shares about A Rocha's environmental protection work, and why Christians should care for the natural world.

(This is an extract from a 2023 episode of CPX’s Life & Faith podcast. Listen to the full episode here.)

SIMON SMART: Welcome to Life & Faith from CPX. I’m Simon Smart.

These days, compared to when I was young at least, we are much more aware of and engaged with the huge challenge of caring for the environment. Climate issues, pollution, waste, plastics, and the way that modern life is designed in such a way that we seem to almost inevitably cause harm to the ecosystems and the natural environment around us, is front of mind in a way that it once wasn’t.

But do you ever feel powerless in the face of these huge challenges? And wonder whether we can ever work in harmony with the planet rather than against it?

Today we will talk to someone whose childhood was spent living in community with people who cared deeply for the physical creation, and actually felt they could do something about these challenges. Jo Swinney is the author of several books. She grew up the daughter of Peter and Miranda Harris, who in 1983 formed, along with some others, the Christian environmental group A Rocha.

Jo was five years old when the family moved to Portugal to start A Rocha, and much of her formative years were spent there. And she’s connected again now as Director of Communications at A Rocha, that these days is an international family of Christian conservations organisations operating in 20 countries.

I caught up with her from her home in Bath in the UK.

SIMON SMART: Jo, it’s so good to see you there. Thanks for, for being with us.

JO SWINNEY: My great pleasure.

SIMON SMART: Now, I want to talk about A Rocha that was formed by your parents, Peter and Miranda Harris, I think in 1983. Now, you were about five years old at the time and you moved to Portugal where you spent your early life, before going off to boarding school in England. Now, we’re going to come to all of that in a moment. But I do want to just first up straight off the bat, ask you to tell us about A Rocha. What is it? How did it come about in the first place?

JO SWINNEY: So first off, A Rocha means “the rock” in Portuguese. And it came about because a few people, my parents included – they’re always keen to say that they were too among a great many people – but my dad says that he was born with binoculars around his neck. He absolutely loves birds and it’s a gene I haven’t inherited from him, but I can testify that, he is never unaware of the birds in any given context. So he, in my early life, trained as an Anglican vicar in the church of England. And during those years, my mum at one point sent him off for some respite to look at birds in a field study centre in Sweden.

So off he went and while he was there, he met someone who shared his passion for birds and they were talking over dinner about the potential community that was forming around these common interests of the natural world, but also this kind of shared community that was growing around the table each evening as all the people there from many different walks of life and nationalities would sit down and share their stories and what they’d seen that day. So they hatched up between them this idea and in 1983 very few people, least of all the church, were concerned with any kind of environmental issues really. It was seen as quite a fringe hobby almost. So they had some things to contend with.

But, my dad is and was a real visionary. So he managed to get enough support to set off to southern Portugal. And the reason for choosing Portugal was that it had come out of a dictatorship not long before. And there was this massive boom of industry and tourism and infrastructure development going on particularly in the south where the beaches are very lovely, but it’s also a major migration route between North Africa and Europe. And very fast the usable habitat for wildlife birds, lots of biodiversity, was being kind of gobbled up, turned into hotels and golf courses and marinas. So that’s why there. And the reason was love of the natural world; concern to see it disappear. But also, as Christians, they believe that the church shouldn’t be part of the problem, but part of the solution because the understanding within Christianity is that God created and cares for deeply everything that he’s made. Not just the humans.

For Christians to say they love God, but then absolutely trash what is of deep importance to him, is completely dissonant.

SIMON SMART: What does Christian thinking have to contribute to this kind of activity of caring for the earth?

JO SWINNEY: Well, I think if people are honest, there’s always a belief system behind behaviour. So it’s to do with aligning your stated belief system with your behaviour. So for Christians to say they love God, but then absolutely trash or disregard what he has conveyed is of deep worth and importance to him, is completely dissonant. It’s hypocritical at best. It’s foolish and ignorant at worst. So I think what they were trying to explain by doing largely – because there’s an awful lot of words in the world – they wanted to quietly just get on and do the right thing because it’s the right thing, but also shine a light on the coherence of doing the right thing for the reasons that the Bible and the kind of faith world of Christianity, is an imperative to do that.

SIMON SMART: Did you see or witness real progress in terms of healing of damaged environments?

JO SWINNEY: So, our little plot was, I think about four acres that we lived in this farmhouse with grounds. But the area of focus for A Rocha, Portugal, was a headland and the marshes alongside it? If you look now on Google Earth, it’s extremely obvious that A Rocha has been there because it’s flourishing. My dad had this obsession with planting indigenous seeds around the place and we always used to mock him a bit because they were like his little babies. And every evening, we’d have to go and check on each little one and water it and weed it. And many of these are now full-grown trees. So you can actually see from space that this place has been cared for.

I have to say it’s an ongoing battle because it’s prime real estate and the interests of greed and money and a quick buck are there in human nature for everyone. The people who took over – the Portuguese leadership there, and Marcial who lived on the headland, has post-traumatic stress because of the constant threat of development, and sometimes really nasty, nasty personal threats of violence. There’s ongoing political shenanigans. For every bit of protection they gain, it’s one step further – and it hasn’t been destroyed yet, but it’s an exhausting and continual battle to protect that headland.

The best route for people to take action is via love and connection and knowledge of your place and investment in your place.

And as a child, I’m not a bird watcher, but I loved that place with every cell in me. And I still do. And I remember, this one day, we woke up and there was this beautiful vineyard, in front of the house and we woke up to trucks razing it, like digging it up. And it was devastating, and I absorbed some of that fear over whether it could be kept safe, and fretted and prayed for it. And I think that’s the thing. I think that the best route for people to take action or to become involved as a conservationist of any kind is via love and connection and knowledge of your place and investment in your place.

SIMON SMART: One of the things I wanted to talk with Jo about is how the notion of caring for the environment seems so overwhelming and too big a problem for any of us as individuals to do much about. I asked Jo what she would say by way of encouragement for people feeling like that.

JO SWINNEY: I’ve recently discovered this biological concept of refugia and I’ll tell you the best example of it. What it means is that once you stop actively just harming an ecosystem, a small piece of the environment, there’s enough surviving in a small area to repropagate itself and it’s incredibly resilient, the world. And so the example of it was Mount Vesuvius and the whole top section of the mountain was destroyed by the earthquake. And when it had all cooled down and been left long enough to be judged safe, this group of people went with the intention of renewing it. And there was enough surviving under little cracks and crevices that by the time they got there, it was all fine again. So I think, it’s not about thinking about the whole world. It’s about doing the right thing at your arm-stretch, like your space, and none of us need to save the world. Again, from the Christian world view, the world has a saviour. It’s for us to do the right thing moment by moment, not because it’s going to add up to the final thing, but because it’s the right thing and perhaps that right thing even at a tiny scale will be the thing to make a difference.