"Nature's Bounty": Competing Visions of Economic Development in the New South

Saturday, January 5, 2013: 2:30 PM
Southdown Room (Sheraton New Orleans)
William D. Bryan, Pennsylvania State University
In the decades after the American Civil War, many Southerners sought to create a “New South” to replace their antebellum plantation economy. Their task—to completely reimagine the economic structure of an entire region—was unprecedented, and there were many ideas about how the region’s supposed “matchless resources” should be used in order to realize prosperity. Although most scholars focus on the South’s unsustainable use of resources, this was never the vision most Southerners had for their homeland. Southern development came at a time when the nation was beginning to make conservation of natural resources a priority, and this was an issue that the region could not ignore. Southerners weighed which resources should be developed or conserved, whether conservation inhibited business, what types of enterprises were best suited for the South, and how to implement such policies in a place where most of the land was privately owned and few people had the means to enact far-reaching change. Southerners had different answers for these questions, and discussions of economic development brought many people—planters, merchants, industrialists, railroad officials, politicians, journalists, tourists, financiers, and sharecroppers among others—into conflict over the stewardship of the region’s resources. Because much of the capital for Southern rebuilding came from financiers outside of the region, Southerners also struggled with outsiders over who would control plans for economic development, while dealing with other powerful special interests often favoring more exploitative uses of resources. This paper provides an overview of the kinds of conflicts that Southerners had regarding the best way to use nature in a developing economy, and how these conflicts shaped the broad arc of Southern economic development.
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