I’ve been thinking a lot about NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) recently. For those who are not familiar, it is a term that came into popular usage in the 80s to describe residents who oppose to a public works project (e.g. nuclear power plant, toxic waste dump…) when it is being built near them, even if they acknowledge that the project is necessary. There was a story on NPR about east coasters opposing new offshore drilling and exploration that is a good current example. The idea I’ve been thinking about (that I will try to elucidate for you over the course of this post) is as follows: Conservation is not a means of protecting resources eternally, but a process of storing resources until the economic situation becomes dire enough that public need for economic vitality triumphs over environmental protection.
To me, the quintessential case of this is when a park gets sold when times get tough. One particularly interesting example is that of Oklahoma’s Lake Texoma State Park. It was a small State Park (1,882 acres) along the shores of a large artificial lake on the southern border of Oklahoma. According to StateImpact Oklahoma, it was a popular park, featuring camping, fishing, and water sports. Due to budget cuts, the state agreed to sell the park to private developers for $14.6 million, with the stipulation that the developers would create a park of “equal value” to replace it. Unfortunately, the company that bought the park never replaced it, nor even built the multimillion dollar retreat they had planned, likely a victim of the recession. The state held on to the park until it became a financial burden, then sold it off without putting in the proper safeguards to replace it. Today, it appears that the area is in limbo; some still call it a state park, but it is not on any OK government websites.
A bigger example is that of Virunga National Park in the Congo. It is Africa’s oldest park, but the brutal civil war in the country has meant that oil company SOCO was able to secure permission to enter the park and begin oil exploration. The company assured everyone that their drilling was nowhere near endangered Gorilla habitat, but fears persisted. Currently, SOCO has agreed not to drill for oil without permission from the DRC and UNESCO, but it still maintains a presence within the park, just in case.
We tend to view our conserved lands as inviolable, but the reality is that their protection is maintained by pieces of paper and promises. I started off talking about NIMBY because I think that the most outspoken critics of local environmental offenders tend to be people who are well-off enough to fight them. Environmental degradation has a short-term economical benefit, even if it has long-term losses. The federal government has made the strategic decision that the desire for cheap oil is greater than the American people’s resistance to offshore drilling. What will happen when our desire for cheap oil outstrips our desire to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What will happen if, in 50 years, we begin to run out of a rare element like manganese, and happen to discover a reserve in South Dakota’s Black Hills? Will we be resolute enough to bear the economic burden of true conservation?
The other side of NIMBYism is the other backyard. I think this often gets overlooked in environmentalists’ discussions. Essentially, when you protect a certain resource from extraction without addressing the demand for the resource, you are ensuring that the exploitation will just happen in a poorer person’s backyard instead. If we refuse to drill for oil in the Atlantic, drilling will just increase in Texas or Canada or Iraq. The interesting part is that that oil doesn’t go anywhere. As long as demand remains high, developers will return for the oil years down the road when it runs low elsewhere; and they’ll be offering higher prices. As long as demand remains high, NIMBYists are actually acting so that their children will be offered a higher price for their resources. Sadly, I fail to see a future where environmental conservation does not revert to economic realities given a long enough time scale (and continued population growth). Hopefully, if we work hard enough to conserve, our descendants will at least get a better price for their goods.