Citizens' initiative against wind power: Nimbys can be used excellently
M. Czapski / snapshot / IMAGO
An article in the journal "Social Science Research" defines the term "nimby" (not in my backyard) as "the idea that citizens resist new facilities in their neighborhoods out of self-interest."
It is unclear who invented the term Nimby. As early as 1980, he was mentioned in a US newspaper commentary. At that time, it was about storage facilities for low-radiation nuclear waste. Nicholas Ridley, British Minister for the Environment under Margaret Thatcher, raised the term to the political stage. He made fun of "Nimbies" who opposed housing projects. Later it turned out that he himself had tried to stop a construction project near his house.
In this way, Ridley illustrated a central feature of the concept: Nimbys are always the others.
Then Sankt-Florian strikes
The German equivalent is the St. Florian principle: "Saint Florian, spare my house, set fire to others." True nimbyism means that you don't have anything against something in principle, as long as it doesn't happen in your own environment.
Nimbyism is one of the central obstacles on the way to a better future in present-day Germany – across party lines.
Wind power, rail and line expansion: 17 pages against the planning dispute with the federal government – states go on the offensive
Many people and most of the parties in the Bundestag agree in principle that some things have to change if we want to have a future worth living: housing construction, better railway lines, more renewable energies, expansion of the electricity grid. But when it gets concrete, Sankt Florian strikes.
From Berlin to Nice in four and a half hours?
A current example: A desperately needed new ICE line from Hamburg to Hanover will not be built after all.
In China, you can cover the 1300 kilometers from Beijing to Shanghai – roughly equivalent to the Berlin-Nice route – by train in four and a half hours. We could have something like that, too. But we would have to build new lines for that.
In the case of the Hamburg-Hanover railway line, one of the Nimbys was the SPD chairman Lars Klingbeil, through whose constituency the new, faster line was to run. For this, a business park with a petrol station, a trampoline park, an indoor ski area and a go-kart track would have to make way, which of course the citizens there do not like. Klingbeil therefore wants to defend the industrial park in his constituency: against the railways, the federal government, against the traffic planners with their forecasts. "I don't mind if the ICE passes through here and we can wave," says Lars Klingbeil at a protest event this July. "What's in it for me personally?" may not be quite the right question for infrastructure projects that are supposed to benefit the entire country.
Klingbeil is by no means alone in his attitude that "my Nimbys are the good Nimbys".
Many billions of euros for Bavarian nimbys
Horst Seehofer (CSU), then Bavarian Prime Minister, fought bitterly against normal transmission lines from northern Germany to Bavaria in the service of Bavarian Nimbys. That's what we're literally all paying for today. Seehofer insisted that the routes must be built with underground cables, which makes the project many billions of euros more expensive – and much slower. The whole of Germany is now paying for Bavaria's Nimbys.
It will take years before the so-called Südlink route is completed. Markus Söder thought the resistance was "a good idea" at the time. Hubert »I don't remember that« Aiwanger toured the villages to agitate against Südlink. In the end, the then Minister of Economic Affairs, Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD, showed a heart for Bavaria's Nimbys. After all, they had Russian gas, so the grid for wind power was not in such a hurry.
Not in my Garage, not in my Basement
Other Bavarian Nimbys, with the support of the CSU, ensured that virtually no wind turbines were erected there (2023: five of them). Now cheap wind power is only available in the north, and Markus Söder has to defend himself against the introduction of electricity price zones.
The new enthusiasm for nuclear power in parts of the German public also has high nimby potential: no one really wants to live near a repository. Of course, Markus Söder doesn't either.
Neither party rejects the St. Florian principle. The combustion-loving FDP is the NIMG party (not in my garage), FDP, CDU and AfD fought alongside all NIMBs (not in my basement) against heat pumps. In many places, local Greens represent the interests of local nature conservation nimbys, and even at the state level, the party sometimes votes against more relaxed distance regulations for wind turbines. This is what happened this spring in North Rhine-Westphalia at the request of the coalition partner CDU.
Nimbys in all colors
In Baden-Württemberg, the Green-led state government has not "reduced CO₂ emissions or increased the consumption of renewable energies overall," a team from the Ifo Institute stated in 2021. An important reason for this is "intraecological conflicts": "The Greens preferred the protection of the red kite and bat to the construction of wind turbines, and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) movements also played a role." There are also isolated wind power nimbies on the left, for example in Saarland.
Who represents the non-Nimbys?
Populist parties such as the AfD are, of course, made for excessive nimbyism. They present themselves as representatives of a supposedly silent majority (in reality, however, only a tenth of Germans are really against renewable energies) and have no interest in solutions. Many supposed Nimbys are in fact politically motivated saboteurs from the far right.
There is, scientifically documented, "energy transition populism": "(local) protest only becomes populist when it adopts the anti-pluralist narrative of the people betrayed by the elites," says a review article by sociologist Fritz Reusswig and social psychologist Beate Küpper in "From Politics and Contemporary History."
So there is a difference between "genuine" concerns about concrete projects – and their instrumentalization for a populist "they do what they want up there anyway" narrative.
Nimbys, especially in groups, can be exploited excellently, both by populists and by industries that see their business models threatened. The U.S. oil and gas industry in the U.S., for example, has been funding Nimby groups fighting against wind and solar energy for many years.
Other Nimbys are also just privately selfish. Both are a bad starting point in a situation in which rapid change is absolutely inevitable in many places.
Nimby Whisperer Everywhere
The German Nimby can easily reconcile anger over unpunctual trains, complaints about dilapidated infrastructure and excruciatingly long approval processes with his own attitude, which is largely responsible for all of this. There are Nimby whisperers in all parties, but at the same time everyone wants to "cut bureaucracy".
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There is a tried and tested and very effective solution for wind power nimbyism: If the municipalities and their population share in the proceeds, many critics suddenly become enthusiastic wind farm fans. In general, it is helpful to involve the local population in planning processes, and to do so as early as possible. However, the example of the Hanover-Hamburg railway line shows that this does not always help: In fact, well-intentioned attempts to soften Nimbys sometimes have a completely different effect than the intended one. Measures for citizen participation may ensure that the Nimbys in particular participate. Unfortunately, the specialist literature does not give too much else – there are no magic tricks to overcome Nimby syndrome.
A review study from 2013 recommends a catalogue of methods with the acronym "ENUF": "Engage, never use NIMBY, Understand, Facilitate".
What this means is that local communities should be involved in the decision-making process from the outset and that people who oppose a project should not be called "Nimby". Planners need to understand the motivations and concerns of the local population and then empower them to help shape solutions.
But all this will probably not help people who absolutely do not want the railway line or the wind farm.
This makes it all the more important that politicians, local opinion leaders, are able to take the lead in a constructive way. A policy that always puts the question "and what do I personally get out of it?" in the foreground, instead of taking the lead, will fail because of the enormous transformation task that lies ahead of us.
By the way, perhaps the most interesting fact about Nimbys is that their number is overestimated. Guess how many people who have wind turbines "in their immediate living environment" are "rather" or "completely" okay with them.
The correct answer is, according to a Forsa study from 2021: 84 percent of the population think wind power is okay in the neighborhood. Among people who do not yet have a wind power plant nearby, the figure is 78 percent who would actually have no problem with it. Would you have thought that? I suspect not, and this is a Nimby populist propaganda success.
One thing is certain: the non-partisan Nimby coalition must finally end if this country is to move forward. The non-Nimbys make up the overwhelming majority. It would be time for someone to represent their interests.