This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.
The Landscaping of Hell
Excerpted from the January 24, 1966 Issue
At Frankfort, Ky., last August and October, there was a hearing on three new strip-mine regulations. These were later adopted and put into effect, and now even stricter measures are pending. And so there begins to be some evidence that the state government has at last undertaken a serious interest in one of the state’s most urgent problems. But since they face a powerful and determined opposition, supporters might do well to consider the attitude and the morality displayed by the mining companies at the hearings.
The mining companies have made it clear that they will destroy anything, they will stop at nothing, so long as the result can be inked in black on their accounting sheets. They have been abetted by the mischief and greed of local officials, by public indifference, by state paralysis, by federal cross-purposes and confusion. Against them there has been only a local organization of small landowners.
If there is to remain any hope at all for the region, strip mining will have to be stopped. Otherwise, all the federal dollars devoted to the region’s poor will have the same effect as rain pouring on an uprooted plant. To recover good hope and economic health the people need to have their land whole under their feet. And much of their land has already been destroyed.
To destroy a forest or an ecology or a species is an act of greater seriousness than we have yet grasped, and it is perhaps of graver consequence. But these destructions will mend. The forest will grow back, the natural balances will be restored, the ecological gap left by the destroyed species will be filled by another species. But to destroy the earth itself is to destroy all the possibilities of the earth, among them the possibility of recovery. The land destroyed by strip mining is destroyed forever; it will never again be what it was, it will never be what it would have become if let alone. Such destruction makes man a parasite upon the source of his life; it implicates him in the death of the earth, the destruction of his meanings. Those men who send the bulldozer blades into the mountainsides bear the awesome burden of responsibility for an act that no one can fully comprehend, much less justify.