Litter literature

Litter literature is scarce. The last significant offering was Richard Girling’s excellent book “Rubbish”, published in 2005, with a much wider remit than litter but containing some interesting observations on littered Britain.

It is, therefore, welcome news to those of us involved in the litter arena that Theodore Dalrymple has put pen to paper to contribute his thoughts on the topic. Dalrymple is a retired prison doctor and a psychiatrist.

Theodore Dalrymple’s essay entitled “Litter” is a fascinating addition to current thinking on the subject. Dalrymple was inspired to write about litter having driven from Scotland to London via the Lake District and seen the roadside “strewn practically every yard of the way with litter”. In fact he describes Britain as “one vast litter bin”.

Dalrymple contributes some significant fresh insights into the causes and origins of litter. For instance, he focuses much attention on the prevalence of fast food litter. This, he suggests, is due to the erosion of the tradition of the family eating together around the table (owing in part to the loss of the knowledge of how to cook) and the resultant fact that many young people are left to feed themselves when and where they wish. So eating becomes a random activity and litter on the street is the inevitable result. Dalrymple feels strongly that the increase in litter is due to more people dropping it and that you can’t attribute direct causation to the fact that there is more packaging to throw away – he is insistent that it is not permissible to blame the food industry for the fact that the country is littered. What is more, he is convinced that, due to the massive amount of litter ever present in our landscape, it is a large number of people who litter, not an antisocial minority (how could a minority have produced quite so much litter ?). He insists that it is wrong to believe that littering is due to anything other than bad character.

Dalrymple adds further insight by suggesting that our culture changed substantially after the Second World War in the sense that restraint was replaced by self-expression and that breaking the informal rules of society was felt by many to be a way to achieve personal freedom. Indeed, the well-known fact that a substantial amount of the litter that is dropped is deposited close to a litter bin can be seen as a kind of rebellion against authority, as well as a reluctance to interrupt one’s social life and divert one’s line of travel to a bin. And Dalrymple makes the interesting point that people don’t notice litter as they do not have the awareness of an unlittered past to compare it to.

A further characteristic that he identifies is what he terms an “exaggerated individualism” – an excessive preoccupation with one’s human rights which gives rise to self-righteous anger and the view that one is entitled to behave as one pleases. This is the attitude that many people encounter when they challenge a litterer and are confronted by a very severe and unpleasant reaction.

Dalrymple blames Margaret Thatcher for creating the Big Government to which the Big Society initiative is designed to be the antidote. It is Dalrymple’s view that, by introducing private business methods into the public sector, Thatcher created such an overbearing government which took away individual citizens’ responsibilities that people developed the attitude that they had paid their taxes so they could do what they wanted. One of my own personal bugbears is hearing the words “it’s the Council’s job” and that signifies the abdication of personal responsibility that leads to so much littering. Dalrymple also feels that we are all so well educated that we don’t want to carry out the menial jobs any more. So councils are much more content to be devising equal opportunities policies than cleaning the streets.

In the end, Dalrymple concludes that people litter because they were not brought up not to litter. This he equates with a lack of socialisation of the young. This is no doubt true and it is clear to those of us who are involved in tackling the litter problem that it will take many years to reverse the situation.

I enjoyed reading Dalrymple’s essay on litter. He provides some brilliant insights into why people litter, how society has broken down and how the disappearance of the nuclear family has led to unsocial and antisocial behaviour. But there are moments when I feel he goes too far – for instance, chewing gum does not, I think, automatically render the chewer aggressive. And I think that it would have been interesting to hear his views on some of the recent research that has been carried out on litter and on its causes and effects. I also feel that there are a couple of episodes where Dalrymple allows the philosopher in him to wander off a little too far into the blue yonder before returning to the matter at hand.

I would certainly urge anyone who has an interest in litter, and in fighting the battle against it, to read this book as it is wonderfully thought-provoking, masterfully expressed and adds a new dimension to current thinking, affording some excellent insights into the psychology of littering and to the change in social habits over the last 50 years that have, without doubt, contributed to making Britain so untidy. Dalrymple leaves us in no doubt as to the magnitude of the challenge that tackling the problem of litter constitutes and is, I suspect, the most successful litter author to date at explaining to us how deeply-rooted in our society is the cause of the litter that most of us are confronted with on a daily basis.

“Litter” by Theodore Dalrymple is published by Gibson Square (159 pages, £9.99)

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