Seventeen years ago, Donna and Larry Charpied went to court to protect their backyard.
The couple live and farm on a small plot of land in the Mojave Desert, not far from the southern border of Joshua Tree National Park. In 1992, they learned that a former mining company, Kaiser Ventures, was maneuvering to store 20,000 tons of garbage in an old mining pit nearby.
Fearing it would ruin the fragile landscape on which they had staked their future, they bought a how-to book on environmental law and set out to stop it.
There's a term for people like the Charpieds: NIMBY. The acronym stands for "not in my backyard," and it was coined by a conservative British politician, Nicholas Ridley, in the 1980s to deride homeowners fighting encroaching development. Later, the term was applied to the coiner himself when he opposed low-income housing near his own home.
The Charpieds have a long history of NIMBYism: In the 1970s, Donna Charpied chained herself to a fence to stop the construction of a nuclear power plant near where she and Larry lived on California's Central Coast; four years ago, builders labeled them NIMBYs for lobbying to block new tract housing. When the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals finally ruled in the Charpieds' favor against the landfill last month, proponents of the landfill considered it a NIMBY victory: After all, garbage has to go somewhere. Why not in the desert?
To be called NIMBY is not usually a compliment: The term is often used to insult for people who put their own neighborhoods ahead of the greater good, or who don't mind creating pollution as long as they don't have to breathe it. I once interviewed a candidate for state office, for example, who wanted to convert all of California's school buses to natural gas, but wanted none of it stored in terminals near the Malibu homes of her future constituents. She preferred a Long Beach location, she said, because that city was "more set up for that kind of thing."
But to denigrate every expression of NIMBYism as hypocritical is to forget the long history of wilderness protection in this country. The truth is, we have NIMBYs to thank for nearly all of our wilderness treasures. Sigurd F. Olson fought for Minnesota's Boundary Waters while working as a wilderness guide in that vast, watery woods; John Muir launched his campaign for Yosemite after living there for a summer herding sheep. No one would call Olson and Muir NIMBYs today, but that's what they were: They directed the public's attention to the beautiful landscapes near where they lived, and fought to protect those places from the ravages of industry.
A few weeks after the court's decision, I stood with the Charpieds on the land where for 30 years they have farmed jojoba, an ancient, drought-proof shrub native to the Mojave and useful for the oil in its seeds. I drank in the pristine air and reveled in the sweeping view of the Coxcomb Mountains, which shimmer with silver ribbons whenever seasonal storms briefly recharge the mountain streams.
I also saw evidence of the next industrial interloper: survey stakes planted in the soil marking the boundaries of a 10,000-acre parcel where an energy company plans to construct a solar farm. The development would wrap around the Charpieds' property and push toward the edges of the national park. The Charpieds intend to fight it with everything they have.
This time, however, they face a lonelier battle. Because while most environmentalists backed the Charpieds in their opposition to the dump, many of them now see the couple as an impediment to a carbon-free energy future. Solar plants, they argue, are crucial to reducing the climate-changing carbon building up in our atmosphere throughout the last century of coal.
"They're the epitome of NIMBY," a Sierra Club official said to me of the couple and their allies. "They only care about the view from their window."
The Charpieds maintain there are better places for solar panels, such as urban rooftops. They have little faith that the renewable-energy boom will do more than industrialize the desert for short-term profit.
And so they go on protecting their desert refuge against the onslaught. They protect it primarily for themselves, but in the process they protect it for the other living things that depend on it: the threatened desert tortoises that crawl across it in the spring, jaws stuffed with magenta flowers; the shy bighorn sheep that depend on its isolated springs; the brilliantly adapted plants that grow roots 70 feet deep to tap the aquifer. They are protecting that refuge for all of us.
And what they do is no different than what so many other conservationists do across the country when they look out their windows, detect evidence of a world gone wrong and do what they can to put it right. Whether they work to block logging or oil extraction or towering power lines, they all will be labeled NIMBY by their opponents.
Donna and Larry Charpied can live with that. "We got used to that label fighting the dump," says Donna, flexing her biceps like a warrior among the jojoba shrubs. "Now I wear that NIMBY label like a . . . badge of courage."
Judith Lewis is an environmental journalist and a contributing editor to High Country News.