By Anthony Henry Smith
December 11th, 2006
Words, carelessly used, quickly lose meaning.
“NIMBY” is an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard.” It’s often used as a pejorative by those attempting to make environmentalists appear to be self-serving moral relativists; people who change their values to suit their personal situations and interests.
Even the slightest appearance of self interest can trigger the “NIMBY” epithet. The environmentalist who attempts to deny the charge will look increasingly ridiculous as he goes through the clumsy process of explaining the common good of all is at issue and not personal interest alone.
What then are we to think of the term “NIMBY” set in its most recent and certainly it’s most dramatic context to date, hurled as a pejorative thunderbolt from the usually peaceful decks of the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater by no less a person than that organization’s Environmental Action Director?
It was leveled at the person of Robert H. Boyle, an iconic figure whose name is synonymous with the Storm King Decision and the founding of the modern environmental movement in America.
Don’t worry! Boyle was not harmed in the least. He continues happily at home where he continues to pursue the truth whether or not it is convenient for the corporations or environmental organizations. The onlookers are another matter. They were shocked into a silence from which they have yet to recover.
In truth, it is shocking and one hardly knows what to think of it. But this fleeting mention of “truth” does give us a place to start.
Is it even remotely believable that Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s Environmental Action Director, could possibly be under the impression that Robert H. Boyle is a self-serving moral relativist? One could just as easily imagine Pete Seeger polluting the Hudson River!
Robert H. Boyle’s story is well known. Boyle resigned from Riverkeeper, the organization he founded and successfully led to eminence, rather than compromise the principle that science cannot be separated from ethics.
The question at issue was whether or not Boyle would submit to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s demand that an individual who is a convicted perjurer and environmental felon be hired at Riverkeeper as a staff scientist. This perjurer and felon had led an international wildlife smuggling ring over a period of many years, was caught, convicted, and sent to prison. The time he served in prison did nothing to improve this person’s ethics; he even lied in the resume he submitted to Riverkeeper. Boyle likened it to hiring a child molester to work at a nursery school. Riverkeeper did ultimately submit to Kennedy’s demand, but
Boyle emphatically did not.
Boyle, along with eight other board members, resigned from the organization in which Boyle had invested so many years of selfless dedication rather than participate in a compromise of integrity at the whim of a person whose power derives from his family’s inherited celebrity. Does this sound like a candidate for NIMBY to you?
[Much of the following information about Manna Jo Greene is a paraphrase of information from Clearwater’s website. For a more detailed description and photo see: About Clearwater; Staff and Bios: (http://www.clearwater.org/contact.html)]
Manna Jo Greene is an environmental educator, a health professional, Councilwoman for the Town of Rosendale, Environmental Action Director for Clearwater, a long time environmental activist and an activist for peace and justice since the 1960s. She has won awards for her community service and environmental action. She did much to establish the recycling program in Ulster County. Manna Jo Greene is founder of the Hudson Valley Sustainable Communities Network (HVSCN).
It is beyond belief to suppose Manna Jo Greene can be sufficiently informed to be able to publish a monthly calendar that is emailed to over 3,000 people in the Hudson Valley and at the same time be so disconnected as to even remotely imagine Boyle’s objections to the wind turbines of Jordanville are predicated on self interest.
To say this accusation of NIMBY is a lie would be an injustice to liars. A liar at least has the dignity of knowing and respecting the truth and contradicting it. This is even worse than a lie. It is a complete indifference to the truth.
Harry Frankfurt, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, has recently described this phenomenon in an extended essay and I very seriously recommend it to you. Its title is On Bullshit (Harry Frankfurt, 2005, Princeton University Press, ISBN: 0691122946).
According to Frankfurt,
“Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.”
People who interact with the public are often placed in circumstances where they feel obliged to speak regarding matters of which they are ignorant, but which they feel they should know something about.
“Closely related instances arise from the widespread conviction that it is the responsibility of a citizen in a democracy to have opinions about everything, or at least everything that pertains to the conduct of his country’s affairs.” (Frankfurt, On Bullshit)
In just such a way, Clearwater’s Environmental Action Director might feel responsible to have opinions about everything that pertains to the conduct of Environmental Action, ignorance of specific topics and issues notwithstanding.
There is another aspect to this issue. Greene’s attack on Boyle is illustrative of a deep and growing chasm within environmentalism.
On one side stand the institutions and professional cadre that displaced the original volunteer movement. Under failed leadership, a once vital movement has gradually diminished to the point of near extinction. The “Death of Environmentalism” is a topic that has been much discussed.
On the other side of the chasm stand the ever increasing ranks of a new and growing movement recently vitalized by the public response to sudden climate change.
Manna Jo Greene appears to have been deceived by the dirty players in the power industry who are now disguised in the sheep’s clothing of “alternative energy.” If so, she’s not alone. The same professional environmentalists who have been led around by the nose for so long by the rapacious corporatism of the power industry are now joining forces with the same old corporate power structure in partnering and compromise. Under the guise of necessity in the face of an emergency, “professional environmentalism” is in the process of undoing significant advances the original grass roots movement has achieved over decades of struggle. Professional environmentalism seems to have found a way to attempt to justify tolerating or even adopting the corporate values the original movement had hoped to change.
Corporations aren’t acting to control alternative energy as the result of some sudden vision of enlightened self interest. Corporations continue to be just as opportunistic as ever. As much as corporations could be said to “see” anything, they see only their own, immediate, short term bottom line, oblivious to any impending financial or environmental disaster.
Environmentalists themselves are now joining the corporatists in saying environmental review is too time consuming to pursue in this critical situation! Absolutely wrong! That echoes exactly what the developers have been saying for years.
The argument is that we in the environmental movement mustn’t be obstructionist to the great and urgent task of creating alternative energy through wind farms.
But shall we then forge ahead and sacrifice to the corporate world what little we’ve gained through decades of constant struggle? Is mere survival in and of itself a worthy option for a civilized people? Now more than ever is the time to act to assure survival in a world worth inhabiting.
It’s important to note that GE is prominent in the wind industry, because problems that are solved by making deals with companies that have no moral authority to do business are problems that remain unresolved. I wouldn’t buy a GE light bulb, much less a GE wind turbine to light it and I DO understand GE isn’t directly involved at Jordanville, at least not yet. Alternative Energy companies and interests change ownership rapidly. I’m speaking of the power industry’s brand of corporatism generally. The last I checked, GE was still the major producer of wind turbines.
Given that as background, what could be more laughably absurd than the clown-like spectacle of Clearwater working to discredit local environmental activists in support of a government subsidized industry that enriches the likes of GE? Clearwater is even going so far as to oppose local Clearwater supporters in this matter, including Drayton Grant, an attorney specializing in the environment and Robert H. Boyle, both of whom have served on Clearwater’s board.
It may surprise you to learn there IS something more absurd! The Natural Resources Defense Council is an organization that clearly knows as little about this specific situation as Clearwater. By being less than forthcoming about a meeting that was to have developed a unified position that certainly sounds like compromise, (“Top Environmental Group Seeks To Mend Rift Over Wind Farms,” Jim Kevlin, The Freeman’s Journal, Sept. 1, 2006) the NRDC effectively takes Clearwater’s part in this matter! Both Clearwater and the NRDC ought to have met with the local environmentalists before taking their respective overt or covert positions, especially when such compromise can have the potential to quickly undermine gains the environmental movement has struggled to achieve.
It is especially unfortunate they do this while invoking the name of Urgent Necessity imposed by climate change, because programs that are urgent and necessary do exist. Clearwater’s carelessness and indifference to the truth can trivialize the importance of truly urgent and necessary actions.
As it happens, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., justly famous for biting the hand he himself has celebrated as being the hand that mentored him, is one of the NRDC’s senior attorneys. Kennedy is himself opposing an off shore wind farm proposed for a location within the view shed of the Kennedy family compound at Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Now THAT is the absolute apex of absurdity.
If one were to judge by appearances, it would seem thanklessness is an essential part of environmentalism. It is an outrage that Clearwater’s Environmental Action Director Manna Jo Greene should have been trashed by Hillary Clinton, but more outrageous still that Greene was abandoned by Clearwater. Clearwater should have cancelled Hillary’s on board photo shoot the instant Greene was disinvited by Hillary Clinton”˜s request that Greene not participate in the shoot. Clearwater appears to have become a group of passengers who exist for the sake of the sloop rather than the other way around.
I absolutely disagree with Manna Jo Greene’s defense of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a person who in his supreme arrogance wears his moral deficits on his sleeve. He was himself convicted for drug abuse. He rewarded his acknowledged mentor Robert H. Boyle in exactly the same way I predict he’ll reward the rest of us if given the opportunity; by continuing to breach the very code of ethics that distinguishes his former mentor and has long distinguished a significant majority of those working within the field of science. Simply stated, that code is this:
Ethics cannot and must not be separated from Science.