The Ethics of NIMBYism

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Dear Members and Supporters,

If you are reading this, you probably spend a lot of time in Culver City political spaces and have encountered the claim that there was once an era of joyful unity, before progressives and Trumpsters brought “divisiveness” to our city. A brief glance at actual local history will show this to be essentially false but, like most myths, it contains some truth and does important ideological work.

It is true that both progressive and openly fascist voices were marginalized in the recent past, that the Overton Window was smaller. The 1993 Council I wrote about in April voted unanimously to support CCPD hiring one of the cops who beat Rodney King, but in the very same meeting they voted to oppose Proposition 187, which would have denied undocumented immigrants access to education and healthcare, a ballot measure the Culver City Chamber of Commerce endorsed. This Club participated in this center-right consensus: the County Party once threatened to revoke our charter for endorsing a Republican.

This anti-partisan consensus came from a focus on local “quality of life” issues, what is sometimes called NIMBYism, for Not In My Back Yard. Today this is a term of scorn and applies primarily to anti-urbanists, but it describes the understandable desire to have things which are unpleasant kept far away. The myth of unity makes NIMBYism appear natural and inevitable by erasing conflict and alternatives. While progressives need to be relentlessly alert to these ideological moves, NIMBYism is not necessarily a selfish or unethical position. Consider these examples.

The Culver City Homeowners Association was formed in the 1970s. The name may be a red flag now, but its original issue was to prevent the electric company from installing overhead power lines from the top of the Crest. The Homeowners prevailed, and those lines now run underground. Overhead power lines are not only ugly, they are a possible health hazard and, as the residents of Paradise found, a definite fire hazard. The CCHOA did not attempt to share their victory with others by advocating for underground power lines in other cities, but protecting their quality of life did not negatively affect anyone else.

More recently, Culver City residents have fought against the changes to LAX flight paths which have brought more planes overhead, accompanied by noise and pollution. No one is proposing we should give up affordable and convenient air travel, it is not practical to relocate the airport to an uninhabited area, and a transition to electric planes is some time away. If planes cannot climb more quickly, this a zero-sum situation. If the flight paths aren’t over Culver City, they will need to be somewhere else, and that will almost certainly be over Inglewood and South LA. In this case, protecting the quality of life for Culver City residents means moving our problem into someone else’s backyard, and that someone else will almost certainly be a person of color of lower socioeconomic status.

In the third case, people who are “not like us” are the problem being kept out of our backyards. By now the history of exclusion in Culver City should be familiar: that restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, and racial profiling have been used to keep the city what local conservatives unironically call an “enclave.”

The foundation of morality is reciprocity: treating others as we would like to be treated. The latter two examples of NIMBYism fail to meet this standard. They are usually justified by the amorality of capitalism: everybody’s in it for their own good, so do unto others before they can do unto you. 

This is not a personal failing; it is a rational response to our material conditions. Because our nation does not have an adequate social safety net and the services which do exist are compromised by the profit motives of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) sector, those of us fortunate enough to own property depend on its value to pay for our educations, healthcare, and retirement, and those of our families, all things other developed nations provide free, funded through progressive taxation.

Anxiety about maintaining our class status and replicating it for our descendants leads to keeping the housing bubble inflated by limiting the supply of westside housing through zoning and limiting access to this supply through redlining, racial profiling, etc, preserving Culver City’s status as an “enclave.” The increasingly competitive and expensive world drives us to direct the public sector towards defending and enhancing our property values and class positions rather than helping those most in need. 

In order to charge a growing premium for “good neighborhoods” and “good schools,” there must be “bad” ones. Neither equity nor equality are compatible with exclusivity and luxury. In The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee documents that housing costs 77 percent more in areas with higher-than-average test scores, and that 65 percent of these areas are unaffordable for people with average incomes. McGee further lays out how local control and funding of education enables richer and whiter areas to direct their resources towards their own schools, helping their children and elevating their property values. 

This is not malice or a conspiracy; it’s rational self-interest, so-called “common sense.” Homeownership united the members of the CCHOA and was the core of Culver City’s anti-partisan center-right consensus. It put financial weight behind the aesthetic and health aspects of issues such as the power lines and flight paths.

However, it is possible to use our relative wealth and privilege for good. This privilege includes a more representative City Council: five members for around 40,000 residents (one for each 8,000) compared to Los Angeles’ fifteen Council members, who each represent over a quarter million of its over 3,850,000 residents.

Culver City borders the Inglewood Oil Field, the nation’s largest urban oil field. A coalition including members of this Club such as Meghan Sahli-Wells, Daniel Lee, Suzanne DeBeneditis, and Khin Khin Gyi, has long been working to more strictly regulate it: to require greater distance between wells and homes, to prevent, document, and remedy spills, to restrict fracking, to monitor effects on our air and water, etc. When Alex Fisch was elected to our City Council in 2018, he determined that the City had the power not only to regulate the portion of the oil field in Culver City, but to shut it down. When he left office last fall, these plans were nearly completed. The Council appears to be continuing to advance them, but we should be alert to attempts to weaken or delay the agreement. Göran Eriksson has repeatedly voted against closing the oil field and Albert Vera Jr. campaigned on closing it but has abstained from crucial votes. I blame a combination of climate skepticism, free market absolutism, and loyalty to their fellow Chamber of Commerce member Sentinel Peak Resources, which runs the oil field. It is interesting to watch them and their fellow conservatives negotiate the contradictions between these beliefs and their NIMBYism, but I would rather not.

Meanwhile, the framework for shutting down the Inglewood Oil Field, created and passed by progressive Council Members Fisch, Sahli-Wells, Thomas Small, Daniel Lee, and Yasmine-Imani McMorrin, has been taken up as a model by the City and County of Los Angeles, who control most of that property, as well as statewide. No matter what Eriksson and Vera do to stall or sabotage Culver City’s settlement now, these laws will supersede it. The oil field will be closed, and our members, endorsed candidates, and allies made that possible. This may have started as a NIMBY issue: not wanting to live next door to oil wells with all the accompanying health and safety risks, but it did not stop there. In this case acting in our self-interest not only benefits every person who breathes the air or drinks the water in the region but has already become an example for other communities.

The same is true for the Move Culver City complete streets project. While having fewer cars Downtown, faster public transit, and safer routes for bikes and other mobility alternatives create primarily local impacts, their effects radiate regionally and the project has become a national example. The conservative Council majority has voted to roll back these gains but, as with the oil field, this is an ineffective pose. Several lawsuits will prevent the rollback or at least delay it until they are voted out. Furthermore, their anti-Move resolution calls for “vehicle capacity to be added where it is needed,” but the evidence already shows that no more car space is “needed,” that it will not significantly speed traffic, and that Move’s positive effects far outweigh any inconveniences. The value of projects like this is no longer debated. Neoliberal icon Pete Buttigieg said this week that “Protected bike lanes and bus lanes are not a frill … they are a life saving measure.” However, even if they rip it out tomorrow, Move, like the oil field shutdown, has become a model for others. At the California Democratic Convention in May, when people saw my Club pin or t-shirt, they often started talking to me about Move as an example of visionary mobility planning. In the last week of June, the State Department of Transportation gave Move its top award for Excellence in Transportation. The conservative Council majority can temporarily embarrass our city, but they cannot erase the example our progressive leadership has set.

It is not wrong to want a cleaner, quieter, or safer community, or even to want economic security, but we cannot pursue our desires without understanding how they affect others. If we are thoughtful and brave, our successes can help everyone. As McGhee writes, zero-sum situations are much rarer than we think. Much of our metaphorical backyard is shared.