The NIMBY (not in my backyard) stance assumes we can obliterate an “enemy” without attacking our own well being in the process. The reasoning goes like this: we are separate and distinct and very different from our enemies. We can build a fence to keep them out– or attack them given our superior intelligence/strength/higher status if they broach the boundaries of our yards or borders.
A corollary of this is that our enemy “outsiders” are good for nothing.
But this NIMBY model does not fit reality– in social or environmental terms.
Take the modern assault or “warfare” on germs. Attacking bacteria as the “enemy”, we went after them to staunch disease. Alleviating suffering is hardly a bad thing: indeed, those who have devoted their lives to this deserve commendation. But here is the problem that is emerging: wholesale and inappropriate antibiotic use (in feed lots, for instance, to compensate for lack of cleanliness and in factory farming, to push the growth of animals just a bit more) allow bacteria to develop resistance. In one scenario, we consume such resistant bacteria in the meat of animals fed antibiotics and when we get a dangerous bacterial infection antibiotics no longer work on it. The Keep Antibiotics Working campaign has been working to address this problem in a number of arenas.
But we don’t need to consume such meat to feel this effect. The NIMBY attitude is based on false assumptions– that we live in a world in which we CAN partition our backyard from anyone else’s , but in fact we can’t isolate ourselves from the pesticides or antibiotics we create and use everywhere. There are now antibiotics in most municipal water systems in the US. Still those who thought they could separate themselves from the effects on their workers, for instance, have caused others irreparable harm, as indicated in the wrenching expose, Trade Secrets. This Bill Moyers documentary uses the memos of chemical company CEOs in the 1950s to expose how they conspired to hide the clear medical knowledge of their own doctors that their workers’ bones were dissolving from the inside out. Such memos would never have been made public but for the courageous suit of families of a worker in one of these companies who died of brain cancer.
Seeing this film, I could not help but wonder whether these CEOs really thought they lived in a totally different world from their workers– in which such environmental effects would never touch them. Evidently so.
But five decades later, antibiotic resistance is proving them wrong. This is a special problem among those with weakened immune systems in hospitals. But now “super-bugs” are infecting perfectly healthy folks outside of hospitals, as outlined in the latest issue of the Nutrition Action Newsletter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Moreover, germs aren’t all bad– as the enemy scenario would have it. Indeed, we could not survive without them. And one of the best ways to forestall dangerous infections before they start is to carry a healthy load of good bacteria. However, most antibacterial soaps and household disinfectants carry a double whammy in this respect: they help disease-promoting bacteria develop more resistance while killing off health-promoting bacteria.
There are other repercussions to our assault on germs and dirt. Children who have limited exposure to germs have increased rates of auto-immune diseases such as asthma later in life. Altogether, germs are not really the enemy our modern worldview makes them out to be. And maintaining our pristine NIMBY homes and yards free of germs is a serious problem for our children’s health.
Here is something else about the NIMBY view: it partitions time as well as space, seeing things only in the here and now. We need a little future perspective to address what might happen in a holistic interdependent world.
Take the case of insecticides. Serious as rising cancer rates are (and the majority of all cancer has environmental causes), we should also note that pesticides have the same ineffective traits as antibiotics. We have created resistant pests. For instance, a study of Colorado grain crops done in the 1990s showed that pest loss in those crops was double the percentage it had been before pesticide use began a few decades before. Now most of our crops are loaded with toxins–and less nutritious in the bargain.
Moreover, pesticides attack essential insects just as antibiotics attack essential bacteria. Take the insects necessary to pollinate our crops: honey bees are suffering from colony collapse disorder–and pollinating bats are following suit.
Ultimately, attacking this particular “enemy” leads to attacking ourselves. And we are learning the hard way that parts of the natural world we assumed unnecessary have functions essential to our own lives.
In trying to make things more convenient for ourselves, we are creating self-destructive results.
To address the crises outlined above, we need to revise the worldview which isolates us from others; we need to do science which is holistic, consciously value-laden, and mindful of future generations.
And we need to take a hard look at the ways in which we might truly need (and need to learn from) those whom we label enemies.
This goes for the social as well as environmental sphere. It is clear to me that the ways in which we treat other humans parallel the ways in which we treat the natural world. I witnessed how the dualism of friend/enemy created self-destructive actions the year I taught under the Israeli military occupation at BirZeit University.
Following the NIMBY reasoning, once an enemy is designated as such, one must keep oneself and one’s people away from them at all costs–even if the costs include one’s own security. In this context, the attempt to draw and enforce a “green line” of military occupation caused some bizarre results. For one thing, the occupation administration declared university teachers such as myself and other foreign nationals at BirZeit “illegal” despite the intersession of then US Secretary of State George Schultz on our behalf. The reasoning: no “outsiders” should witness the Occupation. But then, according to Occupation strategy, neither should Israelis themselves. That same year I watched the Occupation cultivate fear of the “dangerous other” living behind the green line — making even those good people who formed the Solidarity with BirZeit Committee at Hebrew University afraid to cross that line to share dinner with civilian Palestinians.
The twisted logic of maintaining the green line was illustrated when a group of Hebrew University students came in buses to have lunch with their peers at BirZeit only to be held up and made to stand for hours in the winter sleet by occupation soldiers for their attempted breach of the separation between them. That year was the year of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre: and some decent and courageous Israeli soldiers refused medals of commendations for military service as a result. The Jerusalem Post told us they were jailed for their unpatriotic behavior.
None of this enabled the true security of the Israelis–and certainly not the Palestinians (see my earlier article, “Supporting the Heart of Palestine”). For a searching, honest and wise analysis of the difficult task of truly seeing the “other” in a holistic ways, I recommend Farid Asack’s “To whom shall we give access to our water holes?” The title poses a challenging question at any time– but especially when it is asked in the South African desert which is Asack’s homeland. But this is Asack’s conclusion:
“There are many ways of dying.
There is, however, only one way to live: through discovering what the other is really about and what we have in common in the struggle to recreate a world of justice, a world of dignity for all the inhabitants of the earth.”
I am very touched by this Jewish parable with which he begins his article:
“The story is told of a Jewish rabbi whose disciples were debating the question of when precisely ‘daylight’ commenced. The one ventured the proposal: ‘It is when one can see the difference between a sheep and a goat at a distance.’ Another suggested, ‘It is when you can see the difference between a fig tree and an olive tree at a distance.’ And so it went on. When they eventually asked the Rabbi for his view, he said, ‘When one human being looks into the face of another and says, ‘This is my sister, or this is my brother,’ then the night is over and the day has begun.”
Our world is a whole, and should we ignore this or refuse to see this, we only make ourselves small as a result.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Ethics, Our Earth and Ourselves, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: holistic worldview, NIMBY resulting in self-destruction, problems with NIMBY attitude |