Published by EH.Net (February 2020)

William D. Bryan, The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2018. xxiii + 226 pp. $55 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-8203-5339-5.

Reviewed for EH.Net by James R. Irwin, Department of Economics, Central Michigan University.

The Price of Permanence is a nicely-written and well-documented exploration of boosterism in the New South. Highlighting issues of conservation and natural resource management, the book is part of the University of Georgia Press’s series, “Environmental History and the American South.” An environmental historian in Atlanta, Bryan uses the notion of “permanence” to organize his discussion, arguing that New South “boosters supported national conservation measures and embraced a philosophy of conservation … hoping that a permanent economy would make the region independently prosperous” (p. xvii). Bryan offers to correct the history of the New South and move “beyond persistent caricatures of business leaders and public officials as so desperate for economic growth that they had little concern for the environment” — a “simplistic take on southern boosters” which Bryan attributes to C. Van Woodward (p. xvi).

Chapter 1, “Nature’s Bounty,” presents Bryan’s interpretation of New South boosterism for natural-resource-based business development. He explains (p. 3) that “conservation was never antithetical to the New South mantra of economic development. It was a key part of this creed.” Bryan locates the New South within the “mainstream conservation movement,” by taking seriously the boosterism which promoted “permanent development” based on “maintaining stocks of profitable natural resources that could be used indefinitely” (p. 32). The chapter points to the challenges of rebuilding the South’s society and economy on a free-labor basis, using quotations from a range of boosters and drawing on historians of the New South — but without attention to economic history research and evidence. Bryan focuses on two interrelated themes in the advocacy of public officials and business leaders: first, that the region’s abundant natural resources could be the basis for prosperity in the New South; second, that natural resource exploitation should be guided by conservation principles (Bryan’s notion of “permanence”). While emphasizing speeches and writings of boosters, Chapter 1 also addresses issues of racial hierarchy and economic inequalities more generally (pp. 7-10, 29-32), suggesting that “conservation was intertwined with designs for racial mastery” (p. 31).

Chapter 2, “Cultivating Permanence,” focuses on agriculture, exploring how notions of permanence figured in debates over agricultural reform and land use. Bryan describes and discusses advocacy for diversification away from cotton, as well as debates over competing approaches to maintaining or restoring soil fertility. Many reformers pushed for a shift away from “staple crop monoculture,” advocating various forms of diversification. Others defended staple crop production, but both sides of the debate addressed the implications for soil fertility, and accepted the goal of permanent (long-term) cultivation. Bryan highlights advocacy for diversification as a basis for permanent agriculture, but he finds that southern farmers settled on commercial fertilizers as a “purchased form of permanence” (p. 66). Fertilizer use enabled farmers to “continuously cultivate the soils” without diversifying away from “staple crop monoculture.”

Chapter 3, “Utilizing Southern Wastes,” looks at some largely unsuccessful efforts to find permanent development opportunities, focusing on the South’s forests, with some attention to mineral resources (phosphate mining, carbon black). Bryan explores the growing recognition that extractive industries were inherently impermanent. “As the problems of resource depletion became clear in the early twentieth century, southern businessman, public officials, and boosters all looked for more ‘constructive’ paths of development that would allow for continued economic expansion while easing pressure on the most-used resources” (pp. 77-78). Bryan highlights the short-term extractive nature of the naval stores industry and hardwood lumbering. The chapter describes a variety of attempts to promote more permanent forms of resource exploitation, with a focus on possibilities for finding uses for “waste” resources — such as sawmill waste and small low-quality pines, which became the basis for the southern pulp and paper industry. However, the chapter concludes on a pessimistic note: “waste industries only brought a veneer of permanence to the southern environment” (p. 110).

Chapter 4, “The Costs of Permanence,” shifts focus toward debates and discussion of the environmental costs associated with exploiting the South’s natural resources. Bryan pays considerable attention to debates over competing uses of water. Some debate centered on the health consequences of damming rivers and streams to provide water power for manufacturing and (later) hydroelectric power. Other debates arose over water pollution from industrial wastes and urban sewage. Bryan notes that some wealthier southern whites used the legal system “to get compensation from, or sometime to halt, polluting industries” (p. 126). In contrast, disenfranchisement and segregation left African-Americans particularly vulnerable to the environmental costs of industrial and urban development (pp. 132-33). A more sanguine outcome came from “efforts of public health officials and businessmen to protect drinking water” (p. 135). Bryan explores “how urban development complicated choices about economic development and water resources.” He contrasts the city of Durham’s successful legal campaign to limit industrial and sewage pollution from upstream textile mills to the city of Richmond’s largely unsuccessful efforts to limit pollution of the James River from “upstream pulp mills, iron furnaces and other industries” (p. 139).

Chapter 5, “Tourism’s New Path,” offers a decidedly upbeat appraisal of tourism as a “permanent industry” with “the potential to bring permanent economic growth without environmental cost.” Referring to UNC sociologist Rupert Vance, Bryan points out that “natural beauty and a mild climate could be valuable and renewable resources” (p. 143). The chapter offers an historical sketch of the emergence of tourism as a “stand-alone industry in the twentieth century,” starting with the rise of “health tourism” in the 1870s and 1880s (pp. 145-49). He discusses the importance of the automobile for middle-class tourism, which was also enjoyed by “middle- and upper-class African Americans” — even if “the vast majority of black southerners … could little afford to purchase an automobile or to travel” (p. 156). Bryan covers debates that arose in the context of competing approaches to developing tourist resources, with preservation of natural scenery for tourists emerging as a new value. For example, Bryan offers an interesting account (pp. 159-62) of unsuccessful efforts to prevent the Georgia Power Company from constructing a hydroelectric dam at Georgia’s scenic Tallulah gorge. Opposition was led by Helen Dortch Longstreet, widow of the famous Confederate general. Bryan explains that “the controversy pitted two competing visions of permanence against each other,” with Georgia Power touting both recreational and hydroelectric benefits from damming the gorge. Longstreet’s failed campaign represented a defeat for advocates of natural scenery, but in Bryan’s view, the values of permanence and conservation were affirmed.

The Price of Permanence closes with a brief “Conclusion” (pp. 175-82), which starts with a reminder of various successful examples of “permanent enterprises” that were explored in the previous chapters. These successes saw businesses prosper by exploiting the South’s natural resources without depleting them. Bryan is careful to note that the successes of permanent development were very much “in the eyes of white boosters and businesspeople” (p. 175), especially because permanence served to prop up white supremacy and to perpetuate low-skill labor-intensive production (pp. 177-78). After pointing out that “permanence” failed to solve the problem of Southern poverty, Bryan turns his attention to “the environmental costs” of permanence — “the gullies, the exhausted fields, the dammed rivers, and the air and water pollution that have pockmarked the southern landscape for much of the twentieth century” (p. 178). Here, Bryan points out that boosters and business leaders embraced notions of conservation that focused on long-term exploitation of natural resources, but failed to recognize the effects of extractive industries on environmental quality and ecosystems. In Bryan’s view, environmental degradation “did not occur because New South leaders embraced growth without any thought about the environmental costs,” but because their “version of environmental quality” was too narrow, focused on maintaining “stocks of natural resources” for continuing production (p. 180). Looking beyond the New South, Bryan notes similarities and contrasts between New South notions of permanence and the broader conceptions of environmental quality central to environmentalism since the 1960s. Bryan concludes by relating permanence to current notions of sustainable development, offering both optimistic and pessimistic takes on “the lessons” from his exploration of “the South’s struggle for permanence.”

Aficionados of southern history might enjoy the wide range of personalities and episodes that Bryan covers. But the book is neither intended for, nor suited to, someone looking for historical insights from economic reasoning and evidence (economic historians, for example). Specialists in the economic history of the New South may want to take a look for Bryan’s perspectives on New South boosters. But otherwise I don’t see much of an audience among economic historians for the The Price of Permanence. As an economic historian, I want works informed by economic history research, and by theories and evidence of economic growth, and by concepts from environmental economics (externalities, for example). The Price of Permanence is informed by, and contributes to, historical scholarship whose methods and evidence offer quite a contrast to economic history.

James R. Irwin is Professor of Economics, Central Michigan University. An economic historian, his current research, joint with C. L. McDevitt, uses deed records to document under-reporting of illiteracy in the decennial censuses of the U.S. from 1850 to 1880.

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