Thursday, March 4, 2010

Odd Old Habits and Global Change

Years ago, when I was a kid, I developed what some would consider to be an odd habit. I picked up litter.

I don't remember exactly when I started doing it, but it was likely when we lived in San Antonio, because that's where I have my first clear memory of it. Abilene, where we lived before moving to the city, was relatively rural and litter, while present, was a less common sight.

On my walk to school from the Seven Pines Apartments however, it was a very common sight, and I began to pick up litter I found along the way. There was big dumpster at the corner of the parking lot where I entered the school yard. I would toss the stuff I collected. Usually this amounted to just paper, because in those days, pop bottles had a deposit so people seldom threw them away, and cans, believe it or not, were relatively new.

So it was mostly newspapers and bits of metal and plastic that caught my eye. It was never so much that I couldn't carry it; always just a piece or two. I didn't pick up cigarette butts because, well, they were (still are) gross. But for the rest of it, within reason (I didn't go into or cross the street or pick up old washing machines and spare tires) I just made a game of picking up litter.

The motivation was from several directions. For one thing, I am something of a neat freak, so I enjoy the sight of a litter free landscape. And, when I got started, the logic seemed simple to me. And, as a sixth grader whose other pastime was dumpster diving, I kind of enjoyed picking up junk. So I did, much to Lynda's chagrin.

I believe that I was also motivated by the idea that if everyone would not only pick up most of what they accidentally dropped (life happens, right?), but if they would pick up just a bit of what others dropped, we might keep things picked up. I was so young that it seemed like a simple equation.

Lest you think, Dear Reader, that I imagine that I was some sort of special gifted child, I assure you this was not the case. Consider that it I wasn't being driven by an altogether altruistic motive but was merely attracted by junk. Having said that, though, I do think that there was an element of emerging community concern in my actions if only as a reaction to the nascent field of environmental marketing.

Back in the Sixties, when I came to this consciousness, anti-litter and anti-pollution campaigns were just getting started, and the roots of todays suddenly-chic environmentalism were taking hold. I did this for many many years, right through college and grad school and the births of my children.

At some point, however, I stopped.

I don't know if this had to do with getting older and/or busier, but I am more likely to ascribe it to a general loss of optimism and resignation to a fate I had no control over. This mindset was far from overt, as I simply managed to not think about it, even as it became more obvious that I could and should still be doing it. See no evil...

In a recent talk in a class called Perspectives of the Future, a professor recalled the memory of noted UT astronomer and futurist Harlan Smith. He had the habit of picking up newspapers off the ground whenever he walked across campus.

When asked why he would attempt to keep up with what it seemed to be obviously a futile effort, Dr. Smith replied that as far as he was concerned, the effort wasn't in vain. He was a mathematician, after all. He noted that statistically, it only takes one person out of a thousand who will pick up the newspapers to keep the campus free of waste papers.

That is a powerful thought. Not everyone has to contribute to environmental remediation--or, for that matter any serious problem facing mankind--in order to effect change. The actions of a few can and do affect the many.

It's a simple fact. We don't all have to be convinced that change is necessary in order for change to happen. We just have be willing to do it ourselves.

I'm going back to my old habit.


d2 said...

Well, if there was ever anything that confirmed that we are brothers, this is it.

The two blocks between my house and the Forest Glen Metro station is the cleanest two blocks in the area. I pick up trash almost every day on my walk up the hill.

I have the added joy of hospital trash, since folks who are walking back to the Metro from the not-to-be-named hospital two blocks further east from me tend to rip off their bandages, drop their visitor badges and generally find ways to lose any memory of the hospital visit they have just endured.

Greyghost said...

Amazing! I never knew this about you! We are indeed closer than I imagined.

Odd, but Valery has the same habit on her morning walks, though she often takes a sack and collects a lot of stuff.

bc said...

Okay, I'm going to resume doing it too! The snows are gone now and there are tons of trash waiting for the likes of me and you guys.