By John Friedman, Sustainability and Communications Professional, Washington, DC
What does it mean to be a ‘good neighbor’?
The concept goes far back into antiquity and crosses cultural and geographic boundaries. In the 4th Century BCE, Chinese philosopher Laozi wrote “Regard your neighbor's gain as your own gain, and your neighbor's loss as your own loss.” In ancient Egypt the story of The Eloquent Peasant, which dates to the Middle Kingdom (c. 2040–1650 BCE) offers; “Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you."
The same sentiment was made somewhat more explicit and personal in the Late Period (c. 664 BCE – 323 BCE). A papyrus from that era reads:"That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to another." Many are familiar with, and can quote "love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) or ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ (Deuteronomy 6:5) without knowing the origins of the proverbs.
My point is: this notion of neighborly love is a global concept, yet in today's global world what it means to be a good neighbor is complicated by the fact that our actions (be they environmental, social or economic) can have profound impacts on those we may never physically meet, and even those who have not yet been born.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, events that take place a world away are brought to our collective consciousness with such an immediacy and authenticity that the phrase ‘not in my backyard’ has become obsolete. And because of our globally connected world, it is impossible to ignore that, even on a massive scale everyone’s backyard is someone else’s front yard.
Dumping Your Garbage
Literally speaking, most of us would never deliberately dump our garbage onto our neighbor’s property. Indeed, most of us would be mortified to discover that our trash cans accidently spilled refuse onto their yard. Yet, we fail to appreciate that when we transport our undesirable industries, facilities, factories, and even our waste to distant locales, this is exactly what we are doing.
In fact, one of the most dramatic cultural impacts of information technology has been the shattering of artificial barriers between people. Astronauts traveling in space remarked that the borders and distinctions between countries are replaced by an overwhelming awareness of the special nature of an ‘island in space’ we all share. Apollo 8’s Frank Borman put it succinctly when he said:
“When you're finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you're going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why the hell can't we learn to live together like decent people.”
The Whole: Sum of Its Parts?
The pictures from those expeditions inspired people and helped increase global environmental awareness in the 1970s. “To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves a riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know now they are truly brothers.” wrote poet Archibald MacLeish.
What do these astronomical observations mean for you and me, whether we are sustainability practitioners, accountants, writers, or just an average consumer?
‘Out of sight’ can no longer be ‘out of mind’ because we can no longer ignore the impacts that our decisions are having on our global neighbors. The period of insularity is official over.
Like the Dr. Seuss story of Horton Hears a Who, people who have been invisible are finding their voices today. Public expression is truly free. You can distinguish philosophy from action by posting images on Facebook, launching YouTube videos and tweeting up a movement.
Today the Internet serves a similar role – bringing strangers together to share common experiences, like the joy of hearing for the first time; experiences that most of us will never have yet find an audience.
As we increasingly understand the cause and effect of our actions – particularly those that are separated by both distance and time (making it harder to observe and easier to deny) – we must become more deliberately conscious about our actions. This, in turn, leads to the inescapable concept of shared fate.
Self-Interest: Your Backyard Is My Front Yard
Research by 2009 Nobel Laureate economist Leon Ostrom argues against the inevitability of The Tragedy of the Commons (1968, Garret Hardin) that whenever multiple individuals are acting independently to further their own self-interests, they will ultimately deplete a limited shared resource, even when it is clear that it is not in anyone's long-term interest for this to happen.
Her work suggests that this can be averted without government regulation through a combination of a strong community tradition and well-defined boundaries. Complementary to Adam Smith's concept of the ‘invisible hand’ (1776, The Wealth of Nations), Ostrom believes that people within a community unintentionally act in their mutual best interest.
Your Backyard Is My Front Yard, a new series on CSRwire Talkback – and a personal endeavor for me – picks up where Ostrom and Smith left of and is intended to help build that sense of community, interdependence and cooperation to a global economy by personalizing and simplifying the issues around environment, social and economic issues.
In coming posts, I will expand on the notion and explain more fully why Your Backyard is My Front Yard is a universal truth and perspective that can guide more thoughtful decision-making by corporations, government agencies, not-for-profit organizations and educational institutions and individuals.