The Public Eye: Notes on NIMBYism Part III: A NIMBY Confronts Environmental Dualism

By Sharon Hudson
Tuesday August 15, 2006

Summer is here! Vacation time! Where shall I go? Usually I head straight for the wilderness—where I have spent much of my life—far from electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, and the teeming masses. But since I have spent even more of my life in one of the highest density parts of Berkeley, the more interesting question is: What has enabled me to stay in town most of the time? 

When I moved to north Willard, it was a green place graced by rows of towering elms, and was far enough from the university to be relatively peaceful (UC has crept much closer now). It was close to interesting activities, and I could satisfy almost all my daily needs by foot. Since then, however, almost all the nearby amenities have disappeared. Meanwhile, small tree species have replaced our giant elms, huge UC buildings have blocked out the hills, new UC staff fill our neighborhood parking spaces, and thousands more students pack our sidewalks (with cell phones, so even solo pedestrians now make noise). The new dorms send continuous mechanical drone into my bedroom window, car alarms proliferate, and clattering recycling and garbage pickups have doubled. The unending roll of UC construction trucks, which may last another decade or forever, tops it off. 

What led to this deterioration? Or more accurately, why does the city not view this as deterioration? Because this change was not caused by lack of planning; instead it exemplifies our planning, and it is as much our city’s “urban plan” as it is the university’s. For example, in 2002, the Planning Department and Zoning Adjustments Board supported replacing two of our residential street’s few remaining historic single-family homes with a six-story building containing UC classrooms. The planning staff insisted that this would have “no significant impact” on our struggling neighborhood, and the developer claimed it was “smart growth.” This is typical.  

But what’s “smart” about destroying neighborhoods? Why are those who try to improve civilized life vilified as NIMBYs? Why are self-proclaimed “environmentalists” trying to destroy our urban environment? How did saving “greenspace” translate into destroying Berkeley?  

Americans have a changing relationship with the natural environment. For the colonists, the wilderness was a dangerous wasteland to be feared and avoided. But by the late 1800s, the dangers of the frontier had receded and more people had been exposed to the spectacular American landscape, which was now considered to reflect the “sublime” face of God. The first national parks were designated, and heroic paintings celebrated the Western wilderness, initiating a wave of nature tourism—ironically, more or less coinciding with the foreseeable disappearance of the very landscape that people were coming to see. This urgent sense of simultaneous discovery and loss was not unlike what many of us experience today regarding exotic ecosystems.  

Already imbued with Rousseau’s romanticization of the “primitive,” the wilderness came to embody the American identity, the rugged individualist. It was viewed as noble, pristine, wild, free, and true, while civilization came to be viewed as corrupt, polluted, artificial, restraining, and false. Even though the “wilderness” had shared space with native Americans, missionaries, frontiersmen, and farmers for centuries, in the urban mind, only an entirely uninhabited, untouched wilderness could be “sublime.” 

Thus emerged a dualistic view of man and nature, separate and unequal: nature as pure and noble, and man and everything he touches as defiled. Over the 20th century, this philosophical duality increasingly became an earthly reality. Industrial America treated the landscape as a soulless resource to be mined, dammed, polluted, paved, logged, and plowed over, destroying irreplaceable ecosystems, and ultimately, perhaps, the planet as we know it. No wonder, then, that people of conscience who came of age in recent decades are likely to view human beings, subconsciously at least, as a loathsome plague upon the planet.  

After several years of analyzing the deterioration of neighborhoods, and watching “smart growth” extremists lionize urban life while simultaneously destroying it, I realized that the dualistic environmental model is at the heart of our problems. It has created “environmentalists” who, astonishingly and without irony, despise the urban environment—even though Urbania is the primary ecosystem for the most populous species on the planet. Self-contempt, shame over mankind’s planetary abuse, and Berkeley’s omnipresent “liberal guilt” combine forces to create unproductive extremism in urban and transportation planning. Berkeley “environmentalists” would never advocate marginal, artificial environments for other species, but for humans they propose an unpleasant and inhumane urban environment, devoid of aesthetic and spiritual sustenance and often even the basic requirements of good health. People who love and respect themselves or others would not be so misanthropic and punitive.  

The fact that almost all the pain falls on the shoulders of those with lesser means and few choices might, in other times, have given good liberals pause. But hysteria over the shortage of “affordable housing” has trumped that concern, making inhumane warehousing for the poor (“it’s better than no housing”) fashionable once again. But unless we want to forfeit both our democracy and our freedom, any policy based on forcing people who do have choices into unpleasant surroundings and behaviors is doomed. If we do not want our species to head toward the greener grass of Suburbia and beyond, we must lovingly create a physically, socially, psychologically, and spiritually attractive and sustainable urban environment for ourselves.  

Urban planners must never forget that human beings are animals; our animal nature is part of our human nature. We evolved in a natural environment and gain a profound tranquility from the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the natural world. People cannot drive off into the wilderness every time they want to connect with their humanity; it’s not practical, ecological, or even possible for many. We must connect with our humanity where we live, every day, in an urban ecosystem that is nourishing and fulfilling. We should think of this as our vital “minimum daily requirement” of nature. Only by building into Urbania a connection to nature—which is our own nature—can we create sustainable urban health and “livability.”  

And this approach is most likely to ultimately preserve the wilderness as well. Urban children must be the future stewards of our natural environment. But I have known urban teenagers who have feared to take a step into the woods. I knew a young man from Hong Kong who was delighted to finally have a tiny vegetable garden in Berkeley, and then chopped the entire garden to the ground after being traumatized by a tomato worm. Will those who do not feel “at home” in nature have a passion to maintain the natural world for their children and grandchildren? I fear not. 

Environmentalist William Cronon writes: “Idealizing a distant wilderness too often means not idealizing the environment in which we actually live, the landscape that for better or worse we call home. . . . [P]eople should always be conscious that they are part of the natural world, inextricably tied to the ecological systems that sustain their lives. Any way of looking at nature that encourages us to believe we are separate from nature . . . is likely to reinforce environmentally irresponsible behavior. . . . Home, after all, is the place where finally we make our living. It is the place for which we take responsibility, the place we try to sustain so we can pass on what is best in it (and in ourselves) to our children.” Amen. 


Sharon Hudson is a 35-year Berkeley resident with a special interest in land use issues.