There are certain well-used contemporary clichés which are more than lazy verbal shortcuts. They represent clichés of the mind and the heart. Substitutes for thought, they are weapons used by the spin-merchants of commerce and politics. They simplify complexity and smother debate.
A perfect example lies in that brutally neat little word, “nimby”. No definition is now required. We all know that nimbyism is the placing of selfish individual wants before the common good. While the world is warming up and jobs are needed, the nimbies crouch down behind their privet hedges, shouting “Not in my back yard!”. Comfortable, middle-class and blinkered, they fret about their view, their quality of life, the value of their property. It’s just me-me-me with that lot. Irresponsible and self-protective, they are enemies of progress – sometimes enemies of the very planet on which we live.
Or so the cliché goes, propagated unquestioningly by politicians and the press alike. This week Labour’s official environmental lobby group Sera wheeled it out while complaining about what it believes is impeding the spread of wind turbine developments across the country. The problem was caused by “nimby councillors” who opposed planning permission, said Sera.
Perhaps it is time to look beyond the cliché and ask, in the manner of the old Persil ads: what is a nimby? The truth is that the values a nimby defends were, until very recently, those which most environmentally-minded people would support. The nimby believes that to contribute to a better world a person should start with the one area over which he or she can have some influence: the local community and landscape.
That influence might involve litter, vandalism, transport, the use of land. At its core is the idea that the local should be balanced against the national. Action in a person’s own area is rarely glamorous – it involves work and application – but, the nimby believes, it is worth more than any number of warm words about the state of Planet Earth. The nimby protects the small against the big.
Those with a threatened “back yard” (a sneering phrase which can be used to describe most of Britain) will know just how powerful the outside forces of profit, politics and populism now are. I had written around the subject in the past but until last year, when an industrial wind turbine development was proposed on a site between four nearby villages, I had little idea how much emotion and venom it provoked.
Something truly strange has happened, I discovered. The sort of people whose environmental values I thought I shared were now enthusiastic supporters of a policy which, if applied in this back yard, would violate a stretch of countryside that down the centuries has provided pleasure for humans and habitat for wildlife. Even more bizarrely, the new hero of the hour was the developer, a large and wealthy firm, openly and frankly motivated by the massive potential profits offered by public subsidies. Lastly, in this most selfish of ages, it was those arguing that an enormous development affecting the lives of those living in local villages was a wasteful and wrong-headed approach to climate change who were demonised. These were the selfish ones – the nimbies.
The tell-tale clichés of the moment are now all around us. They are drummed into the heads of our schoolchildren. We should each “do our bit” because “every little bit helps”. These simple-minded and usefully vague invocations remove any need to think and plan sensibly around renewable energy, offering instead a crude emotionalism.
When big business and big politics are trying to discredit anyone impertinent enough to question their motives, there are more crooked clichés. Opposition, it is said, comes from “a vocal minority of local people”. Any planning department that dares to question whether an area should be transformed is described as “sluggish” or “clogged up”.
In the face of this prejudice and propaganda, it takes courage to be a nimby. The qualities of a particular area will seem insignificant beside the fate of the earth. Set against big, sexy statistics concerning the future of mankind, the future of a moorland, a wood, some fields, a village, will seem puny. But it is not. It is in these places that a nation’s soul resides; they are too important to be obliterated in a mood of emotion and anxiety for some nebulous, ill-defined national interest.
These things have been known in the past and, although they are currently drowned out by dishonest clichés, will probably be understood in the future. In the meantime, anyone brave enough to speak up for them around the country deserves gratitude not sneers. The nimby is one of the unsung heroes of these very odd times.
4 January 2008
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