29 November, 2022

The Earth Is the Lord’s?

Features

by | 28 September, 2008

By Robert F. Hull Jr.

“The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (Psalm 24:1, New Revised Standard Version).

How do we understand such an exclusive claim? What does it mean that you and I can hold title to a piece of property, when the whole earth belongs to God? What are my obligations of stewardship for the half-acre on which my house sits, and what are our common obligations to the earth that sustains all living things?

COME HOME

Come home with me. When native Appalachians who have moved around a bit say “home,” they often mean the place where they were born and raised; so come home to southern West Virginia with me. “Almost Heaven” was John Denver’s compliment, and, in the right place, at the right time, anyone could agree. But the coalfields of the south are now a deeply, and in some places disastrously, wounded environment.

Three miles from the house where I was born a little community has been carved out of the hillside. Stair-stepped up the slope are dozens of Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, maybe 50, put there after the “hundred-year flood” of 2003 washed away many homes, just as the “hundred-year flood” of 2001 had already done.

The floods were described as “acts of God.” Well, the rains were certainly “acts of God,” but the floods were the cumulative results of countless decisions—some well-meaning but heedless, others cynical and greedy—over more than a century.

The steep mountainsides and narrow valleys of southern West Virginia comprise one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world, rich in mixed-hardwood forests and harboring vast deposits of coal, but not very accommodating to human habitation. Level land is very scarce; a little stream runs through almost every narrow valley. It takes a vigorous root system, deep humus, and dense undergrowth to keep the heavy rains from flooding those valleys.

The clear-cutting of large tracts of timber a century ago began the process of silting up the waterways and creating the gullies that led to periodic flooding. Underground mining, even when carefully planned and carried out, allowed toxic chemicals to leach into the creeks and rivers; decades-long runoff from the huge slate dumps and coal washers turned the creeks and rivers black. The difficulty and expense of providing sewers or even septic tanks means that raw sewage has often been piped into these same water systems.

Still, if you wanted to be both charitable and hardheaded about it, you might possibly justify these ecological trade-offs for jobs, especially in a region unable to support many other industries. For nearly 40 years my father was an underground coal miner. It was and is an honorable and highly skilled occupation.

But a dark shadow passed over the region with the advent of strip-mining. The huge gashes in the sides of the mountains could be partly “reclaimed” by means of reforestation and grasses, but the acid runoff ruined many waterways. And the big holding ponds necessary to contain the mine dust, shale, and wastewater from coal washing threatened the homes of people who lived downstream from them. In 1972 one of the “gob dams” gave way during heavy rains and released 132 million gallons of black wastewater into Buffalo Creek Hollow in Logan County, leaving 125 dead, 1,100 injured, and 4,000 homeless. More than 500 houses were demolished.

MOVE ON?

Some people said then, as they always have said, “Coal is all we have. Buffalo Creek was a disaster, but we have to move on.” But moving on nowadays means moving entire mountaintops, a process called “mountaintop removal mining.”

MRM is a form of extreme strip-mining in which the tops of mountains are broken up by blasting and pushed or dumped down the valleys below, so that huge machines can get at the thin coal seams.

The 6,000 valley fills in Kentucky and West Virginia have buried more than 1,000 miles of streams. Raleigh County, West Virginia, saw 1,500 houses destroyed in the flood of July 2001. Residents would probably agree that the 5 inches of rain were “an act of God,” but the flood was largely the result of human abuse of the land.

Think what it would be like to live all your life in a house near a little stream, in the shadow of a beloved mountain, a place where every spring you watch the hillsides green up and see the white sarvis, redbuds, and dogwoods bloom. Almost every day of your life you wake up to the same profile on the horizon.

And then you begin to see that mountain blasted away, some of the fly-rock lands on your roof, and your foundation is cracked by the tremors. You are anxious and sleepless every time the rains fall at night and you fear another flood.

In the very best of circumstances, the coal company finally gets all it can, “reclaims” the site by rounding off some of the space and planting fast-growing, nonnative grasses, and leaves land to be “developed” as a strip mall, a hospital, or a prison.

Not surprisingly, even some native Appalachians can justify the leveling of 800 square miles of mountains, because it produces jobs and temporarily boosts the local economy. After all, “Coal is all we have.” And here is where the small, local, hidden story of an impoverished region intersects with the larger story of our care of the earth. It is not difficult to justify the ecological damage we have collectively wrought all through our stunningly beautiful land: “After all, timber is all we have. . . . Farming is all we have. . . . Fishing is all we have. . . . Manufacturing is all we have. . . . Copper mining is all we have. . . .”

SHARE BLAME

We are all implicated in the practices that have simultaneously diminished and elevated our quality of life. Coal-fired plants produce 50 percent of our electric power, while at the same time spewing millions of tons of pollutants into the atmosphere. Trade-offs are everywhere. If we fill in marshlands and build massively in these low-lying areas, counting on levees to hold back the water, can we then ascribe the devastation wrought by a hurricane to “an act of God”? If millions of us want a second home in the mountains or on the ocean, should we be astonished that the wild places are being degraded and the property values so inflated that the locals can no longer afford to live there?

There is still much to learn about how best to care for the environment, but some things we know: It is possible for humans to wipe out animal species (the last passenger pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914). We can drain aquifers to irrigate our farms, fill our swimming pools, and water our yards. The stocks of even vast ocean fisheries can be depleted. Acid rain is not a myth to folks who live in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. The ruinous environmental results of China’s rapid economic expansion are related to the inexpensive products we buy at the big box stores.

We cannot wait until the rest of the world agrees to sign on as good stewards of the land before we decide to do what we can. Every one of us lives downstream of someone else, and someone lives downstream of us. But “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” What are my obligations of stewardship for the half-acre on which my house sits, and what are our common obligations to the earth that sustains all living things?

And why do so many good, faithful, churchgoing people seem to think only a “tree-hugging, environmental wacko” could write these things?


Robert F. Hull Jr. is dean and professor of New Testament at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.

Christian Standard

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