At a recent hearing on natural gas drilling in my county, a rancher stood before our planning commission and said, "I support President Bush's policies to make America energy independent, and I don't want to be a NIMBY, but ... " He then went on to outline the catastrophic impacts gas drilling could have on Delta County's outfitting and big-game hunting economies.
His dilemma is a real one. Whether it's gas drilling in western Colorado, or nuclear waste storage in Yucca Mountain, Nev., or a South Carolina governor threatening to lie down on the train tracks to stop nuclear waste from entering his state, Not-In-My-Back-Yardism is everywhere. Yet no one wants to be a NIMBY.
The people who say that they don't want to bear the burden of our nation's energy development or radioactive-waste disposal are called unpatriotic or hypocritical. In my county, the pointed attack against NIMBYism goes, "How do you heat your home?" and we are forced to admit that we do indeed warm our homes, light our stoves and heat our water, often with natural gas.
But is this the end of the debate? After all, NIMBYs often say no because they have legitimate concerns. Should they sit meek and silent while their livelihoods, property values, water and communities are destroyed by the gas drilling industry? Should we say to them, "Too bad, you live in the wrong spot. Suck it up, sacrifice for the nation and suffer?"
NIMBY tells us something important. The cowboy standing up in a public meeting to enumerate economic and wildlife impacts to his county is telling us that every time we turn on a gas stove and experience the warm glow of cheap, readily available fuel, we are taking pleasure while he or someone like him suffers the real cost.
NIMBY is the warning sign that tells us our system is broken. It tells us that some energy companies choose to ignore their impacts, either because they believe the impacts are too expensive to remedy, or because impacts are "externalities," unconnected to profits. NIMBY tells us that our government bureaucrats haven't been paying attention to the public welfare.
A friend of mine has a son growing up in the Bronx. One in two children in his neighborhood have respiratory problems. Not coincidentally, a solid-waste incinerator sits nearby. The neighborhood couldn't muster the political clout to force the incinerator elsewhere. If there'd been a few more NIMBYs in this part of New York, my friend's son would be breathing a lot easier today. Instead, he sits and breathes medicine through a mask. He's 5 years old.
NIMBY tells us about morality. NIMBY tells us that some of our industries and wastes not only shouldn't be in my backyard, it's possible they shouldn't be in anyone's backyard. If gas companies and nuclear industries and trash incinerators can't or won't care for the damage they inflict on their neighbors, then we as a nation need 1) to pay more so that these companies can afford to be responsible neighbors, or 2) change the way we consume so that our actions don't make other people suffer.
Knowing how the gas industry behaves in Colorado, I feel differently about turning on my gas stove. I use it consciously and sparingly, knowing that someone far away may have suffered when this gas was extracted.
As for the NIMBYs in my own county, I'm joining them. We're going to fight the gas drillers until they agree to respect our water, our wildlife and our communities, and we're going to fight the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission until it starts behaving like a responsible regulatory agency. We're going to fight until our county is safe from an industry that has run amok. Until things improve, I'm a NIMBY, and I won't apologize. If I don't protect my backyard, who will?
Paolo Bacigalupi writes from Sunshine Mesa near Paonia, Colorado.
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