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Theology Rocks Superquarry Project

In 1991 a superquarry was proposed for the island of South Harris in Scotland. Local people were in favour of it, as the need for employment in the area was dire. However, the impact of the quarry on the place, designated a National Scenic Area, would be horrific. It was planned to extract ten million tons from Mount Roineabhal over sixty years. This would create one of the biggest open-cast holes in the world. Alastair McIntosh, himself from the Scottish Hebrides, joined in the campaign to counter the project and decided to bring theology into it.

By Alasatir McIntosh  

In 1971, as a schoolboy growing up on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides, I had drafted a letter to the Highlands and Islands Development Board suggesting that, to create jobs, they opened a quarry for anorthosite felspar on Roineabhal in neighbouring South Harris.

But by 1991 I had seen disillusion and even civil war deriving from social and ecological collapse where massive mineral extraction had taken place in the South Pacific.

It was becoming apparent to me that the right relationship with place is central to a sustainable livelihood. A point lost on many urbanised people, it is implicit to Celtic and other indigenous cultures such as that of the Western Isles. Relationship between a peoples and their land, if reasonably free of the intermediatory powerbroking of landlordism, can nourish both body and spirit. The poet Kenneth White talks of such fulfilment through place as 'geo-poetics' - a higher unity of person and place.

Materialism is necessary up to the point of material sufficiency, but beyond that we need poetry, and music, and other ways of finding a sense of the sacred by which to live abundantly. These things come from three-way right relationship: with one another, with nature, and with our inner selves.

Conversion to protest

So here it was, 1991, and a woman from Harris was on TV. The newly proposed superquarry would literally take away her place; our place part of a National Scenic Area. In sixty years it would slice the belly out of the two-billion year old Mount Roineabhal, ten million tons, creating one of the biggest open-cast holes in the world and a scar six times the height of the White Cliffs of Dover.

Capitalism offers to help them in characteristic fashion; it will relieve unemployment provided he people surrender guardianship of the land (thus violating their own deepest instincts).
By coincidence a fortnight later the Centre for Human Ecology at Edinburgh University was visited by the businessman behind the superquarry concept, Mr. Ian Wilson. He believed his ideas constituted sustainable development because employment could be sustained in a superquarry for hundreds of years if necessary, moving further and further back into the mountain range, as well as using the exportation infrastructure to open up surrounding "satellite quarries" and exploit mineral deposits of marginal commercial value like industrial grade garnet.

Once as a young geology student, I would have celebrated his proposals. But now, listening as he outlined his plans for up to six coastal superquarries to fuel the global, and especially English, appetite for aggregate, I found myself perturbed and questioning the reassurance tagged to such statements as "Quarries make bad neighbours... The industry itself, the quarrying industry in the UK, if it could get off with raping the Highlands would do so. I mean, they are business people... but they are not being allowed to do that."

After returning home to visit the area in 1991, I decided to join in raising awareness of the key issues. At first this was uncomfortable because some 90% of local people were in favour of the quarry, and the mainstream environmental organisations had not been stirred into action. A mere three or four of us started to compile the economic, cultural and ecological argument against the quarry. Based on work with indigenous land rights advocacy on the Isle of Eigg, the corporate planning background of local hotelier, Ian Callaghan, and Alesia Maltz's academic studies of small island cultures, constructive alternative economic suggestions were made to complement the growing critique of the quarry. This evolved, through separate local community and political processes, into the Harris Integrated Development Programme (IDP) which, irrespective of whether or not the quarry goes ahead, is endeavouring to bring employment to the area. In itself, the IDP represents considerable fresh community empowerment. For indirectly catalysing this, we can thank Redlands, the developer.

Scottish Natural Heritage, whose predecessor organisations had not opposed the superquarry concept, finally came off the fence. Together with member groups of Scottish Wildlife and Countryside Link such as FoE, WWF, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the Scottish Wild Land Group, a public inquiry was precipitated. It opened in Stornoway in the autumn of 1994, and ran until May 1995.

However, local opinion, though shifting, was still sharply divided. The need for jobs on Harris is desperate. Redland Aggregates, the 'developer', thought it had a walkover in a needy community. Increasingly it seemed that a deeper stratum of debate, beyond the usual economic, social and ecological arguments, needed to be opened up. Attitudinal change was being inhibited by the fear of appearing 'anti-jobs' and NIMBY* (notice how our opponents can so neatly caricature us as being either NIMBY, if local, or rent-a-mob, if from away!). People would say: "I'm against the quarry for myself, but I'd support it because so-and-so's hoping for a job there."
To be reverent means
to be concerned with the integrity of a thing or person; to value it for
itself; to work ine
celebration of its being,and not with a graceless spirit of mere utility.

Prominent voices in the industry itself were warning of the market inflexibility of superquarries with their "mistaken belief that biggest is best", an implication being that job security might be less than assured in what one local man dubbed "the gravel pit of Europe." The costs and not just the alleged benefits of the 'development' needed to be recognised, but the wider context of so doing, in my view, needed to be one rooted in our profound concerns and motivations. Such, according to Tillich, is a definition of theology. In the strongly Calvinist Hebridean cultural context, only a scripturally-based theology, perhaps, could adequately address the issues of inter- and intra-generational equity which needed exploring. This was, of course, to 'use' theology; to contextualise it. Such an approach did not go uncriticised, but that is nothing new in the Judeo-Christian tradition as the great prophetic socio-ecologist, Moses, long ago recognised.

Recognition of reverence

What is it, then, other than utility, that makes a mountain, or a species, or a river matter? I believe such values are ultimately spiritual: they have to do with the passions of life, of love, in all their meaning and throughout all time. They have to do with becoming more fully human, and with the origins of creativity and aesthetic appreciation.

Government ministers call out for a moral lead from religion. So why not point out the obvious? Why not, in the deeply Christian religious context of the Scottish Hebrides, contextualise the ecotheology of, for instance, Genesis 1 and 2; Job 37 and 38, Leviticus 25, Psalms 104, and Isaiah 24 and 55? Why not inform the public inquiry (of a Scottish Office which has an inscription of Jesus emblazoned across its front door) that in Matthew's gospel alone, the "wild prophet" of Nazareth goes eight times to the mountains to seek composure of soul. And why not then ask if crofting and hillwalking, far from being namby pamby, are not far more in keeping with the spirit of National Scenic Areas than blasting them for a mess of potage?

The cornerstone of the case to be argued was reverence. Thus I would suggest to the Inquiry that: "To be reverent means to be concerned with the integrity of a thing or person; to value it for itself; to work with it symbiotically, in celebration of its being, with that grace which is consistent with the 'saying' of grace, and not with a graceless spirit of mere utility."

Supporting me in making this case were two people from very different backgrounds, a native Gaelic preacher and a native North American warrior chief.

The preacher's case

The former, the Rev. Prof. Donald MacLeod of the Free Church College, is from the Isle of Lewis which joins Harris. He is respected by many for his ability to integrate Calvinist presbyterianism and a liberation theology of the poor and the soil. Prof. MacLeod offered the inquiry six points. The QCs for Redlands and the Western Isles Council declined to cross-examine either him or the other two of us. He put it to the inquiry that:

God as Creator has absolute sovereignty over the environment. We must use it only in accordance with His will; and we shall answer, collectively as well as individually, for all our decisions in this area.

Theologically, the primary function of the creation is to serve as a revelation of God. To spoil the creation is to disable it from performing this function.

In the Judaeo-Christian tradition there is an intimate link between man and the soil. He is taken from the ground; his food is derived from it; he is commanded to till and to keep it; and he returns to it. This implies a psychological as well as theological bond. Although such facts should not be used to endorse naked territorialism they do raise the consideration that rape of the environment is rape of the community itself.The precise responsibility of man to his environment is defined very precisely in the Judaeo-Christian tradition: Man has to "keep" it (Genesis 2:15). This is not simply an insistence on conservation. It designates man as guardian and protector of the ground.

Man is the servant of the ground (Genesis 2:15). This is the usual meaning of the Hebrew word popularly rendered to us as to till. Christian theology has largely failed to recognise this emphasis. Any insistence on the more widely perceived notion of man's dominion must be balanced by the less familiar but equally important concept of man as servant.

There is no place in the Judaeo-Christian tradition for divided guardianship of the land. In particular, there is no place for the idea that agrarian rights may belong to the people while mineral rights belong to someone else. This dichotomy is central to the current debate. From a theological point of view the present arrangements, while perfectly legal, are indefensible.

Man's relationship with his environment has been disrupted by the Fall. One primary symptom of this is that he is always tempted to allow economic considerations to override ecological ones. In the present instance the divinely appointed guardians and servants of Lingerbay are the people of Harris. Unfortunately, these very people are now suffering a degree of economic hardship that threatens the very survival of their community. Torn between their love for the land and their need for jobs they face a cruel dilemma. Capitalism offers to help them in characteristic fashion; it will relieve unemployment provided the people surrender guardianship of the land (thus violating their own deepest instincts).
If we fail to find the solutions Mother Earth will cleanse herself of the offending organism that is killing her. This is our teachings.

The warrior chief's case

Being myself a Quaker open to insights from many different perspectives, I felt a need to draw from the widest possible experience in making a theological case. Accordingly, I also invited as a witness Mi'Kmaq warrior chief Sulian Stone Eagle Herney from Canada. His leadership of the Mi'Kmaq Warrior Society gave me a bit of a problem, especially when some of the media wanted to highlight that more than his theology. But clearly, in seeking allies I wouldn't get very far by insisting only on fellow pacifists! One of the advantages of operating, somewhat uncomfortably, as an individual rather than behind an organisational front, was that risks could be taken.

'The Chief' thought such angst over his warriorship was all very funny. For him, increasingly, the way of the warrior is the way of peace in conflict. This is why his elders have made him not just a warrior, but also a sacred peace pipe carrier.

What distinguished Stone Eagle is that he has been mandated by his Grand Council of chiefs to block the proposed superquarrying of Kluscap or Kelly's Mountain in his home territory of Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. His sharing of experience through witnessing on Harris helped boost the media profile of the whole inquiry. It made multiple slots on both TV and radio worldwide, and produced some forty clippings from the British quality press alone. What Prof. MacLeod may have done for helping to influence local opinion, Stone Eagle contributed in a national and international context. In his eventual departure from Glasgow Airport, some half-dozen people, recognising him from media coverage, came up and thanked him "for what you are doing for Scotland". Before leaving Lewis and Harris, an 'elder' of the community presented him with the summit rock of Roineabhal. Just as the Mi'Kmaq took the people of the Scottish Highlands into safety during harsh winters after they were transported to Nova Scotia in the eighteenth and nineteenth century Highland Clearances, so the mountain itself is now in symbolic asylum.

The summit will be returned when the mountain is saved. Such an act of conservation, if achieved, will be owed to many people, and not least to these words which a man whose totems are stone and the eagle placed before the inquiry.


As an indigenous person of North America whose grandfathers met your grandfathers on their arrival to my territory several hundred years ago, we, the Mi'Kmaq First Nations have endured many trials and tribulations that were caused by the two nations coming together...

Prior to the arrival of the visitors to our shores, we, the Mi'Kmaq First Nation, had our own traditional form of government, laws and education that were totally different from the laws that were imposed upon us by the visitors to our territory.

Our philosophy and spirituality has always been one where man was not dominant over the creation of other life forms, which we shared this territory with. It was always our belief and still is our belief that the Creator had placed the Mi'Kmaq people as caretakers of Mother Earth. Somewhere in the past hundreds of years the majority of the indigenous people, perhaps because of the influence of the non-natives to our territory, became parasites of Mother Earth, thus destroying her natural bounty.

The resurrection of our traditional values and codes of conduct, that our elders reintroduced to this generation, has reawakened the true Mi'Kmaq Spirit and spiritual connection to Mother Earth and the Creator. We in Mi'Kmaq territory continue on a daily basis to create solidarity with other nations in North America. We continue to create unity among all First Nations people with the common belief that the true philosophy of our grandfathers is the answer to save or to slow down the environmental destruction that is plaguing all of mankind.

It is my firm belief, that we of this generation have no hope of solving the environmental deterioration that is ongoing as we speak. However, I also have firm convictions that we of this generation may be able to slow down the destruction of our Mother Earth enough so that the next generation that will be replacing our leaders will find the solutions and the cure for Mother Earth.

If we fail to do so Mother Earth will cleanse herself of the offending organism that is killing her. This is our teachings.

The destruction of any mountain, river or forest is horrifying to all of us whether it be the Hebrides in Scotland, the Shetland Islands or an oil spill in Alaska or the destruction of the Sacred Mountain in Nova Scotia. It is no longer tolerable to pretend or ignore these assaults. Your mountain, your shorelines, your rivers and your air are just as much mine and my grandchildren's as ours are yours. To say that I am concerned about the proposed destruction in your territory, is to say that I am concerned about the destruction at home in North America.

It is my duty and my responsibility to the creator and all life that I must get involved... I will be grateful and honoured to assist in your battle to protect Mother Earth. For if I can assist you in your battle for the protection of land which should be shown reverence because the work of the Creator is sacred, then I am assisting my grandchildren who must take over my position once I have entered the Spirit World.

Alastair McIntosh has directed the M.Sc. degree course in human ecology at Edinburgh University's "Centre for Human Ecology" for the past six years. The Centre closes this year.
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