A book that looks at environmental crises, immigration and social inequality in the Roaring Fork Valley is being taught in college classrooms across the country. The Slums of Aspen was published by New York University Press in 2011. Now instructors of environmental sociology are using it at schools from Los Angeles to Boston. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
The book’s title alone is enough to grab the attention of anyone who lives in the Roaring Fork Valley. Slums, in Aspen? That’s a reference to low-income neighborhoods that house many of the laborers who work in Aspen.
Students in Oregon are reading the book. Associate Professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon Kari Norgaard uses the text in her upper-division classes.
"This book is really pivotal for my students for several different kinds of students in several different kinds of ways," she says.
The Slums of Aspen: Immigrants Versus the Environment in America’s Eden was written by two university professors who spent ten years doing research in the Roaring Fork Valley. The book looks at the “have’s” and the “have not’s” in the area and both groups’ impact on the natural world. The authors examine the contrast between wealthy neighborhoods in Aspen and low income enclaves Downvalley.
In her classes, Kari Norgaard focuses on parts of the book that talk about wealthier groups accessing clean water and air more easily than the poor.
"In a sense, the inequality of wealth, or the degree of wealth in Aspen, is so significant and the kinds of activities that have occurred there in terms of the focus on population that the authors discussed, it’s easy to say, wow, something out of proportion has happened here that really represents things that are happening in many different places."
Jennifer Given at the University of Utah also uses the book in her classes. She says it’s the perfect text to look at the intersection between social and environmental issues and, her students can relate to it.
"Here in Utah, we also have a ski industry, some of the students find it interesting because of that connection. Other people are interested in the social justice issues. It deals with immigration, so there’s a lot in there that people can connect to," she says.
The Slums of Aspen or parts of it are also used at institutions like Colgate University, Occidental College, Northern Arizona University and Boston College.
David Pellow teaches sociology at the University of Minnesota. He helped write the book with coauthor Lisa Sun-Hee Park.
In the book, they examined a 1999 decision by the Aspen City Council, where the board requested Congress increase restrictions against documented and undocumented immigration. Pellow says the decision was made in order to save the environment. One year later, the Pitkin County Commissioners adopted a similar measure. Pellow says these actions were anti-immigration and an attempt to prevent overpopulation.
"Before climate change became a real big issue, for many people, in terms of public discourse, population growth had always been at the top of our minds: we’ve got to get human population growth under control because it’s obviously taxing our ecosystems."
After the book came out, elected leaders in Aspen told the Aspen Daily News the resolutions were not meant to be anti-immigrant measures and, the issue was much more complex.
Still, overpopulation worldwide is a contributor to environmental problems, and Pellow says oftentimes, the wrong people are blamed.
"The vulnerable, the poor, women and immigrants tend to be targeted when these people are precisely the last people on earth who are able to command the political power to challenge such laws, and these are the people on a per capita basis who actually produce the lightest ecological footprint."
He argues the middle and upper classes in the United States living in elite communities like Aspen have a greater impact on the environment than an immigrant living in a low-income neighborhood.
More than a decade has passed since those local resolutions passed and now, elected leaders are moving in a different direction. Earlier this month, the Aspen City Council voted to support an effort by immigration advocates to try and pass federal immigration reform. The Pitkin County Commissioners and the Aspen Chamber have also supported the effort.
Listen here the full interview with Professor David Pellow, author of the book Slums of Aspen: