Maybe There Isn’t Anything Wrong with Nimbys
Scottish demonstrators protest plans for a new wind farm development
It is very clear we need to increase the implementation of renewable energy in order to abate the progress of anthropogenic climate change. However, there remains one important question that people can’t seem to agree on: where should these renewable energy projects be constructed? While many can agree on the importance of renewable energy, they often don’t want things like solar panels or wind farms to be built near where they live. This opposition is often called NIMBY or NIMBYism, short for, “not in my backyard.” People commonly can agree on the importance of a common good—such as low-income housing, a new trolley line, or a new mall—but not want it to be built where they live. Importantly, it also is an issue for certain renewable energy plants, especially wind farms.
It seems selfish, right? Renewable energy plants need to be built somewhere. NIMBYs’ refusal to make a sacrifice pushes that sacrifice on someone else, or worse, the plant isn’t built at all. In other words, public goods are sacrificed to please those that value aesthetics over the common good. It’s a convenient strawman argument, but is it right?
Let’s examine why exactly people do not want wind farms near them. What’s at stake for at least some NIMBYs is the surrounding landscape, or the “character” of a place. It seems immoral to sacrifice public goods for purely aesthetic reasons, but the fact remains that the landscape has value to people. Compensating people monetarily for this loss of value does not change the visual impact of new development. What’s at stake for people is the preservation of a valued landscape. Additionally, NIMBYs in locales relying heavily on tourism face economic hardship when the surrounding landscape is affected.
However, it cannot be assumed that all NIMBYs are concerned with aesthetics alone. Some NIMBYs are interested in environmental conservation. It may appear that as climate change threatens to drastically reduce biodiversity, any cost to local wildlife would be justified when planning renewable energy development. However, this choice is not one that should be made lightly. There has been conflict between the conservation laws in the EU and proposed renewable energy projects there. Allowing development projects despite existing laws might weaken existing conservation laws, opening the door for other, less climate-concerned, development projects. At any rate, NIMBY opposition in these cases may be valuable in at least pumping the brakes on projects where perhaps more cost-benefit analysis needs to be done.
NIMBYs may have many valuable opinions when it comes to development in their local area. They certainly have insights that those from outside the community do not. The thing is, a lot of these development projects are planned by people who won’t live near the final product. At least in places that are democratic, people shouldn’t be barred from sharing their opinions
However, there is such a concern over NIMBYism among developers that they often try to push through their projects as quickly as possible to avoid public input as much as possible. This distaste for NIMBYs extends to both private developers and to government officials. The fear of the public has caused a silencing of the public. According to a paper by Patrick Devine-Wright, there is a strong prevalence of one-way communication about development projects, wherein information is disseminated to the public without the public being able to have any input.
Aside from being ethically questionable, there are two reasons that this silencing of the public is counterproductive. Firstly, labeling all opposition to development projects as NIMBYism is, as I mentioned earlier, strawmanning. You may potentially miss real problems with the development project. Secondly, engaging the public shifts their attitudes towards renewable energy projects to be more positive. If the public is concerned about the site of, say, a wind farm, and they are shut out, it makes sense they would fuel opposition. On the other hand if they are involved in the decision-making process, compromises can be made. Certainly, this means the project might not be placed in the optimal place for maximum energy production, but otherwise you run the risk of souring the public against all renewable energy projects. Community involvement can lead to a sense of public ownership and even pride.
There is one case study that I want to highlight. Papazu, a researcher from the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark, did field work on the Danish island of Samso. The island is famous for being Denmark’s Renewable Energy Island. In 1997, it was set aside as such by the Danish Ministry of Energy, and in the preceding decade, has created so many different renewable energy projects that they are now completely energy self-sufficient. This made the residents' opposition to a new wind farm all the more surprising. This new proposed farm was called the Mejlflak project, and it ran into trouble for a few key reasons.
First off, although there were many wind farms on and near the island, this would have been the first project developed nearshore. Second, the site chosen was near the coastline of a preserved part of the island. As far as the law went, though the coast was protected, the coastal waters were not. So this project was in some ways novel, and it seemed to threaten a part of the island that the residents had thought of as untouchable. Seen from this perspective, public opposition to the project should have been no surprise.
Another big problem was the way that the project was proposed. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) only investigated the one site as being a possible place for the windfarm. This zero-alternative approach closed off all other openings for deliberation and compromise. The placement, then, was dictated to the people in another novel action. Up until this point, the islanders had always been involved in local energy projects. It was the lack of democratic processes that, in my opinion, ultimately killed off the project. Had the public been listened to, the site could have been moved to a location that would have been more widely accepted. In fact, if the public viewpoint had been considered in the first place, the developers and the government could have likely saved a lot of money by not proposing it in the first place.
To reiterate, what makes this example so interesting is that these residents were very used to wind farms, but the lack of option to deliberate on the project combined with the developer’s lack of understanding of the meaning of that particular landscape, ultimately killed the project. Collaborating with the public on development projects is really the only sustainable way forward. After enough ugly battles like this one, the public might be galvanized into even more vehement opposition against renewable energy projects. To promote further projects, it’s imperative that the public not be viewed as an obstacle, but as a resource; one which carries valuable knowledge about the land. The landscape has meaning to them that an outsider could not understand; it is sacred. The public also knows the sites that would be the most unobtrusive. Although this might mean a sacrifice in energy production, it’s a sacrifice worth making. It both guarantees the survival of that project and leaves the public more amenable to new renewable energy projects. So let’s stop calling people NIMBYs, and actually listen to them.