19 September 2013

Are we NIMBYs?

Cross-posted from Solidarity Hall

This past weekend, after finishing up my college exams I decided to help my best mate here in Baotou, R—, and his wife move into their new apartment. This apartment is located in Binhe, a brand-new development on the outskirts of Baotou, in the middle of what used to be farmland; their complex is a collection of 25-storey high-rises each made up of 2-storey units, the exterior in the usual Brutalist style of so much of modern Chinese architecture, albeit painted in a glaring Fauvist palette. The gardens are as yet incomplete, yet they look as though they will finally be a heavily-manicured affair, dotted with concrete-and-glass modernist sculpture, fountains and waterfalls and carefully-trimmed flowerbeds. My friend asked me if I would like to get in on the development, as there were still a few units up for sale; I politely but definitively demurred.

They needed help putting in the flooring, and since the staircase in their unit hadn’t been installed yet, the labour involved shovelling the sand which was to go under the tiling, and tossing it up onto the second-floor balcony. This was heavy work, and we required a large number of breaks, during which I would look out the window. My mate’s wife pointed out the view, which was indeed impressive, of the Yellow River, which could be seen in the distance from where we were once the sun had burnt away the morning smog. But my eyes always drifted down toward where Binhe was still being constructed. Not all of the new developments were in the ‘traditional’ Brutalist style so typical of post-Mao China – indeed, quite a few of them were clearly more upscale, imitating colonial American architecture with large windows, balconies and square fronts with columns, though the bright blue roofs were scalloped and sloped in a style clearly meant to recall more traditionalist Chinese architecture. Clearly, though, the residents of these new developments were quite a few cuts above a mere English teacher’s paygrade (quite generous though that is in Baotou).

Then, looking off across the street from that, were a collection of one-storey houses, flat-roofed, some aligned in a siheyuan style and others standing singly. Obviously the inhabitants were not wealthy, but they looked as though they had been very recently disturbed. Debris and piles of loose dirt were scattered about the unpaved streets and driveways, though there were several brand-new signs for restaurants and small shops.

R— asked me what I thought of the new apartment and development. I remember I hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before replying, ‘If this development were in the United States, I would have some serious moral objections to it. For example, those folks out there—’ I said, pointing to the old houses across the street, ‘what do they do?’

‘Well, they used to be farmers, I think. But they ended up selling this land to the Binhe developers. Nowadays I think they work elsewhere, here in construction or else they’re opening up shops.’

‘So how do you think they regard these new developments?’

‘Well, they probably aren’t too happy about it,’ R— said, ‘but ultimately Binhe is going to house a whole lot more people, offer a lot more jobs for them, develop the local economy. So it seems that these sorts of objections are really not that far removed from NIMBYism, the old rich people who complain about how the new developments are spoiling the view from their backyard and so on.’

So that got me thinking quite a bit. I remember I half-defended my position by saying that we merely needed a more holistic way of figuring out which developments were valuable and conducive to human flourishing, and which were not – and I remember R— responding with scepticism to my idea that smallholder farming like that the former owners of the land on which Binhe did was more intrinsically valuable than these urban residential developments. It made me wonder if and how those of us who post at Solidarity Hall – people who do, presumably, value the small, the local, the organic, the productive and the communal over the large, the artificially-cosmopolitan, the isolating, the merely consumer-oriented and the reductively individual – can be easily distinguished from NIMBYs, the sort of people who insist merely that development be ‘not in my backyard’. And then it struck me that perhaps in framing the question in that way I had already hit upon a partial answer.

NIMBYism, at least in the way I understand the term from my time in studying international development, tends to be individualistic and economistic in its logic – the reason they object to new developments tends to be not out of a sense of communal duty but rather out of a sense that they personally would stand to lose something from the new development, and would not oppose that development if it were located somewhere where it did not inconvenience them personally. This is probably not the sort of mentality we want to encourage; in spite of our localism, we still do place a high value on localities which are not our own. At the same time, NIMBYism raises the question of what is objectively valuable in a way which is seldom if ever made clear by the interests of developers.

My mother’s side of the family comes from Vermont – has been there since the early 1800’s when the Doanes moved up from Massachusetts, pretty much farming the same piece of land for six generations. The land is such that it works best for dairy farming and maple sugaring. However, there are worries that climactic changes have made maple sugaring in northern Vermont much less profitable, and current US corporate farm policy makes being a small farmer much, much harder than being a large one. The pressure is greater than ever for farmers to throw in the towel and sell their land to make way so that developers can ‘grow’, as folk singer John Gorka put it, ‘houses in the fields’. I’m speaking largely as an outsider, of course – I visited the farm with my family every summer, and more-than-occasionally (but not much more) worked stacking bales of hay or canning syrup. But I observe and lament, as my parents observe and lament, the loss of an entire culture, an entire way of life, with which I am intimately connected through familiarity with place and through the stories I hear from my mother and grandfather. In the developers’ view (and in the government’s), the only thing that is seen is the cost-benefit analysis, and particularly the benefit side of what they are doing. At the same time, something real and objectively worthwhile falls between the cracks, and is papered over by such an analysis.

The label of ‘NIMBY’ can be (and sometimes is) a legitimate critique of a self-interested hindrance of a worthwhile project undertaken for the common good, but I suspect that equally as often if not more so, it is a rhetorical bludgeon to be wielded against those who are listening for the intimations of true deprival which accompany the wholly-private development which occurs and justifies itself beneath the banner of Progress. And when those who are being so deprived are, like all too many landless farmers and migrant labourers in the country I currently call home, without a political voice in a system which regards them as mere instruments to be used and tossed aside, the label of ‘NIMBY’ becomes something very close to an obscenity. The people being so deprived have no backyards left, if indeed they are left with anything permanent at all.

During our conversation, R— made a good and well-taken point that most of Baotou has been built on what was originally agricultural-use land, as state-led developments which deprived people every bit as much as Binhe is doing now. And that it was done for largely political purposes as an industrial centre and as a cultural beachhead against Soviet influence. I acknowledge the irreversibility and indeed desirability of so much such development – I’m not in the slightest for returning Baotou to what it was when the general Lü Bu of Three Kingdoms infamy lived here – but I simply cannot buy the logic that sins of the past, no matter their benefits, should be allowed to shape in perpetuity our demands for more, all in the name of Progress. Many adherents of the ideology of Progress, liberal and conservative alike, would ask where the line is to be drawn – where development becomes an evil to be resisted – as though the uncertainty and implicit arbitrariness of such a line was enough to argue against one being drawn at all.

But as GK Chesterton once remarked, ‘art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere’.

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