Guest Post: David Henderson on Oppression and Exploitation in Appalachia

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

I've been traveling a lot lately, and every time I fly back into Chattanooga after a few days away, I have the same reaction upon catching a bird’s-eye view of the mountains I call home. I lean my forehead against the window and tears fill my eyes as Mindy Smith’s “Tennessee” plays softly in my mind. I’m so blessed to live in Appalachia.

My friend David—who many of you will recognize as the “cool and understated” philosopher who supplied one of the best quotes of my book on page 223—loves Appalachia too and is passionate about protecting its natural beauty and its inhabitants. Those with ears, please hear.


Allen Johnson of Christians for the Mountains was arrested last Monday alongside NASA climatologist James Hansen and 113 others for an act of civil disobedience protesting mountaintop removal coal mining.  The civil disobedience was only one part of a larger protest event, Appalachia Rising, which had the support and involvement of other Christian organizations, like Restoring Eden, and even more Christian individuals, like myself.    

Why?  Why should mountaintop removal be an issue for Christians?  Among the many answers that come to mind, these two stand out:  mountaintop removal involves the oppression of the poor and the wanton destruction of nature.

The destructive exploitation of nature is almost always tied to the oppression of people.  The destruction of the Amazon rainforest, for example, involves a great deal of brutal and illegal slavery.  C. S. Lewis once said that man’s celebrated power over nature “turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.”  This is especially true for mountaintop removal (MTR), which is committed primarily in the mountains of West Virginia and Kentucky.  The Appalachian “coalfields,” despite generations of mining this fossil fuel, remain some of the poorest places in the country.  And the local culture, which has remarkably resisted homogenization, remains an object prejudice—the brunt of our jokes.  Poverty and prejudice work in tandem to keep our mountain neighbors vulnerable.

The psychological trauma of losing the mountain you’ve lived, played and prayed on is considerable, and many Appalachians are grieving for a homeland destroyed.  But the psychological harm is only the beginning.  When rain falls on an MTR site, the forest and soils that once absorbed it are nowhere to be found.  The now frequent catastrophic flooding in the towns below has destroyed many homes and taken several lives.  The mining process produces a waste known as coal slurry which is impounded behind earthen dams in the valleys of the former mountains.  This slurry leaches into the ground water, poisoning the wells and streams for miles around.  Streams and faucets run black, and most of those affected have no other source of water.  Many have died from this poisoning and countless others suffer its effects.  The air quality in the surrounding valleys may be just as toxic.  Rocks flying off the blast sites or otherwise dislodged in the removal process have also harmed nearby residents, including three-year-old Jeremy Davidson who was crushed to death in his bed by a half-ton boulder.

Sometimes the earthen damns that hold this slurry break.  In Martin county Kentucky in 2000, three-hundred million gallons of toxic coal slurry spilled out into the adjacent streams and rivers.    There are hundreds of these slurry impoundments threatening communities across the country.  A rallying point for the fight against MTR has been Marsh Fork Elementary, which sits immediately below an enormous slurry impoundment. 

The Martin county spill was thirty times as large as the Exxon Valdez spill, but Massey energy was fined only $5,600.  Most of the time, the coal companies successfully avoid taking any responsibility for the poisoning and flooding they cause.  Those who would fight them in court can find precious few lawyers in the region not already employed by the coal companies.  Larry Gibson, who has held onto his family home on Kayford Mountain in West Virginia despite the total destruction of the mountain all around him, speaks out frequently against the coal industry.  His house is also frequently shot at.  He is routinely and violently harassed by miners, who have killed his dogs and run through his family cemetery with a bulldozer.  But when Larry calls the police, they don’t come.  Sheriffs and judges are elected, and in rural West Virginia, coal does the electing.  The rights, privileges and protections you enjoy as an American are not extended to the residents of the Appalachian coalfields.  They lack the wealth to fight back, so your electricity is bought on their backs.

 Biblical injunctions to defend the poor are plentiful, but there are also injunctions against the destruction of nature per se.  Jewish ethicists speak of the principle of bal tashchit, which means “do not destroy.”  It comes from Deuteronomy 20:19-20: 

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.  (ESV) 

According to the passage, not even military objectives can justify the destruction of the natural resources which sustain human community, nor any more destruction of wild (non-fruiting) nature than is essential to those ends.  This principle has been applied in Jewish ethics to the unnecessary destruction of anything living or otherwise of value.

MTR unnecessarily destroys whole forests and watersheds which have sustained human communities in abundance for millennia. The most biodiverse forests in the country, with more freshwater than any other temperate ecosystem, are being totally and utterly destroyed for an amount of electricity measured in hours.  These are some of the best places in the land, sought out by tourists from the rest of the world for the beauty of the mountains and rivers.  

The coal industry says it is providing the flat land necessary for further economic development, but it is questionable whether the sites will ever be inhabitable at all.  It is always cheaper to destroy than to restore.  The years and dollars it would take to remediate the groundwater alone are boggling to consider.

God creates a beautiful, bountiful nature and gives us the privilege of living in it as stewards.  But if there is any lesson to be taken from the parables of Jesus, it is that God holds his stewards accountable. Those who steal, kill and destroy show us by their actions whose children they are.  If we sit idly by the destruction of God’s earth and God’s people at the altar of Mammon, and if we silently benefit from the cheap coal thereby procured, woe is us, for we have forsaken the gospel. 

Further resources:

A member of the Earth Quaker Action Team reflects on his arrest on Monday

I Love Mountains: for all things against MTR

The Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale: full of great resources on the link between faith and nature 

Dr. David Henderson teaches environmental philosophy at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, NC. He thanks God that there is no coal under the mountain he lives on.

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