Yale professor and author Justin Farrell’s upcoming book Billionaire Wilderness: Ultra-Wealth, Inequality, and Environment addresses the chasm between the poor and the ultra-wealthy in the Tetons and how the affluent use philanthropy to solve problems in their own lives.
In 2015 Farrell published The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict, and he said that while researching the country’s first national park, he encountered another story that didn’t fit within that book’s framework but was essential to understanding the Greater Yellowstone region: the concentration of wealth in the Tetons and its impacts on the community and the ecosystem.
In Billionaire Wilderness, Farrell explores the motives for generosity among the affluent and how their giving helps them address economic and social problems in their own lives. He analyzes new data on philanthropic giving, board membership, environmental conservation, real estate development, and demographic and socio-economic change to show how the ultra-wealthy use nature, the arts, and other “gilded philanthropy” to protect and multiply their wealth and absolve themselves of the stigma and guilt that can come with affluence.
“Their love for the area is genuine and they care for the community, but the ways that they display it can be odd or even harmful,” Farrell told the Teton Valley News last week.
He also studies the people who serve the ultra-wealthy and explains how the affluent “perpetuate a system that is making it increasingly difficult…to live a decent life,” for the have-nots of the Tetons.
Farrell will give a free talk at the Pink Garter Theatre in Jackson on Wednesday, Feb. 13. He said his presentation will last less than an hour, then he’ll open it up to questions from the crowd.
Farrell grew up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and his grandparents had property in Teton Valley, Idaho, so he’s familiar with how locals in surrounding communities view Teton County, and how that attitude has intensified in the last 30 years. Having lectured often on the east coast where “Jackson Hole” is more of an idea than a reality, he’s looking forward to hearing from people who actually live in the Tetons.
During his three years of research, he interviewed 205 Teton County residents that ranged from run-of-the-mill millionaires to some of the most powerful figures in the country, and another 50 people who are living in poverty in the same community. A Jackson organization, which Farrell doesn’t name to protect his subjects, helped facilitate his interviews with undocumented workers.
While trying to gain access to the private lives of the affluent, Farrell experienced some blowback about his research, and expects more once the book is published (anticipated date: six or so months from now). He said he neither paints the ultra-wealthy as villains nor defends their actions, but some of them, and the organizations that depend on them, may take umbrage at his subject matter.
He said that in his research he focused on Teton County, Wyoming, because “that’s where the money is,” and that when he does reference Idaho, it is in relation to workforce commuting and affordable housing.
“However, I see Teton Valley as one and the same as Teton County, Wyoming,” he added.
At Yale Farrell sometimes teaches a class on the American West and brings his students out to Wyoming and Idaho, where they can witness issues from the top and bottom; they travel from the Wind River Reservation to Jackson, visit the planning department in Victor to learn about developmental pressures here, and go to BYU-Idaho to experience the culture of eastern Idaho.
“I like to get them out of the ivory tower to see what’s going on out there,” he said.
While Farrell emphasized that he is an academic, not an activist, the epilogue of Billionaire Wilderness does offer a kind of call to action.
“I don’t advocate for specific policies, but the state and county need to demand more from the people at the top and put into place policies that protect the people at the bottom,” he said.
He argues that ultra-wealthy people in Teton County don’t solely live there because it’s a tax haven, so local governing bodies should put more of an onus on them to support their community through taxes rather than letting them bestow their largesse upon whatever entity they choose. That would also relieve non-governmental organizations of having to constantly ask the wealthy for donations.
The growing inequality between social strata is not specific to Teton County, and Farrell hopes to start a conversation about it in other rural communities as well. He writes in the introduction of Billionaire Wilderness:
“We know that the modern wealth gap presents new challenges and, unfortunately, the role of ultra-wealth is rarely a topic in today’s deluge of public and scholarly discussions about the environment…The increased concentration of wealth are not only urban phenomena, but also deeply and directly affect tens of millions of Americans living in rural areas.”
Hosted by Teton County Library, Farrell’s talk at the Pink Garter will start at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 13. For more event information visit tclib.org/programs/adults.