Jon Margolis is VTDigger’s political columnist.
Look out! The NIMBY fraud is coming back.
Not that it ever went far away. Though not always spoken, the suggestion that opponents of one project or another were acting out of self-interest – and thereby defying the greater public good – just because the project went through their neighborhood was never far below the surface of the political debate.
No sooner would someone oppose a new highway, a collection of wind towers, a noisy new airplane, or a garbage dump within sight or sound (or smell) of home, than the chorus would begin: This someone was guilty of NIMBYism, of opposing a worthy undertaking by whining, “not in my back yard.”
Now that the phrase has been used openly again (in back and forth comments to Digger’s Sept. 16 story about hearings into the proposed gas pipeline extension in Addison County) it’s time to assert the dignity and nobility of NIMBYism. It is those who shout “NIMBY!,” not those they accuse, who are the fools and knaves of this dispute.
To understand why, consider two more acronyms – IMBY and INIMBY. Neither trips off the tongue as easily as NIMBY, but they are at least as important.
IMBY stands for: “It’s my back yard.”
So it is. And you have the right to protect it.
No, actually you have the responsibility to protect it. It’s called taking care of yourself. If you don’t, nobody else will.
So if some proposed highway, dam, dump, pipelines, wind towers or fighter jets threaten to reduce the value of your property, or make you and your family’s life less pleasant, or degrade the integrity of the natural world in the locale you have chosen as your home, you are permitted if not duty-bound to oppose it. And don’t take any guff from that INIMBY crowd.
Who are they? They’re the ones accusing you of excessive self-interest because you want to protect your back yard. But what they’re really saying is: “It’s not in my back yard.”
So why should they care? Having judged (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) the highway, dam, wind towers, pipeline or whatever to be in the public interest, they are accusing you of some failure of citizenship because … because it ain’t no skin off their behind.
In short, the moral superiority of those who shout NIMBY over those at whom they shout is … well, it isn’t. Both are equally self-interested. If anything, for their smugness, the shouters should be judged more harshly than the folks at whom they shout.
None of this means that those who protest because (among other reasons) they want to protect their back yards have the better of the argument. No doubt there are times when they do not. But it’s important to remember that in all the recent Vermont disputes in which the NIMBY charge has been leveled, there are legitimate arguments both for and against the proposed projects.
It’s important because if the majority – and most of these projects do seem to have majority support – are going to ask their fellow-Vermonters to pay a price – be it reduced property values, more traffic on the road, more noise or stench in the air, an uglier view from the living room window – that majority ought to be able to tell them (with a straight face) that theirs is a modest sacrifice in return for an undeniable public benefit.
But that’s debatable. Though the Department of Defense has decided that the new F-35 fighter jet is vital to U.S. security, many defense experts have their doubts. Retired Admiral Gary Roughead, who was chief of naval operations from 2007 to 2011, thinks the F-35 is too expensive and should be scrapped. The world’s most celebrated test pilot, Chuck Yeager, tweeted that the F-35 was a “waste of money.”
Now consider the situation from the perspective of the folks who live near Burlington International Airport, where the Pentagon might deploy some of these planes. They are being told they have to put up with at least a little extra noise in their lives, but possibly also a decline in the value of their property.
For what? For what might be a huge boondoggle. Who could blame them for fighting it?
The wind tower dispute is more complicated. In at least two of the towns with wind projects – Sheffield and Lowell – most residents welcomed them. Depending on how one looks at it, they either made the sacrifice for the greater good or they got bought off by the developers whose contributions to the towns will keep property taxes low for years to come. And many anti-wind activists don’t live anywhere near the projects. Their opposition is based on ideology, not self-interest.
But others have personal motives. Certainly the residents of Newark and Brighton oppose the wind development plans there partly because they fear it will degrade the quality of their lives.
To which pro-wind advocates essentially say: well, even if it does, it’s a small sacrifice in return for helping to fight global warming by using wind instead of coal or gas to generate electricity.
But the evidence supporting that assumption is not at all conclusive and not even terribly persuasive. Especially under Vermont law, adding wind power may reduce coal and gas use very little, maybe even not at all.
The same would seem to hold true for that gas pipeline. Yes, natural gas is somewhat cleaner and less expensive than oil, and pipelines use less fuel than trucks. But gas is a fossil fuel, it may not be cheaper for long, its production causes environmental damage, and pipelines leak.
Or to put it another way, the public interest cost/benefit analysis appears to be a close call. A reasonable person could come down on either side. So if that pipeline is going through your back yard, it makes good sense for you to oppose it.
And if someone shouts “NIMBY” at you, stand up, spit in his eye (just metaphorically, of course), and say, “yep, and proud of it.”