Naughty but nice

12 September 2006

I like this idea, but especially the quote at the end:

Council chiefs have admitted they will be breaking the law by halting street cleaning in a Lothian town. But they have vowed to go-ahead with the tactic in a bid to shock the public into clearing up after themselves.
[...]
East Lothian Council will withdraw street sweeping services and allow rubbish to build up in Tranent from tomorrow. The council says if the scheme is successful, it will be introduced across East Lothian, in towns including Haddington, North Berwick and Dunbar. But the scheme is in breach of the Environmental Protection Act of 1990, which places a statutory duty on the council to keep the streets free from rubbish.

The council today admitted it was “being a bit naughty”.

From today’s Scotsman (via kevan). Legal or not, I have to say I kinda like the idea, it just gets depressing seeing most urban streets or public transport at the end of the day, covered in litter and filthy as hell. More infruriating is the extreme casualness with which people litter these days, idly dropping anything without a second’s thought. Cunts. If the authorities withdrew the provision for litter sweeping in urban areas and channelled the spare money and workforce into better bin provision and more frequent collection (naturally, you would have to retain a small cleanup force for any genuine environmental emergencies where animal or human life was actually in danger), then the consequences of people’s actions would suddenly be much more apparent. You can see some problems immediately coming in (large increases in vermin for one) but these would be hopefully temporary. It might be tough going the first few weeks, but soon the seemingly endless miasma of chip wrappers, coke cans and chocolate wrappers that contaminates our cities would clear away once people realise what they’re actually doing. Here’s hoping East Lothian Council sticks to its guns.

Update: After a bit of thought (see comments) I’ve changed my mind – I don’t think the council should go ahead with it now. It’s clearly unfair to pick on one single town for what is a national problem, and there are practical issues of natural litter (especially in autumn) and loose debris that is not deliberately dropped, which means withdrawing services would not be a good idea. But there still remains that fundamental problem – how to bridge the disconnect between actions and their consequences, especially as in this case the disconnect is entirely institutional and can be abolished at a stroke. Littering ticks all the “tricky” boxes – it is impossible to police effectively and in any case, each individual act is not particularly harmful and thus any sort of individual punishment is draconian. Neither taxation (what exactly would you tax?) nor markets (what exactly would you trade?) can be made to specifically target the root causes of the problem. So I’ve got stuck on this one, which is what made me look at the most prominent part of the problem, the disconnect. With that too difficult to bridge, what other option is left?


6 Responses

I know you’re being a bit silly with this, but it really is extremely bloody silly. If it’s successful, I look forward to other government bodies refusing to carry out their statutory duties because they believe that the services reflect some sort of moral failing on the part of the population. Like, you know, AIDS care or child support or unemployment benefit. After all, then “the consequences of people?s actions would suddenly be much more apparent.”

It’s not the job of a council to punish its residents for being annoying, and the people of East Lothian aren’t some naughty child that deserves a moral lesson, like something from one of those ghastly Hillaire Belloc poems.

False equivalence – litter is not a perilous threat to human life like AIDS or unemployment, and there is a much simpler cause and effect with no time lapsing in between: people don’t put stuff in bins, it makes the place filthy. Simple as that. There are no underlying social issues or complexities underpinning why people litter, nor any problems with miseducation – litter is discouraged in just about every social setting, and it is certainly not a problem associated with a single class or social group – from my own observations people of all classes and backgrounds do it. It’s feckless cuntishness, pure and simple. People know it’s antisocial, they just don’t care about the consequences, because they are inured from them.

It’s not really a punishment – that would imply the act of littering is somehow separate from the resulting filth that is produced, when in actual fact the “act” and “punishment” are one and same. It is exactly that mindset which has meant past attempts to “punish” littering, with on-the-spot fines and ASBOs have failed, because they put state authority into a situation that should be instead settled by social convention; if social convention is to be restored then first the disconnect between act and consequence needs to restored.

Harrumph. Not punishment? Unless you believe that only those who litter will be affected by the litter, then not only is it very clearly punishment, it’s collective punishment. I really don’t get what you see the practical outcome of this being – littering won’t cease, and when someone does clean the stuff up, you can bet your last crisp packet that it won’t be the people who dropped it in the first place.

It seems like you’re willing to believe that all the people of Tranent, and East Lothian generally, are feckless individuals who need to be taught “a good lesson” (in the words of one councillor). Which strikes me as odd.

I’m surprised you don’t see where I was driving with my mentioning of child support and the like, especially when you then made even more explicit the exact argument I was referring to. Namely – that the government provision of services shields people from the consequences of their actions; that this causes them to become lazy and selfish; and that the appropriate way to cure this is to withdraw those services. You know who else thought that? Hitler.

No. Hang on, Thatcher. Not Hitler. Thatcher. Sorry.

Of course you are capable of seeing nuances, subtleties and layers of cause and effect in issues like teenage pregnancy that you don’t see in littering. That’s because you’re not a fuckwit. But a lot of people simply don’t see that complexity, because they are fuckwits, and yet those people do frequently get to be in charge of important things. As such, I hope you can at least see why I think that teaching whole populations a collective lesson about personal responsibility by withdrawing services is a damn bad precedent to set.

I don’t think the people of Tranent specifically are any more feckless or ignorant than the rest of us, and this is one of the reasons why I now think it is, in practical terms at the very least, a bad idea (see above). But I still think that by endlessly picking up after people, the authorities are removing the main disincentive that would make people not drop litter; castigate anyone in public for littering and odds are you’ll get a “So what? Someone else will pick it up”-type response. I now realise that bridging that disconnect is far too crude an action to take.

Am I slipping into Thatcherite lunacy? I hope not – I was not targeting any one particular social group, as there is no predisposition to littering – people from all races, genders and classes do it. Nor can litter be put down to underlying social factors like other problems you outlined; it’s demonstrably the direct consequence of a conscious decision, which is why it seemed easier to tackle in such a direct way.

I do get your point that it is a bad precedent to set, but in my defence, I feel every other option has been exhausted – decades of education through “Keep Britain Tidy” hasn’t got through, while offering different incentives or disincentives, e.g. criminalising littering only punishes a tiny minority excessively. Maybe I’m being too sceptical, too bought into the idea that society is irreparably atomised these days and nothing can be done about it and so the problem has to be tackled at the incentive level. But what other options are there? I must admit I can’t think of any.

Iain

I wonder how far, and how long it will go.

If, say, some comedy genius decides to liberally spread a few dead animals over the main pavements of the town KLF-style, will they just sit around decaying?

I can pretty much guarantee none of the councillors live in the area, so who cares anyway?

That piece opened a can of worms, didn’t it?

It’s always seemed to me that people, en masse, are a bunch of tossers. We’re capable of so much and yet so few seem to achieve it (I include myself).

Littering is reprehensible, but the people who do it don’t care and I doubt that many of them would care if the council stopped cleaning. As long it’s not outside their house they’d still do it.

I read somewhere about a chap who had a lot of problems with local dog owners who seemed to think it was okay for their dog to take a poop outside his house. He eventually took to scooping up the offending ‘piece’ and following the errant dog owners home. When they were safely inside he’d knock on the door and when they answered he’d offer them back what they’d ‘dropped’ by accident.

Maybe we need council workers to do the same with the litter. Follow people home and pop it on their tv. That’d sort them out.

And no, I’m not really serious about that, but I share the same lack of ideas as Chris. If it were easy to solve by now it would have been solved, no doubt.