Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hitting the Wall

I am in the process of reading Wayne Flynt’s book, Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites. Flynt is a historian (professor emeritus, Auburn University) who offers an honest and sympathetic portrayal of a group of people who were isolated from the mainstream of Southern society. One can find stereotypes of the South’s poor whites in popular culture where they are written off as hillbillies and rednecks, but Flynt brings the thorough scholarship of an historical eye along with a compassionate understanding of the people he writes about.

Much of what I am reading shows me how so much in my southern homeland has been repeated from the days of the early settlers down to the present day. In the opening chapter, “The Invisible Poor: Toward a Definition of Southern Poor Whites,” Flynt describes the plight of downward mobility for the poor whites. There were many causes that contributed to this, but one had to do with land distribution. As the frontier of the South was opened up, the abundance of natural resources led to wasteful methods of agriculture. It was cheaper for the wealthy land owners to buy new land to cultivate than it was to care for the land they had. As a result, planters moved on to new lands and left the depleted, less productive land to the poor white settlers. They maximized their personal profits rather than caring for the land.

Is this not what we continue to do in our nation? Are not environmentalists and conservationists vilified by the moneyed corporations who have no intention of using their capital on any long range environmental planning? Do politicians not scorn the implementation of legislation that would protect our resources because it is too expensive and will cost jobs?

Just as did the early plantation owners, our corporate bosses today continue to use up resources like there is no tomorrow. We have a national attitude that resources are ours to be used up. (This is one reason I do not like the term Human Resources which is the common corporate designation for its personnel – is the underlying intention to treat “human” resources in the same way we have treated our natural resources? Use them up until they are depleted?)

It is not dark yet, however. We do have in this country a significant community of people who are speaking out for a more responsible approach toward industry and environment. There are organizations that promote protection of wild life and natural lands. Other organizations advocate for green energy sources and business practices. There are people asking the same questions that the Native Americans asked when they made community decisions – how will this affect the next seven generations?

What I fear is that as a society, we will have to hit the wall before truly effective, large-scale changes are made. As long as the oil companies continue to make record profits, where is the incentive to find alternative energy sources? As long as we can live our comfortable lives, how many will really be interested in making the necessary changes to avoid hitting that wall? The truth is, we no longer have the seemingly endless frontier of resources to plunder, as did our ancestors. There will come a point at which we must face the crucial questions of sustainability.

Will we make the turn, or will we hit the wall?


Dixie’s Forgotten People: The South’s Poor Whites, by Wayne Flynt, is published by Indiana University Press. First printed in 1979, the new edition was released in 2004.

For a truly insightful examination of the South's poor whites, check out Rich Bragg's memoir, All Over but the Shoutin'. My blog post, Southern Nights and Stereotypes is about Bragg's memoir.


A short and incomplete list of environmentally conscious organizations:

The Nature Conservancy
World Wide Fund for Nature
National Audubon Society
Greenpeace International
The Sierra Club
National Wildlife Federation
World Resources Institute

Find a longer list here, or do a web search for a multitude of sites



  1. Charlie, this is super fantastic. Maybe because you wrote it at 3 AM. Good thoughts always come to us early in the morning. Let's include these thoughts in the next Oasis with instructions about how the readers can access and follow your blog. I will post today my column on Dawn on my blog. It explains my thinking about early morning thoughts. Keep thinking and posting my friend.

  2. Sounds like a good and important work. I've read other things by Flynt and liked his work.

  3. Charlie, and incredible post. I wrote a long reply but the blog software swallowed it and sent it to the bit dump. I don't have the energy to recreate it. I'll just say you are so on target. E.O. Wilson has speculated that homo sapiens may well be suicidal. I think he has a point.


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