Environment, Revisited

A decade ago, progressive environmentalists fought to protect the ground from excess sewage, the schools from overly large class sizes and the habitat of the endangered spotted salamander. Open space, trees, water recharge areas and fewer cars choking the air with noxious fumes were the height of environmentalism. Save the planet!

If you paid attention to Ezra Klein, you would think this happened a hundred years ago in “another era,” and is now the bastion of right-wing  extremists trying to destroy the lives of the homeless and marginalized potential UC Berkeley students. It’s not that these aren’t concerns. They were always concerns. It’s that younger pundits are reinventing the narrative as their priorities shift. So who’s the NIMBY?

An organization called Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods, led by a former investment banker, sued the University of California, Berkeley for adding too many students, too quickly, without careful enough consideration of how bad students are for the environment.

If the number of students at U.C. Berkeley seems of questionable environmental relevance, well, I’d say you’re right. If this sounds to you like a bunch of homeowners who don’t want more college kids partying nearby, I’d probably agree.

Whether Klein is being disingenuous or he’s just a dolt, or both, is unclear. It has obvious environmental relevance, even if the motivations of the “former investment banker,” an evil occupation for greedy villains which is why it’s worth mentioning, are less about the environment and more about college kids partying nearby.

So why doesn’t Klein bother to explain the very real, very serious, very important stakes at issue for the environment when you plop too many people on too small an area of the earth and ignore all the consequences? Well, if he did, he might not get away with such a childish framing. Even worse, it might well explain why the neighborhood organization is right, or at least has legitimate arguments, which could explain why they prevailed in court.

But the courts sided with Save Berkeley’s Neighborhoods and froze the university’s enrollment at last year’s levels, forcing it to potentially rescind admission to thousands of students and ordering it to conduct a deeper assessment of the harm students could inflict (more trash, more noise, more homelessness and more traffic were all mentioned in the court case, if you’re curious about the specifics).

The neighbors didn’t so much win the war, but forced the battle that UC Berkeley avoided by failing to consider the environmental impact of its expanding its student population so that many more students could go to college, a priority of the moment to enable minority students to enjoy the privilege of higher education.

But put thousands more people into a limited space and there are a great many consequences that could prove environmentally disastrous. And yes, they can also have a significant and deleterious impact on the quality of life of people living around them. You may not care much about their quiet enjoyment, but they do.

And they’re allowed to. Contrary to the presumptions of a certain cohort of activists, it’s not a crime to enjoy one’s home and neighborhood without suffering the degradation of other people’s ideological demands. Peace and quiet, overwhelmed streets and stores, viable  water, sewage and garbage systems and classrooms of less than 50 students so children might learn, aren’t an evil, even if these things are no longer on the front burner of activism.

But throw in a few thousand extra bodies and it’s not just a problem of partying college students. They all have to live somewhere. They’re going to poop, shower and eat. They’re going to need to get around town on occasion. And yes, they’re going to need to find ways to amuse themselves, without much concern for those who live there before they arrived and will still live there when they’ve gone.

This kind of NIMBYISM is noxious. The way to ease homelessness in Berkeley is to build more homes for everyone, not keep out a bunch of kids looking to better their lives. And if there’s too much trash, maybe nearby homeowners, who’ve seen their property values rise to astonishing levels in large part because of U.C. Berkeley’s gleam, should pay higher property taxes for more frequent pickup. But on its own, it’s hard to get too exercised about this suit. The world has bigger problems than the size of Cal’s incoming class.

A decade ago, housing values were in the toilet. Today, they’ve gone through the roof. Where they will be ten years from now is anyone’s guess. But attributing them, without basis, “in large part because of U.C. Berkeley’s gleam” in contrast to the fact that they’ve gone up all over the region having nothing to do with “U.C. Berkeley’s gleam,” is the sort of facile lies that the disingenuous spew to make their case to the willingly insipid.

And the homeowners should pay higher taxes so the woke can feel better about marginalized students going to college so they can be laden with debt for jobs that don’t exist? The problem isn’t “more frequent pickup,” but what to do with the extra tons of garbage.

Zoom out from the specifics, though, and look at what it reveals about how government, even in the bluest of blue communities, actually works. Why was it so easy for a few local homeowners to block U.C. Berkeley’s plans, over the opposition of not just the powerful U.C. system but also the mayor of Berkeley and the governor of California? The answer, in this case, was the California Environmental Quality Act — a bill proposed by environmentalists and signed into law in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan that demands rigorous environmental impact reviews for public projects, and that has become an all-purpose weapon for anyone who wants to stymie a new public project or one that requires public approval.

Environmental review started as a means of preventing mindless expansion at the expense of the environment, without any thought or concern for what consequences would follow. Now, Klein calls it an “all-purpose weapon for anyone who wants to stymie a new public project.” Protecting the environment from ruin is now the evil, as the woke have shifted priorities away to destroying the neighborhood in the name of social justice. Who is the real NIMBY here, the neighbors fighting to prevent environmental and quality of life destruction or outsiders happy to ruin their community for the cool cause of the moment?

13 thoughts on “Environment, Revisited

  1. Hunting Guy

    Robert F. Kennedy/George Bernard Shaw.

    “Some people see the world as it is and ask why. I see the world as it could be and ask where will they all park.”

  2. cthulhu

    Whether Klein is being disingenuous or he’s just a dolt, or both, is unclear.

    “Both” is usually a good first approximation in Ezra’s case.

    1. SHG Post author

      Both is the cute answer, but disingenuous is the more disturbing one. He would flip this arg on its head in a moment if some developer wanted to build million dollar condos. If he was merely a dolt like the people who buy his nonsense, I could forgive his hypocrisy because stupid can’t be helped. But I fear he’s just another deliberate liar for the cause, and that can’t be so easily ignored.

      1. cthulhu

        You are correct – “Million dollar condos for me, but not for thee” is right up Ezra’s alley.

  3. Sgt. Schultz

    Not too long ago, owning one’s own home on a little plot of land was the American dream. I suspect it still is, but not one to say aloud in “polite” company where someone will scold you for the microaggression and wishing death upon the homeless and students with an SAT score of 12.

    1. SHG Post author

      It will be again, as soon as they’re done demonizing homeowners to push the cause du jour. It’s easier to fight demons than make a fair and rational argument for the cause.

  4. TrackerNeil

    I think land use, zoning and related NIMBY issues are ones in which progressives often alienate normies, and to no real advantage. I don’t think most people are opposed to the concept of fair and affordable housing, but the prospect of more neighbors, more noise, and less parking, in the service of an abstract notion of social justice…well, that is one hard sell.

    I think progressives (like me) need to start these conversations with the acknowledgement that it’s not selfish or evil for homeowners to want to preserve the quality and tranquility of the neighborhoods in which they have so heavily invested. That’s not to say that homeowners don’t often react in ways that are petty and self-serving, but then most people are self-serving so what the hell.

      1. Neil McGarry

        Heh…I think a lot of progressives would call me a moderate, which I find puzzling. I guess I am a pragmatic progressive, which means I am willing to settle for one step today to maybe take two steps tomorrow. And I *never* let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

  5. Rengit

    “Environmentalism” used to mean things like resource management, ecological preservation, stewardship, protecting natural beauty, open green spaces for better living, beautifying public spaces, not littering, recycling, optimal tree coverage, and so on. Today it is just used to mean “preventing climate change”; what several generations grew up believing it to mean now all gets folded under the banner of NIMBYism.

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