The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope.
—Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays
Teton County, Wyoming, is famous as the home of two immense and beloved national parks, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, where charismatic species like grizzly bears, moose, and wolves roam dense forests, in view of the majestic Teton mountain range. Less well-known, perhaps, is that Teton County is also the richest county in the United States, and the county with the highest level of income inequality. It’s a place where millionaires and billionaires—current and former financiers, oil and gas executives, tech CEOs, high-powered lawyers, politicians—have built huge homes on the available lands adjacent to those national parks and other protected areas. These are idyllic retreats from their high-octane professional worlds, where they can partake in restorative hiking, fly-fishing, skiing, and mountain biking, in a wilderness they passionately want to conserve. To service and maintain those retreats, ultra-wealthy residents rely on a large population of underpaid, largely Spanish-speaking immigrants, who work multiple jobs to afford to share living space in trailers with multiple families.
Unlike the ultra-wealthy of Teton County, many of the landowners in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming County do not self-identify as environmentalists. Environmentalism is something that out-of-touch, urban liberals and recently arrived “rusticators”—affluent transplants from elsewhere—care about. But these landowners do understand themselves as guardians of the area’s natural heritage, which encompasses both privately held land and public forests. The “environment” in need of preservation here is not a pristine, untouched Western wilderness, but rather a patrimony of working land and forests, where natural resources have long been a source of income to the community and have been carefully balanced with recreation. The decision to lease one’s mineral rights is often born of economic necessity. But it is also shaped by an understanding that the land can and should be worked, that a good steward is one who uses resources responsibly, who—as Colin Jerolmack explains from his research—exercises a “duty to realize its productive potential” (emphasis in original). What the residents of Lycoming County get from exercising this duty, however, is a distressing (to them, at least) industrialization of their rural landscape.
Environmental stewardship, in a general sense, might be held up as a laudable pursuit. But—as Teton County and Lycoming County show—it matters tremendously who the empowered stewards are, what precisely it is that they are able to do, and why they do it. It matters for how resources get used. It matters for whether or how landscapes change. It matters to the people those stewards live near and with, and to people they will never know, living far away and in the future.
Examining just who stewards the land, and with what effects, is explored with detail and insight in two new books by sociologists Justin Farrell and Colin Jerolmack. In Farrell’s Billionaire Wilderness: The Ultra-wealthy and the Remaking of the American West, we are taken into the world of the ultra-wealthy residents (“resident” here being more a tax status than anything else) of Teton County. Here, projects of environmental conservation provide a vehicle for protecting wealth, achieving social status and advantage, and “generally reinforcing many of the social mechanisms that give rise to environmental problems in the first place.” Meanwhile, in Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town, Jerolmack takes us to a very different setting: a Pennsylvania fracking boomtown, where rural landowners, proud of the land and protective of their sovereignty over it, reckon with unexpected and unwanted changes wrought by natural gas extraction.
Each book provides an immersive and absorbing account of what love for the land entails, and the complex motivations and ambivalent outcomes that attend feeling entitled or obligated to use and protect it. Read together, the books diagnose the pathologies of tying environmental stewardship so intimately to the perquisites of private property.
That we ought to be stewards of the natural environment is a broadly cherished ideal. It is a conviction that has found spiritual and secular articulation in religious verses and policy papers, papal encyclicals and presidential addresses, Romantic poetry and philosophical essays, documentaries and novels, protests and political programs. Our responsibility, so the conviction goes, is to protect nature, to use its resources but to do so prudently, and—perhaps particularly in the American context—to conserve awe-inspiring and salubrious wilderness. Even though progress on the greatest environmental challenge facing us, climate change, is frustratingly elusive, the idea that we are reliant on nature for our well-being and that we are invested in its general preservation has wide purchase in American culture.
Of course, the reasons for being an environmental steward vary tremendously. We might be environmental stewards because we believe ourselves to be trustees of the glorious bounty God has given us (“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it,” Genesis 2:15), or because we recognize that human and non-human are kin and we must protect our relatives for their and our own sakes (“water is life,” the rallying cry of Water Protectors protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline).1 We might be environmental stewards in pursuit of individual projects of self-purification (“nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike,” John Muir), or collective projects of survival (“there is no planet B”).
The reasons people give for their stewardship are important. Those reasons mobilize distinct ideas about what nature is, who or what it is for, and what therefore defines “good” stewardship. “Good” stewardship has, historically, often encompassed the protection of endangered animal species, or of clean air and water. Ideals of environmental stewardship have also justified forced removals of Indigenous peoples to make way for parks and nature preserves. And in Teton and Lycoming, the inclination to stewardship, though earnestly felt, yields contradictions that compromise the well-being of people and planet alike.
In Teton’s community of extremes—with ultra-wealthy ‘conservationists’ and precarious working poor—Farrell spent five years: conducting in-person observations at charitable events, cocktail parties, ski resorts, art exhibits, and country clubs, as well as in-depth interviews with over 200 people across the economic spectrum. He combines this with quantitative and social network data to provide a full picture of how the ultra-wealthy influence the physical landscape, through their land purchases and real estate development, and the social one, via their philanthropic giving.
Farrell avoids easy caricatures of the super-rich and takes seriously the sincerity of their good intentions. These are people who could use their immense power in any number of ways, and they understand themselves to be environmental stewards. They give money to environmental causes. They put land into protective easements and trusts so that it cannot be developed (a well-worn model of conservation that has historically underpinned the creation of national parks, including Grand Teton). They feel a genuine affection for the wildlands and wildlife and want to see this ecosystem—one of the last large intact ecosystems in the world—sustained.
But an environmental stewardship that is so dominated by the needs and desires of the ultra-wealthy is a limited one, riven by contradictions. As Farrell notes, the question is: “who is conservation really for?” When the wealthy put land into trusts and easements to preserve its natural beauty, they get a huge tax write-off and drive up property values (Farrell calls this “compensation conservation”), while also “sealing off the land from the public:” “huge swaths of cherished land are being purchased and closed off, for the occasional enjoyment of a select few.”
What’s more, this romanticized strategy of “protecting land” obscures the proponent’s immense ecological footprint. This comes in the form of the private jets the ultra-wealthy take into and out of Teton County. It is also evident in the resources required to heat and cool gigantic homes that are lived in only part-time; homes that are often built not in town, but on the most beautiful and “pristine” rural sites, which may also be animal habitats and migration corridors.
With vanishingly little land available to develop higher-density, low-income housing in the county, workers are also forced to drive long distances to their jobs, increasing carbon emissions. These are contradictions Farrell’s working poor interviewees recognize as emblematic of “the empty virtue of affluent environmentalism.”
Throughout the book, Farrell urges us not to focus only on the ultra-wealthy individuals, and their faults and follies, but rather to consider the “ultra-wealthy institutions” and “Teton County as an ultra-wealthy community.” The point, ultimately, is to crack the “environmental veneer,” so that we can see the darker social and ecological underbelly of this specific form of selective and self-serving environmental stewardship.
But is this a problem limited to the presence and power of the ultra-wealthy anything—be it individuals, institutions, or communities? Or, this reader wondered, is there something more fundamentally pathological at play?
It matters tremendously who the empowered stewards are, what precisely it is that they are able to do, and why they do it.
In answer, Jerolmack’s Up to Heaven and Down to Hell is not about the ultra-wealthy. But it is about people who feel their moral honor and personal dignity are tied up with their ability and responsibility to protect the land: even when that responsibility means opening it up for extraction.
The book opens with a story about stewardship. George Hagemeyer, a retired school custodian and lifelong resident of Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, loves his land, which was purchased by his family in 1947. He walks the perimeter each day and tends the lawn and lilac bushes. Jerolmack writes: “To be the steward of his dad’s land, George beamed, was ‘all I ever wanted.’”
George, “one of thousands across the poverty-stricken rust belt,” decided to lease his mineral rights. This allowed Anadarko Petroleum Corporation to drill natural-gas wells on his land, creating a huge and noisy industrial operation right in his backyard, which he seemed to regard with both amazement and irritation. The presence of the drilling shattered the “rural serenity” George treasured. Still, it was precisely leasing his mineral rights that allowed him to maintain stewardship of the land, which had been a financial millstone before the royalties from fracking made it possible for him to hang on.
Jerolmack gives us a view into George’s decision-making and experiences, and those of many other residents in Lycoming County, as they confronted the “exogenous shock” of the sudden frenzy in natural gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which promised to make them “shaleionaires.” In 2012, the year before Jerolmack moved there, the county saw more new gas wells drilled than any other, and the state of Pennsylvania had enthusiastically embraced fracking, auctioning mineral rights to more than 100,000 acres of public land. What Jerolmack is able to trace, through masterful ethnographic storytelling, is the ambivalence, the tensions, and the unanticipated consequences of being empowered to dispense with one’s own land. He showcases the ways that such dispensations have effects not only on neighbors’ quality of life (the view out their windows, the quality of their drinking water), but also on future generations’ prospects of living on a habitable planet (the fossil fuels need to stay in the ground). Jerolmack calls this the “public/private paradox,” where exercising our individual rights alienates those of others.
For example, as owners of the land, as its stewards, Lycoming residents have the power to lease their mineral rights, but they do not really have the power to dictate the terms of their exploitation. Instead, in leasing negotiations, “the industry held all the cards.” The natural gas companies fell trees. They build wellheads and pipelines and bring in rigs. They pave new roads. Their drilling drowns out birdsong, rattles windows, and ends taken-for-granted silences. Beloved vistas and views end up blocked by private security guards monitoring public roads. Then there are the instances of contaminated drinking water and groundwater and methane leaks, the environmental impacts on which anti-fracking activism has focused. And quickly, an industry “slowdown” due to falling prices meant that royalty checks to landowners shrank and shrank; any rewards were fleeting.
Like Farrell, Jerolmack is skeptical of conventional wisdom and oversimplifications. In his case, that means getting beyond easy caricatures of lessors as either “the bad guys” or helpless victims, and troubling common assumptions that every shale community is intractably divided between lessors who don’t care about the natural environment and holdouts who want to protect it. In the end, the thorniest questions of environmental stewardship aren’t about what we love, or if we love it enough or in the right ways. Instead, at both micro and macro levels, these are questions about the fate of the commons, and the power that holding private property gives some people over them.
In both books, stewardship lies largely in the hands of property owners. Be they ultra-wealthy or land-poor, ownership confers on them the power to make consequential decisions about land use and, as a result, the fates of humans and nonhumans. In their conclusions, both books offer recommendations about engaging with these particularly and peculiarly empowered stewards. Farrell outlines strategies for “building trust” and “increasing empathy” of ultra-wealthy residents, urging them to “minimize harm, move off the comfort of the sidelines, and begin to strip away this veneer by actively supporting policies that defend the rural people and the natural world you’ve come to love so much.” Jerolmack argues that environmentalists ought to “listen to the concerns of Middle America and emphasize policies that harmonize with so-called rural values like land sovereignty and local control.”
But, of course, the solutions must be structural and not just interpersonal. Farrell points to a range of public policies that have created and reproduced wealth inequality. Jerolmack invites us to reconsider the “unique legal and political structure” that constitutionally enshrines private ownership and makes the public/private paradox essentially unavoidable. This is a structure that, as both books make plain, fails to deliver on beneficial forms of environmental protection. It’s also a structure that has historically been exclusionary and violent to the extreme, built on the genocidal removals of peoples who were not believed to “own” the land. As the historian and activist Nick Estes observes, “Settlers and private property have always been the vanguards of invasion, and the sanctity of private property never applied to Indigenous peoples.”2 Today, the gulf between white and Black wealth is the product of a long history of racist exclusion of Black people from control over land and property.
These are some of the pathologies of our material and moral investments in the institution of private property. They are pathologies in the sense that, as these books show, they are morbid in their effects, and in the sense that they are compulsively reproduced in American culture and public policy.
How might it be otherwise? Public ownership is no panacea. The Obama administration opened protected federal lands to oil and gas production. Eminent domain has also been used to secure land for the building of privately owned oil pipelines. Jerolmack observes that what is too often missing is robust democratic deliberation over decisions related to land, water, air, wildlife, and resource use. In local permitting meetings and town halls, people might come together to bring due scrutiny to the presumption of individual sovereignty over property, as well as, perhaps, the justice of depending on the largesse of the ultra-wealthy for environmental stewardship and social provision.
Such scrutiny can also take place—it does take place—at protests. People, many of whom are not recognized by the state as having an ownership claim to the land, put their bodies in the way of decisions that jeopardize the planet and collective flourishing. Years of Indigenous-led resistance to the Keystone XL pipeline recently won a termination of the project. We can fight to protect the land because it “belongs originally and essentially to everyone,” in the words of Jedediah Purdy; this is a conviction we can “bend the struggles toward.”3 To disentangle the power all people have “to cherish what remains of the earth, to foster its renewal,” from the privilege of holding a deed to the land held by only a few, may be “our only legitimate hope.”4
This article was commissioned by Michèle Lamont.
- I draw this characterization from Nick Estes, Our History Is the Future (Verso, 2019). ↩
- Estes, Our History Is the Future, p. 27. ↩
- Jedediah Purdy, The Land Is Our Land (Princeton University Press, 2019), p. 28. ↩
- Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (Counterpoint, 2020), p. 14. ↩