Andersen: Evolution of the ‘litterbug’
I grew up in the age of litter. That was the 1950s and ’60s, a time when America’s highways and byways were scattered with trash thrown from car windows.
Most Americans had no moral qualms about the unconscious act of throwing a candy wrapper or a soda can out the window. The outdoors were one big trash receptacle, the garbage dump of the commons.
Pastoral landscapes were littered with the accumulated detritus of America’s waste, revealing an excess of packaging and an attitude of complete disregard. Litter in America revealed a dullness of aesthetic sensitivity and a stupefying denial of environmental sensibility. Litter was the collective insult of our throwaway society.
Then came the litter campaigns. They began state-by-state with a series of referendums that made it illegal to litter. States imposed fines. Signs were posted on highways. Awareness began to grow.
“Keep America Beautiful” was a national slogan that made litter ugly. “Every litter bit hurts you” pitched cleanliness as a virtue to anyone who valued cityscapes and rural countrysides.
“Don’t be a litterbug” became a national call to action that put Americans on notice that it was not OK to toss out McDonald’s burger wrappers. Americans began to understand that the view in the rearview mirror mattered to others and that legal penalties ensued for the ignorant masses who disregarded the new litter laws.
The litter campaign worked remarkably well. It was perhaps the most successful environmental campaign in U.S. history. Fifty years later, some people still litter, but to the vast majority, throwing trash out of the car today would seem atrocious and barbaric.
On a recent trip to the Caribbean on the Mexican coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, litter was again a hot topic. Beautiful, white-sand beaches were awash with plastic garbage, the litter from fishing and pleasure boats — a rude aesthetic blight.
The cruise-ship industry ramps up litter another order of magnitude by dumping human and other waste into the high seas. Our oceans have become vast dumping grounds plagued by the same shortsighted ignorance as the litterbug mentality that once defaced American roadways. Sadly, there is no campaign to stop it and no sensitivity or sensibility to alter littering behavior.
Most of us look askance at beach trash and enormous floating islands of plastics that are strangling ocean life, and yet we litter unconsciously with our collective carbon emissions. Gaseous litter is innocuous to most of us because it’s invisible.
We don’t see the gush of carbon spewing from our energy-consuming vehicles, homes and industries. We fail to recognize our contributions to what culminates into climate change. Litter becomes abstract and virtual and easily deniable.
We also fail to recognize particulate litter, the fine dust of PM-10 pollution that clogs our alveoli and irritates our sinuses. Without visible detection, these things go unnoticed and are easily ignored, even when science points them out to us with dire warnings.
Human beings have become huge waste producers. We fill canyons, valleys and oceans with trash, dumping it just beyond our eyes and noses so that we needn’t face it on a daily basis or perhaps ever.
Atmospheric trash is too obscure to concern ourselves with, so we simply don’t recognize it. Yet we have changed the climate and altered the chemical composition of the very air we breathe — all without a qualm.
The litter campaigns of my youth were easy. Litter was visible, and you could easily recognize the source as that red Chevy two cars ahead. Litter was a choice, an act that entailed rolling down the window.
Today’s litter is unconscious and ubiquitous because everyone does it. Today’s litter is anonymous because the sources are innumerable. Today’s litter is insidious because cleaning it up requires the painful culpability that makes all contributors — from individuals to global industries — responsible for their actions.
Americans are still litterbugs. We spew waste as we travel the highways of commerce and pleasure, adding our noxious contributions to the polluted commons without remorse. We leave the costs of our consumer culture in the rearview mirror for future generations that trail behind, picking up our mess after us.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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