Mary Colwell makes programmes for the BBC and the independent sector, mainly on nature and the environment. She was listed at number 27 in BBC Wildlife Magazine’s UK 50 Top Conservation Heroes awards. She is a feature writer for The Tablet, and blogs at marycolwell.blogspot.co.uk
How did your love of nature begin?
I grew up on the edge of Stoke on Trent, near the north Staffordshire moorlands. My earliest memories are of walking with my Dad in the southern Peak District. He was a great gardener too and would often talk about flowers and butterflies, so my love came from ordinary everyday stuff, nothing spectacular.
I went on to study physics and then earth sciences. I’ve always had a tremendous love of geology – which also came from my Dad. I remember when he picked up a stone from a tumbledown wall and cracked it open to reveal a fossil: that realisation that you were the first person to have seen an imprint of a creature which had lived millions of years ago conjured up an extraordinary world of wonder. I’ve never lost that sense of wonder at geology – or at our role in this great unfolding story.
What about your faith?
I was brought up as a Catholic and went to mass every Sunday. Growing up in a Christian home, faith was important as a glue, but like many people brought up in it, I didn’t think about it until I grew older. Looking back at my parents’ response to stress and problems, at how they always acted with honesty and integrity – their example is what I leant on later on. I saw that it worked and it all began to make more sense. Life is better with faith. It has a deep meaning.
How do you see the connection between the two?
To me God is so exciting, audacious. He/she created this extraordinary universe which blows our minds with power, energy, diversity, constant transformations. The natural world speaks to me of what a wonderful God we have.
What are you working on just now?
Radio 4’s Shared Planet has finished, so now I’m writing and producing all 25 parts of a new series called Natural Histories. It’s very full time! We’ve spent a lot of time in the Natural History Museum. I love it because it takes natural history out of its box and makes it part of life. And the whole point is that nature has influenced music, art, religion, culture, clothing, everything. I didn’t realise just how influential nature is. I hope Natural Histories helps people realise that these connections exist.
I’m also working on a four-part series for Radio 4 called Would you eat an alien? An alien crash-lands on the planet, hasn’t got enough food so has to decide what to eat. Of course what we’re talking about is what rules we’ll apply before we kill something. We’re not preaching, just trying to get people thinking. What do we need to know about it? How sentient is it? What are we doing when we eat meat? Are we making the right decisions? I think people will be surprised. We’ve done lots of research about animal behaviour and status, and the decisions we make as a society. It’s brave scheduling for Radio 4 – the series goes out over the Christmas period!
Do you have any favourite moments or stand-out programmes from Shared Planet?
I loved the debate between environmentalist Tony Juniper and economist Clive Spash in ‘Beavers and business’. They talked about putting a value on nature and it was riveting. Tony Juniper was saying, Yes, we must put a value on it because that’s the language business talks. The clash was fascinating and got a huge audience reaction, with most people thinking that Clive Spash came out on top. It attracted more comment than any other programme.
We also had a really good response to an edition about the impact of the worlds’ religions on the environment, which actually featured A Rocha India. Lots of people wanted to comment, saying that it was great that we were talking about it, that it was very important that people of faith got involved, that it’s about time that religions took this seriously.
What do you do to relax?
I love reading, running, keeping fit, and I love walking. I make bread, and I’m a trainee bird-ringer. It’s hard to find that much time, but all those things help me to switch off.
How would you like to be described? Writer? Radio producer? Blogger?
Probably – just a Christian. I have a tremendous respect for Catholicism. Of all the denominations I have had experience of, some of the most impressive people I know are Catholic: people who work in some of the poorest parts of the world and are some of the most selfless humane people I have ever met. I cannot fault the Catholic Church on its attitude to poverty and suffering. There are quite a few areas where we part company though and it has a lot of work to do on the environment.
I read in your blog of your hopes for the Encyclical. Were they met?
Yes, more than! There were three things I liked. First, it firmly put our attitude to the natural world in terms of relationship – that this was stressed so strongly was music to my ears. Second, the fact that it was not just about climate change was really important. Although I know that climate change is one of the most pressing and terrifying issues we face, it is not the only one, and others such as biodiversity loss tend to get forgotten. Thirdly, he made animals and plants holy. Someone said to me recently, ‘For the first time I walked down the street and saw a pigeon and knew it mattered.’ I absolutely agree. We have no right to destroy what is around us. Laudato Si’ made the hidden things spiritual, which is something I have always felt.
Most people I know are delighted with the Encyclical. How the hierarchy will deal with it has yet to be seen. The attention has principally been on his comments about climate change, which have consolidated views expressed by previous popes. It’s early days and I don’t want to be critical. It certainly echoes the deep feelings of many, many people.
What are your views on how the Encyclical dealt with the elephant in the room that is population?
I agree with him when he says it is about consumption not just population, but he is ducking an issue. It would have been so helpful if he had addressed it. He had previously said that Catholics ‘should not breed like rabbits’. As world population grows to 10 billion, all of us have a right to a comfortable and dignified life free of stress about the basics of survival, to eat and drink and live comfortably. Can the planet allow that without us all taking a step back? I doubt it. In a way the Catholic Church has dug itself into a hole by saying that contraception is a mortal sin. It is difficult to back-track.
It is also an issue of economic development: every single country when it gets richer takes matters into its own hands and birth rates start to fall.
You were recently listed among BBC Wildlife Magazine’s top 50 conservation heroes. How does that feel?
It is very nice to be recognised but I’m well aware that plenty people do as much or more than I do. I know quite a few local people who’ll never get put on a list of conservation heroes, who don’t get paid for what they do but just go and do their bit because they have a passion for it. They’re the real unsung heroes.
Who is your conservation hero and why?
There are many people I admire enormously, for example Richard Mabey, George Monbiot, Callum Roberts, Paul Copestake… but my absolute conservation hero has to be John Muir. He’s inspired me so much that I’ve written a book about him!
Muir was the most humane, insightful, thought-provoking conservationist I have ever come across. He was a man of faith who loved the natural world in all its faces, not just the pretty ones, and there was humour, compassion and sheer joy about the way he expressed nature. To me nobody comes close. In a money-obsessed nineteenth-century America, he championed the preservation of wilderness. The most important conservation meeting in human history took place in 1903 with Theodore Roosevelt in Glacier Park, Yosemite, leading to the establishment of the National Park system in America.
His love of the natural world was deeply spiritual; he believed that God is revealed through nature and that humanity is just one part of an interconnected world, not its master. His family emigrated from Scotland to Wisconsin when he was 11 and established a frontier farm. Brought up in the Disciples of Christ, he rejected their hard-line fundamentalism in later life. He never lost his faith in Christ, he just lost his faith in churches. He could not tolerate the hypocrisy he saw, or the cruelty to fellow humans and the incredible wildlife of America.
Without a doubt there are parallels in the church today – for example, the Catholic Church’s silence in countries like Malta with its spring and autumn bird slaughter. That’s not Christianity; Christianity is not a feeble religion, it’s a courageous religion. The Church is worried about rocking the boat in the countries they work in. Shooting the birds is not useful to getting food now. The same applies to bull-fighting in Spain. There is no excuse for cruelty to animals at Spanish and South American churches’ religious festivals.
Are you optimistic about what COP 21 might achieve? Can we limit global temperature rise to two degrees?
No, we can’t do it as we are at the moment. It will take some humongous shock to the Western world and may mean casualties caused by huge storms, flooding, heatwaves etc. And this is where the Pope is right. We are the ones demanding all this stuff, and until we make that connection on a day-to-day basis, we won’t stop climate change. We won’t do it by showing people pictures of polar bears standing on bits of ice.
Do you see signs of hope in America?
If Obama was allowed to do what he wanted to do, yes, but no because of all the constraints on him from the Republican Party. The American way of life has to be up for negotiation.
What do you think about offsetting? Is it an excuse to ‘feast the whole time’?
When we are thinking about our personal footprint, it’s useful to think of it in terms of having a healthy diet. We can’t just gorge on luxuries every day, but we can have occasional treats. So we can go on our favourite holiday occasionally, but we can’t do it all the time. So most of the time we lead simple and holy lives; most of the time we might eat locally grown food, but occasionally we celebrate, have a feast. That’s what makes life so exciting and full of joy. That’s all we are saying. People get very daunted if they think they can never do anything fun ever again – that’s not the right way to look at it.
People might use offsetting to buy their way out of trouble – but that’s not a problem with offsetting, it’s a problem with how it has been perceived. It takes a little bit more understanding and acknowledgement of our role. People have been made to think it is OK to fly as long as you offset, so it takes more education. There is a trust issue too: it’s often not clear where the money is going so an individual might not feel confident that their money will do good. There’s a lot of work to be done to reassure people that offsetting is worth it and that it actually works. It’s not that they don’t care. Most people care, but it is a difficult, complicated world.
A very positive aspect is that offsetting makes you feel involved, that you’re making that connection with people who are being affected by climate change. That sense of relationship, as emphasised by the Pope, is really important.
For Christians, do you see caring for creation moving from the periphery to the mainstream, like poverty or social justice?
Undoubtedly there has been a movement in this direction. People are far more aware that it is an issue they should be thinking of in terms of their faith. It probably hasn’t moved as far as we would have liked. How many sermons have you heard on the environment? An Anglican clergyman said to me recently, ‘I’ve never given a sermon on the environment, and I’m really shocked to hear myself saying that. But it’s not something I thought I could, or should, do.’ As long as we have those who are talking to people in the pews not understanding it, the topic will continue to be on the periphery. It is not about callousness or not being interested, it is often about lack of confidence; it is very new. Most, if not all, clergy training that I know about doesn’t stress it as important, and that has to change. And people to have feel confident about it. I understand that it is hard to do that as a vicar or priest, and suddenly to be asked to talk about climate change, for example, is quite intimidating. The different denominations have to help their clergy with training. The Catholic Church is not at all good in this area. We need champions in each denomination.
What do you think of the ‘livesimply’ award scheme for Catholic parishes?
This is great. CAFOD are fantastic. Sadly, the Catholic bishops of England & Wales have handed over all responsibility for the environment to CAFOD, effectively saying that they don’t have an interest in the environment outside the effect of climate change on development. It’s very disappointing. Three years ago they wanted to revamp what it is to be Catholic – and suggested eating fish on Fridays. Wouldn’t it have been far stronger to suggest people be vegetarian or vegan for a day? It showed a lack of understanding about many issues we face – overfishing and meat production for example.
How can we be more effective at adding a Christian voice to debates about biodiversity, conservation and climate change?
One of the things we can do is to make churches friendlier. How many churches do you see with a wildlife garden, bird tables, bat boxes? Then the outside world can see that we care about it. Just do it. Join award schemes for churches, like Eco Church or livesimply – they are fantastic.
It has to come to down to the individual because individual lives influence their surroundings. If people ask about it, about why we do it, we tell them. Just do it more! People don’t have any problem with Christians giving money, but they never ever think that Christians are green because they rarely see them putting it into practice. Talk about it and do it!
And by the way, I think A Rocha is great at this – I just wish it was bigger and more ‘out there’!
Ultimately it’s about living well. That’s all we are asked to do. If you are not living with the environment and natural world in mind, you’re not living well. If you do that, people will notice and things will change.
[An edited version of this interview is featured in the autumn/winter 2015 issue of A Rocha UK’s magazine, Root & Branch.]