When we dispose off our garbage, it does end up somewhere; and that somewhere is someone else’s front yard.
By John Friedman
Perhaps the most easily relatable example 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). 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 some 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 that 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 toxins 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 the disposal impacts others. Humans continue to produce trash in staggering amounts and struggle to find places to put the refuse setting into motion an ongoing attempt to find backyards in which to ‘hide’ our garbage. For the people living in those places, these 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 else’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, of course, 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).
In the early 1960s, Yale University Psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an 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 an alarming percentage of people abdicating their own moral responsibility and engaging in actions that they thought were causing others pain.
When we hear people decry the working conditions in overseas factories while continuing to patronize the very companies that source their products from those locations, we're acting like those participants. Often we exonerate ourselves through rationale.
That the lower prices we are paying for these products allow us to care better of our families, save for our retirement, support a better lifestyle, etc. Where do our neighbors fit in with this picture?
Essentially, we are giving the company the same ‘proxy’ that we gave the authority figure in the Milgram experiment – absolving ourselves of any moral accountability, even as we ‘vote with our dollars’ to support a social, political, and economic system that engages in actions that we would otherwise decry or find reprehensible.
The key to building this awareness is realizing that the experiment 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 in the world beyond your town, county and country, 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 though when supply chains are complex and hard to trace. For Apple Computer, heightened attention meant the company was compelled to make changes that reflected its articulated core values.
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. Conversely, friendly, cooperative, welcoming people can build a neighborhood.
Thanks to the Internet and social media, images of people just like us who are suffering are commonplace. The world is watching and the media age has helped raise awareness and bring people together so that the images of starving children in Africa mobilized products/campaigns like Band-Aid, Live-Aid and USA for Africa in the 1980s.
Yet, the paradox is that sometimes the world turns a blind eye.
The entire world came together to share in the fate of the Chilean Miners trapped underground, and celebrated their eventual rescue. We grieved in the wake of 9/11 and the earthquake and tsunamis in the Indian Ocean (2004) and Japan (2011) and millions jumped up to help.
No surprise then 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 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 one human family, living by the same rules.