Learning From the Olympics: Changing the Competition from NIMBYism to Doing Our Best

The last obstacle to the democratization of decision making on climate change (June 18 blog) is NIMBYism. I have already expanded on the first three obstacles (climate change and the nature of science, science “hatred,” and we are not prophets) in my previous blogs, so I will discuss NIMBYism here. NIMBYism is derived from NIMBY, which stands for “Not In My Backyard.” The essence of the phenomenon is local opposition to proposed new developments, in spite of agreement that they would benefit society at large. In the context of climate change, the most famous examples are wind farms that would replace sources fed by fossil fuels with sustainable power sources. NIMBYism can delay installation for many years and dramatically reduce incentives to implement remedies to a common threat such as climate change. A close “relative” to NIMBY, which goes by the acronym of BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything), basically claims that any additional development is an affront to current residents. In the case of wind farms the most common objection, especially if the project is an off-shore installation, such as the one proposed for the Nantucket Sound in Massachusetts, is based on the belief that the large wind turbines will spoil the pristine view. NIMBY, by definition (unlike BANANA), includes a general recognition that the construction is needed by society at large, so an effective way to combat NIMBYism is to appeal to the individual conscience. By promoting and explaining the presumed societal benefits while at the same time trying to refute specific objections (in the case of wind farms: subjectivity of aesthetics, noise, killing birds, etc…), the goal is to emphasize that the overall project will have more positive than negative effects.

Here is what Garrett Hardin wrote as part of his seminal paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” [Hardin, G. Science 162, 3859 (1968)] (see also my July 2 blog in a similar context):

 The long-term disadvantage of an appeal to conscience should be enough to condemn it; but has serious short-term disadvantages as well. If we ask a man who is exploiting a commons to desist “in the name of conscience,” what are we saying to him? What does he hear?- not only at the moment but also in the wee small hours of the night when, half asleep, he remembers not merely the words we used but also the nonverbal communication cues we gave him unaware? Sooner or later, consciously or subconsciously, he senses that he has received two communications, and that they are contradictory: (1) (intended communication) “if you don’t do as we ask, we will openly condemn you for not acting like a reasonable citizen”; (II) (the unintended communication) “if you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons.”

The issue goes well beyond local objections to necessary remedies. Climate change is a global issue, and the heat-trapping gases which cause it are emitted by energy sources that constitute 85% of the global energy supply. Any remedy will require a global shift in energy sources, and will have massive economic and socio-economic ramifications. Such a shift requires global implementation to be based on binding agreements between sovereign states. NIMBYism here means “not in my state”. As last year’s Copenhagen attempt showed, the international community is not yet up to the task.

Recently, an unexpected source may have presented new insight into this issue. The xxx Olympiad finished and the Paralympics is about to start, both taking place in London, England.

The Olympic motto is Citius, Altius, Fortius, which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. It was a spectacular show that more than 200 million people watched in the US, in addition to probably more than a billion viewers worldwide.

After the August 12th closing, Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, was reported as saying this:

For many years, our financial sector sustained the illusion that it was possible to become a millionaire overnight by buying and selling pieces of paper, but we have seen how paper fortunes in financial markets can disappear overnight. Things need to change.

As recent scandals have shown, banks could learn a thing or two about fair play from the Olympic movement. First, and most important, we have been reminded that an objective that is worth attaining, like a gold medal, requires years of hard work. Success does not come overnight.

What he didn’t explicitly say was that most gold medals don’t come with large monetary or publicity rewards. Instead, the athletes get to satisfy the healthy competitive spirit that was immortalized in the song, “Anything you can do, I can do better.”

The NIMBY and BANANA phenomena are competitions for doing nothing. It would be nice to find a substitute and create an Olympics in how best to contribute to the general good. We need countries to compete for finding and implementing solutions, instead of trying to shunt off responsibility to others. If we can get the excitement about scientific breakthroughs to come close to matching that surrounding the Olympics, we will be off to a tremendous start.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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