The Battle for Yellowstone: Morality and the Sacred Roots of Environmental Conflict

Doctoral Dissertation


Yellowstone holds a special place in America’s heart - a young nation’s Eden - and the crown-jewel of modern preservation. As the world’s first national park, it is globally recognized as the prototype of natural purity and goodness. But in recent decades, Yellowstone and its surrounding areas have become a lightning rod for environmental controversy, an area plagued by social disunity and intractable political struggle.

Science and policy efforts are especially protracted in the GYE, involving hundreds of diverse interest-organizations, dozens of state agencies, three separate state governments, hundreds-of-thousands of local residents, and millions of concerned Americans. Accordingly, management decisions in the GYE rely on a hyper-rationalized form of governance that privileges technical facts, scientific analysis of nature, bureaucratic administration, and legal formalism. This raises the following puzzle: why, with the flood of expert scientific, legal, economic, and political efforts to resolve disagreements over Yellowstone, are matters not improving? Despite all of these efforts, why do even the most minor issues still recurrently erupt into impassioned and long-lasting disputes?

My argument is that this modern obsession with scientific, legal, and economic reasoning misses out on deeper cultural mechanisms driving the conflict in the first place. Put more specifically, I argue that any sociological account of this conflict should be built upon a more empirically accurate and philosophically sophisticated model of human persons and cultures, that does not presuppose narrow or deterministic motivational frameworks, but understands that the “why,” in the end, is a question of morality - perhaps even “spirituality” - stemming from our lived experiences as part of human cultures, shaped by narratives and moral orders that tell us most fundamentally who we are, why we are, what we should do, and why it all matters. Drawing on work in cultural sociology and moral theory to make this argument. I reorient our attention to the sorts of “whys”‘ that make life meaningful for different cultures, and propel them forward toward particular ends, and not other ends. These are the sorts of answers to the “why” questions that we need to incorporate into our theories and methods if we hope to improve our understanding of the human-environment relationship more generally.

My sociological approach focuses less on the individuals themselves, and more on the cultural, moral, and spiritual contexts in which stakeholders are embedded, shaping their beliefs and desires. Somewhat implicit in my argument is that, for a variety of reasons, these deeper moral and spiritual meanings are often ignored, muted, and misunderstood. But only until we engage these sorts of questions at a much deeper level can we begin to understand why the mountains of technical evidence marshaled in the Yellowstone conflict have done little to solve disputes that are, finally, not about the facts themselves, but about what make the facts meaningful. Further, this book shows that when we glimpse beneath the cultural context of the Yellowstone conflict, and bring these deeper moral and spiritual dimensions to the surface, we often learn what conflict is really about - and in some cases discover roadmaps leading beyond the thick pines of techno-rational policy stalemate.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04012014-151712

Author Justin Farrell
Advisor Kraig Beyerlein
Contributor Kraig Beyerlein, Committee Member
Contributor Terry McDonnell, Committee Member
Contributor Rory McVeigh, Committee Member
Contributor Christian Smith, Committee Co-Chair
Contributor Omar Lizardo, Committee Co-Chair
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Sociology
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2013-06-24

Submission Date 2014-04-01
  • United States of America

  • culture

  • conflict

  • politics

  • religion

  • morality

  • environment

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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