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March 4, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Defending the Litterer

Society is defined by two clashing spheres: the public—our social expectations and values—and the private —how we perform as individuals. One fascinating study of this is the vilification of the litterer. In public, the litterer will find few defenders: he is denigrated by ‘Keep New Zealand Beautiful’ public service advertisements and ‘thou shalt not litter’ is indoctrinated from the early days of primary school, with any violation being a detention-worthy offence. In a world where almost any practice will be defended and attacked, nobody will fight for the person with the empty coke bottle who can’t be bothered finding a bin.

But the private sphere has more tolerance towards littering. Think about your flat right now: has every piece of clothing been put in its proper place? Is the kitchen-bench spotless? For many Salient readers, the answer will a resounding (if somewhat embarrassed) ‘no’. This far greater tolerance of littering applies beyond your bedroom: the carpenter doesn’t clean up every wood shaving as he crafts a new table, McDonald’s doesn’t launch campaigns pleading with customers to wipe their tables after eating and the stadium owner doesn’t seem to care if you leave chips on the ground after the rugby. It seems that, in the private sphere, litter doesn’t count as litter at all.

Why is this? In most situations, littering simply makes sense. The accumulation of most pedestrian litter has a very low cost; nobody really suffers because of cigarette butts on the street. Further, the cost of litter collection would be lower if done by a few professionals with proper equipment than if crowd-sourced to thousands of people. When comparing a society in which everybody litters, to one in which nobody litters, the former would surely maximise social benefit. The benefits of the littering-society are even greater when compared with the status quo, in which some people litter and others do not, because at the moment we end up paying for cleaning services but not utilising them fully.

In private, we all understand this: that’s why our flats are so messy. So why don’t we acknowledge this in public? My guess: politics is based far more on emotion and how people ‘feel’ about a policy. Think about how you voted in the last election: you probably based your vote on which party you felt aligned most with your values rather than studying policy, even if you try to rationalise it differently. Littering just feels wrong. No politician is going to publicly proclaim their opposition to anti-littering campaigns because most voters will reject that. But we have to get over our emotional baggage: we cannot dismiss the possibility that, for our society and for us as individuals, littering is good.

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