Southern capitalists of the postbellum era have been called many things, but never conservationists. Until now. Environmental historian William D. Bryan has written a brilliantly disorienting reassessment of the South’s economic development in the period between the Civil War and the Great Depression. In The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South (University of Georgia Press, 2018), Bryan finds that in all corners of the region’s 800,000 square miles debates about reconstructing the South’s economy focused on how industries could derive profits from its natural resources in perpetuity. Boosters imagined a New South that would not exhaust its soils, denude its forests, empty its mines, or squander the potential of underappreciated resources. They spoke the language of conservation as enthusiastically as Teddy Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, but the South’s new, “permanent” economy was to be constructed by private interests alone—a pursuit animated in part by the specter of federal intervention if they were to fail. Bryan shows that this concern with permanence helps explain many of the era’s signature developments, such as the widespread adoption of fertilizer, the rapid development of the tourism sector, and the appearance of all manner of “waste” industries, from cottonseed to cement. But this more careful stewardship of resources came at great social and environmental costs. Agriculture remained a low-wage, labor-intensive sector, and new industries were no better. For boosters, this was a feature, not a bug. A permanent economy would maintain not only resource stocks but also white supremacy and the power of elites. And ensuring the persistence of natural resources was no safeguard of environmental quality. Many of the new enterprises that succeeded in sustaining their resource base, like the paper industry, exacted the greatest toll on southern air, waters, and bodies. Bryan has not only given us a more convincing, nuanced, and unified account of the New South, he also offers a cautionary tale of the dangers of a politics of sustainability too narrowly shaped around profits and growth.
William D. Bryan is an environmental historian based in Atlanta.
Brian Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison where he is researching African American environmental history in the nineteenth-century Cotton South. He is also an editor of the digital environmental magazine and podcast Edge Effects.