Don’t want a toxic waste dump built on the vacant lot next to your home? Better enlist someone from a neighboring province to become the face of your Stop the Dump! campaign.

Otherwise, you’ll be dismissed as a NIMBY.

People who live in Victoria neighborhoods near Clover Point, and who oppose building a sewage treatment plant in this popular city park, have been labelled as NIMBYs. The mayor of Comox has used the NIMBY term to describe residents of a neighborhood just outside the town’s boundaries where a sewage pump station is proposed.

The acronym stands for “not-in-my-backyard,” and it’s almost always used in a pejorative sense. It’s a way to suggest that any opposition originating out of self-interest could not possibly have merit.

And the term is meant to imply worse: it stereotypes individuals or groups who oppose projects as selfish, or as hypocritical people who would turn a blind eye if the project were built somewhere else. In some cases, that may be true.

But the dirty little secret is that people usually throw out the NIMBY label to feel ethically justified when they stop listening to opposing viewpoints. If you want to dismiss someone’s concerns without having to address them, just call them a NIMBY. As if that term alone explains everything.

British Columbians should leave this type of name-calling to the Donald Drumpfs of the world. There’s nothing wrong with speaking out about projects that affect people’s quality of life or the character of their neighborhoods.

… self-interest can blossom into important policy debates.

What homeowner would honestly say they hope someone builds a sewage plant or nuclear waste dump or a fracking operation next door? Or that they’re glad a stinking hazardous waste plant will likely devalue their home?

But those developments are going somewhere, so it’s natural that those who live closest to an environmentally or culturally sensitive project will be the first to ask hard questions. And that self-interest can blossom into important policy debates.

Was the decision-making process fair? Were conflicts of interest overlooked? Did municipalities make decisions without studies that were recommended, but never completed? Were undemocratic deals made? Are there better options?

These are questions that might never get answered unless the people most affected have the courage to ask them.

When civic activism rises out of self-interest, it can drift in essentially two directions. If the siting of a project was fair, and there are no better options, and the opposition is based on nothing but a narrow self-interest, the movement will usually fail.

But if the neighbors’ initial hard questions are ignored, or not answered rationally and respectfully, if it turns out the process wasn’t fair or better options were not explored, then a “not-in-my-backyard” campaign can easily transform into a “not-in-anyone’s-backyard” community movement.

More often than not, it’s someone who’s been labelled a NIMBY that exposes flaws in the decision-making process, and makes the larger community aware of important issues that otherwise would have remained hidden.

Bullying and bullies have no place in a civil society.

Only the saints always act out of altruism. The rest of us usually vote in our self-interest. We select candidates who we believe will focus on the issues important to us.

When we’re passionate about something, we support it. We’re most likely to give to charities that help family members or people we know. We support museums because we like history or art, and parks because our kids play baseball.

But there’s no good reason to deny people a democratic voice simply because they have a self-interest rooted in geography. Their motives are just as important as the developer who wants to make a profit, or the elected official who acts only to appease his or her voter base. Those are self-interests, too.

The Leap Manifesto offers a glimmer of hope that Canadians have gotten past using NIMBY name-calling to intimidate people. Supported by a wide variety of Canadians and elected officials, The Manifesto includes this sentence: “The new iron law of energy development must be: if you wouldn’t want it in your backyard, then it doesn’t belong in anyone’s backyard.”

Bullying and bullies have no place in a civil society. So let’s stop labelling people to avoid debate on the merits of their arguments.

Share This