May 2009


In which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism.

For the past couple of years, a property developer has been applying to build a waste incinerator within sight of my home. Needless to say, I gave generously to the campaign against the Energy Recovery Facility (euphemism is required if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them, as someone once observed). I didn’t get actively involved in the campaign however. For two specific reasons. Firstly, I was quite busy with other stuff. Secondly, I was confident that the planning application would be turned down. Which is not to say that the campaign didn’t need funding (planning applications need to be actively challenged, and even if your challenge is likely to be a success, it still requires time, effort and resources).

And as far as I could make out, that success was pretty much guaranteed. There wasn’t a single local councillor in favour of the plan, and every one of the local TDs and senators openly opposed it. As everyone knows, land rights and planning are at the very heart of local politics in Ireland. But with memories of the Mahon tribunal still fresh (it’s still technically in session, I believe), it’d be a complete fool who’d pass brown envelopes around a controversial project like this. And with bribery not an option just now, the decision had to be made on the merits of the project. As such, it was never going to pass. You could prove that on an etch-a-sketch, as the man said.

Firstly the location was absurd. Genuinely off-the-wall, could-only-possibly-have-been-considered-for-financial-reasons, absurd. The plan was to build the thing on top of one of the highest hills in the Rathcoole area. Rathcoole is right on the southwest edge of Dublin city. For a significant chunk of the year, the prevailing wind in Ireland comes from the southwest. Seriously, that one fact alone should tell you all you need to know about the project.

And there’s so much more. The road that would feed the incinerator is already one of the most congested commuter routes in the country. There’s a project underway to bring Dublin’s light rail system further out this direction specifically to reduce the amount of traffic on that road. You just won’t find anyone on the local planning board who’ll vote in favour of more traffic on the N7. Not without the aid of an extra-large brown envelope.

But on top of all that, it turns out the developer is an out-of-town consortium. And this is commuter belt. Prime land from a development standpoint. Luxury golf hotels and expensive residential developments. Property values are high, but dropping like everywhere else, and existing developers — those with large plots of land in the area and long-standing relationships with local politicians — don’t want to see those values drop further thanks to the presence of an incinerator.

So for those three reasons, it realistically stood no chance. But interestingly, all three of those objections are rooted, to varying degrees, in NIMBYism.

Not In My Back Yard (ism)

My own objection to the incinerator, in contrast, was based on a fourth reason; one that applies to all waste incinerators whatever their location. So even if positioned in what’s demonstrated to be the best location for such a facility, even if the local infrastructure can take the pressure and local property values positively soar as a result… even then, I think generating electricity from burning waste is a staggeringly bad idea.

In fact, it’s difficult for me to get across just how bad an idea I think it is without straying perilously close to caricature. To not merely create an industry that generates profit from burning waste, but suggest we rely upon that industry to provide basic services, is utterly psychotic. I can think of other words for it, but that’s the least rude. It is, just like any decision to build new nuclear power stations is, a statement to the effect that we are incapable or unwilling to act rationally in pursuit of a sustainable society and have decided, instead, to be active participants in a spectacular collapse.

By and large we are not aware that’s the statement we’re making, of course. A big bunch of unconscious processes, dontchaknow.

All the same, in the case of the Rathcoole incinerator, it is a happy coincidence that the objections of the local population were in accord with the Greater Good (if, as I’ve come to do, we define the “Greater Good” as those actions and decisions that promote a transition towards sustainability involving the least possible suffering). But what if they weren’t? What happens when the objections of the local population become obstacles towards that Greater Good? Do we accept that people have the right to continue acting unsustainably even if that behaviour dooms us all to the same fate? Do we allow the psychotic to thrash about, damaging himself and everyone around him? Or do we accept the need for restraint? And do we accept that need even when the psychotic is ourself?

Clearly we do accept that need. We just haven’t learnt to identify western consumerism as the huge episode of self-harm that it is.

In defence of NIMBYism, Merrick has this to say…

NIMBYism, like preaching to the converted, is an underrated activity.

To decry NIMBYs is absurd. We all have more concern for the things that affect our personal lives, we all care more about the things we see every day.

A friend of mine was campaigning against some nonsense from his council and knocked on doors in his street. One person said ‘you know your problem, you think you can change the world’.

My friend replied, ‘how big’s your world? Our street is a pretty big part of it. We can change that. If everyone did the same, then in the bigger sense we would change the world, too’.

I appreciate the point being made. It’s the essence of all direct action politics in fact. But the central problem remains… this is only a valid strategy if we assume that the local concerns of individuals aren’t in contradiction with the needs of society as a whole. When everyone objects to an incinerator being built on their (metaphorical) street, then no incinerators get built and we can chalk one up for NIMBYism. But when nobody wants their view obstructed by wind farms… or nobody wants to abandon the luxury of their private car…

What then? I don’t accept that the demands of the masses; whether expressed democratically through the ballot box, or economically through their choice of soap powder; should be considered an adequate guide for our collective action. Especially when those demands can be shown to be reckless and destructive. A hundred years ago we had, in a sense, the luxury of basing our decisions upon ideological concerns. Our desires and demands could shape our behaviour because our environment could absorb anything we had the power to do. That’s just not the case any more. Thanks to technology and population growth, we have bumped up against the limits.

And because of this, it simply doesn’t matter what we want to do anymore. Our options have been curtailed, but we don’t quite appreciate this yet. Environmental limits will impose certain courses of action upon us. And these limits cannot be shifted by voting, nor by the most well-organised direct action campaign. We have reached the point where there are definite right and wrong ways to act, assuming our goal is anything remotely like the “Greater Good” I defined earlier.

Just as it is absurd to “decry NIMBYism” as a general principle (and it is absurd; I never suggested that, Merrick), so it’s absurd to assume it will always be a force pushing in the right direction. And when it pushes us further towards the brink…?

… well … as I said earlier… “in which I lament, though acknowledge, the need for some level of authoritarianism”.

Posted in: Opinion