Nature is for everyone, and Jackson has an abundance of it.
But while ski bums come to ski and mountaineers come to climb and immigrants come to work, many wealthy people move here to sidestep income taxes.
The United States’ income equality has decreased since the 1980s, and there is no place in the country that sees a wider disparity between the uber-rich and the poor than Teton County.
For the past five years Wyoming native and Yale sociology professor Justin Farrell has been studying the connection between Teton County’s extraordinary wealth gap and the place itself, its natural surroundings. Farrell will share his research, which he is publishing in an upcoming book, “Billionaire Wilderness: Ultra-Wealth, Inequality and Environment,” at a free talk sponsored by Teton County Library Feb. 13 at the Pink Garter Theatre.
Farrell spoke at Jonathan Schechter’s 22 in 21 event on philanthropy last spring.
The talk is the inaugural event for Teton County Library’s Power Trip series, which highlights “the different and shapeshifting manifestations of power from racism to sexism to income inequality to you name it,” adult program coordinator Leah Shlachter said.
“We want to understand and dissect power from every angle, and we are partnering with several other organizations on certain topics,” she said.
Farrell’s talk, which kicks off the series, deals with issues that Jackson residents grapple with every day. Jackson residents “need new lenses from which to understand how all the factors are related,” Shlachter said.
Social class vs. ski class
Farrell grew up in Cheyenne, but his grandfather lived in Teton Valley, Idaho. He has been visiting the Teton area since childhood.
“There were always these snide remarks about Jackson and how it’s changing and growing,” he said, “and that had to with the types of recreation that the people in Jackson like to do.”
Folks like Farrell and his family couldn’t afford to ski, he said, but they would hunt and snowmobile.
“So I saw these cultural clashes that were really at root about social class and how social class influences how we use nature,” he said.
Farrell first explored the connection between nature, environmentalism, politics and social class in his 2015 book, “The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict,” which uncovers the complicated history of conservation and influence in the world’s first national park.
“There’s a history, especially in the national parks, of using environmental values and using environmental science to dominate another social group and to take resources, whether those are cultural resources or natural resources,” Farrell said.
That, of course, happened for generations to the tribes that lived in the greater Yellowstone area, other national parks and the rest of North America.
“This colonialist expansion also had an environmental component,” he said.
A view of the ‘Billionaire Wilderness’
For his new book, Farrell spent five years conducting over 200 interviews with Teton County’s wealthiest and most impoverished citizens, primarily focusing on the former, a segment of the population that he said has been largely understudied.
“The tendency among social scientists has been to write books … [that] document cases of extreme inequality rather than extreme social advantage,” Farrell writes in the introduction to “Billionaire Wilderness.”
Farrell, instead, chose to highlight the experiences of the ultra-wealthy because they are often overlooked in research despite their enormous social, political, economic — and environmental — influence. He’s careful to emphasize, however, that the book is not an attack on the wealthy.
“It’s really saying, ‘Here’s what’s going on. Here’s how this group of people think about nature. Here’s how they think about philanthropy. And here’s how they think about community,’” he said. “They tend to romanticize these things, but oftentimes it doesn’t play out very well for folks who are struggling to make ends meet.”
Farrell’s research is multifaceted. On one hand, he takes a qualitative sociological approach to studying the wealthy’s ideas of the West: How do they try to find an “authentic” life in the West? Do they feel guilty about their wealth? Who do they give to and why? Why do they love the rural poor? Why do they love Levi’s jeans?
The flow of big money
He also takes a look at where money and social influence flows in Teton County.
“I have a couple chapters that document where the money is going, but also where social influences flow as well,” he said. “And most of it goes to organizations that serve the wealthy, or it goes to environmental organizations like the [Jackson Hole] Land Trust.”
Farrell supports conservation, environmentalism and philanthropy, but believes that money and influence are sometimes misused.
“My questions were, ‘Why do we have some of these problems in the first place? What is the best way to solve them?’” he said. “Is it relying on individual gifts from wealthy people or is there some other way through policies that we can figure out how to solve these problems?”
Those are the questions he hopes to answer for the readers, the citizens of Teton County and people who live in other places around the United States that are facing similar polarization between the rich and poor in their communities. Ultimately, he hopes his research helps continue conversations about how to best create and serve communities.
“I’m really passionate about solving problems that are facing communities in the West and the Intermountain West in particular,” he said. “The book is actually written for those for folks in those communities, wealthy people, middle-class people, low-income people.”
The library’s Power Trip series is evolving, but Shlachter said the following events are on the books: A screening and panel discussion on “Matt Shepard was a Friend of Mine” in collaboration with Wyoming Equality on March 14, a discussion on MeToo in collaboration with the Community Safety Network on April 22, and in September a presentation by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, who introduced and developed the theories of “intersectionality.” ￼