This post is a part of Blog Action Day ’09.

Trashy People

I distinctly remember walking home from the grocery store with my girlfriend one day when I lived in LA and seeing a tall, lanky, tattooed gentlemen ahead of us chug an energy drink before cavalierly throwing the empty can into the street to his right without missing a beat.

My girlfriend and I were rattled to the core.

“Did you see that? Jesus.”

“I know, right? What year is it? He just threw it without even caring. As if there aren’t recycling bins on every corner.”


“Yeah, real lame.”

That was our attitude, because we had been brought up on a stringent diet of “Give a hoot, dont pollute” and Captain Planet. People who don’t recycle or who build coal power plants or who litter are BAD. That’s just the way things are in the suburbs of the United States. Hell, even Texas, the last holdout in the litter wars of the 80’s and 90’s were eventually won over by the wildly popular “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign (George W. Bush even appropriated the term for political purposes later on; that’s a powerful anti-littering message!).

Smells Like Flowers

Knowing all this, you can imagine the response I had the first time I saw a 30-something guy toss a candy bar wrapper on the sidewalk while passing a flower shop here in Buenos Aires. The flower shop lady who was sitting not two feet from the wrapper glanced at it but made no move to pick it up; there were several other wrappers, along with discarded fliers, wadded up napkins and other torn and shredded clumps of who-knows-what already laying there, unnoticed.

Every night, street cleaners drive down the avenues of BA, picking up trash and making the sidewalks quite a bit more walkable. From around 1am until 5am, a group of very poor people called cartoneros come out and dig through all the collected trash bins, rummaging around for cardboard they can sell and throwing everything else back into the streets. At 6am the shopkeepers hose off the sidewalk in front of their shops so that their little portion of the world can be clean for a few hours, and all throughout the day people toss their spent cigarettes, half-eaten empanadas and shiny, crinkled candy bar wrappers on the ground.

I want to shake these people. “Don’t you see what you’re doing to your city? This is why everything is so dirty” But it wouldn’t matter, and only partially because I wouldn’t know how to say all that in Spanish. The main reason it wouldn’t work is because of a little something I (and most sociologists) like to called ‘Broken Window Theory.’

Breaking Windows

The Broken Window Theory goes like this: if there is a perfectly nice neighborhood with well-tended lawns, well-painted houses and well-behaved citizens, it only takes one broken window for the neighborhood to become a gang-ridden junkyard. Or more specifically, one broken window that no one fixes.

The idea is that people will walk by that broken window and assume, subconsciously or consciously, that this street must be ill-kept and therefore not worth taking care of. That one window leads to litter. The litter leads to slashed tires. The slashed tires lead to stolen lawn ornaments. The stolen lawn ornaments lead to burglaries. The burglaries lead to assaults. The assaults lead to murders.

And so on and so forth.

It’s a slow but steady progression, and it can take different shapes (Malcolm Gladwell shared an excellent example of this in his book ‘The Tipping Point,’ wherein the NYC government lowered the number of crimes in their city immensely just by painting over graffiti on the NYC subway cars every night). I know that the bad economic situation is largely to blame, but I can’t help but wonder if the giant broken window (read: filthiness) of BA is partially responsible for the recent influx of crime on its streets.

The Future Will Suck

Thinking on a grander scale, the degradation of a small environment can eventually lead to the abuse of our global environment. We didn’t pollute the Earth all at once; we started at very local levels and slowly built up. As cities got dirtier and dirtier, each of the smaller problems eventually combined to make the make ecological problems we face today.

What I propose is this: if you make a mess, clean it up. I know you’re busy, and I know it’s not always socially acceptable to clean up after yourself or others, but these problems are not going to fix themselves, and though we have big projects and plans on the horizon that will hopefully help to fix the larger problems related to the dirtying of the planet, the smaller problems will still exist unless we all start to take responsibility for ourselves, our actions and our cities.

It’s an amazing time to be alive and I firmly believe that within the next few dozen years we’ll experience a near-complete shift in how we power our cities, grow and distribute our food, and live our lives. Every piece of information in the world will be instantly available to anyone in the world, and we may even get those flying cars we’ve been waiting on.

But so what? The future will suck if the sidewalks are covered in trash.

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