Monday, February 04, 2008

talkin' trash

I had one of those very odd convergences that happen from time to time. As most of you know, I have started carrying an extra plastic grocery bag with me while I walk my dog around the neighborgood. I use it to pick up the various pieces of trash that people toss in our neighborhood. My friend Andee taught me this lesson of social responsibility.

On Saturday the dog and I took our usual route walking through a few blocks of residential neighborhoods. I picked up the odd candy or gum wrapper, but nothing big. But when Jiggs and I came to our local park, I noticed a huge difference in the trash: fast food wrappers and sacks, plastic bags, beer bottles, a full pack of strewn playing cards, fruit drink boxes, several items that I choose not to mention on a family blog, and assorted other papers. I had filled my bag and decided to drop it in a trash container in front of one of the state buildings. Just as I did, a police car pulled up and the officer told me he was going to cite me for putting household trash in a public trash can. When I told him what I was doing, he did not believe me and told me it was not my job to clean up the trash.

That little incident took me back to my posting about economics and I drew the following conclusions.

1. The amount of trash at the park compared to the amount in the residential neighborhoods is a perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons. The homeowners own their property and take action to prevent their yards from looking like dump annexes. Because the park is owned by the public, no one has responsibility to keep it looking nice. Tossing trash there has no price because it is someone else's problem. And that is why socialism is always doomed to fail.

2. Most of the trash items I pick up are dropped by children on the way to school (with the exception of the beer bottles and the unmentionables -- I hope). In every country I visit, children seem to have not yet learned that throwing trash on the street is not acceptable behavior. Maybe this is just a corollary of the last point. Children own nothing and do not understand the responsibility that goes along with property ownership.

3. No good deed goes unpunished. The policeman exemplifies the type of authority that wrongly drives people into the grips of Objectivism. I am convinced that he thought I had made up the lamest excuse he had ever heard -- voluntarily picking up other people's trash -- go ahead and pull the other one. But, as I have said before, I really believe Andee was correct: when you can do something to help someone, why not?


Beth said...

Your post reminds me of the paradoxical commandments written by Kent Keith, but made famous by Mother Teresa. Among the more notable ones:

If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.

The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.

People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
Help people anyway.

Keep doing good Steve. We need more people like you and your friend Andee.

John W said...

When I first arrived in San Miguel, Parque Landeta. a sort of natural preserve, was littered the way you found your local park. Wanting to walk Rosie, our Boston Terrier, and enjoying the fresh air in Landeta overlooking a small reservoir, I took to carrying a large plastic garbage bag with me, picking up trash. A year later, the whole 100 acres was clean.

But something wonderful happened, something unexpected. I got to know the park's users, mostly families. They would watch me picking up trash. I told them I enjoyed the park more when I didn't have to see trash. Soon, I saw others picking up litter. And less new litter was being thrown.

My life has become busy. I don't pick up trash in Landeta anymore. I see there hase been a small buildup of litter there, but nothing like when I first got here.

The experience taught me that sometimes you can get people to change just by going about doing the right thing.

Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. I always took the trash home with me and put it out for our household trash collection, not wanting to run into the static you got from that ridiculous cop.

Steve Cotton said...

Thanks, Beth. It is nice to be reminded why I do this -- to be helpful, not to be recognized.

John -- Thank you for relaying your experience. I find myself enjoying the park much more without the kiddy litter. I usually take the trash back to my house because I just knew that some run-in with authority would occur if I used a public receptacle for a public purpose. From now on, I will simply take the bag home.

Anonymous said...

We do the same in Ursulo Galvan - take a bag and collect trash on our calle(street) trying to set an example - but so far little progress - it is as you suggest mostly kids and candy wrappers - but I have seen grownups throw down trash as well.

When they have a party at the Capilla in front of our casa - we put out a garbage can and mark it basura - this helps.

Time to move to Mexico Amigo - I don't think the Policia would hassle you while collecting trash and depositing it in community receptacles.

But, bring your trash bags because there is plenty to 'police' around here ;-)

Juan Calypso

Cory said...

It is a sad day when those of us who want to make our world a better place are not trusted because no one is that good.

We are raising our sons to live responsible lives, however what kind of world are they growing up to inherit? Will society even believe them when they act in a genuinely responsible and respectful manner?

Or will people think they are simply trying to con their way into dumping their trash in someone else's can?

Steve Cotton said...

Cory --

As long as we act doing the good, that will be reward enough. I clean up the park because it looks better that way. And I am certain that others enjoy it more without even knowing what they are not seeing. I know. And that is what matters.