Getting to the Roots of Humankind’s
Relationship With the Natural World

justin farrell large
Justin Farrell
In a sense, Justin Farrell had already started thinking about his doctoral dissertation when he was a kid growing up in Wyoming and Nebraska.
From an early age, he recognized what he saw as Wyoming’s contradictory relationship with nature. On the one hand, mining and resource extraction helped drive the state economy. But there was also an almost spiritual reverence for the land, particularly the cherished national parks and open spaces in western Wyoming.
This seemingly intractable conflict was perhaps most evident in the Greater Yellowstone region, where debates over land use, wolf protection, and bison management resonated for Farrell, whose own family members lived and owned land in the region.
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Notre Dame, he made this conflict the subject of his dissertation. While many framed the debate in terms of economics or natural science, Farrell believed that the conflict reflected much deeper cultural, moral, and spiritual concerns.
For Farrell, who this fall joins F&ES as an Assistant Professor of Sociology, the exploration of these deeper concerns would become his life’s work.
“I wanted to dig beneath the surface to really understand how these culturally constructed ideas about nature get translated into economic or political arguments,” Farrell says. “On the surface, all these arguments tend to be presented as being all about economics or natural science — rational appeals about ‘carrying capacity’ or ‘ecological wholeness.’
“Indeed, these factors are important, but at their root, natural resource conflicts are in the end about deeper commitments we can’t ever give a scientific justification for.”
Farrell, who studied philosophy as an undergraduate, always wanted to understand why people do what they do. Soon, his questions started to overlap into the realm of the natural world, after he took a course in environmental ethics and was exposed to the writings of Edward Abbey and Aldo Leopold.
“That’s when I started to think about these deeper questions of right and wrong and humanity’s ethical relationship to the environment,” he says. “And I started to wonder, ‘What are the sources of that?’”
He ultimately decided that the study of sociology offered the best chance at answering these questions. In fact, he says, unlike many environmentalists his research is firmly rooted in the study of sociology.
Farrell says that his research combines traditional qualitative fieldwork with new methods in computational social science and “big data” analysis to demonstrate how morality and spirituality exert a significant influence on conflicts.
In one paper, he explored how the BP oil spill in 2010 drove home the ecological costs of American lifestyles, shaking the nation’s moral conscience. He has written about how social movements can cause long-lasting political polarization.
And then there was his dissertation, in which he documented how Yellowstone has become a “lightning rod for intractable controversy, social disunity, and political struggle,” and in so doing has emerged as a global case study in environmental conflict. (The project will be published as a book by Princeton University Press.)
Drawing on ethnographic data, analyses of thousands of documents, and interviews with people from all segments of society — including ranchers, miners, and environmentalists — he explored the moral causes and long-term costs of a shifting social structure in the new American west. (He even spent time living with a group of activists that is battling to protect Yellowstone’s buffalo, using such tactics as locking themselves to trucks and trailers. “That was a pretty intense and rewarding experience,” he says.)
“I found that it was really a battle between worldviews about how nature should be used,” he says. “And it was about bigger questions of what is right and what is wrong. What does it mean that my family can’t ranch here anymore? Why do certain groups of people demonize wolves? And just, what does the ‘good life’ look like?”
– Kevin Dennehy    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: August 27, 2014
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.