Justin Farrell is an author, and sociology professor at Yale University. His research blends a mixture of methods, such as ethnographic fieldwork with large-scale computational techniques from network science and machine learning. Two published books are included in his discography related to these questions and subjects, "Billionaire Wilderness," and, "The Battle For Yellowstone."
His research has been published by Princeton University Press, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Nature Climate Change, the American Sociological Review, Social Problems, among others, and funded by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation (NSF CAREER). His books and articles have won national awards from the American Sociological Association, American Library Association, used on the floor of the U.S. Senate, and covered by major media outlets such as The Economist, Washington Post, HBO, WIRED, Bloomberg, and the Financial Times.
Thank you, Justin, for joining us!
It's the same thing with students from lower income backgrounds. That you look around, and you don't see yourself there. You don't see yourself, you know, in these paintings on the wall, or even in some of the stained glass that they have all over campus depicting different images, or, um, you know, you didn't learn about the history of New England and its importance for the country and all this. And things that you're kind of expected to know, and, and for me, I said this at a talk the other day. It's like, I, this sounds kind of stupid, but I didn't even know, like when I would sit down to have dinner in this nice restaurants, to put a napkin on my lap.
Hello. My name is Emy diGrappa. Each week, we bring you stories asking our guests the question, "Why?" We learn about passion, purpose, and the human experience. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why?
Today, we are talking to Justin Farrell. Justin is a sociology professor and author at Yale University. His research explores questions of environment, politics, human culture, and policy. He just released a book titled Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. Welcome, Justin.
Thank you. Great to be here.
Well I'm so excited that the first thing I read in your bio, on your home page of your website, is that you are a proud first-generation college student from Wyoming.
I am, yeah. I was born in Cheyenne. That's where my dad was born. And my parents went to high school, and um, both of my brothers were born there. And so I have what I view as a pretty deep connection to the state in lots of different ways. Not just being born there, but um, especially in the last 15 years or so, in terms of devoting all my waking hours thinking about what's going on in the state and what's going on regionally in areas around Wyoming. And have devoted most of my career thus far and into the future. I'm studying, you know, the, the environmental dynamics, the social dynamics, political dynamics, and just trying to understand that area in more depth. And I think in all its complexity, as well.
Well, what do you find most intriguing about growing up in Wyoming?
Well, for me what was interesting is that my dad was transferred, um, and so my brother and I, uh, went to school mostly in Nebraska. And so we would, we were the only ones in our family on my dad's side to have left, for the most part, to have left, um, Cheyenne. My mom's side, um, she is from Idaho. And so, um, we would always kind of travel from Nebraska back. My dad started working at Union Pacific Railroad in Cheyenne I think toward the end of high school, if that's right. Somewhere around there. And then was transferred to the headquarters in, in Nebraska. And so it's, it's been really interesting in the sense of, I left, then we would come back all the time for just family gatherings.
And then when I went to college I had applied, um, just to one school, you know? Neither of my parents went to college and, um, and so when I was thinking about, you know, I, I suppose I should go, some of my friends are going. You know? And I applied to one school, which was Oklahoma Baptist University, because of, a friend of mine was like, "You should go there, it's pretty affordable." So I went to college then in Oklahoma, and had always just kind of, I thought about Wyoming a lot. I thought about the west, just in general. Especially the interior west. So it's not just about Wyoming in the sense of, what's been motivating me all these years? And so I went to school down in Oklahoma, and then um, took a couple trips out west with my friends and, and just kind of reconnected in that way as well, in addition to talking with family.
And so, um, it's been this kind of patchwork connection that I've, I've maintained. And it was, and it wasn't really strengthened in an intense way relative to my work until I, um, got to graduate school. And so I went to this small college out in Oklahoma, and then from there applied to graduate school and that was on the East Coast, in Princeton and, and from there that's when I really started kind of thinking about making a career of, of studying the West and studying Wyoming in particular. Um, and it was for me, I think, this subconscious way to, to reconnect to my family, but also just reconnect to all the childhood experiences I had in the state, both, you know, in the southeast part of the state, um, and in, in areas like Teton County and Yellowstone. Um, and so, it's this, it's this uh, I think attempt by me to merge my, um, personal and kind of family connections with my professional life.
Well, who inspired you to actually pursue your college education? Because it says that you're a first generation college student, and neither of your parents went to college. So, did they encourage you? Did they think that was important? How was it that that was your journey, to not only just get a bachelor's, but go on to get a doctorate?
Yeah. My parents were always very supportive of whatever I did. Even if they weren't really aware about what I was doing. And I think, um, they of course knew about college and, but the pressure I received was, was probably from, mostly from my friends, who, you know, you look around when you're in high school and everybody's going. And so I thought I should apply, and, you know, I, I went to a school that I, I knew I could afford on my own. And um, I'm almost done paying off my loans. Thank god. (laughs)
Um, they were always very supportive. And I think they sort of knew that that was a good thing to do. But you know, not having done it, it's, it's kind of a f- a foreign thing. And it's, how do you go about even applying? Where should you look? What, what makes a good school? What makes a school that's not so great? And so for me I, I just was on the internet myself and was looking around and tried to find a school that was affordable. And I also was eager to get out of that bubble that I was in in Nebraska, and um, looking back though, I wish I would have went to a school that was, you know, maybe in C- in Colorado or Wyoming. But you know, that's kind of how I, it played out. And I went down to Oklahoma, um. But I got, you know, that was a, it was a good choice and I, I think, you know, it was an affordable college for me at the time.
And um, I'm really glad I did it. And I think it's really instilled in me an appreciation, in my own work now as a professor, you know, about students from backgrounds where college might be somewhat of a foreign concept or, you know, you don't have the sort of cultural capital or, or human capital to make connections to know where to apply, or, um, what should, what you should even do when you get there. And so, I've always been kind of a lone wolf. In, in a lot of what I do. And that was certainly no exception, in terms of just, you know, going to college. And I remember I was filling out my college application, um, when I was out, uh, in Idaho. We were visiting my, my mom's family out there. And I remember filling that out and, um, writing the little essays and all of that. And actually it was kind of a tough time because my older brother had just passed away in a car accident, and ...
We were just kind of like ... yeah. So we were out, we just, we went out west, um, from Nebraska to see our family and try to recover a little bit. And um, and so I always remember just sitting there, you know, at my grandpa's table, filling that out and explaining to my extended family and my parents kind of what I was thinking and, and why I wanted to go to, to college, and, and, again, they were very supportive. But um, not in the same way as maybe a, you know, st- Yale undergraduate students and the support that they're, they typically receive in terms of, you know, um, being groomed for higher education. But I'm very appreciative of, of my upbringing. Because I think I have a chip on my shoulder, and I don't take really any of it for granted. And I, and when it comes to the work I'm doing, I think it gives me a, a unique lens to see, um, the social world and to maybe understand folks from different social classes and backgrounds. And from rural areas, and to, to write about it with empathy and uh, and maybe accuracy that other folks who maybe grew up in maybe, in more blue, quote on quote, blue blood atmospheres on the East Coast, um, that they wouldn't typically have that perspective. So I've tried to harness it for good.
You know what? I just caught onto something that you were saying. And I think it's really interesting. And you said, "I have a chip on my shoulder, and it's good." And you know, usually when someone says, "Oh, that guy has a chip on his shoulder," they think that that's a negative thing. But you've actually embraced it. (laughs)
I have, I have.
And I think um, at times it, it can turn to be a little bit more negative. Or I can, um, perhaps, you know, not see the best in people who come from more privileged educational backgrounds. And I think that, um, you know, I'm careful to ... to see people for their experiences and to understand where they're coming from. But I certainly, you know, am attracted to, for, for example like, if I'm looking for, um, students doing interesting work, or if I'm looking at someone's resume to kind of see the trajectory, uh, of where they've come from, and I'm often really impressed by that because I know the barriers that folks can face who come from certain backgrounds. And, and whether it's, you know, an underserved urban area or whether it's an underserved rural area or, you know, to me, seeing those experiences and seeing people's stories are, are fascinating. And I think it's, it's kind of part of this chip on my shoulder and I'm always looking for folks who have that experience. But I also think it improves people's work, you know? And it can tie them to, to communities that they're studying.
And for me it's, you know, oftentimes rural communities and um, and in, in the case of the new book, you know, it, it, understanding wealth and the ultra-wealthy, but doing so through more, maybe more empathy than other folks might be able to muster. Because I can kind of see how these experiences lead you to be the way you are, and to believe what you believe, and act how you act. And so that's kind of, uh, how I try to harness that for, for better.
But it does, at times, make me sort of, (laughs) especially in the past when you're applying to Ph.D. programs and you're trying to match up with people who might have a Yale undergraduate degree. And they're applying, and you're applying against them. And I'm coming from, you know, a small Baptist college in Oklahoma that you sort, you can become a little bitter, you know? But for me, I tried to let my work do the talking and to, you know, do really good research that, that people find to be interesting.
I'm really glad you have that empathy for students who are maybe first generation entering into college, or, just kind of facing the same challenges you faced. Where, you know, you're filling out student loan applications, or, you know, a college application, and it's such foreign territory that it's, it's a scary thing. And there's no one that you can, you know, you're not generations down the road and of course my son's going to go to blah blah blah. You know? You're really just treading new territory for you and your family.
Yeah. I, I agree. And in the, in the past few years I've really focused on not just trying to attract students, um, from those backgrounds and from Wyoming, frankly, to Yale. But I found that it's as important that after students get to campus that the type of mentorship that I provide and that they need, you know, is really important to make them feel, um, comfortable, to make them feel like they belong, to make them feel like their ideas and experiences are valid and can contribute, you know, to ongoing work at a university like Yale. Which, to be honest, you know, I'm still very uncomfortable with on many days. And I feel, um, like many of my students, you know, the sense of what we call imposter syndrome where you, you feel like you maybe shouldn't be there, or it was a fluke that you got in, or it was, uh, for me it would be like a fluke that I got that job.
But all that just kind of can be really hard for students and so lately I've been focusing on really trying to provide close mentorship and to, um, uh, you know, address those concerns head on. And to say that it's, it's okay that you don't feel comfortable here. It's okay that you felt uncomfortable even applying. But so many of those students that I've worked with are, are my best, best students. And they're doing really interesting work that, frankly, some of it's not being done at places like Yale because those universities are so, have become so disconnected from some parts of the country. And from some perspectives that need to be heard. You know, even if we, certain people disagree with them or not, you know? So that's kind of where I've put my energy in terms of mentorship and, and what I'm looking for in, in students.
That is so interesting. And so important, because especially going to an Ivy League school and coming from a small school, uh, a small Baptist school. But not really understanding that a first time kid entering into college who doesn't have, um, his family doesn't have a legacy of college graduates. That the staying power is really hard.
Yeah. And there's, there's research on that in terms of students from that type of background or, you know, especially, um, students who, students of color who might come to Yale. And you know, you look around and it's, it's the same thing with students from lower income backgrounds. That you look around and you don't see yourself there. You don't see yourself, you know, in these paintings on the wall, or even in some of the stained glass that they have all over campus depicting different images. Or, um, you know, you didn't learn about the history of New England and its importance for the country and all this. And things that you're kind of expected to know.
And, and for me, I said this at a talk the other day. It's like, I, this sounds kind of stupid, but I didn't even know, like when I would sit down to have dinner at these nice restaurants, to put a napkin on my lap. Like, we just, you know, something so simple (laughs), or to hold your, your knife in, in, you know, in the opposite hand while you, you eat. These kind of cultural signifiers and cultural capital that people just take for granted. And that can, um, make you feel so, you know, uncomfortable or out of place. And maybe, at worst, um, unwelcome, if you, if you don't know those sorts of things, um.
And you know that might be a silly example but I think it does sort of reveal what it can be like to enter an Ivy League environment, um, where, you know, there have been people multi-generational, you know, families who attend. And their, their grandparents attend, or, or even beyond that. And, oh, their mother, father is, you know, working for the, um, Obama administration. And, or something, you know, just all these different experiences and, and the exposure to this entirely different world. And for me, that didn't happen until I was out of undergraduate, when I went to graduate school, um, that I, I recognized that, oh, you know, this is different. And my wife and I moved up to New Jersey and I did my master's in sociology and religion at Princeton. And um, you know, just to kind of experience that world in Princeton, was, was really eye-opening.
What was your, uh, spiritual, or your religious upbringing?
Yeah. So my dad's side, the Cheyenne, um, family is Catholic. My mom's side has a Mormon background, they're from Idaho, but then kind of mixed with Protestantism. So when we were, we were raised Protestant. And in, like, middle school or so we attended a, you'd probably call it a mega-church. It wasn't really huge, but kind of a run of the mill Evangelical. And then when I got to college, and I've studied religion since I was in college, and I was a philosophy undergrad. And I've always, always been interested in religion. And, from a personal and professional perspective. But when I got to college, I just kind of stopped going to church and ... [inaudible 00:17:12].
And then I went to graduate school to study sociology and religion. And this was also in a seminary setting. So I had friends who were, um, training to become ministers and, and these were Presbyterian ministers. So many of them, it was my first exposure to more, um, like progressive r- religion, if you want to put it that way. Or religion that was more focused on, some would say, more Biblical values like, you know, caring for the poor and, and um, the red letter Christians you might, you know, call them, focused on poverty reduction, homelessness, and, and, caring for the environment. And that opened my eyes back up to the sort of value or seeing religion in a way that I felt was like, less destructive to, to kind of my journey.
But the interesting thing is, you know, my, my wife and I started attending this parish. I went to graduate school at Notre Dame, and I kind of reconnected, then, with my dad's side of the family, c- with Catholicism. And, and have been, my wife and I have been attending ever since. And um, I wouldn't say we're like, we go every week. But it's, you know, it definitely plays a role in our life and, and provides meaning and, for me it provides a moral imperative, you know, to, to try to be (laughs) a better person. And, and to, for, even if, with my research, choosing topics that I think are going to make a positive impact on the world and aren't just research for research sake. Or for, to further my own career.
Well, I have to say that what you just told me (laughs) now I'm, now I'm smiling. Because you went from a small Baptist university, to Notre Dame, and then to Yale. So that's quite a journey, Justin. It's like ...
(laughs) Yeah, yeah, I know. And um ... it, it's, it's pretty wild. And I, I went to, so in between there I did the three year master's degree. So I, just to kind of lay out the timeline I, yeah, I went ... So it was Oklahoma Baptist University. And um, from there, uh, was just enthralled with my studies and, and philosophy, and there was an English course that I took that we read, um, some of the American, uh, canon that just kind of blew me away, in terms of being exposed to all these different ideas. And, um, I knew that at that time, I wanted to do this for a living. I wanted to, I wanted to teach, I wanted to explore, um, philosophical ideas.
But I always had a, kind of an eye toward how it impacts the real world. So not just, you know, philosophy, uh, in a vacuum. Um, and so then I did apply to, go to graduate school to study sociology and religion at Princeton. And this, and it, in this setting where it was a mix of philosophers, sociologists, um, ministers, and then from there I applied to Ph.D. programs and, and really chose a field where um, I wanted to study. And that was sociology. And then so at No-, and that's where I went to Notre Dame. Um, for, and that was a five year program. So it was three years in Princeton, then five years at, at Notre Dame, and then from there, um, straight to Yale. So I haven't been in a, uh, outside of academia, uh, ever. (laughs) In terms of like, professionally.
Oh my gosh.
Um, once I started, yeah. After kindergarten I, I have not been outside of school. (laughs)
(laughs) That's really interesting, because, and, and funny. Because like, okay. You're a professional student. That's amazing.
That's amazing, though.
I am, yeah. It's, it's odd to, and I would have, I mean, my parents, I think, and, even all, most all of my friends, they're just like, "How are you in academics?" Because my, my personality and sort of if you hung out with me on the weekend or, or, you know, if we, at a barbecue or something during the week, you wouldn't peg me as a professor in terms of the stereotypical image people usually have. Um, and, but I, I kind of, going back to that chip on my shoulder, that's been, been my identity throughout all of this that I, I um, I'm really focused on my work and I th-, and I, I work really hard at it. And I, but I also really try to keep a foot in the real world, so to speak. And not, um, you know, in terms of, uh, my friends, in terms of, you know, I love, this sounds kind of crazy to even say it. But you know, I really love sports. Love all kinds of music. It's, it's not the typical image you have of an Ivy League professor in like a tweed jacket listening to Mozart. (laughs)
Smo- smoking a cigar.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
So, (laughs) so Justin, I want to ask you, because I, I really have been kind of really interested in your book, um, Billionaire Wilderness. And, I want to know, what was your ... what was your idea? What came into your brain that said, "I'm going to write this book. And this is what it's going to be about. And this is why I'm going to write it."
Yeah. So I, it, it stems from my time, uh, in Wyoming doing research, but also just growing up going out to, um, western Wyoming. Um, every year for the summer, and during the summer we would go out for several weeks. And s-, uh, I think seeing that whole area change so much. And we would spend time, um, over in Victor, and over, and then even further in Island Park, is where my grandfather in Idaho, um, just on the border of Yellowstone, he had a ... a little condo there since, oh gosh, I think like, '70s? Early '70s, maybe? Um, and so I was out there since I was, you know, a li- a little kid. And just kind of seeing it slowly change I think took, um, it started to pile up. Like, not in a negative way. I just would see, you know, across the street they would, um, there was a hotel. A small hotel build, you know? And it had a little hot tub and a little pool. And families would come. Um, but then a golf course was built.
And, and then, you know, you would go into West Yellowstone or uh, we would drive through Jackson, and just ever-, you know, every time we would come it would look a little different. And seeing kind of how it was growing and changing, and not just more people, but it just looked a little different. I would hear, you know, snarky comments from my family about, you know, Jackson Hole, you know, it used to be part of Wyoming, now it's not. Or, you know, we don't, we never really spent much time there. And I write about that in one of the chapters, is that it was kind of viewed as, Jackson Hole was like, across the train tracks, so to speak. Um, and not just from, it was kind of from both sides. It was like, the Cheyenne family would think that. But also, my mom's Idaho family, and so, just hearing all these things, you know, um, as I was being raised and as we were spending time in that area, planted a seed that I didn't even realize was going to grow into this, you know, massive tree and take up six years of my life.
Um, but it, it really started in graduate school when I was planning out what I was going to do for my dissertation, which is kind of the main project that you do to, to earn your Ph.D. And it's a, a multi-year project. It's basically like writing a book. And so I, that became a book that I published in 2015 called the Battle for Yellowstone. And in this book, um, was, I think, were the seeds, again, for what became Billionaire Wilderness. Um, so I was really interested in, in human culture. And I'm, and I know this, this podcast is about the why questions. And that's, those are the types of questions that have animated my entire research program and why humans behave the way that they do. Or that we do. And um, and so I think that these questions should be more central within social science research.
And the types of, you know, the types of cultures that we're a pa-, that we are a part, and the subcultures, and um, and why we, you know, live our lives the way we do, and what we strive for, and um, you know, what narratives we live by. Um, whether that, that could be, you know, we need to ... Nature is a pure, um, kind of storehouse that we need to protect, versus nature is something that we can plunder for our own gain. You know, those are pretty extreme narratives. But, they're narratives that, you know, shape, um, how things play out in certain areas. And then, you know, how we determine right or wrong. You know. And, and what we should do. And then really, why it all matters in the end. Why are we even doing anything?
What life do we want to lead? The sort of philosophical, philosophical questions that, back to Socrates, you know, was asking about. What does a good life look like? You know? What does a good community look like? And, these questions, uh, for me, are seen in really sharp relief in, in the, in western Wyoming, especially. Where you have this mix of, um, you know, massive ecos- intact ecosystems that are really pristine, ecologically. Um, and you have all sorts of people coming in. You have locals who have lived there for many generations. Um, you have the, uh, a strong federal um, presence in terms of federal government and land management agencies and so it's this really interesting mix to probe these why questions that I've always been interested in looking at.
And, and doing so in a way that's going to matter for policy. And that is going to allow me to say, okay. I'm not just asking these questions for fun. And I'm not just writing about, you know, why people may view the wolf as this sacred or spiritual being that needs to be restored. Or why people hate the wolf in a way that is, um, almost bordering on, you know, a r- a religious disdain for this, this animal that um, you know, is just doing what it does. But I can take those issues and, and try to understand them and their depth and link them to different cultural narratives in the west, in Wyoming. Um, but then apply them to policy.
And so, the first book that I did using this kind of, this framework, was to look at environmental conflicts about Yellowstone. So you have, you know, the wolf issue, obviously. Um, you have this bison issue. And I actually lived, um, for a short time with this group that studies and protects, sorry, not studies, sorry, they, they aim to protect the bison because they're viewed as sacred by this group. And um, and then I looked at, you know, the snowmobiling issue, just to look, to show that morality and the why questions and even sometimes spirituality are all part of this, even though it's pressed by the scientific frameworks that are imposed on these issues.
Um, but ultimately why we care about it in the first place or not, because of the science. We use the science to try to understand and to improve our relationship, but those relationships, again, are based on these, these moral questions about, you know, who we want to be as humans and who, how we want our communities to operate, and what's our relationship to the natural world. And all of that. Um, so then after I finished that book, I was, you know, convinced that the issue of wealth has not been looked at, uh, very closely. You know, there are some rep- there are like, reports out, local reports about, you know, the growth of wealth in Teton County, or in, or in, uh, larger cities in the west, even. You know, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco. But um, what I thought was missing was this s- these closer look at wealth, and what better place to do it than the richest county in the richest country in the world, Teton County?
And um, and I had, already had, I have so many connections there already from the first book that it was really a no-brainer. And, and so it was motivated by some of these personal experiences I've had about, you know, wealth and, and how the area was just kind of changing a little bit. Um, but then there was this other side that's almost like, societal or academic need for a study of ultra-wealth and, and wealth concentration, um, in the United States, and I just used Teton County as my case study. And so I, I, the book is about Teton County but in a lot of ways it's about where our country has been heading for the last few decades in terms of growing wealth concentration and the, the, um, m- how the middle class is kind of being, you know, squeezed out and pushed down to the other end of a, um, the income spectrum.
And so that, it was just like this perfect case study for me to, to engage those economic questions but also engage wealthy people on these questions about why they live their life they way they do, and um, you know, do they feel bad about having that much money, do they have trouble sleeping at night like some people think. Um, and how do they use nature and, and these rural settings to kind of solve some of those problems or to, to engage with those problems? So it's just this fascinating, um, book that came together almost, um, on accident but, but really rooted in a lot of my personal experiences, um, in the west and in Wyoming.
Well it, it doesn't sound like it was an accident to me. It, it sounds like it was, like, the path you were on. And, and I can see how that would be a very obvious place for you to go. Um, from your Yellowstone book. Especially when you start looking at the disappearance of the middle class. And why is that, and what's happening there, and, and you know, I, I agree with you. Teton County just kind of screams it out (laughs) in a way that is, is interesting to think, how can I approach somebody and ask them a meaningful question about why they live here? Or, what is Jackson Hole?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. No, I agree. And, uh, the other thing is that, that these issues about wealth, wealth inequality, they're, they receive a lot of attention but it's usually, again, just in Wall Street or Silicon Valley. And that there's this huge, um, hole relative to what we know about how wealth works. And places like Teton County are overlooked, you know? And they just, um, they're kind of seen as these rural backwaters or this uh, you know, maybe an, an oddity. You know? Like oh, that's kind of cute. But really income inequality is, like, you know, on Wall Street or, or again, in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. But I argue that that's, that's short-sighted. And um, misses, really misses the point and overlooks something that I think is deeply important, especially relative to, um, how it intersects with environmental issues, um. So, it, I guess you're right, though. It was this path I was on. It was almost like, inevitable, I, I engage this issue. Um, but to spend six years of my life on it, I don't know. It's, I'm, I'm glad I did, uh, I really am. But um, (laughs) kind of like, wow. I can't, I can't believe I spent that much time just trying to understand this dynamic. (laughs)
I think it's an amazing dynamic that you, well, first of all, it's amazing that you took it on. The amazing dynamic is that you, um, you turned over a rock. You know? You turned over, like, something that's hidden. And then you just exposed it. And that's why, um, you're probably receiving a lot of different opinions about your book and, depending on who's reading it and where they, you know, what their economic status is. Where they fit in that picture. And how they feel about that. How they feel about themselves, how they feel about wealth in general, and ... and, does it bother them? You know?
Does it, you know, just, is this ... is this disgusting?
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. (laughs) And that's, that's a question in the book that I try to leave up to the reader. You know? And I, I really ... t- try to paint a picture that, um, captured the reality of wealth there. And um, just the extent to which wealth has transformed some of these areas in the west. And will continue to do so. Um, but isn't, on the other hand, just a sloppy attack on the rich. Because that, to me, was not at all interesting, and it's not what I do as an academic in terms of trying to spend many years embedding myself within a community, doing interviews, setting in quantitative data, you know, what's been happening, what do we know, um, relative to, you know, per capita income or median income or, um, how many assets do, does this organization have, and what does that tell us about why this organization has next to nothing? And so, making all these different comparisons and trying to situate it within what I felt was, um, a context that would paint an ac- again, an accurate picture of what was going on.
Now, the issues themselves are contentious. So that, um, I think anytime you raise them it's going to spark all sorts of emotions. People are going to get defensive. Some people are going to, you know, write it off. Others are going to take it too far. And um, I've kind of, I, I've received all sorts of different emails from people. Um, but, I rest in the fact that I really tried to be f-, uh, accurate and, and fair. And, and fair by, um, what I mean by that is, is, reporting what I saw and reporting what we know from the quantitative data, and not, not being fair just to be, you know, fair to folks. But really pointing out and when I need to be critical being critical. Um, and assessing the situation from the perspective that I gained through these five, six years.
And so what I hope and kind of what you alluded to is that it's, it's going to start a conversation that I think needs to be had. Even though it is deeply uncomfortable for some people. And to be honest with you, it's made, it, the whole, the research made me uncomfortable with, um, my relation to some of these communities, my relationship to nature. Um, the, the wealth that I have compared to people, you know, not just in this country but outside of the United States. And, you know, is rel- is wealth just kind of relative? People, you know, who, who don't even have clean water compared to me. The differences between us, you know, is, is very great and perhaps greater than the distance between myself and one of my interviewees in Teton Country.
You know? Um, so, um, it, it's just a fascinating topic that, that raises all sorts of eyebrows and, but I think raises many more really interesting questions that we need to discuss um, in the, in the west in particular. And the inter-mountain west where some of these communities are growing and changing very quickly. And a lot of it has to do with, with wealth. And then the problems that come with it.
I don't think this is the end. I think this is the beginning. I think this, this conversation between wealth and status and American exceptionalism, all these topics are ongoing. Because history is alive. And we're always making history. Yesterday was history. And so I think this conversation is, just goes on and on and on. Because as people we're always changing. And, and the conversation just changes with us.
Mm-hmm (affirmative). No, I agree. And you know what's funny? Is that when I, um, set out to do this, this project, Billionaire Wilderness, I told people that I wanted to interview, I said, "I'm writing a recent history of this area. I want to know how it's growing, how it's changing, but my aim is to write a recent history." And that's true. It doesn't, you know, divulge all the topics that I'm interested in, in getting at. But, um, wealth is the recent history in this, in this particular area. And that's not to say it's all bad. But it's to say, we need to really, um, think harder about it and have the tough conversations so we can kind of figure out where we want to go, which has to do with, again, the why questions, and the how.
Right. Well, it's been great talking to you, Justin. And I am just so grateful that we had this time to talk. It's really interesting.
Yeah, no, it's a, it's a pleasure to be on, and I'm sure, you know, it's the first of many conversations. I'll be doing work here for uh, the rest of my career. So, I'm sure our paths will cross again.
Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why. Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, with support from Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.