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Is NIMBYism Immoral?

photograph of high cedar fencing on neighborhood homes

Why can’t we make significant strides in combating homelessness? Why does the construction of adequate housing in high-demand regions persistently falter? Why are we unable to execute the extensive setup of wind farms and solar plants? Why does the emergence of next-generation nuclear power plants seem a distant dream? Among the complex array of answers that emerge, one frequent, simple response often floats to the top: “NIMBY-ism.”

The acronym “NIMBY,” which stands for “Not In My Back Yard,” is a phrase emblematic of certain residents who vehemently oppose development projects in their local areas. Their opposition, interestingly, is not necessarily premised on any deep-seated issues with the project itself. Rather, it is the development’s proximity to their home that evokes their protest. The term NIMBY has an unsurprisingly pejorative tone. It conjures an image of an individual prioritizing personal comforts over the common good. NIMBY tends to paint a picture of selfishness — an individual who comprehends the potential advantages of a project for the broader community and could even endorse it enthusiastically, provided it happened elsewhere. Picture a resident who resists a development project for fear it may reduce the exclusivity of their neighborhood, cause a slight dip in their property value, or result in the tiniest disruption to their everyday routine.

This portrayal often transforms NIMBYism into a moral failing — an ethically suspect character-type indicative of a lack of empathy and commitment to collective responsibility. Indeed, many philosophers suggest that the cornerstone of morality is impartiality — an unbiased concern for the rights and well-being of all individuals. This view implies that moral violation occurs when a person fails to act with such impartiality, demonstrating inequitable concern for others.

Can anything be said in defense of NIMBY sentiment? Is it possible that some NIMBYs could be misunderstood “NIABYs,” defenders of the principle: “Not in Anyone’s Backyard”? There can be instances where opposition to development springs from genuine impartial concerns about preserving local community values, upholding neighborhood aesthetics, or ensuring environmental and cultural preservation. The impartial NIABY opposes development in any area where these values are at stake, not merely in their own. This perspective, in contrast to NIMBYism, doesn’t seem selfish and doesn’t appear to violate the impartiality central to morality.

But what about the true NIMBYs? Aren’t they necessarily morally deficient? Well, the moral demand for strict impartiality isn’t always clear-cut. We wouldn’t demand a parent care equally about the well-being of a stranger’s child as they do their own. Likewise, we wouldn’t expect someone to invest the same effort for anybody as they would for a dear friend. Thus, some level of partiality — varying degrees of care contingent on the significance and the special nature of relationships — might not just be morally permissible but could even be an aspect of having good moral character, of being connected to others in the right kind of way.

Viewed through a generous lens, NIMBYism could be seen in a similar light. Just as it seems socially acceptable for most of us to contribute to a friend’s healthcare costs (despite the fact that our dollar could have more impact donating to highly effective charities), perhaps it is also acceptable to care particularly about the welfare of one’s own community and its residents. After all, people share deep and meaningful connections with their communities, akin to their ties with friends and family members.

This defense of NIMBYism, however, has its limits. Even if morality can accommodate a degree of partiality, there comes a point when the needs of the wider community must be taken into account. NIMBYs still might be taking their partiality too far, just as a parent might inappropriately overprioritize the well-being of their own child above the well-being of others.

If morality does allow for some degree of partiality, if it makes space for special concern for specific relationships, then perhaps the issue with NIMBYism lies elsewhere. Perhaps NIMBYism’s ultimate problem lies more in the realm of justice. Certain people and communities are strategically positioned to leverage existing zoning and development laws to block local development. Areas populated by educated, wealthy, and time-rich residents have an apparent advantage here, thereby nudging undesirable development towards areas with fewer resources to resist effectively. This inevitably creates disparities in the distribution of developmental benefits and burdens.

So, if this perspective on NIMBYism holds water, then perhaps the typical moral condemnation of NIMBYs is misguided. But what’s the appropriate alternative? One solution could be a reform of development and zoning laws to ensure a level playing field amongst communities. If it’s morally permissible for all of us to harbor special care for our own communities, then it becomes crucial to have a political system that equally enables all of us to express that special care.

Renewable Energy and Local Autonomy in Indiana

photograph of wind turbines at sunset

Indiana House Bill 1381 establishes new standards for wind and solar farms across Indiana. HB 1381 gives wind and solar companies the power to install new projects even if they conflict with local property and zoning plans. In an effort led by the Association of Indiana Counties (AIC), more than 2/3 of county governments in Indiana expressed their opposition to HB 1381, arguing that it violates the autonomy of local citizens and county governments to make their own decisions about local infrastructure.

Should state legislators listen to local citizens when it comes to renewable energy? Is NIMBYism a right afforded to those living in a community? Does the reason for not wanting solar or wind power in a community matter when assessing these questions?

According to local community activists, the fight against House Bill 1381 is not about renewable energy or climate change, but instead about property rights and local autonomy. According to Susan Huhn, a Hunt county councilor, the bill fundamentally usurps power that is supposed to belong to local government and is therefore “dangerous regardless of what was in it.” Huhn is not off-base in her belief that HB 1381 attempts to take control of decision-making typically left to local governments. Renewable energy projects stand to generate revenue and increase employment for Indiana, and the state legislature is attempting to open Indiana up to renewable energy in order to take fiscal advantage. However, many are asking: at what cost? Wayne County Commissioner, and president of the AIC, Ken Paust stated that the bill “removes a County’s ability to negotiate on behalf of the community” and argued that “Citizens who live and work in these communities are the best ones to make the decision and will have their county’s best interest in mind.”

State government decisions to override local preferences in pursuit of perceived economic is typically an issue discussed on a fairly local level. However, in this case, many environmentalists might perceive the state as making the right decision, since the switch to renewable energy is overall a more environmentally responsible decision. Regardless of the potential outcomes, should the state’s decision to override the clear and expressed desire of so many counties across the state be considered unethical?

HB 1381 could be viewed as a violation of the rights of individuals and communities. On an individual level, the theory of property rights implies that each individual should be able to determine how their property is used. If the state government decides to claim private property to build wind or solar farms, they certainly have a legal duty, and many would argue an ethical duty, to justly compensate the owner for such a taking. Under an individual theory of property rights, it is wrong to take any person’s private property without their permission, regardless of compensation or benefits. In simple terms, this is basically the definition of stealing, a widely recognized moral wrong.

HB 1381 could also be considered unethical under a communal theory of property rights. One might argue that the communities which bear the burden of changes to the land where they live, should ultimately have the most say over what happens to their environment. The communal right to the environment does not belong to the state, but rather to the people who live on the land itself. This line of argument is often emphasized by grassroots movements, which typically prioritize the preferences of local and relatively powerless individuals and communities over powerful decision-makers who have little at stake in an issue. This point about prioritizing the desires of local communities is especially relevant in the case of wind and solar in Indiana, considering the fact that giant multinational corporations own and operate the existing wind farms present there.

Though these are compelling ethical reasons to oppose HB 1381, taking the value of private property too far can lead to further ethical conundrums. Weighing private property over social values can lead to NIMBYism and environmental racism. NIMBY, or “Not in My Backyard” is shorthand for allowing private property rights to take precedence over activities necessary to the economic or social welfare of the community. As environmental scholars such as Robert Bullard have noted, NIMBYism typically leads to PIBBY, or Put in Black Backyards, as the prioritization of certain property rights often leads to disproportionate burdens. While many instances of NIMBYism and PIBBYism typically involve environmentally threatening activities, such as coal power generation, this case does not involve infrastructure that is comparable in its environmental detriments. Though there exists a plethora of conspiracy theories relating to the environmental impacts of wind and solar on surrounding communities, the measured impacts are far less than any comparable source of energy generation. For this reason, perhaps we should not prioritize the desires of local communities and private property owners over the clear benefits gained from investing in clean energy generation in these communities.

The social benefits of investing in clean energy do not only derive from the lack of overall pollution exposure to communities across Indiana, but also to the global environment as a whole. In the face of climate change and environmental pollution, clean energy generation is a necessity to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Clean energy is also proven to generate far less negative environmental and health impacts than alternatives. Even if one sets aside these consequentialist justifications for enforcing a regime of clean energy, HB 1381 is ethical because the democratically elected legislators have decided to implement this policy. The democratic representation in the legislature might be enough to justify that the people of Indiana ultimately have endorsed this use of private property, and our democracy should have the final say.

While there are many competing economic, social, and environmental values at stake in this issue, there are many clear stakeholders opposing HB 1381. Even Hoosier Environmental Council, the preeminent grassroots environmental organization in Indiana, is supporting AIC’s bid for local control. It is now up to Indiana legislators to decide if the benefits of renewable energy are worth the potential infringement on individual and community autonomy.

Clean Energy Infrastructure, Environmental Justice, and the Ethics of NIMBY

Photograph of a field with wind turbines in the background

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

From DAPL to cancer-alley, sympathy to the opposition to industrial infrastructure and its harms are a cornerstone of the modern environmental movement. An important component of the movement has been the unified resistance of marginalized groups against powerful interest groups seeking to exploit the environment around them. Organized resistance to environmentally destructive projects are often no longer opposed under the guise of the environment’s inherent value alone, but also the rights of people to a healthy and safe environment. Prioritizing the interests of local citizens and the grassroots over special interests is not only fundamental to environmental justice but also to NIMBY-ism. NIMBY-ism, or “Not in my backyard”-ism, is an argument used commonly in disputes between citizen and government, or citizen and corporation, over the use of space on and around a person’s property. NIMBY-ism usually connotes negatively, as those who oppose the development often do so on the basis that it affects them personally, and not that the development is wrong in itself.

One striking example of NIMBYism used to oppose environmentally friendly infrastructure is that of wind farms in Indiana. Recently, Renewable Energy Systems pulled their development plan for large wind farms spanning across Cass and Miami counties due to technical difficulties. Many in the local community were pleased by this decision, with some even describing it as “fabulous news.” The project was estimated to generate 600 megawatts of electricity by establishing 150-225 turbines between the two counties. The project generated a great deal of controversy, with the local paper, the Pharos-Tribune claiming, “The debate and disagreements over placing wind turbines in Cass County had turned family members against one another and neighbor against neighbor.” And such opposition and controversy is not unique to Cass and Miami county. “Indiana Wind Watch” is an organization recently formed to “protect every Hoosier from the unfortunate fate of living near irresponsibly-sited industrial wind turbines.” The organization was founded in 2018, claims to be grassroots, and aims to provide resources to communities and individuals opposing wind farm developments. The reason Indiana Wind Watch opposes wind energy projects is because Indiana is “too populated.” Regardless of whether or not any of the information on Indiana Wind Watch is correct, the movement organized in Cass and Miami county demonstrates NIMBY-ism perfectly.

One could argue that if the opposition is based on false information, it should not be taken as true opposition. However, do members of Cass and Miami county truly need a reason to oppose development on and around their county by an international corporation?  This case parallels other environmental justice projects in that it centers around energy development and infrastructure. However, unlike cases such as Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline, this case involves building infrastructure that is positive for the environment. So would it be fair to call the opposition to wind farms in Cass and Miami county an environmental justice movement? According to the EPA, environmental justice “is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” According to this definition, opposition to clean energy infrastructure could still constitute as environmental justice, which may seem somewhat counterintuitive. Though wind farms do have negative environmental impacts, such as killing birds and bats and low level noise, their impact is by and large less harmful than that of pipelines and energy plants.

However, it seems that though the citizens who opposed this project organized an environmental justice movement, the well-being of the environment did not seem to be a central motivator within the opposition. Much of the opposition to the turbines centered around concern about property rights and safety. Opposers argued that Harvest Wind Energy LLC’s plans for the placement of the turbines endangered those living near them and could potentially infringe on their property rights. Another potential concern about the project is that it was organized by a multi-national corporation, which might not have the best interests of small rural Indiana communities in mind. The Indiana Wind Watch emphasizes this concern in their opposition to wind development, and even described the situation in Cass County as “a truly David and Goliath battle for the protection of their county and homes.” Much of this rhetoric directly mirrors that of other environmental movements, particularly within the battle against “Big Oil” and fossil fuel interests. These types of arguments focus on the justice aspect of energy development and are critical of the difference in power between every day citizens and large corporate interests.

Even if a movement involves justice and the environment, is it necessarily an environmental justice movement, especially when its consequences lead to environmental degradation? If we reserve the right to withhold the distinction of environmental justice to movements that only have outcomes we deem as environmentally favorable, the way in which the environment is defined may become a force for exclusion and oppression.

It seems as though a level of NIMBYism is required in environmental justice, but perhaps it’s not only Not in My Backyard, but rather Not in Anybody’s Backyard. Moving toward a clean energy future will require totally new infrastructure and development, and as long as this infrastructure displaces people, it probably will not pass without controversy. The real question is how environmentalists should approach this issue, and whether they should critically reflect on the meaning of environmental justice.