Environment

A Christian Land Agent in Rural Estate Management: Sonia Brown's Story

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David V. Brooks

How does an environmentally conscious Christian live with integrity in a world where environmental concerns are often undervalued? Even more, how can one work in a profession where one’s decisions may have significant environmental impact, but the profession does not necessarily hold caring for the environment as a top priority? These are questions Sonia Brown has asked with great intention during her career managing land use on large estates in her native United Kingdom. She has learned that the Gospel can be trusted to challenge those who put their own self-interest over concerns such as the environment. However, she has also seen the Gospel offer a compelling challenge to her own professionalism.

Love for the land was central to Sonia’s story from an early age. The daughter of dairy farmers, she grew up close to the land and developed an awareness that we are not the only valuable life-forms on the planet; the whole planet has been given the gift of life and teams with living creatures. Sensing a call to build a professional life on care for the earth’s resources, Sonia completed a master’s degree in Sustainable Rural Development. However, she and her husband Gordon, who works as a forester, saw the need to integrate their work with a coherent theology, and so they came to Regent in 2005 and worked for A Rocha in Portugal for a season midway through their studies.

After their time at Regent and A Rocha, Gordon and Sonia sensed God was calling them to continue to live and work as followers of Christ in their professional careers, from where they could try to promote the sustainable management of the earth’s resources. Gordon continued to develop his career in forestry while Sonia became qualified to be a chartered rural surveyor and went to work for a consulting company that helps owners of large estates realise their goals for their property. These estates can be thousands of acres in size and can span multiple ecosystems and geographical features such as hill grounds, rivers, forests, farmland, and even entire villages. “I don’t think there is a North American equivalent; it kind of harks back to the feudal landowning days,” she told me. The client, which could be an individual, a company or a trust, hires Sonia’s company to help them use their land most effectively for their purposes, which can range from sporting (hunting or fishing) to farming to conservation (tree planting, renewable energy schemes, etc.).

Sonia sees her role as an enormous privilege. “I get to work alongside some of the wealthiest, most influential people in the British Isles,” people whose choices make a real impact on the environment. But what if she doesn’t agree with the client’s goal for the property? Understandably, the company’s stated goal is “the relentless pursuit of our client’s happiness.” Therein lies the challenge for Sonia: “You don’t necessarily agree with what they want done on their estate. It’s difficult, because as a Christian that’s not necessarily our higher calling; the happiness of my client might compromise me in some way.”

However, Sonia explained to me that she is actually able to communicate to clients values that are in line with the Gospel. Whereas someone working for Greenpeace wouldn’t even get in the door, she is able to discuss sensitive issues with her clients. “They don’t necessarily share our views, but they do listen to us,” she said. She has found that in many ways the message to care for the earth is not a difficult one for people to accept. “Christianity is pretty persuasive for anybody: the call to step outside of one’s greed or to consider other interests is compelling, because God created us to be stewards. However, we do have to be very careful how we word things or try to persuade people to do certain things to take care of our planet.”

Some environmentally conscientious choices are not a hard sell at all, while others are much more difficult. For example, the Scottish Government is pushing to make Scotland a leader in renewable energy, and so it is providing attractive subsidies for estate owners to install hydro projects. However, convincing an estate owner to invest in reforestation is a whole other challenge. “Our country was massively deforested; trying to persuade clients to plant trees on a bare hillside when they just want to shoot grouse, game birds which thrive in a treeless environment, is very challenging.”

This is where the Gospel has challenged Sonia’s own values. She has learned that there is a healthy kind of compromise: the kind that considers economic and social concerns alongside those of the environment. Sonia related that some people, for example, believe Scotland should get rid of these huge sporting estates and replant trees. “What they don’t realize, though, is that there are many people whose whole livelihood is dependent on sporting, such as game-keepers,” she said. She has worked closely with many people that are in support roles on such estates, and has learned compassion for their needs. “It’s not necessarily right to say, ‘Let’s go back to some sort of wilderness.’ Scotland has been inhabited now for thousands of years, and there is no wilderness in Scotland, it doesn’t exist. We can’t go back, how do we go forward? That’s the message Jesus brings; we aren’t trying to go back to the Garden, we are moving toward the new creation.”

As much as she still seeks to influence clients to make sustainable choices in their land use, Sonia wants to see Biblical shalom for all parts of creation, including humanity. “A lot of people say, ‘Wouldn’t creation be great without humans?’ But God put us in creation as part of it and to steward it, and we need to learn to reclaim that, to steward our land.” In this sense Sonia is a witness not only to her clients, but also to environmental activists. She is a voice offering hope in an otherwise pessimistic and cynical group. “What I’m most excited about is hope: hope for the future; hope in God’s redemption; hope for our creation. I meet a lot of people in environmental care who have no hope. I don’t think you can do a job like ours without hope.” Sonia’s approach challenges us to work hard caring for the environment, but to care for it in the light of our Christian vocation, which calls us to care also for our neighbour, and to care for the environment in a way that speaks of our hope in God, who has good designs for his whole creation.

Source: Marketplace Institute



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