With a home overlooking the Hoback River, Bob Frodeman has the good fortune of watching neighborhood osprey perch, eat and do their thing from his back porch any time he wants to.
“There’s a nest right over there,” Frodeman said while seated on that same deck. “A nest right over there. I watch these guys fish, and they’d eat their fish up on the crooked tree all summer.”
Idle time osprey-watching out on the deck has also afforded the environmental philosopher ample time to think about the future of Jackson Hole. It’s a mountain resort community where growth-related problems are many and they are compounding, and the longtime professor has a proposition that he believes offers a way out of the quandary.
“We need to start moving toward a no-growth paradigm,” Frodeman said. “Let’s redefine what counts as progress. We have defined progress in materialistic terms, and the planet can’t sustain it.”
Frodeman challenges the assumption that people are supposed to make more money next year than this year, and that they’re supposed to have more stuff next year than this year. Those mentalities, of course, are interwoven into society as we know it in the capitalistic United States of America and much of the rest of the world. But the benefits, he said, are doubtful.
“Ever look at the numbers on the average square footage of a house in America over the decades?” Frodeman said. “It’s just amazing. The average house in the 1940s was 1,200 square feet. People weren’t miserable in that. Now the average house is something like 2,700 square feet.”
“That’s what we need to critique,” he added, “and Jackson’s a nice testbed for that.”
Frodeman’s story begins in the St. Louis, Missouri, metropolitan area, where he grew up in a blue-collar family in which his dad ran a bowling alley. That upbringing had a lasting effect on his worldview and how he goes about his work.
“It gave me kind of a practical orientation to my philosophy, because I dug the bowling alley crowd when I was a kid,” Frodeman said. “I may have got a Ph.D., but I try to write things that normal people would be interested in.”
The Frodemans were not at all an outdoorsy or hippy kind of family, but young Bob shaped himself into a “treehugger type” through literature and the teachings of 19th and 20th century conservation giants.
“I read Thoreau when I was a kid,” Frodeman said, “and I discovered Ed Abbey.”
Frodeman’s professional ascension wasn’t confined to academia. After finishing up his doctorate in philosophy from Pennsylvania State University in the late 1980s, he took a teaching job at the University of Texas.
“People gave me trouble because I didn’t know any environmental science,” Frodeman said. “So I quit my tenure-track job and got a master’s in Earth science and climatology.”
That stint in life brought Frodeman to the Front Range, where he schooled at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He segued from there into a consulting job with the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency he helped advise about policy and philosophy. He’s mixed in an array of university teaching jobs since then, spending time at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden and at the University of Tennessee.
Frodeman’s most recent stint teaching at a brick-and-mortar school was at the University of North Texas, in the Dallas area. He spent 18 years of his life there.
“Texas is not my favorite part of the world,” Frodeman said, “but I couldn’t pass up a chance to shape a new Ph.D. program in environmental ethics.”
Since 2014 summers have been spent in Hoback, where Frodeman and his wife, Eunice Nicholson, bought the modest place at the end of the road in the J-W Subdivision overlooking the Hoback River. It wasn’t his first introduction to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The first trip to the region was in the early 1980s, and weeklong summer trip in 2012 convinced them to buy in.
“We got talking to a real estate guy and found out that prices were 50% down from 2009,” Frodeman said.
They bought in, a prescient choice. Since then home valuations in the southern Teton County community have absolutely skyrocketed, even tripling. Frodeman and Nicholson have toyed with the idea of cashing out, but thought better of it.
“Where am I going to find another river like this?” Frodeman said.
And so, instead, he’s investing his energy in making Hoback Nation home: “I’m trying to find ways I can contribute to the community.”
Like greater Jackson Hole, the Hoback Junction area is poised to experience transformative growth in coming years and decades. The environmental ethics professor’s hunch is that once the water quality issues plaguing the region are sorted out, a building boom is sure to follow. Whether Hoback grows smartly is “up in the air,” he said.
“This is a decisive time to make sure we don’t screw up Hoback,” Frodeman said. “It’s going to get developed, but can we do it in a way that’s sustainable and beautiful and takes into account the values of people who live in Teton County and especially down in Hoback Nation?”