TCS Daily

The NIMBY Mentality Makes Its Way to Space

By James Pinkerton - September 4, 2001 12:00 AM

Every TechCentralStationeer is familiar with the concept of "NIMBY"-Not In My Back Yard. NIMBYers have become skilled in using the twin tools of street protest and courtroom litigation to block the development of just about everything, from new roads and airports to nuclear power plants. Well, here's a new acronym that bespeaks the ever-expanding scope of such "anti" activists: "NIMP"-Not In My Planet.

Spaceniks in particular should be afraid, very afraid, of this phenomenon. Why? Because space exploration is dependent on a long chain of technological and cultural links-including economic prosperity, a robust aerospace sector, and self-confident questing--and any break in those linkages could collapse the whole idea of humanity's seriously venturing into space. Spacers should understand that if the NIMBYs and NIMPies prevail, we could find ourselves trapped forever on this single planet, our outward-bounded dreams swaddled-and strangled-in red tape.

NIMPies, of course, don't worry much about space; they're too busy subduing the Earth in accordance with their anti-growth agenda. Global warming is the mega-issue, of course, but some green groups have seized upon subset-issues for special attention. For example, the most recent issue of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute's magazine, Earth Island Journal, features a piece entitled "The Jetcraft Juggernaut: More Airplanes, More Airports, More Delays and More Pollution." Author Peter Fisher cites a 1999 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which concluded that aircraft were responsible for 3.5 percent of global climate change through carbon dioxide emissions, and that this percentage could rise fourfold by 2050. It's not hard to see how such "data" could be used and abused in the future, as activists and alarmists issue urgent "calls to action."

And as the Earth Island website makes clear, the space program is in the same crosshairs; Earth Island Journal pats itself on the back for reportage on "the serious damage to the ozone layer caused by every launch of the space shuttle."

But NIMPies are aiming most of their fire these days at another component of the pro-space coalition: missile defense. Not all spaceniks, to be sure, are in favor of missile defense, but even if they oppose MD, they should understand that the tactics NIMPies are using against missile development will likely also be used against rocket development. If NIMPies can block missile defense aimed, potentially, at enemies of the U.S., they can also try to block rocket launches aimed, potentially, at the Moon or Mars.

But can the NIMPies succeed at such an audacious project? Only time, and trials, will tell.

NIMPies are engaging in a two-track strategy to block MD: first, protest, and second, litigation. On July 14, Greenpeacers managed briefly to delay the rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California; four protesters were arrested in the Pacific waters just offshore from the base. The Bush Administration's program, said a Greenpeace spokeswoman at the time, "poses one of the single greatest threats to the world." Now, a total of 17 alleged infiltrators and conspirators are scheduled to go on trial in Los Angeles on September 25. If you haven't heard about this case yet, you will, because if Greenpeace has any say in the matter, the court date for the "Star Wars 17" will spawn a West Coast Woodstock in the downtown streets outside the Roybal Federal Court Building.

One would presume that the U.S. government has muscle to safeguard the physical integrity of its military facilities against unlawful trespass. But it's not so clear that Uncle Sam can protect his bases against lawful trespass-if "lawful" is the right word to describe the filings and pleadings of end-justifies-the-means litigimaniacs.

On August 28, a coalition of environmental and public interest groups, including Greenpeace, filed suit to force the Defense Department to conduct more environmental studies on its missile defense construction and testing activities. Filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, the suit maintains that the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act requires the Pentagon to conduct fresh studies of the testing's impact on Alaska, Hawaii, California, and the Marshall Islands.

"By its own admission, the Bush administration has radically revised the missile defense program," says David Adelman, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It can't do that without reassessing the potential environmental damage and providing for public comment. Otherwise, it's breaking the law." Yet the Pentagon stoutly denies doing anything wrong, pointing to earlier studies it successfully completed, one as recently as 2000. But the plaintiffs say that plans for an emergency anti-missile system, including five missile silos at Fort Greely, near Fairbanks, Alaska, require that the whole environmental impact statement process be started up again. Such statements, of course, can take years to complete-and then more years to litigate and pettifog.

But could activists and lawyers really litigrind missile defense to a halt? Maybe. One might consider, as a distant early warning, the fate of the U.S. naval training range at Vieques, Puerto Rico. In June, a similar coalition of protesters and lawyers, bolstered by high-profile politicians, including New York's Republican Gov. George Pataki, persuaded the Bush Administration to phase out the proving ground by 2003. So much for a facility that the Navy has relied upon for six decades, describing it as the "crown jewel" of its training sites.

So where does this leave space exploration? If the enviros and their allies can block or at least crimp the giant and mighty Department of Defense, surely they will have an easy time kiboshing the comparatively tiny National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Indeed, they already have; at a conference on the past, present, and future of space exploration, held at George Washington University in May, retired NASA engineer Homer Hickam, of Rocket Boys/ "October Sky" fame, declared that serious space travel wouldn't really get going without better lift capacity. And the key to achieving the necessary Earth-exiting thrust, Hickam continued, is nuclear-powered engines. But NASA, he added, discontinued such research in 1972. Nor did Hickam hold out hope that it would be restarted. Indeed, the Earth Island Journal would be all over such a program-even though nuclear rockets, emitting no CO2, would do no harm to the ozone layer.

So this could be the space program's fate, as well as America's fate: to be so hemmed in by NIMBYs and NIMPies as to be paralyzed in the face of military threats-and space opportunities. Does this seem to be an unduly pessimistic anticipation of present trends? Maybe. But why take the risk, however big or small, of drifting into a decaying steady-state mentality? Instead, tech-minded people should wake up and realize that the struggles for growth, development, national security--and yes, space exploration--are related. If all those upwardly and outwardly mobile strivers cooperate, then anything is possible, here on Earth and in the universe beyond.

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