Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Dark Side of the Mountain

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

The Dark Side of the Mountain

Article excerpt

One August night in 1968, four men drove onto a strip mine site owned by the Round Mountain Coal Company in Leslie County, Kentucky. They shined a flashlight in the eyes of the lone watchman, tied him up, and drove around in his jeep for four hours, quietly and expertly setting the company's own explosive charges. Just before sunrise, they removed the guard to a safe place, detonated the charges, and left behind the smoking hulks of a giant diesel shovel, D-9 bulldozer, auger, conveyor belt, three hi-lifts, a truck, three generators, and one jeep. Altogether, property damage totaled $750,000. Detective J. E. Cromer, of the state police force, described the destruction as the most extensive he had ever seen in eleven years of investigating sabotage.1

The men responsible for the damage were never identified, but their actions belie a strong rebuke of coal mining and have been interpreted by many as a response to the dangerous and severe working conditions that miners were made to endure during the 1960s.

This event also makes another important historical point: opposition to coal mining in Appalachia is not a recent development. While the exact date of the first protest or demonstration is unknown, American coal mining historian Chad Montrie helpfully notes, "The campaign to abolish stripping was primarily a movement of farmers and working people of various sorts, originating at the local level."2 Montrie illustrates what those who do not live in Appalachia often forget: opposition to coal mining was not transplanted to Appalachia, it began there. Furthermore, Montrie's argument points to a more nuanced reality: arguments in favor of coal mining are by no means simply a matter of economic prosperity, nor are arguments against coal mining simply a matter of ecology and environmentalism. These arguments are much more complex and are inextricably bound up in the identity, narrative, and memory of those who live in Appalachia.

The guiding question of this project has been and continues to be: how can the church develop an ethical response to coal mining in Appalachia that takes into account both the economic benefits and the environmental costs, providing both for Gods people and God's creation? My intention in this paper is to provide a brief sketch of the ethical dilemma that coal mining in Appalachia presents for Christians, paying particular attention to how the narrative, memory, and identity of people from Appalachia can inform ethical decisionmaking. As I have continued to discern my own response to this crisis, I have discovered that it is crucial to take these issues into account if there is any hope for an efficacious or solvent Christian ethical response. I will conclude by reflecting upon my own engagement with the crisis of coal mining in Appalachia. In particular, I want to suggest that resolving this crisis requires hope in God.

Among the most critical reasons cited for putting an end to coal mining are its disastrous impacts on the regions ecology and environment. Ellen Davis calls coal mining, specifically mountaintop removal,3 "an emblematic act," adding that it is "the most dramatic rupture of the created order that North Americans have effected on our own continent."4 Even more provocative, agrarian activist and author Wendell Berry writes of mountaintop removal, "I have been unable to escape the sense that I have been to the top of the mountain, and that I have looked over and seen, not the promised land vouchsafed to a chosen people, but a land of violence and sterility prepared and set aside for the damned."5

These prophetic witnesses bring to light the environmental and ecological destruction wrought by coal mining. As James Gustafson notes in his article, "The Relationship of Empirical Science to Moral Thought," the ways in which we select data - whether from empirical sources or from more abstract sources - is always linked to our own presuppositions, biases, and values.6 This is also true in my case. …

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