Shaming the Lawn

06/05/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 05, 2016

Photo: I. Rimanoczy

A few days ago I was listening to a conversation on NPR about the California drought and the restrictions imposed on the consumption of water. The journalist was commenting about a new phenomenon, that particularly concerns celebrities, and that he called "shaming the lawn." Jokingly, he was saying that some celebrities were not following the ban on watering the lawn of their mansions, and being caught by cameras from above via Google Earth it was possible for anyone to see the dry patches alternating with occasional very green lawns. In his humorous comment he created an imaginary dialogue between two celebrities, where one said to the other, "Your lawn looks VERY nice..." And the real message was -- well, shaming the lawn, because that person was not following the ban.

At first I didn't understand the point, because as I came to the U.S. from an urban neighborhood with no front yards, I had learned that in U.S. suburban residential neighborhoods there is a tacit expectation that people will maintain and groom their front yards, out of respect for the norms of the area. If no one has a fence, then it's not a good idea to put one up. If no one has high hedges -- then don't consider having one... Not keeping your grass mown is the situation that will cause a "shaming the lawn" moment. That is what I thought "shaming the lawn" meant.

But interestingly, it was something different. It still was an expectation to abide by a social code, but in this case it was not about beauty, weed killing and esthetics to make the neighborhood look nice. Another value trumped esthetics -- the collective restraint of water use to address the collective crisis. It brought back to my mind a comment made by an upset neighbor in a condo where we lived some years ago. I was suggesting we turn off the lights in hallways and unused rooms when nobody was around, and she was puzzled and taking personal offense, responded, "I don't think so! We CAN afford the energy bill!"

Individually we may be able to afford paying a bill, of water or of energy, but we cannot afford the impact of our CO2 released into the atmosphere, the climate change, the floods or the droughts, like in California. And if we don't live in California, chances are that our tables have some fruit or vegetables from there, or some good wine.

We are raised and educated into a culture that points to the individual, to WIIIFM (what is in it for me), which is unrealistic, because we are all connected in more or less visible ways, and what happens to others does have an impact on us. Sometimes the impact is indirect, and not immediately visible -- yet it is there. I recall an example by management author Peter Senge -- if we throw away batteries, the contamination will be unseen by us, yet it will be there.

How far can we expand the scope of what matters to us? Does it cover me, my family, my friends? Our children, unborn grandchildren perhaps? Does it include those living in another state, another country, another continent? Does it include all living beings? What about soil and mountains, rivers and atmosphere?

So even for those wanting to know WIIIFM to decide if they should care or not, it may be good to help expand their vision and point that there IS something in it for them, they just need to look more carefully. I wonder if by correcting this myopia, we may be making some kind of evolutionary leap. Because it would mean that we would act with inter-connectedness in mind, we would think twice before we act following our own personal interest and benefit -- not necessarily because of virtue or altruism, but just because we realized that it is also in our best interest to care.

This may bring some new ethical standards. For example, not abiding by the water restrictions, becomes ethically unacceptable. I can see how other steps could follow rapidly. Wasting food becomes immoral (as a matter of fact, France recently established fines for supermarkets that waste unsold food products). Burning fossil fuel becomes unethical. Buying from palm oil plantations that create deforestation becomes unethical...

I like the world that may be emerging. I can see some signs.