Saturday, 12 April 2008

Spread a Litter Love

A lot of people talking about litter lately. Bill Bryson and his 3-year clean up plan. New fines for drivers throwing litter from car windows.

When I was a schoolboy I had a teacher who once promised a shiny 50p piece to any member of the class who could ever catch him dropping litter. No one ever did.

When I was at college, one day a tiny old lady watched as my friends and I threw empty chip wrappers on the floor. This plucky old dear, half our size, came to us and asked us why we didn't just put them in the litter bin yards away. Shamed, we picked them up and walked to the bin. I have never littered since.

So what does it take to persuade our public that littering is wrong? What is the difference between my biology teacher and the little old chip lady, and the thousands who blithely throw cigarette butts from their cars each day?

I think part of the answer lies in accountability, in cause and effect. Like the 5 young boys I caught kicking down my fence a week ago, most litterbugs think absolutely nothing about the consequences of their actions. To them there's never a choice to be made between right and wrong, because there is no-one to pull them up when they make the wrong choice. If there is no punishment you stop thinking you are committing an offence. And the more people who think this way the more it becomes acceptable to others. How often have you seen someone walk from a shop with a packet of cigarettes, open them and immediately drop the wrapper to the ground? It simply doesn't enter into their heads that its wrong. If everyone else is doing it why shouldn't you?

Little old chip lady had a very different ethos. To her there was a pride in living in a civil, clean neighbourhood. She saw that if you foul your own doorstep you diminish the joy of living there. She saw that the effort expended to 'keep it clean' really wasn't a great deal more than to leave a mess. The biology teacher had a similar credo, though his was possibly more borne out of ideology. Nevertheless he rejected the 'it's not my problem' attitude that he saw his pupils so regularly engaging when they discarded their Mars bar wrappers in the street.

So, to the cure. Is it punishment, shaming, fines? Or is it instilling that sense of pride in your surroundings?

Current culture has travelled along a line to where it is today. There are plenty of commentators on social change so I'm not going to repeat them, but I believe it's fair to say that we have become very much a 'consumer' society. Consumers not only in the sense of being on the buying side of the retail counter, but also in the respect that we seem to consume to a far greater degree than we create. I recall a line from an old song, 'Living only to consume...' There are certainly some of us that fit that bill. Take a look around your local fast food burger outlet and, forgetting for a moment the inequities surrounding the production of the food, the exploitation of the staff and the environmental impact (see earlier post) - all of which show a liaison between insensitive vendor and insensitive purchaser. What you see is also a sea of litter kindly donated by the patrons. Living to consume.

You can't fine someone into a change of mind. The process has to start earlier than that. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for imposing penalties on those offenders that simply don't get the message. But we have to be putting out the message too, and that starts in childhood and should be strong enough to be a solid, shared ethic through life. If a policeman stops your child outside the sweet shop and tells him to pick up his Snickers wrapper and put it in the bin, you should support him. Even better, you can vote for and fund the policeman being there in the first place. Better yet, you can educate your kid from the beginning that litter dropping is wrong. How do we expect our adults to take a pride if they grew up with no-one setting the right examples?

Here's my vote for more old chip ladies and more biology teachers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree completely, we need to start teaching the kids that littering is wrong from an early age and to take pride in their neighborhood, else they will grow up to think that its just a normal part of life, living with filth and just throwing rubbish on the floor...

Heres my vote for more old chip ladies...