By Naomi Oreskes, Harvard University
Foundation essay: This article is part of a series marking the launch of The Conversation in the US. Our foundation essays are longer than our usual comment and analysis articles and take a wider look at key issues affecting society.
The term NIMBY – “not in my back yard”– has long been used to criticize people who oppose commercial or industrial development in their communities. Invariably pejorative, it casts citizens as selfish individualists who care only for themselves, hypocrites who want the benefits of modernity without paying its costs.
Communities and individuals who oppose fracking, nuclear power, high voltage power lines, and diverse other forms of development have all been accused of NIMBYism. It’s time to rethink this term.
A recent example close to my home is the Northern Pass power development, a proposal to bring hydroelectric power from Quebec to consumers in southern New England via a high-voltage power line that would trace the spine of New Hampshire.
Its sponsors tout it as an investment in New Hampshire’s future, stressing the tax revenues and jobs that the project will bring, characterizing hydropower as a clean and renewable energy source, and arguing that the project will help to address an emerging energy crisis in New England.
Opponents note that the lion’s share of the jobs created will be temporary, that the power will be delivered to customers south of the power line, that hydropower is not actually renewable, and that there are other ways to address future energy demand.
They also question the promise of economic benefit, noting that chambers of commerce along the proposed route believe it will hurt tourism and damage real estate values. But the key issue at stake for the opponents is not jobs or money, but beauty.
The project is opposed by the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, The Conservation Law Foundation, and the NH Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. All agree that the key issue is the project’s impact on the natural beauty of New Hampshire.
Is natural beauty out of fashion?
It’s a strange comment on our times that we have to make the case for the value of beauty, but perhaps a good sign that increasingly we realize that we needn’t translate it into monetary terms.
People who have chosen to build their lives in New Hampshire – a state with a tough climate and poor employment prospects but miles upon miles of gorgeous natural forests – clearly value it to a high degree. And so do the millions of others who visit them every year. And not just in New Hampshire.
A recent study by the US Forest Service counted more than 160 million visits to the National Forests over a five-year period, and another 300 million occasions when visitors driving scenic highways “appreciated the beauty of the National Forests from their vehicles.”
The primary effect of these visits, Forest Service data indicates, is an improved sense of well-being. Since a majority of these visits involve physical activities (hiking, walking, downhill skiing, fishing, hunting) they contribute to our physical health as well. And the people who make these visits are men and women, adults and children, from all walks of life.
Of course these visits generate tourist revenue, but that isn’t their main value. Tourist revenue is the effect: the cause is that we visit forests, and other beautiful places, because having beauty in our lives is important. It is part of living the good life. It makes us feel better to walk or ski or hunt in the woods. Just think for a moment of autumn leaves. Forests make people happy.
By dismissing opponents as NIMBYists, proponents of Northern Pass and other projects shut down conversations that we should be having about the things we value, including quiet, safety, security, and peace of mind.
We all want energy to light and heat our homes, but at what cost? Would anyone want to live in a warm, well-lit house surrounded by a nuclear waste site?
True democracy calls for open discussion
The pejorative term NIMBY also shuts down key questions about our democracy: Who gets to decide? Who has the burden of proof? And how should citizens be compensated if a collective decision to drill, frack, or burn has apparently injured them, but it can’t be proven because no one did the baseline studies that should have been done but weren’t?
If legal fracking contaminates a private well in a community where there is no public water supply, then what? What if a family find the value of their home diminished, or they can’t sell it at all?
These issues should be discussed and debated, not dismissed. In a democracy, government exists to serve the needs of people, and those needs are not only economic.
Ron Reiring/Flickr, CC BY
NIMBY name-calling also intimidates by provoking what psychologists call stereotype threat. Those of us who care about the natural environment and the health of our communities are often afraid of being labeled NIMBYs, so we bend over backward to insist that we are not anti-business, not anti-technology, and not anti-modern.
Not in anyone’s backyard
There’s nothing wrong with standing up for our own communities, and standing with our fellow citizens who want to preserve their quality of life. Not everything about modernity is worth embracing. We have the right to protect and defend the things we care about. Indeed, it’s defeatist not to.
Most supposedly NIMBY arguments are not NIMBYist at all – they are NIABYist: not in anyone’s backyard. They are about preserving beauty, safety and integrity of communities.
They are about solving problems (like climate change) without creating serious new ones (like nuclear waste and proliferation). They are about finding technologies that enrich our lives, support our health, and increase our prosperity, and not ones that threaten our safety, harm our health, and destroy our natural beauty.
My sister Rebecca Oreskes serves on the board of the Society for the Protection of NH Forests. This is how I first learned about the issue. However I have no direct affiliation with the society, and did my own independent research for this piece.