Life lessons from litter

By Michael Medved

You can learn – and teach – crucial life lessons by picking up litter. While television culture fosters a sense of helplessness in the face of the dire threats of a world gone mad, a minor investment of energy in cleaning our own neighborhoods can potently promote personal empowerment.

I made this discovery while indulging a daily idiosyncrasy that amazes my neighbors and embarrasses my children: spending a few minutes each afternoon collecting bits of roadside garbage on the streets around my home. We live in a pleasant, pricey Seattle suburb – a self-contained island, in fact – so it makes no sense that cigarette boxes and beer cans and fast-food wrappers should accumulate so rapidly on these otherwise manicured residential thoroughfares. It makes even less sense that most of the privileged people who live here seem oblivious to the mess, jogging past the trash in their fashionable athletic suits, or walking their pedigreed dogs without pausing to pick up water bottles or plastic grocery bags lying on the sidewalks in their path.

The other day, having pulled my car to the side of the street to gather an especially unsightly accumulation of filth, I took special note of some of the paper work that accompanied the usual potato chip bags and Starbucks cups. Someone had tossed aside an opened piece of correspondence, complete with name and address, from the well-known conservation group the Sierra Club. The form letter began: “Dear Mr. Driscoll – We know from your record of generosity you are concerned about the environment …” and then went on to solicit funds in the battle to preserve the remote Arctic National Wildlife Reserve from exploitation by oil companies.

I stood there gasping at the startling contrast between the substance of the letter, and the message of its thoughtless and casual deposit on the shoulder of a woodsy suburban street. On the one hand, the recipient of the letter is notably “concerned about the environment,” and on the other, he thinks nothing of trashing that environment in the very neighborhood in which he lives. He presumably feels more concern for the caribou in Alaska threatened by oil drilling in desolate tundra he will never visit, than he does for preserving and respecting the surroundings he will probably see every day.

Similar madness turned up at our local middle school, which proudly boasts the highest test scores in the state of Washington, but also displays a veritable mountain of litter on the tree-lined avenue leading to its main entrance. Among the sticky wrappers and Pepsi cans I have gathered from this depressing site, I’ve also found discarded curriculum materials – including freshly copied pages about the importance of young people involving themselves in the worldwide struggle for ecological sanity. This award-winning school, in other words, proudly teaches its students about the importance of fighting global warming and the plundering of the Amazonian rain forest, but fails to instill in them the much more attainable goal of depositing used school work sheets into a trash receptacle rather than tossing them on the ground at a bus stop across from campus.

This annoying carelessness highlights one of the most depressing and dysfunctional aspects of contemporary culture: the focus on far-away problems over which we have no control rather than attainable goals in our immediate surroundings. Television (which absorbs more of a typical child’s weekly time than all his classroom work combined) encourages the idea of a menacing world in which environmental degradation, abject poverty, decaying family life, rampant warmongering and brutal discrimination require sweeping, visionary, global solutions. Since the world’s economic, political and cultural establishments offer scant chance for overnight change, there’s a natural tendency toward cynicism, despair and the disregard of the power of any individual initiatives. What difference does it make if you throw a tootsie roll wrapper in a city park, one might ask, if the whole world will inevitably choke to death on green house gases?

Television enhances ratings, and journalists win admiring attention by grossly exaggerating the dire nature of every threat and the vast scope of every fresh disaster. The more dramatic the danger, the more sweeping and utopian the necessary response – and the more powerless the position of each individual in the grip of purportedly implacable social forces.

In truth, however, no worldwide menace prevents us from collecting the litter around our homes, or from employing a similar do-it-yourself approach to every imaginable problem.

  • Do you worry about the national shortcomings of public education? Then consider the possibility of homeschooling, or personally supplementing your child’s class work, or becoming more directly involved with the teacher and her assignments.

  • Do you fret about congestion and the worsening of commuter traffic? Then live up to your good intentions to try the bus or organize a carpool.

  • If you feel undermined by a culture that’s increasingly disrespectful of the institution of marriage, select friends with more traditional values and commit more time for communication with your spouse.

  • If you worry about social security, plan for your own retirement; if you’re troubled by rampant materialism, make sure to spend less than you earn; if you’re the victim of discrimination of some sort, then make an extra effort to ignore and transcend it as so many other Americans have done.

Whatever the challenge that threatens your well-being, it’s counterproductive to depend on top-down change – on almost any issue, you can take the first step on your own. Perhaps the best example of all involves the frustration of so many decent people about the destructive messages from movies, television and other forms of entertainment. To counteract these influences, literally a million or so of our fellow citizens will sign petitions, participate in boycotts, write to congressmen or studio heads, and join various watchdog organizations.

The bad news is that such efforts, however impassioned or well-intentioned, won’t redeem the soul of Hollywood or broadcast television. The good news is that you don’t have to wait for NBC or Fox to change its schedule, because without delay you can change the schedule of what you watch. Making more discerning choices in the popular culture we consume, and generally disentangling ourselves from TV addiction, can also help to overcome the notion that all our difficulties are vast, remote and impervious to change.

By taking action in the most intimate arenas, we may not effect the instantaneous and radical reform that represents a priority for politicians, pundits and preachers. But the small, accessible steps by ordinary people who determine to improve their lives can also uplift the life of our society, if we’d only take the trouble to turn off the tube and pick up that litter along the way.