Krystyn Tully, Waterkeeper.ca
It finally feels like spring: the sun is out, the crocuses are up, and temperatures are climbing above freezing. It is a time for new life and fresh starts.
This spring, we would like to make a pact with you. Let’s ban the un-word “NIMBY”. If you care about the environment and your neighbours (and we are pretty sure that you do), it’s a good pact to make.
NIMBY, of course, means “Not In My Backyard”. The acronym is usually hurled at someone who does not want something to happen – you guessed it – in his or her neighbourhood. NIMBYs are generally viewed as anti-progress, standing in the way of proposals that will mean jobs or infrastructure to a community. The thing about the NIMBY label is that it can be applied to anyone, in any situation, who opposes any idea, for any reason. Don’t want to live next to an incinerator? You’re a NIMBY. Don’t want the city putting a highway through your backyard? NIMBY. Hate windmills? NIMBY.
A person who raises legitimate, science-based concerns about a development proposal is called a NIMBY. A person who raises heck for political purposes with no legitimate argument is also called a NIMBY. The word has no meaning; it’s just meant to marginalize anyone and everyone who speaks out.
Consider this recent conversation with one of our staff members in the foyer at the Darlington new nuclear hearing:
STRANGER: You’re just a bunch of suits from Toronto coming to our community to tell us that nuclear power is bad.
LOW: Actually, we are from this community as well.
STRANGER: Yeah, well, then you’re just a bunch of NIMBYs!
See? It doesn’t actually matter where you are from. You are either an outsider or a NIMBY. The real issue is that no one wants to hear anything bad about anything ever.
This is a big, big problem, and we need to make a pact to do better.
It is difficult to talk with great certainty about projects that do not yet exist. We try to predict the environmental, social, cultural, and economic impacts. Our predictions are usually educated and well-reasoned, but they are still, at their heart, guesses.
The word NIMBY is used to dismiss criticisms or concerns and promote a pro-development outcome. It is used to try to convince you to bypass the educated and well-reasoned parts of the decision-making process, to ignore sometimes legitimate and important critiques. To embrace all positive predictions and to tune out any negative ones. The word NIMBY is the environmental decision-maker’s equivalent of clamping your hands over your ears and singing at the top of your lungs (“Lah lah lah lah lah!”) so you will not have to hear bad news.
We need to grow up. We need to talk about things, nuanced things, like how big a project will be and where the best place is to site it. We need to move beyond the black and white world of “I love Technology X!” and “I hate Technology Y!” to a really messy, grey world where some technologies are good some of the time, but not so good at other times.
We may love wind turbines, but no one would want to put one smack dab in the middle of an airport runway. We may believe our town needs a new road, but we may choose not to put it through a schoolyard where children are playing. You can love a project, but easily disagree with other people about the best place to put it. “Siting” is often one of the most important parts of an environmental decision and we never, ever talk about it anymore.
So, in the interests of making the best possible decisions about our community’s future, let’s make this springtime pact: no more “NIMBY” slurs. Let’s be smart, rational, and practical, instead. Let’s talk about siting. Let’s be smart, and allow for nuances and criticisms and debate. Legitimate concerns, if heeded, will always make a project better and a community stronger. Illegitimate concerns, the ones not based on science and not delivered in good faith, they will fall by the wayside; like bad project proposals, they can’t withstand scrutiny.
Popular wisdom tells us that the word NIMBY was coined by the American Nuclear Association in 1980. It’s been thirty-one years of name-calling and marginalization. This spring, let’s put it to rest.