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Guest PostsSustainability Writing Contest

Sustaining Our Southern Roots

By April 4, 2024April 6th, 2024No Comments

By Luke Perko*

River with green water surrounded by green trees

The Duck River during the summer
Photo credit: Sam Duffy

Growing up in Tennessee, the summers were hot and humid. You would find my friends and I swimming in the Duck River. Despite its nickname – the “Dirty Duck” – we cooled off in its brown murky waters. The nickname was for good reason as chemicals from past phosphorus mining and current sewage pollution affected the river. Even knowing this, we continued to swim in the river, and our community even relied on it for drinking water. Generations had used it before us, why should we have stopped swimming in it? Even as a kid, I personally had to deal with the effects of when sustainability wasn’t prioritized – like many others in the Deep South. 

Sustainability in the Deep South will require us to recognize how even the smallest mistakes can affect the environment in the biggest ways. From the wetlands of Louisiana and Alabama, to the Appalachians in Georgia and Tennessee, we must have a holistic approach that recognizes nature, society, wellbeing, and the economy all have cause and effect relationships related to sustainability. If we find ourselves focusing on one instead of all together, we risk environmental destruction for future generations.  

River surrounded by trees at dusk

The Duck River at dusk, taken on the Craig Bridge
Photo credit: Luke Perko

The first inhabitants of the Deep South who had a true holistic approach to sustainability were the Native Americans. Before they were run out because of the European ideals of “manifest destiny”, Native Americans thrived on the land and lived in harmony with it. Natural resources – like animals, crops and water – were their currency, and the wellbeing of their communities depended on these resources. Today, you can find evidence of their coexistence with the land. There are ancient burial grounds scattered across the Southern states, and arrowheads hidden in our rivers and creeks. You’ll also come to find that many of the street and city names in your state come from Native American tribes, names, or sayings. We should use these as reminders on how we can approach sustainability. 

Waterways play a pivotal role in achieving sustainability throughout the Deep South. The biggest cities and metro areas are supported by waterways. Atlanta has the Chattahoochee, Nashville has the Cumberland, and Montgomery has the Alabama. Every major city is built either on or near a river; it isn’t a coincidence. Wherever there is water, there is life. Even small towns and communities rely on creeks and rivers, underplaying the important role it has in our daily lives. These waterways need to be protected; as they are an invaluable asset to us. 

chemical runoff flowing down rocks and into a river

Chemical runoff flowing into the Duck River
Photo Credit: Sam Duffy

Farming has historically been an integral part to the region’s success. The land is fertile and ideal for many crops like cotton, tobacco, corn, and soybeans.  Pre Civil War, plantation owners used slavery as a means of expanding their wealth. The beautiful mansions surrounded by vast fields come as a dark reminder of our past that we cannot forget. Sustainability would never come as a means of subjecting other people into hard labor and treating them like animals. Nowadays, the tides have turned. Farmers work hard to cultivate the land and make a living. These underappreciated workers are the backbone of our country, and teaching future generations healthy agricultural practices will help enhance sustainability. 

In my lifetime, I’ve been around both urban and rural communities. My dad worked in Nashville, while we lived in a small town. It doesn’t take long to reach an unincorporated community from my home. I’ve seen how urbanization can help by providing jobs and a living for people, but I’ve seen the negative ways it can impact the environment as well. Farmland is evaporating and being lost to development. If things don’t change, we could lose our ability to produce enough food for our communities. I’ve seen it firsthand, as more people are moving to Tennessee. In Spring Hill, a neighboring town, I have seen an entire road of farms become a row of factories. This rapid urbanization that is occurring is threatening the balance of the four components of the sustainability compass. Getting rid of farmland threatens the stability of the ecosystem and our communities’ food security. 

Chemical runoff flowing down rocks and into a river

Chemical runoff flowing into the Duck River
Photo credit: Sam Duffy

When we talk about development and urbanization, we must not forget to include sustainability with it. There will continue to be more people on this earth, who will need more housing and buildings to support them. Yet, once we demolish our natural resources in order to accompany these growing needs, we cannot get them back. We can’t overlook sustainability in pursuit of wealth and luxury. Instead, we have to find a way for urbanization and sustainability to coexist in order for the Deep South’s future to be a prosperous one: in order for our future generations to be set up for success.  

Recently, the Duck River has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in my community. Citizens of my town rejected a proposed 1300 acre landfill by using their voice and vote. State representatives turned 30 miles of the river into a Class II river. These thirty miles were where the landfill would have been, and this new designation stopped any chance it ever had legally of being built. These thirty miles were where I grew up – swimming, kayaking, and skipping rocks.  

Young man standing near a river holding a smallmouth bass he just caught fishing

My friend Sam Duffy showing off his catch, a smallmouth bass

The Duck River is an excellent example of how we can create change in our communities. Although people – like the landfill developers – will try to take advantage of an opportunity for their economic prosperity, sustainability in the Deep South will thrive if we don’t turn a blind eye to what is happening around us.  

Sustainability in the Deep South will require us to not choose between nature and society, or between our own well-being and the economy’s well-being, but instead intertwine them all. In order to preserve and protect our natural resources, we must understand the permanent consequences of our actions. We must understand the good and the bad effects development and urbanization has on our land and waterways, and find a reasonable balance between the growth of a community and the protection of our natural resources.

*Luke is a Junior at Auburn University studying Business Administration