Not In My Backyard

For years we’ve all heard that one of the biggest future issues will be fighting over water.  Water, the experts tell us, will be in short supply.

When I first read that, I remember thinking how awful it will be for people if they don’t have enough water.  But of course you never think it will be you in that situation.  You think of places like Africa.  Until suddenly, you’re in a meeting room with over 1,000 other angry people, fighting over your water rights.

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I recall a conversation I had with someone regarding how they felt about unwanted real estate ventures coming to their community.  Such as low income housing, factories, strip malls and bars.  These kinds of ventures always create uproar from residents that worry about things like property values, light and noise pollution, traffic increases or increased crime.

My conversational pal grew up someplace different than I did.  He had seen terrible poverty before (although he didn’t personally experience it), and his impression was that the low income housing being considered in his community didn’t really qualify as poor.

He’s right, of course.  Poor is defined differently by different people, and their fear levels are accordingly different, depending upon what they’ve experienced in their lifetime.  It’s difficult to object to housing that you don’t see as markedly different from the community at large.

In referring to the people that opposed the development, he said, “I’m not one of those kind of people”.  I took his meaning to be that he wasn’t a snob, or greedy, or someone who looked down on those less fortunate.

Well, he’s not a snob.  I’ve known him quite a while, and I’ve never know him to be anything but compassionate and caring for others welfare.  And I have to say, I agree with him.  In theory.

In practice it’s another story.

We humans fight over who gets to live next door because we are scared of losing our safety.  We’re trying to protect ourselves.  Or, in the case of the angry meeting I referred to in the beginning of this post, because we don’t want a power plant to come into our neighborhood and draw 2,000 gallons of water a minute from our already endangered water supply.

Protection comes in many forms.  It’s not just physical protection: like for your kids from the bully at school, or from break-in’s, crime, and gangs.  There’s the protection we need for our health as well.  Protection of basic supplies (like water).  And like it or not, we also need financial protection in this life.

Fear of losing your financial security isn’t greed.  It stems from our instincts of survival.  Lose the property value in your home and maybe you can’t afford to move when you need to.  If you’re young enough, you could take a loss on the house and maybe recoup down the road, although it will still be tough on you and your family.  But what if you’re almost ready to retire and plan on moving when you do?  Or a family crisis necessitates a move?  Then, suddenly, you’re stuck with a house that no one wants, next to a power plant.

House payments are not like paying rent… you can’t just break your lease and move on.  Renege on your mortgage and it will affect your ability to buy (or even rent) someplace else.  It severely impacts your life.

The problem with making blanket statements against the “not in my backyard” mentality is that it places a moral value on an issue that rarely has any relation to the assumed morality.  People oppose things like power plants and low-income housing, not because they are snobs, but because they are afraid.  Maybe they have good reason to be afraid, and maybe they don’t.  But it’s fear that’s driving them, not greed.

What wouldn’t you do to protect your family from perceived harm, real or imagined?

Every level of income feels the same way.  The family living in that low-income housing is just as concerned about who (or what) moves in next door as the wealthy man is.  Especially if they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps.  No one wants to lose financial ground.  Everyone wants to feel safe.

My pal, and many like him, could afford the high moral road… the housing/power plant/bar wasn’t being built in his backyard.  It wasn’t even being built across the street, or behind the yard behind his back neighbor.  The more streets there are between where you live and the proposed building site, the more moral you can afford to become.

But what if it was?  If the proposed site was right across the street from his kids school playground, or the traffic and pollution would necessitate his keeping his windows closed, or the realtor can’t find people willing to even look at his house now – I wonder – would he stick to his morals?

Given the choice between protecting his family or keeping his morals, I suspect he’d put his morals on the shelf.

In a perfect world, we’d all be safe.  The wolf would live with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6), there would be no hunger or thirst, and we’d all live peacefully together.  But we don’t live in that world yet.  The world we live in is over-crowded, with limited resources.  That’s our reality.

Instead of pointing fingers, I think we would be better served to remember that, in the end, our morals are only useful to us when we ourselves are prepared to live with their consequences, not just impose them on others.

In our over populated world, these conflicts of space and resources are unavoidable.  Power plants have to be sited somewhere; people of all income levels have to live someplace.  Someone’s going to win and someone’s going to lose.

These are issues that we can’t avoid, so let’s at least try to be kinder with each other, and leave the moral judgements to God.

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