Is NIMBYism the new environmentalism?
I’ve been involved in the environmental movement since the early 1990s. During that time I’ve seen about everything there is to see in terms of the scope and dynamics of the movement; from radical student groups to mainstream environmental law organizations, from local citizens committees to international juggernauts like Greenpeace, from rural concerns to urban ideas, from eco-chique to eco-feminism, from letter writing campaigns to protests in the streets. I’ve also been able to contemplate the major shifts in the movement as well as public mood swings regarding environmentalism. However, I did not anticipate what has developed in the last few years. I believe the movement as I’ve known it is decaying and being replaced by a phenomenon known as Nimbyism (or Not In My Backyard-ism).
Most of my time in the environmental movement has been spent working with university students either as a student myself or as the director of the New Brunswick Environmental Law Clinic. From what used to be the engines of the movement, the student presence has basically disappeared especially here in New Brunswick. As for the more mainstream elements – I speak of the big environmental organizations like World Wildlife Fund, Sierra Club, and hundreds of regional groups – they have been much more discreet. The real energy is coming from citizens who are dealing with encroachment issues and potential pollution on their properties.
In New Brunswick, these types of battles are the only ones making the headlines, although they are certainly garnering significant public attention. I’m obviously referring to the anti-shale gas movement. Protests and arrests have been the order of the day for over 5 months now.
If you look closely at what is happening, you’ll see that the “movement” is dominated by individuals who are concerned about what the fracking industry represents for their communities and their properties. Groups like the Conservation Council are offering their support but they have been relegated to the sidelines.
The phenomenon is not new and some historians will say that the modern environmental movement began when toxic pollution started affecting people in their own backyards. However, after this initial wave of concern by individuals and one-issue groups, bona fide organizations were formed. Public interest environmental organizations started popping up everywhere and they took on many forms such as those focused on lobbying governments for better laws, those involved in direct action and a plethora of groups dedicated to public awareness.
Over the last 5 decades, one-issue groups remained a major element of the environmental movement but most environmentalists were focused on building a wider movement interested in the public interest and the health of the overall environment. But lately, the reverse seems to be occurring; public interest groups seem to be fading away and giving way to the Nimbies.
To be sure, Nimbyism has a negative connotation and I hesitate to use it at all because I believe every person has a legitimate right to stand up to anyone who threatens the peaceful enjoyment of their property (as long as that peaceful enjoyment does not threaten others or the environment). But the very fact that these are the types of issues garnering the most attention and interest today may be indicative of our troubled times.
People seem to be complacent and self-interested like never before. Perhaps this is due to economic downturns and the precarious state of employment which forces individuals to focus on their own personal survival. But I don’t think so. I believe the precarious state of our environment (and of our economy for that matter) is compounded by our ever increasing desires to acquire personal wealth and stuff. We are distracted with the pursuit of everything. For example, university students are not only struggling to make ends meet because of high tuition fees but also because of the perceived need to own a vehicle and to live lavishly even while in school. If you look around, student environmental organizations are much less popular today, perhaps because of all these distractions. And the student groups are not the only ones suffering. Many local and regional environmental organizations are on life-support because of dwindling memberships and a lack of funds.
In the end, the marketing forces of Madison Avenue may have convinced the majority of citizens that consumption and the pursuit of wealth should be everyone’s main concern. More troubling, the overall social, economic and political climate may have convinced most people – even the supposedly idealistic youth – that the battles for justice and a healthy environment are not winnable.
It may very well be the case, unless, that is, people are facing a loss in their own backyard. It appears hope for that kind of justice hasn’t been extinguished yet.