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Automatically labelling people as NIMBYs if they have concerns about local power projects is not a constructive way to proceed. Grahamec/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Calling people NIMBYs won’t stop development arguments

From coal seam gas to wind farms, new resource projects seem to be pitting communities against corporations, and people against their neighbours. We often see, in such cases, community concerns labelled as “not in my backyard” – the dreaded “NIMBYism”. But calling someone a NIMBY misses the point — if development decisions were really made with community concerns in mind, there would be less conflict.

Some decisions have left unhappy and anxious communities in their wake. In the tiny town of Uriarra, near Canberra, residents have complained about what they say is a lack of procedural fairness in the way the ACT government has apparently decided on a nearby solar farm development. It got so rancorous that solar power firm Elementus Energy has even hired a PR firm to try and win the locals over before it is formally approved.

Could some of this discontent be avoided? Yes, if we restore a sense of fairness to decisions on resource projects. Difficult decisions do need to be made, despite widely differing positions and attitudes. This is not about achieving full consensus, or persuading people with impossibly trenchant views – it’s about making fair decisions through fair processes in which people’s concerns are taken seriously.

An unhelpful label

The NIMBY label, as well as other derogatory names like zealot or Luddite, is a double injustice to those on the receiving end.

The first is that the NIMBY description fails to take into account people’s genuine issues and questions about a variety of potential impacts. These include noise, air and visual pollution, increased traffic, effects on health, future social and economic impacts on the lives of local inhabitants and short- and long-term damage to the environment.

It seems facile to label people as NIMBYs for opposing coal mines such as GVK Hancock’s Alpha project in Queensland, or the proposed expansion by Rio Tinto Coal Australia of its Warkworth open cut mine in New South Wales. Both projects went to court; the Alpha project has been recommended for rejection or stringent groundwater conditions, and the Warkworth mine proposal was rejected outright.

The second problem is that the term NIMBY is a disdainful put-down, which comes with an inbuilt sense of derision. People are seen as selfishly putting their own interests ahead of the rest of society.

We need to understand that being called a NIMBY and having one’s genuine concerns ignored is disrespectful and unfair. People are concerned about the security of their family, their community and their livelihood. Labelling these concerns as purely self-interest is not a constructive way to proceed.

Doing better

Let’s take wind energy as an example. Proposals for wind farms across the nation have resulted in divided local communities becoming the norm, rather than the exception. Division is also apparent in the media where much of the debate has coalesced around those who are strongly in favour of renewable wind energy and those who are opposed to it.

So what can be done? In making decisions and policy, we need to bring communities with us. If we don’t, these projects have no hope of achieving social acceptance locally, or even broadly in society.

The chain of fairness works something like this: a fair decision-making process is more likely to lead to a fair decision and consequently greater community acceptance of a decision.

Communities can demand fairness in decision-making processes. Those who believe that they will carry the local burden of a development in their district can legitimately expect a full explanation of the rationale for the project if they are to support it as a benefit to society at large.

People have many expectations from decision-making processes about matters that may affect them. These include being able to participate in the process and being given enough information, discussing the potential impacts and how adverse ones might be resolved, having their questions answered, and having a say in the final decision.

Importantly, they also expect to be treated with respect. This means that opinions should be valued, that people should be dealt with honestly, and that they are recognised as having a legitimate interest in the final outcome.

Three pillars of fairness

While there are many ideas and theories about fairness and justice there are three important pillars of fairness that are of practical value here. These are:

Finding the middle ground

Of course, the ultimate decision is not going to please everybody. People at the extremes of an issue – those with an overriding support for it, or those who implacably oppose it – are unlikely to change their attitudes, irrespective of the process.

Those with loud voices can drown out the majority in the middle, from whom social acceptance is sought and gained. It is this group that decision-makers need to bring along with them, not those on the fringes.

A fully informed debate that seeks to understand perspectives from all angles can help people find the middle ground and a workable solution. Everyone has a responsibility to listen to other perspectives, understand them, and take part in a debate in which people are treated with respect.

Fairness to help communities decide

An unfair process is one where a decision is imposed on a community. When this happens, communities become resentful, relationships are strained, and divisions appear. Introducing a community consultation process after a decision has been made, as seems to have been the case with the Uriarra solar farm, is akin to closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The damage has been done and people feel insulted.

Governments and corporations should not make decisions behind closed doors, even if they are “apparent decisions”, and still expect to bring the community with them.

People in communities can demand from those responsible a fair decision-making process, so that a reasonable and well-informed discussion can take place.

Communities should demand fairness in these three areas: in the way they are treated, in decision-making processes, and in the sharing of resources and burdens.

Catherine Gross is the author of Fairness and Justice in Environmental Decision Making: Water Under the Bridge.

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