Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

Does anybody remember litter? It was what people tossed out of their cars as if they were throwing confetti. Litter was big during the environmental Dark Ages of the ’50s, when I was a kid. Nobody knew about climate change, then. Species extinctions were just beginning to rouse the national conscience, thanks to Rachel Carson. And litter … well, it was all the rage.

Drive-in burger joints was where the typical American family learned to love fast food. They displayed that love by flinging colorful wrappers out the car window along with tissues, bottles, cans, cigarette butts, gum wrappers … you name it.

Sometime in the early ’60s, the national consensus shifted. America decided that trash was ugly, and a new sensibility inspired a national anti-littering campaign. Signs and fines were posted along highways as part of the Keep America Beautiful campaign.

It took fines and signs to create awareness, which, in turn, created a new set of societal mores. Americans began to respect cleanliness and take pride in the natural beauty of their country. Aesthetic sensitivity became firmly embedded in American culture, or so it seemed.

The success of the original anti-litter campaign gives hope for a similar cultural awareness of environmental issues of global significance. The challenge with the big issues, however, is far greater than it was with littering because littering was highly visible and easy to control. Even so, littering remains a problem today.

Every spring, a volunteer community cleanup along Frying Pan Road produces an amazing amount of trash. Disposable cups, soiled diapers, old tires, etc., are strewn along this scenic roadway. Americans have made strides in aesthetic awareness and in moral compliance to laws of basic decency, but litter remains a problem as each new generation must learn the lessons of the past.

Today, according to the Keep America Beautiful organization, over 51 billion pieces of litter land on U.S. roadways each year. Motorists (52 percent) and pedestrians (23 percent) are the biggest contributors, and individuals under 30 are the worst contributors.

Litter is a problem, though certainly not the problem it once was. Things have gotten better. So, if the anti-litter campaign worked with fines and signs, why not use a similar approach to address far more pressing issues like climate change and biodiversity loss?

Unlike with littering, our contributions to global problems are mostly invisible. Car emissions, for example, are far more difficult to visualize than a few gum wrappers. Yet they emanate from the same source – our cars. The environmental challenges of today require awareness of everything we do as consumers. The solutions rest in cultural mores that must change on the same overarching scale.

The original anti-litter campaign was politically easy because it had no detractors. Climate change, however, is vehemently debated because of the sweeping changes necessary to correct it. For climate change naysayers, ideology and self-interest foment denial of the problem itself. Changing such entrenched prejudice through empirical science is futile because, as Sydney Harris wrote: “You can’t use reason to dislodge a notion that was not put there by reason.”

Reason takes a back seat when habitual patterns of consumption and the myth of perpetual growth are challenged. America’s privilege knows no bounds. That’s why signs and fines are inadequate for alleviating systemic environmental challenges. What’s required is a cultural transformation akin to that which occurred during the anti-litter campaign.

David Orr writes that we need to revamp education to produce citizens sensitized to the complexity of ecology and the notion of limits. He says we must focus not only on efficiency, but on sufficiency by tempering our material appetites. Efficiency and sufficiency are equally important if we are to encourage resource sustainability and a healthy biosphere.

Litter is visibly offensive. Litter is symbolic of the stuff we consume and throw away. Invisible litter – like greenhouse emissions – is far more polluting than a gum wrapper carelessly tossed out the car window, but receives less notice. We only act upon what we recognize as a blight, and then only with limited success.

The next time you’re in a car, consider tossing out a piece of trash. You probably won’t litter because your conscience won’t allow it. Trace your decision to its roots and discover the evaluative process necessary to address far greater problems than a blighted roadway.

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