Astroturfing: A Guide

Or, how I almost got duped by the NIMBYs


This is a protect-yourself column on the topic of astroturfing where you least expect it. First, a definition courtesy of Wikipedia: “Astroturfing denotes political, advertising or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization but are disguised as spontaneous, popular ‘grassroots’ behavior. . . . Astroturfing may be undertaken by an individual promoting a personal agenda or highly organized professional groups with money from large corporations, unions, nonprofits or activist organizations.”

This is how astroturfing works when it’s run by individuals who live in your town: A group of homeowners figure out that they have not been paying attention to city government and zoning issues, then one day the adjacent farm—the one that used to be much bigger before their houses were built—looks like it is going to be rezoned as residential, and they get upset. They want to look at cows yet are faced with the possibility of looking at houses. In a panic, they resort to posing as environmentalists.

These homeowners—arriving late to the worship of nature, suddenly interested in learning the correct spelling of the word “environment”—have motives that do not match the sincerity of genuine environmentalists. As a group, these folks inspired the term “NIMBY,” short for “not in my backyard.” OK. So the NIMBYs brush up on the lingo (“urban sprawl,” “green belt,” “open space,” etc.) and hire an attorney who drafts a proposed ordinance that says something like, we the undersigned wish to make law that no cow fields can turn into houses without a vote of the people. And by the way, we are doing this because we love cow fields and social justice and the environment. And shouldn’t we all stand up and love cow fields and social justice and the environment as one united people holding hands like in those Coke advertisements?

Quick. Call a journalist. Oh, journalist, thank God you are here, say the NIMBYs. We are battling the bad people: developers and city hall. You must write an article. To a local and sympathetic activist they say, the bad people want to destroy the open space, the green belt system. We must collect signatures to save the cow fields because we care so much about open land and greenbelt systems. We just plain care!

In truth, what NIMBYs care about are property values and views from their living room windows. For their signature drive they will stop at nothing, including exploiting other residents and posing as civic-minded citizens.

Far too often, between those who are motivated by social and environmental values and those who are motivated by property values lies an enormous gap of conscience.

So if I hear from someone who is all fired up about an urban expansion issue, I check the address and ask them how many times they’ve extended themselves on behalf of their neighbors, their community or their environment. In Napa, where I live, if someone asks me to sign a petition to protect beauty and open spaces, I can figure out if it’s a NIMBY cause, an example of astroturfing, after only a few words have passed between us.

The true heroes of protecting open space and agricultural lands in my town are the landowners, donors, volunteers and staff of the Land Trust of Napa County, who altogether have protected more than 53,000 acres over a period exceeding three decades. They have made it possible for more than 80 Napa landowners to co-create 122 conservation agreements; they have transferred 18 properties to resource agencies and saved 24 properties via direct purchase. And while they were at it, they helped strengthen and beautify our community, forged partnerships between unlikely groups and increased goodwill and a sense of security for Napa land into the next century. The Land Trust is only one of several land-advocacy groups with whom I am proud and happy to share residency in Napa.

As for the astroturfing NIMBYs, I like to think there is always hope of rehabilitation and possible integration into the genuine, well-established environmental community.