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.

No comments: