Or are they? I ask because no-one else seems unduly concerned. There’s a bit of polite spluttering about how anti-social it is to litter, but an army of volunteers will cheerfully don fluorescent tabards and set out with bin bags and pick sticks.
That’s how it is in my rural community, ten minutes drive beyond an edge-of-town McDonalds. By the time customers have emptied their fast food cartons, they’re speeding towards the village on an empty stretch of country road, and with no-one around to witness the illegal act of throwing litter from a moving vehicle, or impose the fixed penalty fine, they litter with impunity.
Twice a year the parish council organizes local volunteers for a litter-pick. The good people of the parish turn out, have a jolly time filling bin bags, and the village looks nice for all of a day before some yob whizzes through with an empty can of Red Bull. Councillors never express concern, or petition local authorities for more resources to tackle this criminal behaviour. There’s no point, the resources aren’t there.
It’s great that community-minded folks pick up other peoples’ litter – I applaud these nameless Big Society heroes up and down the country – but it doesn’t seem to change anything. It’s expecting others to notice and abide by an implicit code of behaviour without ever telling them explicitly what good behaviour is, or calling out bad behaviour. It sends the message that cleaning up is someone else’s job, not a personal responsibility.
The wonder isn’t that some people find it so hard to take litter home, but more that we tolerate the mess left behind. Our collective attitude seems to be that this volume of rubbish is normal and to be expected; ignorant people will litter but middle Englanders will go on quietly picking up after them.
The rubbish left at Glastonbury now shows middle Englanders to be among the worst offenders. Rich enough to buy camping equipment, and rich enough to discard it after one use.
Liberal enough to let teenaged offspring go to festivals, and liberal when it comes to their anti-social behaviour.
At the end of his book Litter: How Other People’s Rubbish Shapes Our Lives, Theodore Dalrymple asks why he’s the kind of person who waits to find a bin rather than drop litter. He concludes, “because my mother taught me”.
My mum was hot on manners too. She thought kids needed telling, “This is public space, keep it nice for other people.” How often do you hear parents say that now? How often do you come across parents like Jessica Stillwell, aka ‘Striking Mom’, who taught her kids a lesson on personal responsibility?
Cameron’s Conservatives rely on Big Society, but at what point is it just being taken for granted? Maybe volunteer litter pickers should go on strike. Just a thought.