Paradise Lost or Found

Paradise Lost or Found?

For his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness,” Professor Justin Farrell spent five years in Teton County, Wyoming — the richest county in the U.S. and the one with the greatest income inequality. In an interview, he talks about what he learned about wealth concentration and environmental conservation in this corner of the rapidly changing American West.

While researching and writing his new book, “Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West,” Justin Farrell, a professor of sociology at the Yale School of the Environment, spent five years in Teton County, Wyoming — the richest county in the United States and the one with the greatest income inequality. He conducted hundreds of in-depth interviews with the area’s working poor and with the ultra-wealthy who come from across the country to find a paradise in this awe-inspiring wilderness.

We were eager to find out more about his work and what he learned about wealth concentration and environmental conservation in this corner of the rapidly changing American West.

illustration of helicopters airlifting a large house into the wilderness
illustration by Alex Green — Folio Art
In the acknowledgments of “Billionaire Wilderness,” you write that this book was “far and away the most challenging piece of research and writing you’ve ever done.” Why was that the case?

Justin Farrell: The sensitive nature of the topic and the difficulty gaining access. The topic of ultra-wealth is hot-buttoned, and my study was always prone to be sucked into the vortex of our politicized and polemical age of “twitterized” impulsiveness. The book is not an exposé but is instead a carefully and scientifically designed piece of research, and it was difficult to describe the study and carry it out without being stereotyped as either unfairly targeting the rich or propping up privilege. And, as I explain in the introduction, my sampling and interviewing process was so difficult because these folks have all sorts of layers of protection, which is why they are rarely, if ever, systematically studied.
In the book, you describe the “environmental veneer,” which defines, at least partly, the philanthropic philosophy of the ultra-wealthy in Teton County. What is the environmental veneer?

Farrell: It’s a popular assumption that environmental conservation is, in a vague sense, an altruistic public good rather than a vehicle for protecting wealth, achieving social status and integration, expressing group identity, sustaining societal advantages, and generally reinforcing many of the social mechanisms that give rise to environmental problems in the first place.

You also describe in detail what you call the “community veneer,” or the disconnect between the way Teton County’s ultra-wealthy and its lower-income residents perceive each other. For example, the ultra-wealthy often referenced what you call the “myth of the modern-day penniless nature-loving type,” such as the ski bum, when in reality the majority of the working poor in the area are Spanish-speaking immigrants working multiple jobs in the service sector. How do these differing perceptions affect the social and economic climates in Teton County?
Book cover: Billionaire Wilderness
Billionaire Wilderness
Canopy 2020 01 Spring
This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of Canopy magazine.
Farrell: Yes, that’s right. As I describe in the book, this “community veneer” deliberately conceals outward indicators of socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic inequities while rewarding trivial acts of individual charity and selective environmentalism. It hides patterns of structural harm, alleviates personal guilt, and ultimately forestalls the need for economic and political action to address pressing local and global problems.

The final chapter of “Billionaire Wilderness” is titled “The Future of Wealth and the West.” What does the future hold for environmental conservation and income inequality in the West? What factors will determine that future?

Farrell: As I chart the future of the socioenvironmental policy in the West, I note in the epilogue just how rapidly the region is changing — from climate change to sharp population growth — and argue that it requires an all-hands-on-deck approach. And, frankly, better collaboration among scholars, policymakers, agencies, and the general public. That is why our School, and Yale as a whole, is so well positioned to be a leader and to train students who can develop the skills so necessary to tackle these complex problems.

“Billionaire Wilderness” is published by Princeton University Press.
PUBLISHED: July 1, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.