Environmental Permanence in New South Atlanta: An Interview with William D. Bryan

Environmental Permanence in New South Atlanta:

An Interview with William D. Bryan 

Adam P. Newman, Emory University 

Atlanta Studies sat down with William D. Bryan to discuss his new book The Price of Permanence: Nature and Business in the New South (University of Georgia Press, 2018), which provides a sweeping reinterpretation of the post–Civil War South by proposing that a struggle over environmental stewardship was central to the New South’s development. Our conversation touched on a range of issues around the South’s – and specifically Atlanta’s – historic relationship to the environment, from the distinctly capitalist and racial dimensions of early twentieth-century southern conservationist efforts to the city’s relationship to tourism and conservation, and finally the lessons such histories might hold for Atlanta in its contemporary sustainability pursuits.

You begin your new book with the story of the Atlanta banker Robert Lowry and his 1913 editorial in the Atlanta Constitution in which he opines that “the natural resources of this wonderful section, in which our thriving city of Atlanta is located, can be turned into permanent productive sources of wealth for this and all future generations.” And you later note more generally that the Constitution under Henry Grady “was one of the region’s leading publications disseminating information on ways to bring about conservation and resource permanence” (25). But aside from such comments, your book mostly deals with the South more generally. Where does Atlanta fit into the historical narrative of the New South’s conflicts over environmental conservation and economic development? And what is this concept of “permanence”?

The idea of environmental “permanence” became popular as southerners worked to recover from the destruction of the Civil War. At that time, white southern leaders had embarked on an unprecedented effort to build a “New South” based on industrialization and urban growth, but they also worried that this path was depleting valuable natural resources like soil, timber, and minerals too quickly. So groups of southern boosters, businesspeople, and public officials advocated for more sustainable ways (as we would term it today) of using these resources. They hoped that slowing or eventually even halting the decline of valuable natural resources would put the region on the path of long-term economic growth and would also keep federal officials from telling southerners how they could use their land, water, and other resources. They called this idea “permanence,” and the logic of it seemed simple: an industry could be permanent if it conserved natural resources for long-term use instead of exploiting them to depletion. “Permanent” enterprises quickly became the ideal for officials working to rebuild the region’s economy in a way that would endure.

To make their operations permanent in the face of declining stocks of resources, business leaders in industries from agriculture to tourism streamlined their processes to operate more efficiently. Researchers identified ways to prolong available resources by discovering more efficient market uses for existing raw materials and by developing ways to use resources that had previously been wasted, giving rise to entirely new industries in the region. Public officials and municipal leaders even used permanence as the gold standard for economic development by offering incentives to industries that conserved resources to convince them to locate in the South, ensuring that the region’s development favored permanent enterprises. As I discuss in the book, these efforts were often successful. But they also intensified resource use generally, kept the South mired in a raw material economy based on manual labor, and led to problems like air and water pollution – problems that fell most heavily on the groups who could least afford it.

Although the enthusiasm for permanence spanned the entire region, Atlanta played a key role. The city’s business leaders were some of the loudest voices advocating the need for conserving natural resources that were valuable for business. City boosters and businesspeople like Robert Lowry built on the legacy of Henry Grady, who had promoted the efficient development of southern resources immediately following the Civil War. Grady’s leadership of the Atlanta Constitution gave the city an effective mouthpiece that spanned the South. Even after Grady’s death the Constitution remained the leading publication promoting conservation to southerners until well into the twentieth century.  Boosters followed Grady’s lead as they hoped to attract outside investment to the city and the region, and they were leery of federal or state regulation of natural resources. They saw the possibility of permanent economic growth through the private conservation of natural resources as a valuable selling point for future investment in the South, which could further boost Atlanta’s economy in the long term and line their own pockets.

As a result, the business community in Atlanta became a strong supporter of any opportunity that could help to spread the ideal of environmental permanence and corporate conservation throughout the region. In 1910, for instance, Atlanta businessmen hosted a regional conference that was focused on conservation strategies for the South, and brought notables like Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot – the first chief of the US Forest Service – to the city to speak to the five hundred businesspeople who attended. Atlanta businesspeople also provided support for the 1913 Conservation Exposition in Knoxville, the first national fair dedicated to conservation, to publicize the need to wisely use the region’s remaining natural resources. These and other examples made Atlanta into a leading supporter of environmental permanence through the conservation of valuable corporate resources – not just for the city, but for the South as a whole.

At various points in your book you discuss the racialized dimensions of the historical push for environmental conservation – on the “prices” of permanence – and you argue that “conservation was intertwined with designs for racial mastery” (31). One example you give of such racialization is the disproportionate impact of flooding and pollution on African Americans living in low-lying neighborhoods including Atlanta’s Shermantown and Summerhill. Could you say more about the racialized nature of historical environmental conservation efforts specifically in Atlanta?

Environmental permanence was a strategy that was promoted chiefly by elite white boosters, businesspeople, and public officials – the groups who stood to profit most from the long-term continuance of industrial development and urban growth. Their vision of permanence was pretty narrow, and it was always focused on conserving the resources that were most valuable for economic development through private – not federal or state – initiatives. The result of this, of course, was that eliminating problems like pollution and flooding did not fit into the idea of permanence as defined by the region’s white business and political elites. At the same time, these problems fell most heavily on the region’s African American residents, who had limited options for where they could live due to the reality of Jim Crow segregation. As I show in the book, however, black southerners pushed back against these problems and articulated a vision of regional environmental permanence that was more inclusive, less focused on conservation as a strategy to maintain economic growth, and encompassed a broader vision of what environmental quality meant. This vision included the need to maintain a clean and healthy living environment for all communities and anticipated the framing of pollution and public health as issues of environmental justice and civil rights in the second half of the twentieth century.

This struggle over the meaning of environmental permanence occurred throughout the region, especially with the growth of urban areas. Atlanta is a clear example. As the city expanded after the Civil War, African American residents had few choices about where they could live. The neighborhoods they were relegated to, like Shermantown and Summerhill, were located in low-lying areas that were disproportionately affected by flooding as well as by industrial and municipal wastes. As city boosters expanded Atlanta’s commercial and industrial footprint – often by touting the environmental permanence of the city’s new industries and offering incentives to supposedly permanent enterprises to locate there – the flooding and pollution that resulted from these new industries directly affected residents in these and other black neighborhoods. Even after the city built its first sewerage system and began piping water from the Chattahoochee River in the late nineteenth century, this infrastructure bypassed many of the city’s predominately black neighborhoods in order to provide service to white Atlantans. In fact, between 1880 and 1890 water-borne disease killed more Atlantans than any other affliction, and black residents were particularly susceptible.

Municipal leaders in Atlanta subsequently tried to justify the disparity in access to public utilities and clean water by blaming African Americans for the health problems plaguing the city. They falsely argued that diseases like cholera and tuberculosis were not a function of the poor living conditions available to African Americans in the segregated South, but to racial characteristics that made them more susceptible to these diseases. Atlanta’s white leaders even sought to limit the mobility of black women who served as domestic workers in an attempt to halt the spread of diseases like tuberculosis and to maintain Jim Crow.

As in other places, Atlanta’s black leaders fought back against such racist characterizations of the root of these diseases. Black elites in Atlanta cast urban health problems as a crisis of conservation not of resources, but of human life, though they lacked the political power to translate their proposed solutions into policy. African American residents of Atlanta continued (and continue) to face pollution, flooding, and threats to public health that were rarely addressed during the New South era.

In chapter 5, “Tourism’s New Path,” you analyze tourism’s place in the political economy of the New South as a “permanent industry.” Given Atlanta’s particular history as a tourist site, how does the city fit into your framework as a site people from outside the South visit. I am also curious how you would relate Atlanta to other southern sites for environmentally-oriented tourism, such as Tallulah Gorge, where you note in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, “tourists could escape Atlanta to relax, enjoy the unique scenery, or take the waters” (159).

The fate of tourism in Atlanta during the New South era shows trends that were common to the region as a whole. Before tourism proved that it could be a profitable stand-alone industry, boosters saw it mainly as a way to convince potential investors to spend their cash on southern development. So businesspeople and public officials called attention to urban, industrial, and agricultural sites (not just the standard tourist traps) that demonstrated the South’s supposed progress in rebuilding after the Civil War – all with the hope of convincing wealthy tourists from outside the South to invest in the region after seeing it for themselves.

No city epitomized this better than Atlanta. As the city grew rapidly after 1865, municipal officials boasted that Atlanta offered tourists the opportunity to witness something truly unique: an entire metropolitan region pulling itself out of the ruins of the Civil War (a spirit captured in Atlanta’s very motto: “resurgens”). Civic leaders arranged tours of Atlanta for out-of-towners that called attention to the city’s infrastructure, industries, and possibilities. In Atlanta more than just about anywhere else, this tourism was a means to an end: a way to attract outside investment in the city by assuring tourists (who were potential investors) that they could make a quick profit.

By the twentieth century, however, regional promoters had started to realize that tourism was more than just a means to attract investment: it could be a profitable industry of its own. Southern boosters and businesspeople argued that tourism was actually the most permanent industry of all – an industry that could draw on underutilized renewable natural resources like climate and scenery to continually attract visitors to the region. This changed the role of tourism in cities like Atlanta and led to increased interest in “natural” sites that offered a respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It also led to sustained movements to preserve the natural elements that drew tourists to those places. Perhaps the best example was the unsuccessful crusade by Helen Longstreet in the early twentieth century to preserve Tallulah Gorge – a popular tourist site for Atlanta residents and tourists traveling through the city – and to keep it from being dammed by Georgia Power. Longstreet hoped to make Tallulah Gorge the scene of a perpetually profitable tourist industry, and her effort to preserve scenic elements of the landscape were mirrored in struggles on Georgia’s coast and on game preserves scattered throughout the state. Ultimately, the belief that tourism could be a permanent industry not only set off intense conflicts over the best uses of Georgia’s natural environment, but also laid the groundwork for tourism’s rapid expansion in the region after World War II.

Tallulah Gorge waterfall, 1994. Photo by Marlene Karas. AJCP582-027g, ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION PHOTOGRAPHIC ARCHIVES. SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES, GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY. COPYRIGHT ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION. COURTESY GEORGIA STATE UNIVERSITY.

Your book focuses on the post–Civil War environmental and economic transformation of the South, but do you see contemporary resonances of such histories in Atlanta, especially given the city’s recent embrace of environmental goals like 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and the groundswell of support for new greenspaces like the Beltline and the proposed Westside Park? What lessons might today’s initiatives take from our city’s and the South’s past engagements with the intertwining issues of environmental conservation and economic development?

When I started this project, I certainly didn’t expect that I would end up writing about sustainability. Yet I came to see that the belief that there could be permanent uses of natural resources mimics contemporary visions for sustainability. In fact, the story of permanence in the South is the story of one of the earliest attempts at implementing sustainable development in the United States, and reflecting on the successes and failures of this effort can teach us a lot about the social and environmental aspects of sustainability today.

Atlanta’s recent progress on sustainability certainly sets the city apart from much of the region, and the city’s business community has often been integral to planning and driving those sustainability initiatives. The history of the South’s struggle for environmental permanence shows that such public-private partnerships are really nothing new, and the region’s past might provide some optimism that businesses in Atlanta and elsewhere can and will in fact make aspects of their operations greener.

Yet the experience of the post–Civil War South is also a cautionary tale. Despite decades of work, southern states were ultimately never able to head off their most pressing environmental problems. Moreover, the narrow definition of permanence championed by southern boosters, businesspeople, and public officials often even exacerbated these problems by intensifying the use of resources generally, by ignoring issues like pollution and flooding that did not fit into corporate profit calculations, and by putting decisions about land use and conservation into the hands of the region’s white business and political elite while cutting off access to these resources for many southerners. By making this narrow conception of permanence their goal, southern business leaders found a strategy that did not require them to radically rethink their relationship to the South’s landscape and people, with dire consequences for both.

This history suggests that we need to be careful not to see sustainability simply as a way to cope with environmental limits while maintaining economic growth. Businesses will have to play a key role in addressing today’s environmental crises, and they have demonstrated a willingness to do so in places like Atlanta. But the South’s history indicates that this effort cannot be successful as long as sustainability’s environmental initiatives are closely tied to calculations of profit and growth. Unless we conceive of environmental quality in the broadest possible terms, then, and unless we are open to fundamentally rethinking the relationship between business and the environment, the South’s struggle with permanence suggests that we will likely have little success in solving our most pressing environmental problems.

Similar Publications
  • BELLWOOD QUARRY: A NEW WATER PROJECT WITH AN OLD SALES PITCH

  • RECREATIONAL INFRASTRUCTURE: USING THE QUARRY LAKE FOR LEISURE

  • BOOK REVIEW: THE GEORGIA PEACH