Ecological Transformation
of the South

U.S. Environmental History

European Colonies and the Land

ˇ   Bounding the land: property & fences

ˇ   Getting rid of trees

ˇ   Cutting valuable timber

ˇ   Slash, burn, exhaust

ˇ   Cattle: effects on soil and grass

ˇ   Declining soil fertility

ˇ   Frontier economics: land cheap, labor dear

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   European impressions: “Eden”

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Old soils

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Warm, moist climate

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Great biodiversity

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Upland soils quickly exhausted

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Rich bottomland soils

The Southern ecosystem

ˇ   Perfect climate for disease, especially African

ˇ   Malaria

ˇ   Yellow fever

ˇ   Hookworm

Virginia Company, 1607

ˇ   Business venture

ˇ   Climate confusion

ˇ   Hybridization of tobacco

Southern farms and plantations

ˇ   Tobacco & corn

ˇ   Pigs and cattle

ˇ   Clear, plant, exhaust, abandon

ˇ   Shallow plowing + heavy rains = erosion


South Carolina: Rice colony

ˇ   Conversion of marshlands into rice fields

ˇ   Mosquito problem

ˇ   Malaria and yellow fever

ˇ   Effect on labor supply

ˇ   Importation of Africans

ˇ   Black majority in South Carolina

ˇ   Separation of the races

ˇ   Whites in uplands or summer in Charleston



The “Cotton Rush,” 1815-1840

ˇ   Driven by industrialization & invention

ˇ   Rise of textile mills

ˇ   Cotton gin

ˇ   Late removal of Indians

ˇ   Plantations on rich lands

ˇ   Exhaust land, move west

ˇ   Eastern states’ poor condition




The Land of Cotton


ˇ   Postslavery: tenantry and sharecropping

ˇ   Overproduction and poverty

ˇ   Boll weevil dethrones King Cotton at last in 20th century

Widespread erosion by 20th century

Reforming Southern agriculture

ˇ   Mainly prominent planters

ˇ   Thomas Jefferson: scientific soil conservation

ˇ   Edmund Ruffin: soil & slavery

ˇ   Guano craze, 1850s

ˇ   Failure of reform

ˇ   Continuous opening up of new, rich, cheap land

ˇ   Profit concerns: labor spent on conservation taken away from cotton

ˇ   Plantations: America’s first agribusiness

Southern culture & politics

ˇ   Society based on commodity agriculture

ˇ   Scattered, rural population, without a civic culture

ˇ   Wealth based on exploitation of land and labor

ˇ   Individualistic and competitive

ˇ   Frontier conditions slow to disappear: Violence, illiteracy

ˇ   Slaveowners wanted no govt. interference, low taxes

ˇ   Goal: Protect power and profits

ˇ   Control government to protect their interests

ˇ  Constitution prohibits taxing Southern wealth, extends Southern political clout

ˇ   Thomas Jefferson & Andrew Jackson: champions of “freedom”




Small government, low taxes

ˇ   Greatest gap between rich and poor

ˇ   Conservative and least innovative

ˇ   Most violent

ˇ   Worst human rights record

ˇ   Least education (and most illiteracy)

ˇ   Fewest public amenities

ˇ   Parks, libraries, etc.

ˇ   Weak social services

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Weak environmental movement

ˇ   Weak environmental regulations

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Clearcutting hardwood, longleaf pine, cypress

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Oil and gas damage to land, coastline, Gulf of Mexico

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Urban sprawl and loose zoning laws

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Louisiana’s “Chemical Corridor” (a.k.a. “Cancer Alley”)

Environmental legacies

ˇ   Rise of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations

ˇ   Feedlots for cattle; huge hog farms; chicken and turkey

ˇ   Animal misery

ˇ   The problem of antibiotics

ˇ   Environmental issue: massive amounts of animal waste


Environmental legacies

ˇ   Mountaintop removal