Whose backyard, then?

Naomi Oreskes recently wrote a passionate defense of the NIMBY in which she missed two key components of an important discussion. She confused entirely reasonable environmental concerns that extend to larger social issues with selfish individuals obsessed with preventing the ‘despoliation’ of their personal fantasylands, and she failed to discuss the larger class and race implications of NIMBYism. By doing so, she elided what is a worthy topic of conversation: Whose backyard?

She argued that people were ‘hating on’ NIMBYs, but in the larger picture, there’s a reason people express frustration with a certain type of anti-development rhetoric. Some NIMBYs are upset about anything that might imperil property values, upset their views, or disturb their way of life in any way — in a classic example, a friend of mine recently got a flier protesting a proposed structure in Berkeley that would have been four stories high rather than the properly zoned three. Such a structure presented some obvious advantages, including condensing urban development to create more open space, and centralising certain services.

The argument in this case wasn’t about whether a building should be built at all, but whether a building should be three or four stories in height. In a dense city like Berkeley, where the population is growing and putting pressure on surrounding greenspace, it’s critical to renovate when possible and build when not, and to build up as much as possible too — even if a space isn’t immediately used, it will accommodate growth. That’s smart development, and wise civil planning. Logical members of the population know that opposing a structure of any height isn’t likely to gain traction, so instead they targeted…the height?

Yes, a fourth story does make a difference. It means a higher profile on the horizon, it means more construction time, it means more building materials. People living around the construction will spend more time being disrupted, and in the long term, the structure will change their views as well as the microclimate — it will cast a larger shadow, for example. But their complaints come off as whining because they’re not getting what they expected when they moved to Berkeley, namely, a perfect and always true representation of their neighbourhood, a totally static community that never changes.

Newsflash: Cities change. And when people talk about NIMBYs, this is usually what they mean.

On the flip side, if someone was applying to build a plastics production factory in Berkeley, that’s a different story. Residents might be legitimately concerned about air quality, pollution, and other environmental issues. They could argue that the urban setting puts more people at risk than an industrial one — and they could also argue against the larger industry as a whole, questioning whether plastics refineries should exist at all.

There’s a certain element of NIMBYism to this, as people literally do not want our hypothetical plastics factory in their backyards, but it’s about more than that. They’re also bringing up environmental concerns about plastics production, pollution, and fossil fuels, asking some important questions. The key one may be: Should this go in anyone’s backyard? These kinds of conversations are important and we need to have them — and claiming that they’re identical to people complaining about chickens on their block or a house that’s been painted bright purple is ridiculous. We all understand the difference between these things.

The decision to skip over the race and class aspects of NIMBYism also stuck out like a sore thumb. Culturally, we have a predisposition to saddle low-income communities with things we don’t want — like picking up our garbage or dealing with our industrial pollution. Unsurprisingly, many of these communities are also heavily populated by people of colour. When we talk about relocating polluting or dangerous industries to ‘somewhere else,’ we need to talk about where that ‘else’ is and how it reflects on society.

If we’re not honest about that, our noble claims of caring about the environment or protecting communities or whatever ring on bored ears, because people know exactly where ugly things are going to end up. They’re going to appear in communities where wealthy and powerful people can’t see them, where they’ll sit to poison generations of youth and communities likely already struggling with pollution and poor living conditions. The concerns of these communities are often ignored in discussions about relocating unwanted developments — including things like slaughterhouses (ew, put that somewhere else!).

A NIMBY is a NIMBY is a NIMBY, and it’s critical to distinguish between the different types of advocacy going on here. One involves a fundamentally privileged approach to life that often stinks of racism and classism — like the community that razes a food garden on the grounds that it’s ugly, thereby sentencing the gardener to hunger because she was relying on it to supplement her diet. Or the neighbourhood that bands together to bar chickens or rabbit slaughter or racially-coded activities like ‘thuggish behaviour.’

The other, though, involves an important fight to protect the environment and living conditions for everyone, and every creature. Opponents of Keystone XL, for example, aren’t suggesting that the controversial pipeline simply run along a different path so someone else can deal with it. They’re lobbying for it to not exist, because they’re arguing that it’s environmentally harmful (and who can blame them), and that’s not at all the same thing as privileged ‘not in my backyard!’ discourse.

Don’t confuse the two. I’m happy to hate on NIMBYs as much as I please, and I’ll take up pen and picket sign in defense of people who are actually doing something to help the world, too.

Image: Backyard, Petras Gagilas, Flickr