There are two artificial urban-planning constructs/concepts that have integrated themselves so deeply into every development debate in the West in the past decade that one can scarcely remember a time when they were not invoked, scripture-like. The first, of course, is “New Urbanism.” The second is “sustainability.” You can propose building a new plutonium-waste-burning plant right next door to an elementary school, and as long as you tell your local planning commission that the facility will have such New-Urban mainstays as a faux front porch and a detached garage out back on the alley, then the would-be plutonium burners will get an automatic argumentative leg-up in every town from Kalispell to Bisbee. (Extra points for a white picket fence.)
And, if the developer can find a way to add “sustainable” to the site plan, then all that’s left to do is to start hauling the plutonium. (“Yes, Mr. Planning Commission Person, every molecule of the plutonium we burn will be sustainable, as will the fake wood we import from Chile to make the front porches and picket fences.”)
There is simultaneously a flipside construct/concept that likewise has made its way into well nigh every development debate on the face of the planet. Even if one is to limit his or her arguments against said plutonium-waste-burning plant to the obvious: That such a facility, like most other developments that lay claim to the term, has absolutely zero of the necessary components of true New Urbanism as defined and stipulated by the Congress for New Urbanism, and that there is no way on earth that anything save mud huts, hunting and gathering and primitive agriculture can lay claim to being denotatively “sustainable,” you will instantly find yourself on the receiving end of accusations based upon an abbreviation that has become much more than a simple acronym: NIMBY.
It’s like the witch hunts in Salem: Once someone points a crooked finger your way and denounces your perspectives as NIMBY-esque in nature, then you might as well run down to your local body-art parlor and have the letter “N” tattooed on your forehead in bright red ink. At that point in the development debate, you can pull out scads of stats regarding the likely impacts of the burning of plutonium on the health and well being of the proximate elementary school tikes, and your assertions will be summarily dismissed as the self-centered (and maybe even lunatic) ravings of nothing more than an unholy NIMBYist.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest published use of the acronym/term, “NIMBY” — which, of course, means “Not In My Back Yard” — occurred in the “Christian Science Monitor” in 1980. Wikipedia states, “ … the term is usually applied to opponents of a certain development, implying that those opponents have narrow, selfish or myopic views. Therefore, NIMBY is generally used as a pejorative.”
I was involved a few years back in a very contentious battle against the notion of having a Home Depot built in the town in which I then dwelled, and a significant percentage of the opposition to our opposition was centered upon the accusation of NIMBYism, despite the fact that, in a small mountain town of 2,400 people, there were very few of us who could not claim potential back yard status towards virtually anything that was being proposed within the boundaries of our humble hamlet and despite the fact that we actually graphed a town map showing where the members of our anti-Home Depot organization lived and — you guessed it — most of us dwelled on the complete other side of town.
There are at least three contentious development debates I know of that are going on in Mountain Country right now wherein those who favor the developments are accusing those opposed as being NIMBYists. These days, it’s like a gag reflex among unrepentant land rapists.
And here’s my take on it: First, any of us have the right to favor or oppose something — especially something noxious — for any reason or reasons we so desire. We do not have to couch our perspectives, or feel badly about having those perspectives, just because of generic accusations often made by unimaginative people who are operating under their own selfish agenda (usually an agenda that includes personal fiscal gain).
And, second, NIMBYism is the most fundamental, rational and therefore justified response to any proposal in the world, regardless of the supposed “greater good” that so many people cite when castigating supposed NIMBYists. Yeah, there’s little doubt that almost every town could benefit mightily from having a new, state-of-the-art halfway house for (hopefully) reformed sex offenders. You propose putting it right in my back yard, or even my part of town, and I’m going to offer a counter-proposal: That we put in it YOUR back yard.
The pejorative accusation of NIMBYism needs to cease and desist, especially in the small towns of the West, where, when you get right down to it, everything is in the back yard of all of us. The reflexive accusation of NIMBYism too often these days dilutes more-earnest public dialogue about the projects that most often have community-wide effects. And, more than that, the accusation is a flat-out insult that, by its mere use, makes a lot of people even more inclined to dig their heels in and fight for the sanctity of their back yard, the most important piece of real estate on earth.