Blog 145. The Backyard Fence

In those neighborhoods where single-family houses still exist, back yards are usually fenced. So are some front yards. Why is this? What motivates us to put up fences when a once-popular western song was Don’t Fence Me In?

For sure, the neighbors don’t want my dog in their yard. I don’t want their cat either, but cats can’t be confined and dogs can. Or perhaps dogs obey people but people obey cats. Either way, we’re so sensitive to what’s mine and what’s yours that we put up fences. But is it only geographic territory that we feel compelled to demark with wire and walls, or are things fenced for other reasons, too?

Fencing has to do with the presence of neighbors. Neighbors close enough to hear, see, or smell. You rarely see a fence around a farmhouse with a hundred acres or more. Except for the fences that grow at borders between countries. For example, the American politicians will shut down the government rather than discuss a fence on our southern border. Of course, that’s a unique case. Or is it?

Hordes of people hope to escape from living with the poverty, oppression, crime, and corruption of Central America. Some of us don’t want these folks occupying our back yards because our spaces are already occupied. We have our own homeless and our own workers living in campers on the street. Also stressed are our schools, highways, hospitals, parks, water works, and law along with other things we share in common. That presumed sharing is part of our culture, and the new neighbors that want our collective back yard might not have the same cultural assumptions. We have mixed feelings: being charitable is good but NIMBY—not in my back yard.

Habitual fencing is old, but the border-unease (disease?) seems new. It’s happening in Europe, too, which is shifting politically to resist the massive migrations from northern Middle East. Why?

International fences and migration emerge as products of global complexity.

The richest countries have average incomes per person about 100 times that of the poorest countries. When the world was separated, that didn’t matter to us. But now, the increased connections join us in one earth-wide complex system, whether or not anyone wants it. The poorer people know more about us than we know about them. That’s globalization. But it won’t be possible for everyone to capture the dream of safety, peace, and economic security—a dream rapidly evaporating even in the western economies. As demonstrated by climate change, the earth can’t sustain the existing western standards——so it can’t sustain that consumption rate by even more people. Furthermore, culture travels with the crowd. The migrants are seeking to escape the worst parts of the cultures that they bring with them, whether wanted or unwanted, by them or by us. Culture is the set of written and unwritten rules of interaction among people—how we buy, sell, meet and greet. The morals by which we presume to hold others accountable, and the things we hold sacred.

In his essay The Global Peril of Inequality1 Jared Diamond observes that well-being does not require excessive consumption. He concludes

The only sustainable outcome is one in which consumption rates are more nearly equal around our globalized world.”

Note the word, sustainable.

The world could live comfortably at a level well below our wasteful lifestyle. However, inequality—particularly inequality of opportunity and safety—promotes demagogues who generate feelings of identity and power among the populace—exuding leadership by blaming enemies rather than identifying causes, promoting militaristic regimes to suppress reasoned opposition. This technique works at all scales, from street gangs to fascist governments. Demagogues generate unity by creating a foe, and exonerate themselves by making others wrong.

What’s the point?

Diamond says, “While problems are getting worse, potentials for solutions are getting better.”

There are forums for making agreements at all scales. Being connected, we can talk across the backyard fences.

If we avoid the demagogues.


1.  Jared Diamond, The Global Peril of Inequality, National Geographic 134:6. Dec. 2018, p. 17.

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