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Mountain-mining philosophy through the ages

The “father of modern science,” British philosopher Francis Bacon promoted humans’ right of domination over nature, of “changing, transmuting, or fundamentally altering nature,” as early as the 16th century.
This right he saw as applying especially to “the riches laid up in the womb of nature” which should be forged into “many excellent uses” by miners and smiths, “the one searching into the bowels of nature, the other shaping nature as on an anvil.”
Three centuries after Bacon, Alfred Nobel invented dynamite with which, today, mining from the surface down is performed on far larger scale, with far greater ease and profitability than earlier methods of extracting mineral goods from earth’s underground “womb.”
In mountaintop-removal mining, to get at usually thin seams of coal, thousands of acres of summits are blasted off and flattened, their forests, soil and rock ferried or dumped down the ridgesides into valleys and streams below.
As Ulrich Grober notes in an article in Zeit, Bacon’s thinking and its expression in modern mining was not shared by all. A humanist writer from Saxony, Paulus Niavis, had thought about mining as an ethical issue in relation to the question “Who owns the Earth.”
An allegorical tale he published in 1492 was a critique of silver mining practices, under the state’s then electoral ruler Duke Albrecht, which were devastating agricultural fields under piles of mining waste, polluting streams and causing great “lament” for the wounds they inflicted, from the mountains.
In the tale, a monk wandering through the mountains happens upon a court by the Gods of antiquity. The hearing chaired by Jupiter, the human miner, or homo montanus, is on trial. He is accused of rape of his Mother, Earth. An engraving depicts the mater terra on the witness stand, in green cloak badly torn, with injuries to the head and many holes through the body, the latter “stained with blood and lacking all grace and beauty.” Her attorney reminds the miner of the bounty of fruits which Earth bears year after year, nourishing and sustaining him. Earth will be unable long to remain “as the Gods wanted her” if the “madness” of human assaults upon her continue. The Court then hears the miner’s attorney. Earth’s goods are found unequally in different parts, he argues, thus demanding their transport and exchange, for which silver is needed.
The Gods have made this more difficult through stowing away the silver underground, just as a wicked stepmother might withhold some treasure, and, therefore, the miner’s entry by force into the Earth’s body is justified.
The tale ends by the Gods’ acknowledging the human’s need and destiny in mining nature’s goods, though with an unwelcome prophesy that, sooner or later Mother Earth will find it necessary to strike back at trespassers, perhaps through “suffocating them with foul weather.”
Mining in the form of mountaintop removal is being debated in a Tennessee Senate committee this week. The Cumberland Mountains fate in this regard will there hang on a single senator’s yea or nay.