Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bad article on feedlots, with a twist

© 2010 Joshua Stark

A few days back, I came across an online article in the tweet-stream written by a self-described vegetarian, about CAFO's (confined animal feeding operations).  This might not sound very strange, as vegetarians often write about CAFO's.  But the catch was this: the article was going to be in favor of them.  This, I had to read.
After reading it, I'm sorry I spent so much of my time on it.

Basically, it boils down to this:  This article is nothing more than a fluff piece for CAFO's.  In fact, it is so fluffy, I'm willing to say that I seriously doubt the author's authenticity.  The piece is riddled with misrepresentations, flawed logic, and the typical arguments couched in a "wow! as a VEGETARIAN I never knew that!" style of writing.

First off, I'll admit that I am confused about the author, because his "favorite" t-shirt was a bust image of a woman's t-shirt (on a woman) that read, "have you hugged a vegetarian today?"  Also, though the blog author is, "Ryan Andrews", the introduction was obviously written by somebody else, and that, coupled with the objectifying shot of the woman's headless torso make for a discombobulated opening.  But, on to the actual reporting.

The claims of this article are extraordinarily polished - by which I mean that they have been worked and worked to avoid, as much as possible, actually false claims, while trying really hard to address specific concerns voiced by people who actually care about animals.

For example:  "You see, very few people in the nutrition world are ever allowed to visit feedlots.  In fact, some of my favorite authors have written entire books about feedlots without ever being granted permission to see one in person."

I'm sure this is technically true.  I mean, what logical person owning private property would willingly let in people who are looking to destroy their industry?  However, quick search engine searches, or searches on YouTube, easily offer video footage of animal cruelty within actual feedlots.  There is a difference between being granted permission and getting inside. Yet, the author's claim here is meant to give his article a credibility that other "favorite authors" (who?) shouldn't have, without actually calling anybody out.

Another example:  "So if Steve’s (the feedlot owner) is a “family farm,” what’s a “factory farm”?  Well, the term “factory farm” isn’t actually used in the agricultural community.  So, in essence, it’s slang that was coined by skeptics of the cattle industry."

First, note the two "so's" sandwiching a "well" - creating that shucky-darn down-homey feel, trying to hide an industry mantra, that there is no real factory farm, and that farming is still a family enterprise at its heart, with the hope that people will automatically equate "family" with local, good, simple, humble.

But there is something more insidious in this claim.  I, for one, have heard many in the agriculture community use the term "factory farm".  Organic and small farmers serving multiple products largely to their own communities often refer to their subsidized, promoted, competition as factories.  And of course, if you eat, you are a member of the ag. community.  And don't even get me started on what constitutes a "farm" (multiple products) vs. a "ranch" (one product).  It's bad enough to perpetuate the illusion that there is an ag. industry that doesn't include its customers, but trying to separate organic and multi-cropping farms from the agriculture community is downright wrong.

I could really spend an entire post pointing out these little, weasley wordings.  But there are some actual claims made by this PR piece that don't stand up to scrutiny, even after all the polishing, and it's those I'd like to really address.

I'll start with the CAFO definition.  The author claims that the EPA says a CAFO are places that, "congregate animals, feed, manure and urine, dead animals, and production operations on a small land area. Feed is brought to the animals rather than the animals grazing or otherwise seeking feed in pastures, fields, or on rangeland."  But, this is the definition of an "AFO", not the definition of a CAFO.  According to the EPA, a CAFO is defined by its pollution contribution, a criterion which Magnum (the feedlot in the article) meets.  Pretty interesting omission, that one.

 Another one has to do with the author's "surprise" at the diets of feedlot cows:  "Wait, wait.  What about all those reports of sick cows being stuffed with corn?  Well, folks, at Magnum anyway, there’s no such thing as an “all grain” cattle diet.  In fact, the diet of the cattle at Magnum never exceeds 50% corn.  And often, it’s much, much less."

This statistical claim is so out of context that it is rendered beyond useless, it is actually misleading.  The simple, unanswered question is:  What amount of corn in a cow's diet is bad for it?  The author doesn't know, or doesn't say; but by showing shock at the grass in the cows' diets (what does he think all those alfalfa fields are for?), he misleads the reader into believing that he does know, and that the percentages used by Magnum are good for cows.

Michael Pollan claims that 15-30% of feedlot cows show abcessed livers, which more reasonably leads one to believe that the diet is not good for cows.  Also, fat marbling in muscle is a fairly unnatural phenomenon in nature, so one can reasonably assume that whatever is being fed to feedlot cows is doing unnatural things to their bodies.

Next:  "Growth-promoting hormones are used in feedlot cattle as it (sic) increases efficiency. These are naturally occurring hormones that are regularly metabolized by the body.  Most cattle don’t get antibiotics. And if they do, they need it. Further, they won’t be sent to slaughter until 21 days after antibiotic administration, since it takes that long for the antibiotic to clear the system."

Okay, I'm sick to death of this argument.  Do you know what else is naturally occurring?  Puffer fish poison.  Cyanides.  Hell, petroleum is naturally occurring.  And when a body metabolizes it, what happens to it?  Does it completely disappear, doing nothing?  Another bias of omission.  Also, the last sentence is at least misleading, and probably false.  The folks at Magnum have to give a waiting period for cows on antibiotics, per USDA regulations.  We don't really know if it takes 21 days to clear the system, but we definitely do know that this isn't the reason the folks at Magnum wait 21 days. 

And another:  "According to Magnum, organic feed doesn’t seem to increase meat quality or safety.  Research doesn’t really support the idea either.  But, organic feed does allow consumers another option (i.e. organic meat vs. non-organic meat).  And organic farming practices may have some benefits for the planet." 

Holy cow!  Really??!!!  It's hard to address this one, because it's a whopper.  "Quality" is subjective, and many folks who raise grass-fed beef get the smelly end of that stick, because USDA quality criteria include fat where it shouldn't be.  The "another option" claim is a way to give lip-service to an industry the author doesn't necessarily want to offend (other cattle ranchers).  That last sentence just... it just... well, I'm sure you know how that last sentence makes me feel. 

And that was just the bump-set for this spike:  "Sure, some folks think grass-fed, free-range is better.  But, as any good PN reader can attest, it’s a heckuva lot more expensive.  And, at the end of the day, Magnum is competing for the protein food dollar. Mainstream America is currently buying conventionally fed meat from cattle, so, feedlots keep producing it.

"It’s also important to know that if we continue to eat 200+ pounds of meat per person per year in the U.S., grass-fed isn’t really an option.  There’s not enough land."

Of course, the first real reference to consumers is derogatory.  The hapless, helpless little beef industry buffeted by the market and insatiable appetites must, simply must provide what is demanded.  As an economics-minded person, I'm always sickened by the hide-behind-the-demand defense, because it pretends that profits don't exist, that wealth doesn't exist.  Also, the economist in me immediately asks, "why is grass-fed more expensive?" and the answer is apparent:  The big CAFO ag. industry is heavily subsidized, in its feed, in its water deliveries, in its pollution, in its energy consumption, even.  So, we are paying more for meat, we are just paying for it socially, through taxes and social costs associated with its production.

And I've already blogged about how untrue the land claim is regarding grass-fed vs. feedlot cows. 

And on to animal welfare:  "...Magnum wants the cattle to be clean and comfortable.

"I know, I know, I can see my animal welfare comrades shaking their heads – - but think about it. From a profit standpoint, if animals aren’t comfortable, they aren’t going to eat. If they don’t eat, they don’t grow. If they don’t grow, they won’t be much use to the dude wanting to buy a big steak."

I have thought about it, and the consequentialist ethic here regarding cleanliness is wrong.  Magnum doesn't want cattle to be clean.  They want carcasses to be clean.  Magnum doesn't want animals to be comfortable, they want them to be fat.  To be fat, they need to eat, not be comfortable.  Comfort does not always equal eating well, and discomfort does not always equal eating poorly.  One does not have to follow the other.

Plus, "comrades?"  Can you say, "subliminal message?"  No Commie inference there, I'm sure.

And on "waste" at Magnum:  "Magnum recently started composting manure and mortalities (i.e. cattle that don’t make it). It’s gotten more expensive to send deceased cattle to processing plants that manufacture pet foods, so this was the next best option.

"Plus it’s more sustainable.  And the cattle don’t end up standing around in piles of their own feces.  Whew!"

Did I miss something?  Is dog food made out of cow poop?  A sneaky little semantic sleight-of-hand there, moving from all its waste to just its "mortalities".  The last sentence there makes one think that Magnum has folks just standing around behind cows, waiting for them to poop.  But wait!  What was the author's first thought upon arrival?  "“Oh, god, the smell.”"  Now, go to your local county fair, and smell a cow.  Don't smell just the barn they've been standing in, but really smell a cow.  They smell like cows, not cow poop!  Cows, like other animals, only smell bad when something is wrong.  He should have trusted his nose, it always knows.

I could spend an entire post on his "conclusions."  But I won't.  His conclusions, based on such faulty information, cannot lead anywhere good.  Of course, he never touches the notion of animals having worth in and of themselves, or our responsibility toward allowing them to live like they should.  Nor does he address the fact that pollutants in a CAFO are actually additive in a grass-fed environment, and that farmers can reap greater output with fewer inputs, over the long run, with grass-fed beef.  Nor does he address the health concerns of the people working in industries that support this CAFO (like the folks who have to deal with the pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in the fields that feed these cows). 

Please, food folks, stop passing this article along as some kind of new and improved way of looking at CAFO's.  It's bad reporting, it's bad writing... it's, it's just bad.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Connections and connectedness

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Last week, at an environmentalist convention (I live a very unorthodox life, I'll tell ya), I had a typical lunchtime conversation that I thought you all might be interested in.
I attend many environmental get-togethers - conventions, seminars, "summits", annual meetings, those sorts of things - and almost inevitably, at lunchtime, I find myself sitting at one of those large, round tables in a convention hall of some big hotel.  The food is almost always the same, and oddly enough, is just like everybody else's conventions:  Hotel-catered lunch meats, but with a slightly more robust veggie section, to give the vegetarians something.  Most environmentalists, even here in Northern California, are not vegetarians.

Anyhoo, I find myself sitting at a large table, and the conversation always goes to food and where it comes from (odd, that...).  At some point, I give my philosophy (that animals should get to live as they were intended to live, wild when wild, and that we should take responsibility for the lives that sustain us).  Then I tell the folks that I hunt.

Every time I have done this, one or two people at the table begin talking in hushed tones:  "I've always been interested in hunting.  I've never had the chance (oh, I shot my friend's uncle's gun when I was a teenager), and it has always appealed to me as an idea."  They are truly excited, they are looking me straight in the eye, leaning across the table, no longer eating.  I can see their eyes focusing on something else sometimes, even, somewhere else.  They have that spirit within them, but they've never had a conversation with it, and now they see that it isn't just a little, dirty secret, it isn't just some vague blood-bespattered notion without a word to give it a beginning within their hearts, it isn't some voyeuristic vision which they can only feed by watching Shark Week.  It is alive, it is a part of them, and it is shared.  It has an ethic, even.

So we talk, mostly questions asked of me, and always in hushed tones.

What do you hunt?  Do you eat what you kill?

Where do you go?

What do you need/use?  How do you learn?

Well, this week, I offered to take a fellow out to the shooting range, and he bit.  Next week some time, then, I'll be teaching a man how to shoot, as well as just showing him around the American River parkway and fishing with him (he's fished in the past, and wants to start again).

Interestingly enough, a couple of times I've mentioned my hunting to get a rile out of somebody, but it has never come.  The people who have dedicated their lives to environmental action, who have chosen livelihoods to complement their passions, have never once been offended by my statements at lunch, including every vegetarian I have ever spoken to at an enviro. get-together.  There is an honest respect for and understanding of ecology, food webs, habitats, etc., and there is also a deep desire within the community to connect with the land.  Many of these folks were compelled to become biologists, ecologists, guides, because of a need to be in the wild, to know it deeply and respectfully.  I am always happy to find myself in their company, happy to be among folks who so deeply love the wild for what it is.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Flat-out on the Ethics of Hunting, and Fair Chase in particular

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Quite a while back, a number of thoughtful hunters in the blogosphere started a round-robin sort of series of posts on the ethics of hunting, in particular over the concept known as fair chase.  (Phillip at Hog Blog has a good compilation of the links.)  Fair chase has an interesting history, in the United States becoming ingrained in the community as hunters both became less dependent upon killing for the table, and as technological gains substantially changed the nature of hunting. 
For those of you who don't hunt, fair chase is the idea that hunters should use equipment and techniques that limit their chances, in order to make the hunt more fair for prey.  That description sounds weird, especially because we are talking life-and-death, so let's put it in context:  Humans have devised many techniques to very efficiently take animals.  When hunting was vital to peoples' food, hunters would drive large herds over cliffs, use fire to burn out places and drive animals, use bait to bring animals to places where they could be dispatched more easily, use traps, etc.  As we grew more technologically advanced, and as economic systems encouraged larger and larger takings, acquiring wild meat became very easy - actually, too easy, and animal populations plummeted.  Today, in the parts of the world where hunting is not vital to providing food, and where commercial hunting has been outlawed due to its tremendous impacts, hunters have often developed the concept of fair chase as a way to hone skills and to properly manage their impacts on animal populations.

Well, after having read blog posts and comments, I felt just about everything had been said, and didn't see much to contribute.  And yet, I felt like there was a piece missing in the connection between fair chase as a personal choice and fair chase as an ethical concept.  On a broader note, I truly believed that there was something to the ethics of hunting that needed to be said, but I couldn't put my finger on it.

But the other day, Tovar's piece on his problems with Ortega y Gasset led me to a stronger connection to one idea about fair chase developing as a replacement for hunger as the impetus for improving one's skill.  I had already believed this, but in contemplating the conversations related to Tovar's post, it dawned on me that this is a sufficient reason to consider fair chase an ethic rather than an aesthetic.

The betterment of skill is desired by a hunter, at least because of the improved results that come with skill, and oftentimes the desire to make quick, clean kills to minimize pain and other negative impacts on the prey and habitat.   Improving one's skill, therefore, is a "good", both in the Aristotelian definition of the word and in the definition as described by many other ethical philosophies (e.g., Kantian, utilitarian, Judeo-Christian). 

Hunting traditions place fine skill above almost anything else.  An expensive gun may be envied, and nice clothes do sell, but real admiration and respect goes to the hunters who have honed their skills to a great degree.  Tracking, understanding habitat, weather, and especially the spirit of the prey are most appreciated, as are a respect for and skill with one's equipment.  The next time you get a chance, ask a hunter which he feels more admiration for, a man with a Kimber shotgun who hits 10 out of 25 clay pigeons, or a man with a Mossberg who can hit all of them, and I will 100% guarantee you how the hunter will answer.  When hunger and the need to provide for family and community were lost from hunting, and when human ingenuity outpaced animals' abilities, fair chase became the impetus for honing one's skills and techniques.  

Many hunting traditions have strong codes of conduct, strong ethical traditions.  In fact, skills that would be merely important in other endeavors, but not ethically so, reach the level of ethos in hunting because of the seriousness of the activity.  In the past, hunger drove hunting, and good hunters were rewarded, but due to our social nature, everybody was rewarded by the good hunters, too.  "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari" provides one great example of this shared good through individual skill.  In addition, a hunter could very well be successful today and horribly unsuccessful for the next few weeks, or even be wounded in the field.  Because of these factors, magnanimity, humility, and respect for the environs are other ethical claims in which many hunters strongly believe.  The vital need for success, the finality and emotional ambiguity involved in killing and death, the dangers involved in taking to the wilds after animals, and the necessary respect for and constant need to improve skills, all exemplify why hunting lives by an ethical code rather than just a series of preferences, and why the conversations around hunting are so passionate. 

This digging deep into the human soul is actually why many are attracted to hunting, especially in our culture, where few things are left that have such depth and importance, or deal with such basic human needs and concerns with such seriousness and sincerity.

So, skill is not merely something that a person might or might not work to improve in hunting like it is, say, in basketball.  A person may play pool occasionally, or go bowling without practice, but the person who claims to be a hunter without trying to improve their skills at the very least in preparation for the hunt commits an unethical act, as their actions will more likely result in no animal, or worse, a wounded animal, or even worse, a wounded person.  A person dismissive of skillfulness in hunting crosses a line that doesn't exist in a pick-up basketball game or photography.

Without the vital need for sustenance, without the need to rely on others directly or supply food for neighbors and family, hunters still value skill beyond just a neat thing to acquire, and they have devised fair chase in consideration of conservation efforts, and in understanding the need to improve skills, both of which are ethical concerns.  And since the reasons for fair chase are ethical reasons, the act of fair chase is an ethical concern, too.

Please weigh in - let me know what you think of the concept of fair chase, or of the ethics of hunting.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The meat of Environmentalism

The controversy over meat within the environmental movement is a long-running one.  Not having originated from what is known as the hippy-crunchy enviro. crowd, I'd always considered eating meat a natural human activity, though my own concerns with the sadness of death and the moral implications of causing pain gave me pause in my life, and continue forcing me to consider my actions and impacts.
Lately, a number of articles and conversations formed the impetus for a post about the environmental consequences of eating meat.  A couple of months ago, I started receiving emails from Grist, an environmental e-zine, and quickly found a number of articles and blog posts on the meat-eating controversy.  Then, David Zetland posted this on vegetarianism, and Ms. Niman wrote this article for the Atlantic Monthly.  Most recently, Tovar Cerulli posted a piece on providing game for the homeless, and Holly at Nor Cal Cazadora just posted a review of the book, "The Vegetarian Myth."

I, too, have posted some thoughts and feelings about eating meat, in particular this post on the Calculus of Death, where I look at the nature of death and sustenance, and compare the environmental impacts of a typical vegetarian vs. a conscious meat-eating diet.

Although I don't mind a person making a choice to eat vegetarian, or even vegan, I do have serious problems with the ethical claim that vegetarianism is environmentally preferable to omnivory.  Vegetarianism may be a religious requirement for some, or a health decision for others, but its impacts on the environment are negligible, at best; and at worst, the practice may lead to an unnatural perspective on the world parallel to our current food industry.  Now, I'm not arguing that it is as bad as our current agricultural system - vegetarianism in the current system, as an individual choice, may have some positive impacts.  But what is lacking in vegetarianism as a system tends to perpetuate the same problems we have under our current regime, though probably on a smaller scale.

For example:  One tendency appearing in 'vegetarian-as-green' arguments is the belief that since feedlots are usually sources of pollution, eliminating meat in the diet eliminates this pollution.  Another argument notes the size of agricultural land needed to feed these animals, land that could be used for growing a veggie diet with room to spare for the wild.  But, these arguments miss a big point.  As Wendell Berry has pointed out:

Nature farms with animals. 

In nature, lands are fertilized and revitalized by animal and fungal activities.  Ms. Niman points out that the very slightly tilled North America prior to European migration maintained at least as many large, hoofed ungulates as it does now.  And yet, there were no gigantic dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico, no need to process chemical fertilizers, no need to truck food here and there.

Right now, big ag. desperately tries to separate each ecosystem component into its own box, ala other large-scale enterprises, from the belief that this is more efficient.  But this is not more efficient in terms of food production.  The organization 'Co-op Voices Unite' cites a USDA study showing that smaller, multicropping farms are far more efficient at food production than large-scale, monocropping ranches.

Right now, big ag. separates cows from farms and puts them into CAFO's (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).  Their effluent then becomes a waste product that must be contained, cleaned, and trucked out, and much of its nutrients are lost.

Right now, big ag. separates plant species into huge fields, and must artificially plow and apply processed fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides, because nature keeps wanting to creep into these huge chunks of land.  With no real infrastructure in the soil, these lands become susceptible to erosion and quickly slough off much of the artificially produced and applied fertilizers, etc.

And so, due to the tremendous loss of nutrients at the CAFO and the at the field, we are forced to artificially produce more nitrogen and other components to maintain "healthy" plants.  This raises the levels of these nutrients outside of the feedlot and land - these become pollutants, where otherwise they would have been food.  

This is just one example of the problem with specializing and separating ourselves from our food.  Unfortunately, an all-veggie diet doesn't leave this system, it tends to perpetuate it, but without the animal part, which requires more artificial fertilizers.  Much of the protein acquired from plants comes from soy cultivation, which needs this sort of treatment, in addition to the pest eradication that kill many millions of mice, rats and voles each year.

The environmentally aware answer, for me, is to understand that nature puts animals, plants, and fungi together.  Instead of deciding to stop eating cows and drinking milk, for example, we should encourage them closer to home, on grasslands and near plant crops.  We want them working within a system that improves watersheds and provides nutrients where they are needed.  If we pretend we can live without animals, we will find ourselves still trapped in an artificial world of false economy and separation from the land.  Nature needs animal life and death, and we are here a part of nature.

I've not yet heard how the pro-veggie side expects we will fertilize these lands, but if I've missed something, please let me know.  In the meantime, I will take my cues and lessons from nature, which needs animals, life and death, to farm, and not pretend that I know better how to make food.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Utilitarian Environmentalism?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Should environmentalists embrace utilitarianism as an ethos, or are they barking up the wrong tree?

In my recent conversations on pollution, and population growth, I've noticed that many environmentalists claim utilitarianism as their ethical lodestone. Usually, I bite, and try to argue from within the confines of utilitarianism, but occasionally I question the premise.  (For a good definition of utilitarianism, read this.)
Utilitarianism is a 'consequentialist' ethic:  The rightness or wrongness of an action depends only upon the consequences of the action.  In utilitarianism, therefore, the only good thing is some form of happiness, or pain aversion, and actions are deemed ethical or unethical by how effectively they can maximize happiness and avoid pain.  There are no inherently 'good' or 'bad' things, people or actions.  Also, therefore, the only equality among people is coincidental to the level of happiness or aversion to pain that particular actions may have upon them.

Personally, I have trouble reconciling an environmentalist worldview with utilitarianism both in theory and in practice.  For example, utilitarianism very easily supports the type of elitism that many people find unethical by requiring that smaller communities bear the burden of the pollution of larger communities, so long as the total good feelings win out.  Also, a person has to really go through contortions to use utilitarianism for arguing against over-consumption, or to even think about waste as a problem.

But where utilitarianism makes its biggest flub in environmentalism is the fact that it gives no inherent value to the environment.  To me, it seems reasonable that an "environmental" ethos values the environment as more than what it can provide to people.

Of course, it is up to today's philosophers to adhere to such strict codes as utilitarianism.  This is ironic, because philosophy literally means "love of wisdom", and usually wisdom teaches that such strict mathematical dogmas don't make it very far in this world.  But for environmentalists, it may be a better idea to acknowledge belief in the environment as valuable in and of itself, in addition to what it provides for us.  Utilitarianism can be a great decision-making tool at times and in particular ethical dilemmas.  But, it is not an environmental ethos.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Internalizing externalities, cancer-causing pesticide edition

© 2010 Joshua Stark

The San José Mercury News reports on the probable use of methyl iodide in California.

"The California Department of Pesticide Regulation has proposed registering methyl iodide as a pesticide in California to the dismay of scientists and environmental groups, who say it is so toxic that even chemists are reluctant to handle it."

Methyl Iodide was proposed and accepted by the US EPA as an alternative to methyl bromide in 2007. Methyl Bromide was phased out because of its damage to the ozone layer.

So, instead of using a pesticide that causes an externality to the atmosphere, we as people are about to switch to an agent that 'internalizes' that damage, so to speak.

This is also another example of a false choice.  Where's the "none of the above" box to check?

If you are interested in weighing in on this issue, please make your voice heard at the Dept. of Pesticide Regulation's public comment section.  The article above has the address and email, or you can email:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Secret of NIMBY

© 2010 Joshua Stark

Okay, so I have a 'problem' with silly, obscure titles.  Sue me.  But there is a secret of NIMBY (Not-In-My-Back-Yard'ism)... that secret is... we all use it, and it ain't all that bad.

I'm sure you've heard NIMBY excoriated as a concept at one time or another.  Usually, hateful language is aimed at the concept when tied to limousine-liberal-elite-hippie-tree-hugger hypocrisy, like when a wealthy, left-leaning neighborhood turns down a waste facility in their county, and it gets located in a poor backwater.  You can also hear it when people argue about the future of greenhouse gases, as in the case of David Zetland's post here. (if you read the comments section, that's me defending NIMBY.)
However, there are many logical, ethical reasons for the value of NIMBY, the value of protecting your own back yard.  And I'll start this defense, as many ethical philosophers do, with a claim, and then use a thought experiment (a pretend set-up used to illustrate a particular idea) to support it.

My claim:  People prioritize their values, and people who do not value the safety and well-being of their own physical places are stupid.

Yes, I'm blunt - this is a blog, not Harvard.  (And although I didn't include a "should" or "ought" claim in the sentence, it's inferred.)

Now, to support this claim with a thought experiment couched in a series of questions:

First, would a reasonable person allow a threatening murderer to live in their actual back yard?  No, a reasonable person would not.  Then, would a reasonable person allow a threatening murderer to live in the back yard of someone living 10,000 miles away?  Yes, a reasonable person would allow that.  That second claim sounds silly, but it is true.  Many bad people live in other countries, other states, even other towns.  Where we are able, people move those bad actors out of their own back yards, and others do not begrudge them this, (with one nuanced exception which I will address later).  But the reality of the world is that we must prioritize our values, and our limited resources demand that we prioritize the safety and well-being of our location.  That is NIMBY in a nutshell.  Now, let's see this concept in environmental ethics, with another thought experiment/claim.

A person has every reason to keep open, seeping toxic waste from being dumped in their physical back yard.  A community of these same persons has every reason to keep open, seeping toxic waste from being dumped in their public places.  In fact, as I claimed above, it would be stupid for a community to allow open, seeping toxic wasted to be dumped in their public places, or, to put it more broadly, and kindly, it is perfectly reasonable, even expected, for a community to prioritize its own physical safety and well-being.  If you agree with this, then you agree with some form of NIMBY'ism, and your problem isn't with the concept, it's with the application in particular circumstances. (If you don't agree with it, stop reading here.)

Take another example, more positive this time:  When a California community pays local taxes, should they expect those tax revenues to pay equally for roads built in North Korea?  India?  New York?  Arizona, then?  It is perfectly reasonable, even expected, that a community will prioritize its own infrastructure.  In fact, one may go so far as to make the ethical claim that a community should prioritize its own infrastructure, its own physical safety and well-being, and that to do otherwise (to build an equal amount of roads all over the Earth) would be... well, stupid.

Interestingly, attacks on NIMBY'ism almost always occur in only two circumstances.  One is when arguing about the general notion of externalities (effects upon society from production and consumption).  The other, more common time, is when specific communities pressure a particular enterprise (say, liquor stores or waste facilities) out of their location, or export their own problems, thus putting pressure on neighboring communities.   The latter is actually a form of NIMBY'ism, and it falls under that "nuanced exception" I referred to.  The former, however, is typically an off-hand remark that does little to further an understanding of the real world, and it fails whenever specific examples are provided.

"Opponents" of NIMBY'ism typically make an argument analogous to "an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind".  If you push a bad thing out, they say, then you push it into somewhere else.  "Opponents" also add that if you extend some sort of NIMBY'ism into the universal (that is, treat the whole world like your back yard), then you create an untenable place, because our bad stuff has to go somewhere.  Usually, anti-NIMBY arguments assume both that the selfish nature of NIMBY'ism is wrong, and that the particular problems being exported are inevitable problems with no other solutions. 

Did you notice opponents in quotation marks?  That's because these folks only oppose NIMBY when it involves others' back yards - NIMBY-as-universal - not NIMBY as applied to their own communities.  Nobody says, "yes!  I'll take your open, seeping toxic waste in my physical back yard"; they always have a reason for why their place is no good for it.  This is not unreasonable, but it is hypocritical.

These "opponents" also believe that bad things are inevitable from production and consumption, but they are unwilling to allow those bad things into their own back yards, so they basically become NIMBY-people, with a dose of hypocrisy, topped by an unwillingness to deal directly with the bad things they believe they must create through their own production and consumption.  What they have really done is fall into that nuanced exception.

Really what angers people, the unethical behavior that gets labeled NIMBY, is when individuals or communities export their own messes into other people's back yards.  This is usually made worse by the fact that the wealthy can buy their community's safety (economic NIMBY, and the reason why people want to be rich), while poor folks cannot.  The recent fight between Kern County and L.A. over the latter's dumping their literal crap in the former's back yard offers a prime example.  L.A. residents do not want to deal with their own poop.  Kern counters with a firm, "Not In My Back Yard".  Both represent NIMBY, but only one has breached an ethical line here.  L.A. needs to learn to deal with its own waste.  But, whoever wins this argument, NIMBY is not the bad guy here.

People need to prioritize the safety and well-being of their communities.  Rather than excoriating the notion when arguing over who and where gets to deal with our waste, we should understand the value of NIMBY and instead look for ways to internalize external impacts -say, by pricing or capping pollution levels to a much greater degree.