—by John Friedman—
Perhaps the most easily relatable example of how ‘Your Backyard is my Front Yard’ environmental impacts cross borders, continents, oceans and even time (as the cumulative effects of environmental impacts become recognized) and yet the cause and effect relationship is clear and undeniable.
In junior high school my biology class conducted an experiment using fruit flies. In a sealed test tube we placed an amount of food and water as well as two fruit flies. Living with abundance, they immediately began to propagate, resulting in a steep increase in the number of individuals in the enclosed environment. Eventually the numbers exceeded the capacity of the closed ecosystem to sustain the population and the result was a slow decline in the number of fruit flies until the experiment came to its inescapable and inevitable conclusion.
I have made the assumption that you, like most civilized people, would never consider dumping your trash over the property line into your neighbor’s yard. And yet the fact is when we dispose of our garbage it does end up somewhere; and that somewhere is someone else’s front yard. On behalf of the other approximately seven billion people on the planet, we don’t want it in our front yard either. And yet, it will end up in someone’s front yard. Someone will have to deal with it with immediacy or live with the smell, the mess, the possible contamination due to any toxins (such as are contained in batteries) and even the possibility of vermin infestation due to food waste.
The Earth, as vast and complex as it is, is a single, closed, inter-connected and interdependent (and fragile) ecosystem. Nothing – with the exception of a few rockets and the occasional asteroid – leaves or enters. And that scientific fact is the basis for understanding that everything we do has an impact, no matter how minute, on the planet and on the lives of all plants and the creatures that rely the Earth for survival.
When it comes to garbage it is easy to see how our disposal impacts others. Humans continue to produce trash in staggering amounts and struggle to find places to put the refuse and we continue to attempt to find plots of land in which to ‘hide’ our garbage. For the people living in those places, however, the garbage dumps become, quite literally their front yards.
The computer and electronics revolutions of the last few years have created a new kind of waste; e-waste. Much of it is exported to developing countries like China, India and parts of Africa. And while the recycling of valuable metals (including copper, silver and gold) is considered better for the environment than mining, the uncontrolled burning, dis-assembly and disposal of e-waste has been linked to a variety of environmental problems such as groundwater contamination, atmospheric pollution and health problems for those directly and indirectly involved in the processing due to the methods used. When we throw away our electronic devices, they end up quite literally in someone’s front yard, in cities like Guiyu, China, which have been taking in electronic waste from other countries for dismantlement and processing. It’s great for exporting countries, but takes a huge toll on the people managing the effort because getting the metal out of circuit boards results in a toxic mess that contaminates ground water (Guiya now trucks water in from other villages).
Today the lesson of inter-connectedness is being carried by social media networks and the internet, where it is possible to watch videos of people working (and in some cases) living in dumps in the developing world, literally someone else’s front (back and side) yards.
In the early 1960s a Yale University psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted and experiment in which study participants were asked to obey an authority figure who directed them to engage in actions that they believed were causing others pain – in this case electric shocks – on people whom they had never met in the name of science. The result was that an alarming percentage of people abdicated their own moral responsibility and engaged in actions that they thought were causing others pain.
Today we hear people decry the working conditions in overseas factories and yet they continue to patronize the companies that source their products from those locations. Often they exonerate themselves by using the rationale that the lower prices that they are paying for these products allow them to care better for their families.
The connection between the experiment and reality is that they are giving the company the same ‘proxy’ that they gave the authority figure in the Milgram experiment – absolving themselves of any moral accountability, even as they ‘vote with their dollars’ in a way that supports a social, political, and economic system that engages in actions that they would decry or find reprehensible if they allowed themselves to think about it.
The key to building the awareness every time is understanding that one key finding of the experiment was that it was being perpetrated on strangers. It is far different to take advantage of someone you know. And that is where the idea of a global neighborhood comes into play. Understanding that people living on the other side of the world are your neighbors and, even though you may never physically meet, it becomes that much harder to mistreat them or be part of their mistreatment.
In an ideal world people would recognize the power that they have and allow their personal values to guide their purchasing decisions. This can be difficult when supply chains are increasingly complex and hard to trace. But sometimes the system works, such as when the negative attention that Apple Computer received about the working conditions at one of its suppliers, Foxconn Technology facilities in China, and the company was moved to make changes that reflected its articulated core values.
In cases like Foxconn, advocates and the news media brought public awareness to the issues and the public was moved to act. It is far easier when the company in question owns its supply chain and can be held accountable.
Anyone who has lived next door to an undesirable neighbor knows the impact that can have on property values and the psychological health of a community. One person can reduce property value by hoarding and collecting ‘junk’ but they can also have an even more insidious effect if they are racist, sexist, politically intolerant and a host of other, harder to quantify ‘social’ detriments.
Conversely friendly, cooperative, welcoming people can build a neighborhood. The impact of community consciousness can be found in the allegory of the long spoons in which a holy man is given a glimpse of two rooms. Each room contains a large table, upon which a large pot of stew simmers. In both rooms the people have spoons with very long handles strapped to their arms, making it impossible to eat the delicious meal. In the version of ‘hell’ the people are starving. In the alternative that is heaven, the people are well-nourished and happy, because facing the same circumstances, they are feeding each other.
Thanks to the internet and social media, images of people just like us who are suffering are commonplace. The phrase ‘the world is watching’ has never been truer. The media age has helped to raise awareness and bring people together so that the images and suffering of starving children in Africa mobilized Band-Aid, Live-Aid and USA for Africa in the 1980s.
And yet, the paradox is that sometimes the world turns a blind eye. The entire world came together to share in the fate of Chilean Miners trapped underground, and the joy eventual in their rescue. The world grieved in the wake of 9/11 and the earthquake and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean (2004) and Japan (2011) and was mobilized to act.
It is small wonder that the protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square welcomed (and demanded) the internet. They knew that the eyes of the world were on them, as well as the response of the government. Was that scrutiny (and the potential for judgment) a factor in the military’s refusal to fire on protestors after President Mubarak resigned?
For those whose consciousness has been raised, the images of suffering, poverty, hunger and oppression are impossible to ignore. Those people, no matter how far away they live, are part of the human family. For them the Golden Rule ‘do unto others and you would have them do unto you’ is an obvious truism even as the Platinum Rule ‘do unto others as they would have you do unto them’ extends this to allow for the individual being impacted to have a say in how they are treated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Friedman is an award-winning communications professional and recognized sustainability expert with more than 20 years of experience as both an external and internal sustainability leader, helping companies, ranging from small companies to leading global enterprises, turn their values into successful business models by integrating their environmental, social, and economic aspirations into their cultures and business practices.
On social media, Friedman is a recognized as a thought leader in CSR, listing among the top voices in CSR by Forbes’ Brandfog. His insights on sustainability issues and strategy have been a regular feature on Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Ecopreneurist, and Forbes.com.
An Albany State (New York) communications graduate, Friedman earned a management certificate from as part of the Lafarge/Duke Management Training program at the Fuqua School of Business in 2000.
Friedman is a co-founder and served in a leadership capacity on the board, executive committee and as board chair for the Sustainable Business Network of Washington (SBNOW) from 2003 until 2012. Friedman also heads corporate citizenship communications worldwide for Sodexo.
Organizational affiliations are for transparency purposes only; the opinions expressed are the author’s personal opinions and do not reflect those of any organization.