November 05, 2002

Trashing of the Commons

It is time to go out today and glean from the roadside; from down in the creek where it is washed up against a boulder in a still pool; from over on the shoulder of the road where the Day Lilies will leaf and bloom again next Spring; from any wide place where a car, or more likely a truck, can pull over for one last swig of Milwaukee Ice or MGD before tossing cans, fast food wrappers, any other unwanted flotsam out of the vehicle and onto the 'commons' as if they owned it. Perhaps they think they do, and maybe that is part of the problem with litter.

Best we get out there now, to remove the litter-spawn before it leads to spontaneous generation of more of the same. Like begats like. Seeing a cluster of Genuine Draft cans is a trigger to add more, the threshold to disabuse one's vehicle of unwanted trash having been lowered by seeing that those who have come this way before were like-minded kindred spirits who also own this roadway, this country, and by gawd, if trash is in their way, it must go out upon impulse, whatever, whenever, no matter.

Last night, a car drove down our single-lane gravel road in the small hours, radio blaring out wide-open gut-thudding percussion, if not entertaining the occupant of the car, at least providing an acoustic massage to his abdominal organs by the sheer volume of it. Being oblivious to the existence of others who might not share his taste in 'music' at this hour, I am pretty sure that this same blissful ignorant was also the one who deposited the Chicken McNuggets wrapper/box/bag further on up our lane last night, with never so much as a twinge of a thought about it.

Are you, like me, just not able to see the world through the eyes of a litterer? I simply cannot go there in my attempts at empathetic projection. To trash public places: can it be a form of hatred or anger against others who live on or own places they do not, or against humanity at large despised for some other reason beyond perhaps even the litterer's own understanding?

Can litter come from self-loathing (since at least here on this road, these same people will drive past their trash and look at it day after day until it becomes mostly hidden by corrosion, road dust and the mercies of roadside weeds)? I doubt this is the case, because this type of person, best I can figure, by nature or by nurture, is likely not offended by the sight of trash any more than they are awed by the grandeur of a magnificent view, or outstanding art, or a moving musical work. Maybe it is a form of aesthetic blindness from birth. But then, I really don't know this; it just seems consistent with such behavior.

I do know that our road is one of the less littered, so that coming upon a fresh deposit is all the more offensive. I also know that we have to show that this is not acceptable by cleaning it up promptly, as angry as it makes me to clean up another's thoughtless misbehavior. We do own this road, in a sense, both the litterer and I. He feels that gives him license to abuse it in any way he chooses. I feel it places a burden on me to maintain this common ground so that the character and value of its natural beauty are not marred by the ugliness of man's ignorant disregard.

Maybe this same pair of disparate lenses makes the world look like two different places to those who want to protect and preserve larger natural areas, species, and resources for the future versus those who perceive that states' and individual rights convey an absolute 'ownership' giving license to unbridled exploitation. This seems to be a confrontation that will be gaining momentum in the near future as more and more struggle with less and less, and blame for our sickened planet seeks a cause. Perhaps the microcosm reflects the macrocosm; gaining an understanding of the psychology of litter may provide some small hints in how to deal with the question of who owns the land and what should be done with it and to it, for the greater or lesser good.

I would love to know what others think about this. Is littering a habit by nature or by nurture? What could be done at our local levels to change this way of thinking, or lack thereof? Will the carrot or the stick get the best results? Is littering related to the larger issues mentioned above?

Posted by fred1st at November 5, 2002 06:05 AM

Littering is another one of those things that responsible parents warn their children about - mine certainly did and I've never dropped litter in my life. Others obviously don't.

We've turned the world into a commodity, we don't care about it anymore :(

Posted by: Muppet at November 5, 2002 06:39 AM

Not at all certain what cuases this - maybe lead poisoning?

Even after a long life in Cities like NYC and SF, I am still REALLY bothered when I see someone drop paper on the sidewalk. And I've seen it done just as easy as open the item, pop it in the mouth and let the paper go in the wind - all in the course of three steps. "Our city thanks you" I'll mutter.

Can't quite figure out what the issue is, especially in NYC where there is a garbage can nearly ever 20 feet. Even a cig-a-butt can be carefully de-fired and tossed in a can. And after serving time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, don't get me started on litter in the woods...

Posted by: Huw Raphael at November 5, 2002 09:49 AM

I've wondered this myself, and been disturbed like you when I see it done. My take: litterers are often people with no sense of ownership of their own lives. Working class, by and large, at the mercy of others, less educated. Absent anything of which they can be proud, this is their "fuck you" to the world.

Posted by: sainteros at November 5, 2002 10:05 AM

I wonder if it is a class-specific phenomenon. My impression is that, in Western Europe, perhaps even in other 'poorer' parts of the continent, littering is less common even among the 'working class' than among blue collar Americans. Anyone have opinions or experiences with littering in other countries compared to the US?

Posted by: fredf at November 5, 2002 10:30 AM

I don't think this is an attitude that stems from a firm belief in states' rights or individual property rights. In my readings, it seems the people who hold these beliefs (myself included) also hold to a strong stewardship ethic.

I think Sainteros came closest...these are people who see it as a way of giving the finger to the rest of the world. They are probably generally anti-authoritarian and rebellious in their attitudes.

And I think it comes mostly from nurture. My parents and my Scoutmaster taught me not to litter, and the lesson has stuck with me. But the seeds of this evil and all others are, of course, deep within the heart of man.

Posted by: Curt at November 5, 2002 10:48 AM

A large portion of blame has to be attributed to our tradition of land "ownership" as opposed to that of stewardship. I have never understood how a person with a life span of seventy years can claim to own a two hundred year-old tree, much less something like a cave or creek.

Posted by: ron at November 5, 2002 10:51 AM

I'd like to offer a different interpretation.

I think these folks never reached a certain maturity. Literally. Very small children don't really make the distinction between themselves and the rest of the world... it's just all one continuum. (In psychological terms, they never became "anal"!) To these folks, "littering" never really enters their consciousness. It's all part of them in some unconscious underlying way. It's not something they're DOING to a world OUT THERE.

And, like a very small child, if something goes wrong... well, someone will pick up after them. There's no perception of consequences or responsibility.

This is the downside of an unthinking "eternal now." As it was, is now, and shall be for ever and ever. The world will always be there to be used and abused. Other people will solve the problems I create (if I mature so much as to notice that I'm creating problems).

Posted by: Pascale Soleil at November 5, 2002 02:57 PM

I agree with Pascale's assessment. I can't remember how many times I've walked past someone as they finish the last gulp of a 'Big Gulp' and then flip the cup away without looking, without seeing, apparently without a care in the world. I've seen this behavior within 3 feet of garbage cans. It is as though there is no distinction between 'the ground' and 'the garbage can'.

Yesterday, stopped at a light next to a school bus, a wad of saran wrap dropped down onto the hood of my car from a school bus window. The trash was not followed by little faces looking out to say "oops, I dropped my trash" or "oops, it blew out of the bus", although I was sitting, with this (white) saran wrap on the hood of my (black) vehicle for about a minute before the bus pulled away. [ok, I'm not sure what point this proves but it's a timely story!]

Posted by: Sarah from San Francisco at November 5, 2002 05:51 PM

A friend of mine who is a therapist, for what it's worth, thinks littering shows a person feels no sense of (1) ownership or (2) control over their environment. I hate littering and if I have access to the litterer, like if they're on the sidewalk with me, I'll ask them (nicely but crisply) to pick up their garbage.

I don't know about the rest of Western Europe, but London and Paris have shameful amounts of litter on the streets. Graffiti too, especially in Paris. And dog poo on every sidewalk!

Posted by: Fran at November 5, 2002 08:49 PM

I think Pascale's got it. Most litterers don't even realize that they are doing so, or that there are consequences that others are obligated to remedy.

That business about blue-collar and lower education levels is pure-dee baloney, I can assure you, at least here in Texas. As a campground owner, by far the worst offenders when it comes to pure-dee trashiness are the church groups, followed closely by the university groups, followed up third by the high-rollers who one would assume are well-educated. My blue-collar patrons, mostly bikers and music lovers, will walk the grounds picking up cigarette butts at the end of their weekend. You need fully charged firearms to get the degreed professionals to acknowledge that perhaps one should pick up ones shattered wine bottles.

On the flip side, I believe that there are millions of people in this world who will happily point out the mote in the other person's eye, while failing to acknowledge the log in their own. If I had a nickel for every person who told me they would treat the land as if it were their own and then leave for home with a wood fire burning in the fire ring and a busted lawn chair laying next to it, I would be a rich man now.

There is nothing like owning (yes, owning, in the American sense of the word) a piece of land for making a person understand the concept of stewardship. One without the other is lip service, IMAO.

Sorry, but this is a subject that really burns me up, especially when I hear that "uneducated giving the finger" crap. Forgive me my rant, Fred.

Posted by: Scott Chaffin at November 5, 2002 08:50 PM

I think that it might stem from a misplaced sense of privilege, or wrongful entitlement. That it's even also a weird form of consumerism. All of which can clearly cut across lines of class, education, and age, etc. In other words, a sense that "I can do whatever I want," or "It's not in my job description," or "It's not my problem," in combination with the rampant wastefulness characteristic of a consumer culture where everything, including land/nature/landscape/cityscape is just another commodity to be used/consumed . . . and the "customer," as such, is always right.

Posted by: Artichoke Heart at November 5, 2002 11:50 PM

Every single day i notice the children in our high school where I have taught for 29 years churlishly drop all manner of gumfoil, paper trash, homework assignments, and other waste and trash onto the hall floor without the slightest hint of remorse. I make it a point to stop for every bit of flotsam and scoop it up then walk down to one of the giant gray plastic bins and deposit their trash in the proper receptacle. I asked a student to explain why no one put up their own trash like we did when I was sixteen. "Shoot Mr G, thats why we got janitors" Oh yeah, I forgot...

Posted by: steve gunter at November 6, 2002 12:09 AM

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