Progress? Sure! But in my back yard?

By Kay Dohnke
When large-scale technical projects or social change knock on the door the time has come for Nimby, an acronym that stands for “not in my backyard.” But what’s this alleged attitude of refusal all about? Here’s a look at a widely spread phenomenon describing a short-sighted protesters’ mindset obstructing farsighted action.
© soberve (iStock)

The situation typically has a harmless beginning. For instance, by the postal service delivering a letter saying, “Dear neighbors and residents, we’re pleased to inform you that the supervisory authorities have approved the erection of a wind turbine on the plot of land next to yours. Finally, our community can make its contribution to future-proof transformation of electricity generation. Sincerely, Your regional energy utility company.” Instead of wind turbine and energy utility company the letter could say child care center and city administration (“contribution to future-proof educational policy”) or organic farming association and organic farm (“ethical husbandry of cattle and chickens”). The effect would more than likely be the same: messages like these about future developments don’t necessarily meet with favorable response. Sure, clean electric power is great, the children need education, and the animals need exercise – but please: “Not in my backyard.” Don’t confront me with change!

Far away and close-by, outside and inside

A selfish attitude? Well yes, but to judge or even condemn it is a question of physical distance. How would we personally respond to finding a letter like that in our mailbox? When the necessary planning and construction activities are supposed to take place in front of our house? Suddenly, we’re expected to contribute to the common good by welcoming wind turbines, childcare centers, or train tracks as new neighbors instead of just benefiting from them.

Nimby as an attitude of refusal has always been keeping courts of law busy. Examples of cases include urbanites having moved to the countryside suing farmers to get rid of their crowing roosters and retired Waldorf school teachers opposing the establishment of a new Waldorf school in the village they’ve selected as a retirement location. That’s where a limit of comprehensibility has no doubt been reached – even for courts. Finding wind turbines ugly or children’s laughter disturbing is hardly actionable. There are better investment opportunities for the money spent on legal fees.

However, because a Nimby attitude is a deeply emotional matter, rational thinking often falls by the wayside: the world out there should function, but function out there. Not in my backyard! I don’t mind if progress occurs in other people’s backyards! Now there’s no need to wish anyone ill but maybe another metaphor is a good explanation of the Nimby attitude: “Let me have my cake and eat it, too.”

Is acceptance a question of distance? Yes, absolutely. The love of progress shrinks the closer it approaches our own garden fence. Evolution, in other words both social and technological progress, is a must and may take place anywhere as long as the name of that place is “elsewhere.” The smaller the distance the more massive and emotional the criticism simply because people now feel concretely affected – and develop anxieties – the profoundly human fear of change because new things always entail many question marks. Question marks that shake the foundations of our plans for life. My home is my castle – and the wind turbine, the train tracks are the enemy aiming to cause that “castle” to collapse.

In the backyard of democrats

© soberve (iStock)

The Nimby attitude is like a fortress for self-protection. If change is standing in front of the walls of our backyard we raise the draw bridge – battening down the hatches. Nimby as the last line of defense. Maximum resistance, minimal willingness to negotiate. But that willingness is exactly what a society embracing change needs. So, what’s the answer? It’s orderly retreat: with every additional meter or foot of backyard protection zone the opportunity grows for improved coordination of divergent interests. Can the wind turbine perhaps be located 250 meters (820 feet) farther away? Parental traffic to the childcare center can be organized in smarter ways! When a threat scenario has been defused the categorical “if” is no longer the focus of project planning but the “how.” The “no” yields to a “yes, but.” Anyone essentially agreeing that there’s a need for creating something new raises the white parliamentary flag of willingness to negotiate. That’s an act not to be underrated because the ability to compromise is a central democratic virtue and at least as indispensable for society’s formation-of-will and decision-making processes as going to the ballots every few years.

Bargaining for a win-win

© soberve (iStock)

The general rule should be that talking to each other does not require immediate litigation. Experience has shown that almost all planning processes offer some flexibility: distances from residential buildings can be negotiated, wind turbines be turned off at certain times, traffic dropping kids off at child care centers be reduced. But that means having to talk to each other as early as possible. Nimby does not exclude constructive communication per se but, sensibly, even requires it: because if progress in fact is the frequently used metaphorical steam roller crushing everything on its path it’s better to point out a likely alternative route before it levels one’s own clod of earth.

The character of such a finding process resembles a flea market to some extent: maximum asking price meets minimal offer, but with each back-and-forth move the parties come closer to a sustainable compromise, and in that way cool down their emotions. That’s what’s happening with the SuedLink power line, the 700 kilometer (435 miles) long high-voltage DC transmission line through which wind power is supposed to flow from the North Sea to the industrial locations in the south of Germany. Initially planned to be routed above ground, the plans provoked so much opposition that the lines are now almost completely being routed underground. The fields behind people’s backyards remain vacant and almost everyone’s happy.

An industrial society without industry? Energy consumption without energy production? Obviously, that’s as much an illusion as it’s a utopian idea. But it’s easier to support solutions – and, ideally profiting from the directly—if one has been involved in negotiating them. Especially in the area of renewable energy, there’s always an option to include the local population. Municipal facilities from which everyone noticeably benefits are much more prone to engender compromises than plans that people are simply confronted with. Intelligent negotiations mean that people will only have to bite a soft instead of a hard bullet.

Hence Nimby can lead to an improvement in relations whenever people not only have to give but can also receive something. People in North Frisia produce just a weary smile in response to opposition against wind turbines. This is where both the most wind turbines and the greatest civic involvement exists in all of Germany, and with each rotation, the rotors shovel a pretty penny into the local coffers – the personal and the municipal ones. Here, renewable energy benefits both the common and the personal good.

Now anyone shying away from contributing to the common good would be better off moving to a remote island. But, careful, wind turbines are being built even offshore and a vast majority feels that that’s a good idea. Because for most people, they’re far away …

Kay Dohnke
Author Kay Dohnke
As a journalist, Kay Dohnke specializes in sustainability topics and has frequently experienced how agreement with technical innovations switches to Nimby whenever plans affect people at close range – but has also found that reasoning is helpful.