People and organizations fighting to maintain livability in their communities and stop destructive projects that would wreak havoc with the community or the natural resources are frequently labeled scornfully as NIMBY — that is, “Not In My Backyard.” The implication is that people fighting for their home communities are somehow ignoble, refusing to sacrifice their community’s wellbeing for an important project of higher priority.
But in fact to fight for one’s own backyard against projects of dubious value is honorable and important. If you will not fight to protect your home, what will you fight for? All people live locally, embedded in their communities, neighborhoods, watersheds and ecosystems. They enjoy the local landscape and are subject to the weather of their location. A deeply satisfying and essential part of being human is connection to one’s locale: learning about its ecology, special places, history and communities; recreating there, raising a family and visiting friends, enjoying the amenities of the place one has chosen to live.
To use the NIMBY argument against those seeking to protect their communities assumes they should instead be making a sacrifice — usually for someone else’s profits. Is such a project a higher priority than community wellbeing? Perhaps if it is opposed by all or most of its neighbors, policymakers should step back and question it. If the people who will be forced to live with it fervently oppose it, is it right to ask them to make the sacrifice for others who will not have to live with the consequences? Asking people for this kind of sacrifice should only be done on solemn and necessary occasions, for true community or national benefit, not to protect someone’s profit. Not only that, but if a project will so impact a locale and its natural resources that people oppose it vigorously, perhaps it is not a project that should be approved. But this requires a kind of nuanced and courageous decision-making that does not happen as often as one might like.
Several projects currently proposed for the coast illustrate this problem starkly. Perhaps the best example is the gigantic liquefied natural gas terminal called the Jordan Cove Energy Project, which is targeted for a sandspit directly across the Bay from the Coos Bay/North Bend metro area. It is a very good demonstration of an instance where an honest calculation of true benefit is desperately needed. Those who profit will not live with a gigantic LNG facility near their homes, with all the attendant dangers of explosion, terrorist attacks, tsunami aftereffects and many other problems. All community, state and national interests would be much better served by energy policy changes that lessen fossil fuel dependence. But building Jordan Cove would vastly increase corporate profits.
People who are asked to agree to unwanted changes in their homes and communities need to see not assurances that their sacrifice is desired, but honest decision-making that takes a hard look at the real benefits in a situation where people are being asked to give up key aspects of livability, especially for the profits of others. That is not usually when a society should be asking its citizens for high levels of sacrifice. The real benefits of an intensely controversial project usually end up being for corporate or developer interests. They will not suffer the unraveling of the community or the degradation of the natural environment on which residents depend: the watersheds, forests, grasslands, and air.
Those who are labeled NIMBY for standing up to despoliation of their neighborhood and locale are acting honorably. They have refused to sacrifice the environment and the community for the sake of profiteering that will benefit them little, or do so at very high cost. They asked the questions of whether a project provides true community, statewide or national benefit — or is just an excuse, as it often is, to cloak profiteering in rationalizations that pass muster in public debates.