Sowing New Mustard Seeds: The Moral Question of Mountaintop Removal


Mountaintop removal is not primarily an “environmental issue,” but a moral one—a fact seldom acknowledged by those who support it. The powers that be would like the public to keep on believing that blowing up mountains is a perfectly acceptable way to get coal, and that folks who say otherwise are just left-leaning environmentalists who don’t care about the jobs of miners.

During the Kentucky Rising sit-in in February, I wrote to Governor Beshear expressing my support for the group, as did many people across the country. On March 22, I received his reply. In it he assured me that he is concerned about the “environment,” but spent most of the letter informing me of the indispensability of coal to Kentucky’s economy. Never mind that the Kentucky Rising demonstration and my letter were not about the use of coal in such broad terms, and in fact were not against all coal mining, but the most abusive kinds—namely, mountaintop removal and the suffering it’s brought to Appalachian communities. If Mr. Beshear understood that, he ignored it, just as he ignored the moral force of Wendell Berry and the other demonstrators who spent the weekend in his office.

The human crisis of mountaintop removal is well-documented yet remains far outside the range of public debate. The suggestion that “18,000 coal employees” might lose their jobs if mountaintop removal were ended is absurd; coal-related employment has actually declined since the advent of mountaintop removal. The question of how many jobs a dead or sick child is worth, on the other hand, seems hardly to cross anyone’s mind.

We would do better to turn to our heritage, as when Isaiah wrote, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” We would do better not to accept spiritual impoverishment as the established order; the idea, for instance, that we can move mountains with faith the size of a mustard seed is now obsolete and no longer a metaphor. All we need to move mountains are dynamite and draglines. We cannot “look to the mountains” to see that our “help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth,” as the psalmist sang, when those mountains have been turned to moonscapes and what comes from them is not any kind of comfort, but carcinogenic runoff seeping down into drinking water.

Thomas Merton, a Kentucky monk and contemporary of Martin Luther King, wrote, “Violence is not completely fatal until it ceases to disturb us.” That disturbance has sown a mustard seed-sized faith in the hearts of those now rising against mountaintop removal. The seed they bear is a faith not to move mountains, but to sway the forces that would tear mountains down—the same forces that damage our collective conscience, our compassion, our neighborliness, our heritage.

In such disturbance is our hope. Let us stand with them, then, disturbed, and act. Let us carry these new mustard seeds as a testament to a faith that will keep mountains in place.

Christopher Martin lives in Acworth, Georgia, with his wife and son. He is a student in the Master of Arts in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University, and his work has appeared in Still: The Journal, Loose Change Literary Magazine, and Share Art and Literary Magazine.

Save pageEmail pagePrint page


  1. We can take the moral high ground all we want over such issues as MTR, but it is never a very quick route. The only morality the powerful know is that they must maintain that power. At best, they will stand behind the old saw that claims the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, as if their one period of enlightenment was forty-five years ago listening to Mr. Spock on the original Startrek. They rely on the simple-minded to stay that way. Aesthetic concerns mean nothing. Loss of a way of life doesn’t fit
    on the abacus of their accounting. As long as we continue to turn on the lights, TV,furnace, and AC, they know they are still in charge. WE need something like a blackout day each month with thousands, millions using no electricity. If that gets little response, then two days a month and so on. Just a thought.

  2. Those who try to justify the hell-on-earth method of mining known as MTR come in two broad categories: operators typically based in places like Tampa, Florida, Harvard University, and China who are cashing million dollar checks daily, and those willing to fight for short-term employment and life in a double-wide trailer. It is a symbiotic relationship, stronger than most religions for there are no backsliders. Certainly, MTR has become a moral issue. Bottom line, coal is god in counties such as Pike, Letcher, and Perry. There are more Friends of Coal license plates in this region than Jesus stickers.

Comments are closed.