- The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South by William D. Bryan
In The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South, William D. Bryan reappraises the relationship between economics and the environment in the region from the end of the Civil War to the New Deal, emphasizing the contested and often overlooked goal of “permanence” as an engine of change (p. xv). Exploring the different approaches that southerners took to conserve resources for their long-term use, this well-researched work moves beyond stereotypical images of rapacious, short-sighted developers willing to pay any ecological cost in pursuit of economic growth to a more nuanced account. In the process, Bryan makes a significant contribution to both environmental and southern history. [End Page 193]
After a preface that lays out the book’s argument, that debates over how to achieve economic and environmental permanence shaped development in the New South, and situates the work in the historiography, the book is organized in thematic sections. Chapter 1, “Nature’s Bounty,” argues that southern promoters viewed economic development and the maintenance of abundant stocks of resources for long-term use as mutually beneficial goals, rather than competing impulses, believing that “[e]nvironmental permanence meant permanent profits” (p. 2). In industries from manufacturing to agriculture, Bryan provides evidence to sustain his contention that conservation, far from being “antithetical to the New South Creed,” was actually “a key part of it” (p. 24).
The next chapter, “Cultivating Permanence,” explores efforts to promote the long-term viability of southern agriculture. Reformers championed a variety of crops and cultivation techniques, ranging from the practical to the fanciful, but none had a widely transformative effect on the dominant staple crop regimes. Commercial fertilizers, however, emerged as a key innovation, “purchased permanence” that immediately increased yields while promising perpetual cultivation (p. 66). Bryan argues that the relative ease of adding commercial fertilizers to existing practices, compared with the difficulty of adopting new crops, helps explain the persistence of cash crop dependence. Throughout the book, the tendency to choose the easiest option that promised permanence emerges as an important theme unifying New South approaches to conservation.
Similar patterns characterized the industries that “promised conservation through development,” described in chapter 3, “Utilizing Southern Wastes” (p. 95). Pulp and paper manufacturers that transformed wood chips into valuable products exemplified the strategy of utilizing previously wasted resources, but the trend also encompassed rationalizing mineral extraction, chemical products like rayon, and the furniture industry. Yet, as Bryan notes, the southern waste industries’ view of environmental permanence as “simply . . . maintaining stocks of profitable resources” contributed to a host of growing ecological problems (p. 110).
These problems are at the heart of “The Costs of Permanence,” a valuable chapter that uses water as a lens to view the effects of industrial pollution. While local protests or lawsuits sometimes improved access to drinking water or mitigated the most egregious pollution, they never challenged the fundamental logic of development. The costs, including polluted water, chemical waste, flooding, and waterborne diseases, fell most heavily on those with the least power, particularly black southerners barred from the legal system. The higher price imposed on black southerners, who were also least likely to benefit from permanence, stands out as another central theme in the book, from the ways black labor was naturalized as a feature of regional abundance to the exclusion of African Americans from white tourist facilities.
Finally, “Tourism’s New Path” explores “how tourism’s perceived environmental footprint” led boosters to cast tourism as “the quintessential permanent industry” (p. 143). With the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a prominent exception, the account emphasizes the private status of most tourist development as a distinguishing feature of the region, characterizing operations from health and golf resorts to massive hunting reserves. As Bryan notes, this characteristic typified the small role that government played in New South [End Page 194] conservation generally, as...