November 4, 2012, by Warren Pearce

Debunking NIMBYs

Guest post by Beverley Gibbs (originally posted on her own blog). Photo courtesy of Lightsight.

You’ve heard of NIMBY? Not In My Back Yard? It’s a term some people use to describe individuals – or more commonly groups – within local communities who resist new developments. The new developments can be anything including prisons, landfill sites, roads, ‘affordable’ housing, but the term has really come into its own in the UK with attempts to decarbonise our energy supply. My own interests are in renewable energy so that shapes this post.

Wiki tells me that the NIMBY acronym was first recorded in 1980 in the Christian Science Monitor, although it had been in use in the US hazardous waste industry long before that. In my mind it arose alongside all of those other awful attempts at segmentation in the 1980s – Yuppy, Dinky, Buppy, Sloane Ranger. I don’t like these caricatures for lots of reasons that are probably obvious, not least because they’re infantile name-calling.

However, if I don’t like them I really don’t like NIMBY, nor – a new one I heard last night – the NUMBY (NotUnder My Back Yard), associated with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or fracking. Given that there’s loads of research that trashes the idea of widespread NIMBY outbreaks, it persists in policy and media circles and I’ve even heard sociologists talk about NIMBYs (tsk). I wanted in this post to lay out some reasons why this kind of language is inaccurate, uninsightful and damaging. Here goes:

1. Based On Dodgy Assumptions. Firstly, to talk about NIMBY implies that there is widespread support in society for the technology at hand, and that opposition is therefore deviant in some sense and needs explaining. Mhairi Aitken wrote a fantastic paper (£) developing this argument in the context of wind power and it is well worth a read. Really, we need much more sophisticated ways of assessing public attitudes because surveys just aren’t very helpful at all. I’m a fan of Q-Methodology myself. Once you stop accepting that people fall into neat For & Against categories, and that everyone but the locals supports a specific renewable technology, the NIMBY idea starts to look a lot less solid.

2. Not Borne Out in Practice. When we go and research local opposition, we don’t find NIMBYs (OA). We don’t even know how big a backyard is (OA). Is it as far as you can hear? As far as you can see? As far as my neighbour can see? Is there a physical line where something goes from being unacceptable to acceptable? When we sensibly and sensitively talk to local opponents, we can quite quickly find more robust reasons for opposition. For the purposes of this blogpost, there are perhaps 2 clusters of issues to be thinking about: issues of place and issues of specific design. In the first, research is showing that people are attached to places they live or spend a lot of time in – it is an issue of meaning, not merelyliking. See case studies on tidal energy (£), wave power (£) and offshore wind (£). If you think this is just about aesthetics, you’re completely missing the point. In the second, the specific shape, size and scale of the development is hugely influential in how/what local attitudes evolve, particularly when there are knock-on effects for additional grid infrastructure, or if one particular community is expected to accommodate a new development in the presence of what they might see as profligate consumption elsewhere.

3. Nothing More Than Name-Calling. NIMBY is a purely pejorative term and we apply it unevenly. It talks about local communities (rather than the technology) as being at the centre of the problem, it gives the idea that residents are selfish and irrational (when actually in a free market environment the opposition is rational), it portrays communities as ignorant, prejudiced and short-term (rather than educated and discriminating) and lastly, we apply it unevenly by generally reserving NIMBY labels for middle class communities. If you can see resistance located in deprived, minority communities characterised as NIMBY I’d be genuinely interested in seeing that.

4. It’s a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. It’s damaging because having ideas of NIMBYs hiding out in every community waiting to oppose new developments fuels a cycle of NIMBYism – it shapes the way that policy-makers respond and shapes the way developers approach the public involved in projects – expectations of an irrational and disruptive public get spread around the supply chain and condition processes that limit dialogue and co-operation, and this in turn produces a certain kind of public response.

So there you have it – my attempt at 4 reasons why any thinking person should feel embarrassed at using the word NIMBY. If you want to progress the renewables agenda, you can start at no better place than stopping the name calling.

Posted in Climate ChangePolitics