HS2 provides another example of the warped way in which we use economic justifications to damage the environment and run roughshod over people’s legitimate concerns. As with other grand national projects, Government and central authorities use forms of cost/benefit analysis to their justify actions.
This is based on the ‘utilitarian’ principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. In other words that the ‘benefits’ overall to society are greater than the overall ‘costs’ to society. To be clear, this is not the benefits and costs to you, or even benefits in your village against the costs in your village, it is a consideration of the value of the project ‘for Britain’ weighed against the accumulation of costs along the route and beyond. Consequently those who gain from the benefits are often different people to those who suffer the costs. In such a utilitarian approach individual ‘costs’ can be outweighed by wider social ‘good’.
Those who suffer the costs, in this case to their local environment, are given the pejorative label NIMBY, in an attempt to discredit their concern and paint it as a selfish and narrow minded response which damages the greater good. Don’t be swayed by this cheap rhetorical trick, NIMBYism is not only a rational response to environmental threats such as HS2, but the right response. If people don’t care about the environment they live in, why should they care about the wider environment? If we are happy to trade the environment on the basis of some notional ‘greater good’ then we inevitably and inexorably erode the natural environment.
The problem is compounded by category errors. In other words we compare apples with pears by assuming that a translation into monetary value makes them comparable. In this case the value of the benefit of saved journey times, against the value of the costs – damage to the environment – as if these are comparable costs. The inconsequential time saving of a London or Leeds business man (half an hour during which they probably just have another frothy latte and cinnamon whirl) is compared to the destruction of ancient woodland, or the misery of having your village blighted by construction work and noise, as if these things are in any way equivalent.Far from being a scourge, NIMBYs are the environmental champions of our time. People who care about where they live and what happens to it. Localism in action. The bits of ‘Big Society’ that the government is not so keen on.
Mike Townsend, Communications and Evidence Advisor
*Help us keep the ‘ancient woodland vs development’ debate alive - our Nikki discusses protection issues in our ‘Forests Report’ series: http://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/thunk-on-the-glass-ceiling/