Okay, I’ll fess up. There’s no hiding it—all the gang members who hang out in our neighborhood park already know it. They all laughed and scoffed at first at such an uncool thing to do. But persistence has earned their respect and, though they wouldn’t be seen doing it themselves, even an occasional compliment. Have you guessed already? That’s right, I’m a litter-picker. You know, one of those crotchety old fogies who can’t pass a piece of trash on the ground without the urge to bend over and pick it up.
In the inner-city neighborhoods where my wife, Mary Ann, and I have lived for nearly four decades, one could spend a lifetime engaged in this behavior—so limits have to be set. You’re guaranteed to be employed full-time as long as you don’t expect a wage. So during work days, I curb myself to dismounting from my bike for cash (biggest find: $50), nails and screws (to minimize flat tires for bikes and our four-wheeled cousins), glass (before some kid decides to smash it), major hazards (boulders, fenders, boxes, and other obstacles easier for a cyclist than a motorist to clear away), and "useful items" (which my wife gently urges me to part with when they’re not used within a year).
I only pick up every litter bit I see when I’m doing my evening exercise walk in our local park. Since I spend an hour every day in this activity, there’s a fair amount of self-interest operable here: I prefer beauty and get more enjoyment out of a clean park than from a trashed one. I have also gleaned a few theories from experiencing my personal behavior and observing that of others.
Theory One: People throw litter where they see litter already. I’ve done it when no trash receptacle was nearby. Have you? Be honest, now. So by my math-teacher logic, when I clear an area of litter, I enhance the probability that the next passerby might just hold his/her litter until a trash receptacle appears.
Theory Two: Children osmotically imprint a sense of a "normal" environmental trash level and unconsciously mimic that ambient mental snapshot as adults. So, once again, it’s an investment in my long-term environmental/aesthetic self-interest to spend a moment helping to create a litter-free setting (particularly in a beautiful public venue like a park) in the hope that the beneficial ripple effects will extend beyond the immediate improvement, perhaps programming today’s youths into litter-responsible behavior decades hence. Does it work? Quién sabe, but the bending action is added exercise, and the immediate improvement is a sufficient payoff. Any subsequent dividend is icing on the cake. Theory Three: If one sees another person engaging in some positive behavior, the action may serve as a model to do likewise. Wishful thinking? Probably. But, once again, what do I have to lose by scattering some mildly virtuous behavior seeds?
How was I afflicted with this urge to litter-pick? My father’s to blame. As a young child I remember watching him pick up other people’s litter and deposit it in trash bins. After he did so, he’d ask me if the area looked nicer. When I said it did, he infused me with a morsel of his philosophy of life: try to leave the world a little better than you found it. As we all know, our basic values are set early in life, and that one certainly rang true with me and has been a linchpin of my adult aspirations.
But why, in our rat-race world where it’s considered progress to fill every temporal interstice with income-generating potential, do I persist in this embarrassing activity when I could choose to be more productively engaged? Well, for starters, it honors my father’s model. My theology of afterlife is the extent to which a person lives on in the heart, mind, soul, values, words, and, most importantly, actions of those who follow. If I litter-picked only to honor my father, that by itself would be enough of a reason.
A second motivation is the communitarian satisfaction and self-respect that result from litter-picking. I consider it an act of resistance to our media-molded, materialistic, individualist, greed-centered, modern/hip success mindset to affirm communitarian values whenever and wherever possible. Whatever happened to the innate urge to enhance the common good? Ever since Britain’s Enclosure Acts eliminated grazing on the commons (over 20 percent of all land) 150-250 years ago, we humans have developed the mindset that success is measured by maximum individual exploitation of God’s creation.
Privately owned land plots have come to be viewed as sacrosanct (witness NAFTA’s assault on Mexico’s ejidos—communal land). The five years my wife and I spent in Africa taught us the soul-healing communitarian values embodied in that continent’s ubuntu concept—the quality of being available to, and affirming of, others. Any opportunity to redefine progress in a more communitarian fashion—even one litter bit at a time—seems like a positive move to me. Keep your own yard tidy, of course, but don’t stop there. Join the movement to improve the global commons, and everyone benefits.
But just how is litter-picking a prophylaxis for despair? This brings me to my third inspiration for pursuing this simple activity, and it requires a bit of personal background information. In 1971, when Mary Ann and I agreed to a lifetime bond, we reasoned that underpopulation was not one of the world’s pressing problems. Wanting to embrace fully our peace and justice values forged in the seething cauldron of the turbulent 1960s, we decided that rather than having children of our own, we would use as few of the world’s resources as possible, share our surplus with the world’s lowest-income residents through channels like Right Sharing of World Resources, and spend as much of our time as we could (Mary Ann full-time, I part-time) working for justice and peace. As most Friends know, such work can be exhilarating or depressing. The 1960s were the former, the 2000s have been the latter for many of us. Especially when our work leads us to despair, we all have need of a counterweight, something to affirm in order to achieve some measure of balance in our troubled world. This prophylaxis for despair can be simple, but we need daily doses of it, and one of those sources for me is litter-picking.
When Mary Ann and I moved to Albuquerque, we were aware that scientists at Sandia Labs here concentrated their superior brain power on designing bigger and better weapons of mass destruction. Mindful of the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials, I understood such activity to be a crime against humanity, and I understood that by my residential proximity to this crime, I had a responsibility to speak out against it, much as Nuremberg judges expected residents near Auschwitz to have stood up in opposition to the crimes being committed there. So on Ash Wednesday in February 1983, I began a peace vigil on public sidewalks outside five of the gates that Sandia Labs workers exited after work.
Never having met anyone who was not for peace (some want peace through superior firepower, others of us prefer peace through global sharing), I realized that the word had lost its meaning, so I painted a series of banners (mostly questions) highlighting core values that made for just and sustainable peace. February 2008 will mark a quarter century of peace vigiling, averaging just over once per week and totaling over 2,000 hours.
Another 2,000 hours were spent commuting by bicycle to and from Sandia Labs gates, since I’ve never felt at peace with myself using oil-burning transport to get to a demonstration to protest militarism designed to protect our elitist oil-based lifestyle. Since the weather is seldom ideal and vigiling is usually rather boring, 80 percent of my vigils have been solo. Most of the workers ignore my signs, and it would be easy to despair that I’ve been wasting my energies. One exception is described in the chapter on Tom Grissom in Studs Terkel’s book The Great Divide. [Note: In that chapter, Tom Grissom writes about the influence of Chuck Hosking’s witness on Tom’s decision, as a nuclear physicist at Sandia National Laboratories, to resign from his position. —Eds.]
Peace vigiling is a seed-planting activity. Over the quarter century, 7,000,000 motorists (counting repeats) have been exposed to messages on my banners such as: Jesus said, "Love Your Enemies." Do we? or Why Waste a Good Mind on Weapons Work? or Are You Sure Weapons of Mass Destruction Build Peace? I know the messages are being processed, but I rarely get any feedback, and when I do it’s usually negative.
Weapons work is mentally stimulating and financially alluring. Protesting it is amorphous, rather gloomy, and boring (when solo). Since I vigil weekly, I need regular counterweights, and I have many, but the simplest and most concrete is litter-picking. When I vigil, I need to nurture a faith that something positive will result, but when I pick up a litter bit, I have the immediate gratification of seeing with my own eyes that my actions have made a difference. So, yes: invest your energies in addressing the world’s problems. But please also nurture your soul with a concrete, positive counterweight such as litter-picking. If you do, a lifetime of opportunity awaits you.