Nimbyism and environmental justice

by Rob Horning

8 September 2007


Is there anyway to avoid the sort of NIMBYism that leads to teh inevitable outcome of poor neighborhoods being saddled with toxic waste, pollutants, garbage dumps, waste treatment plants, and undesirable industrial activity? An article by Amanda Griscom Little in last week’s NYT magazine took a look at the problem, focusing on the concept of environmental justice, which presumes all Americans have an equal right to a safe environment—a wonderfully egalitarian notion that few would disagree with, until the consequences are considered.

are environmental-justice goals always compatible with economic growth? There is a debate, says Daniel Doctoroff, New York City’s deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding: “On the one hand, environmental issues, versus having more jobs.” Real estate is scarce. No matter how clean and efficient industrial sites are, he says, “there will always be things that nobody wants, and we have to find places to put them.” And taxpayers will inevitably question why they should foot the bill for a sewage-treatment plant on the Upper East Side when it could be placed in a far less expensive neighborhood.

Some critics of the environmental-justice movement go further. It is not surprising, they say, that land near toxic sites is inexpensive and that the people who live there are poor. “It’s neither possible nor desirable in a free society to have all groups living equally close to everything — be it libraries or landfills,” argues Michael Steinberg, a Washington lawyer with clients in the chemical industry. “Even the old Soviet Politburo would have a hard time pulling that one off.” The mere fact of disparate impact, he says, is not evidence of intentional discrimination in the placement of polluting facilities — it’s just economics.

Despite the purely demagogic reference to the Soviet Union, I find myself surprisingly sympathetic to the corporate lawyer’s point of view. Wherever you locate certain undesirable facilities, the land around them will become devalued, creating slums. I have friends who live near a recently constructed bus depot in East Harlem; they were none to pleased about its being built and participated in some fruitless protests against it. They thought it might be relocated in the Upper East Side, only what would happen then? The value of the land around it there would decrease—hitting the city’s tax take much more drastically and thus compromising the sort of services it could provide. Or the depot could have not been built at all, thus debilitating the transportation that people in neighborhoods like East Harlem tend to particularly rely on.

Is it unfair? Yes. I’m sure the lawyer would advise those living in undesirable areas to make more money and move elsewhere. That’s the basic economic solution to everything—let the money do the talking via “free” markets. Of course,the markets are free only to the extent that opportunities for amassing money are equally open to all, and that’s obviously not true—the poor begin disadvantaged in that regard, and then the consequences of being poor—insufficient and inferior education, limited access, internalizing self-defeating habits, etc.—widen the opportunity gap. The alternative to the free market solution to the Nimby problem is to either forbid residential use of the land near dangerous facilities, or to force industry to take further precautions to prevent its making the surrounding environment unsafe—this is probably what the environmental justice crusaders are concentrating on. The point at which class discrimination rather than the dismal realities of economic distribution enters the scenario is when firms capitalize on the disorganization and helplessness of poor populations to break the laws that are meant to control the damage they do to the surrounding environs. Sustainable South Bronx, the group Griscom Little highlights, wants to usual legal challenges to prevent polluting industry from coming in, while simultaneously encouraging the development of green energy. But the same sort of economic problems emerge with this sort of solution as with the bus depot, only in reverse—if green energy concerns thrive, they make the locus of such industries desirable places to be, eventually crowding out the poor who may happen to live near them. Ultimately, those with means will avoid undesirable locales and buy up more-desirable land unless state intervention prevents Nimbyism by fiat. And the money involved in democratic politics will assure that never happens. What good is the bourgeois state if it can’t protect property rights, and by extension the best property money can buy?

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