Friday, March 16, 2012

Trash Is Evidence of Governance

The political situation that hits me on a most personal level is local garbage. Why is that poor people’s streets are filled with garbage? When I walk down my street, there is garbage mixed in with the leaves. We can’t blame the City for this. I watched a hearing on public television where Boston’s Mayor Menino was pretty much imploring Boston residents to use garbage bags! Street sweepers do come by regularly to clear up the debris, but they can’t be responsible for picking up people’s lawns.

The immortal Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote: “Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”

One of my enduring memories of Zurich, Switzerland, the city where my mother was born, was the sight of people awake at 7am vacuuming their window frames. I mean, who in America vacuums their window frames? Maybe the Arabs. The women in Dearborn, Michigan will certainly be found well before noon sweeping if not vacuuming the sidewalk in front of their homes. 

Yet even this can be made into a complex issue! Friends from Beirut explained to me the vast differences between sidewalk upkeep between Sunnis, Shias, and Christians in Lebanon. 

What are the factors that influence a person’s interest in keeping up appearances? I am guessing that home ownership plays a great role in determining the amount of energy spent in sweeping the sidewalk. When you own something, it represents you in this world. So it is quite likely that those who rent are less likely to care if passersby have to gag as they walk past. 

Personal organization is probably key. If the inside of your home is chaos, you are less likely to venture outside to control the chaos out there. The amount of leisure time probably also plays a role. The essence of Middle Class America includes weekends free to tend and prune the garden. When people are working two or three jobs, there is less interest in “the lawn” and more energy spent on getting food on the table.

What could possibly be done to beautify the neighborhood? One approach would be to increase government: perhaps fine people for non-compliance of some basic standard, or at least make more trash receptacles available to the public, which would be managed by paid employees. 

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while giving a speech in support of the garbage workers strike. He said the people who remove the trash from our community are as important as doctors, because their work prevents disease. You can’t argue with that!

But on my street it’s not just about the weekly garbage pick-up. People seem to be sitting on their porches just throwing cigaret butts towards the street. After garbage day is over, their lawns remain strewn with bottles and wrappers. Why don’t people clean up in front of their homes?

Possibly, what is needed is a non-government neighborhood organization to educate everyone about the importance of recycling and reducing waste. I’m guessing that nothing short of peer pressure would convince many of my neighbors to think about their waste.

Recycling receptacles are free for anyone who wants them from the City. All you have to do is care enough to make a phone call, and separate your food containers from your food remains. If you really truly care enough you can even separate your food waste and compost it in the yard.

All of this is so simple, so what lies between us and environmental responsibility? School children are being educated about the importance of where we put our waste, but they can only do so much to convince their parents.
A lot of the issue really does have to do with personal pride. When you buy, say, a pack of rice mix, you cook the rice and then you have a packet as well as a box to dispose of. It does take some small amount of effort to separate the plastic packet from the box. The box is recyclable. 

A lot of American housewives worked hard in all their free time to get the government to take responsibility for these boxes and cans. A lot of mothers were worried about the garbage pile-up, and rightly so. We live in a country where the people can actually make a difference when it comes to these essential issues. We should support those people who made the effort to do the right thing.

When you see a person litter, what does it make you think about that person? Why do people go about their lives as if it’s someone else’s job to pick up their waste? Are we barn animals? How do we go about explaining to our loved ones and neighbors the importance of such matters?

I truly do not know. But I think it’s interesting to ponder the question, is such a simple matter a sign that we need more government or less government? Whichever we choose, what are we willing to do to see this problem through to its resolution?

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