RETURN ETHICS #2: Do Mountains Have Rights?




One fine summer day on a visit to Oregon, Judith and I were invited to a community picnic on Nickel Mountain just off the South Umpqua River. A pleasant experience was about to turn into a horror show. We were ferried up the mountain in four-wheelers because of the rough terrain. I was unprepared for what I was about to see since I knew little about our picnic destination. As the all-terrain vehicle rounded a steep corner, a gaping hole in the mountain cried out for help in a language that reached straight into my heart. The reptilian stem of my brain vibrated and shook me like a passion in response to a primordial utterance from deep in the mountain. “Hole” doesn’t describe the devastation. The entire top of the mountain had been gouged by nickel mining. I felt sick to my stomach. (See photo of my view at the top of page)

       How could such a tragedy occur?

     After the Korean War the U.S. Government became acutely aware that the U.S. had no domestic production of nickel, which is considered by the military a strategic metal. It is used to harden iron to make steel. In ten years the government-supported mining completely decapitated the mountain even though the grade of the nickel ore was only 1.5% while other sources outside the U.S ran as high as 25%. I have long been an admirer of the Eisenhower administration as somewhat balanced, but, to my dismay, I discovered that it was the military/industrial complex under Eisenhower that chopped off the head of this beautiful mountain. Eisenhower would later famously decry some of the excesses of this complex, but it was too late for this mountain.

The Obscene Antropocene

      Some scientists are now calling our era, The Antropocene Age, as a way to describe the devastation we humans are having on our planet when we make our species– including our abuse of natural resources–the measure of all things. If you have any doubt as to the obscene Antropocene, reflect for a moment on the photo at the top of the page, as I did in-person on the fateful day of my picnic. The photo tells a story that is not one of our finer human moments. I largely embrace our human species and our possibility of returning to the balance of the circle of life, but I also have to question our unbridled hubris in moments like this. In order to make our return, we have to face the consequences of our behavior. Confronting our “me-first” practices is challenging, so hang with me.

 Mountaintop Removal

      What you see in the picture is an isolated case in Oregon, but it is the predominant method of current coal mining in the Appalachian mountains. Explosives are used to remove up to 400 feet of the mountaintops to expose underlying coal seams. Excess rock and soil laden with toxic mining byproducts are dumped in nearby valleys. For those of you who know about Enchanted Rock in the Texas Hill Country, this mining procedure would level Enchanted Rock.

     Why use this method rather than less destructive approaches? Why knock the heads off mountains? Why put people out of jobs since mountaintop removal employs fewer workers than more environmentally friendly approaches? Simple. When corporations engage fewer employees and when they cut off the heads of our beautiful brother and sister mountains, profit soars for the bottom line. Keep in mind these are the same corporations protected by the  Constitution.

      Corporations have legal rights in our culture. Mountains do not.

   Do you see a pattern here? A government/corporate partnership cuts off the top of mountains. That same partnership cuts down vast forests in the Amazon, in Oregon, and, as we saw in my last blog, Snook, Texas. Where does the military/industrial complex get the right for such wanton and unaware destruction? The issue goes much deeper than the U.S. Supreme Court and its interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. It goes deeper than a surface criticism of business and corporations.

      In some ways it would be easier to demonize our governmental structure when in fact the U.S. practices are among the most enlightened on the planet. My picnic-become-horror-show leads us to a more basic consideration of the foundation of our ethical and spiritual practices. If I follow the trail far enough, alas, it leads back to myself. I, like you, have been scripted by our civilization to value humans and de-value our surroundings. Here are a few scripts I carry around even though I want to deny them and their influence in my life.

 Human-Centered Ethical  And Spiritual Scripts

      In my last blog I pointed to the much-admired ethicist, Aristotle, as a fountain of a human-centered ethics that ultimately gives implicit permission to remove mountaintops.  His approach may be good for humans, but not for forests and mountains.

        He is not alone.

       The substructure of our civilization is humans against (or at best over) nature. When I look deeply at my inner council, I find different aspects of myself that are tempted to follow these commands,  destructive as they are for the planet as a whole.

    Consider the Genesis account:”…God said unto them(Adam and Eve), Be fruitful, and multiply, and replentish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over fish of the sea, and over fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”(Genesis 1:27-8)

    Consider Plato’s discourse on Protagoras: “Man is the measure of all things…”(Theatetus, 161b).  Plato questions Protagoras’ relativity but not man as the measure.

    Consider St. Thomas Aquinas when he argues that all nonhuman animals are “ordered to man’s use.”(Summa Contra Gentiles, Bk. 3, pt. 2)

    Consider John Calvin, progenitor of The Reformation, when he argues that animals are “armed for your destruction, deadly serpents poised to strike, and numerous other horrors which besiege us…”(Institutes 1:17:10) Only the transcendent God can help you in your battle with your own nature and nature herself, thunders Calvin.

      Consider 20th Century scientist, Richard Dawkins, himself an atheist and an questionable interpreter of Darwin. He uses a widely quoted phrase of our culture–“red in tooth and claw”–to summarize the behavior of all living things.  Compete and survive, says this script, which has become a central plank in America’s platform.

     Consider Rick Santorum, 2012 Presidential candidate, “We were put on this Earth as creatures of God to have dominion over the Earth, to use it wisely and steward it wisely, but for our benefit not for the Earth.”(Speech at Colorado School of Mines, my italics).

      Consider President Obama and congressional gridlock. The gridlock hesitates when it comes to environmental protection.  Economy, first and environment, last. Maybe by the time you read this, Mr. Obama and congress will have found  courage to implement choices that benefit the seventh generation. I hope so. If not, we succumb to civilization’s script that focuses on what we want now and forgets our children and grandchildren.

      There are, to be sure, mystics within the Greek-Judaeo-Christian tradition who perceive the conscious spirit in all of creation. There are many scientists– especially in the newer sciences of the 21st Century– who  perceive the Universe as conscious, including the atomic particles of a mountain. These scientific pioneers are actually leading us to a return to a deep respect for the unity of mind and nature. If you are reading this blog, you likely have enlightened moments when you move beyond the scripts given to us through our culture. I experience such moments of greater sensitivity to the ecoscapes in which I live. I also have compassion for those parts of myself under the sway of the me-first scripts described above.

      All that said, I must honestly face the foundations of our mainline global culture. I must face the inner scripts that live in me and give permission to cut the top off mountains when it benefits my lifestyle. Maybe that is why I was sick at my stomach at the picnic. I, like all of us, carry the viral contagion  of  culture to decapitate mountains for my own use. It is a sickness unto death.  Why?

      If I cut off the heads of mountains, I cut off my own soul.

Without Mountaintops

        Without mountaintops we have no Moses to receive the Ten Commandments;

      Without mountaintops we have no heights for Jesus to be transfigured;

      Without mountaintops we have no Black Hills’ peaks for Black Elk to receive his vision;

      Without mountaintops we have no inspiration for Georgia O’Keefe’s painting.

      Without mountaintops we walk a soulless path.

 Where can we look for a pathway out of these destructive practices? Begin with an ancient form of prayer.

A Prayer To Nickel Mountain

Aho Sacred Mountain,

I feel a bit strange speaking to you as if you are conscious, a being of intelligence, able to converse in a lost language.

As I shift to that tongue known to my ancestors, I affirm the possibility of a deeper and intimate connection with you.

 I acknowledge that I have been schooled to think of you as inanimate, lifeless rock and dirt. But, beyond my usual thinking, I intuit your presence, your hurt,  your loss, and your majesty.

I confess my part in cutting off your head.  

By not being aware of these mining practices.      By using products that depend on your devastation.  By living with my head in the sand.

I don’t deserve for you and all the mountains of Earth to accept me back  into a living and respectful relationship with you.

 Still, I ask for your forgiveness and your acceptance,  that we might, together, serve our Mother Earth,

and the larger Whole.

And most of all, don’t give up on us humans.  We are beginning to wake up.




4 thoughts on “RETURN ETHICS #2: Do Mountains Have Rights?”

  1. “If I cut off the heads of mountains, I cut off my own soul.” If I cut down the trees, I the cut off my own breath. If I pollute the soil, the rivers and the oceans, I poison all my relations. So many thoughts and questions arise as I read this post. Some of them bubbled up in my own blog post:

    Here are the words of my post, accompanied by a Rumi quote that speaks to me about the root of how we can affect change: “This world is like a mountain. Your echo depends on you. If you scream good things, the world will give it back. If you scream bad things, the world will give it back. Even if someone says badly about you, speak well about him. Change your heart to change the world.”–Rumi

    When you are in the presence of a mountain, what happens inside your body? Does it take your breath away? Is your heart expanded? Do you feel the magnificence of its presence? Is it empowering? What is touched when you allow all else to fade into the background as you stand before a range of mountains? Do you make the time to look up and out and around you, beyond the hustle and bustle of life? What is your relationship to mountains? Do you have one?

    Rumi tells us, “This world is like a mountain….Change your heart to change the world.” What an interesting concept. If you deepen your relationship to mountains, will it change your heart? Will it affect your way of thinking and the actions you choose to make? How do you relate to mountains? I asked this question about trees in my previous post. How does our culture view mountains and trees? What part do they play in our lives? Do we have dominion over them? Are they our relations? Do we need them to live? What happens when they are destroyed?

    As I explore my relationship to mountains, I am stirred by a recent blog post asking the question, “Do Mountains Have Rights?” Do forests have rights? Does Nature have rights? Does the Earth have rights? Have you given any thought to why corporations have rights in our culture and mountains do not.” To explore this statement more fully look here for Dr. Will Taegel’s exploration. Given the condition of our planet, maybe it is time to take a closer look.

  2. I too gasped seeing the photo. And then I cried. Such moments of sadness at the scope of what is done to keep us humans rocking along in wants and desires; woefully counting myself in the mix. It can indeed feel so overwhelming to face the music. Perhaps there is relief knowing awakening and returning can change choices. The prayers to the mountains are reminiscent of the writings of John Muir. A favorite quote of his, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Chopping off the mountain chops off a part of us in a legacy of self-eradication, much like the coy wolf but quite possibly not as resilient. These blogs are so stirring and thought provoking for me to see my own blind spots in the return project.

  3. One of the notions that “leaps to the fore” in this blog is the fact of our culpable innocence. We are surprised by the devastation as was the case with the picnic journey. Our “heads in the sand” expect the mountain to be wild and untouched, beautiful to behold. There is a deep shock at the wanton destructiveness. Yet, the destructiveness was planned and created for supposedly useful purposes. Where is the moral compass? Where is the connection that has been lost? How can we return to the connection? Many questions as I enjoy my canned diet soda and travel in my plastic, rubber and metal conveyance to wherever I wish to go. It is like the little child that covers its eyes and the “other” is no longer there. The parent laughs, but the illusion /delusion remains. So it is with our environment – we cover our eyes and only occasionally take a “peek.” Much to think about.

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