Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Shocked by Littering: How a Civilization Crumbles

I was waiting in line at a drive-thru Starbucks here in Redmond just now, as the third car in line. The occupants of a black pickup at the head of the line seemed to be taking an incredibly long time to get their drink. Then from the truck’s passenger side, I saw a giant fast-food paper cup come hurtling out into the little light shrubbery beside the car. It landed quite visibly and I stared at it in shock till the pickup received its beverage — a giant disgusting frozen syrupy something or other — and drove off. The driver and her passenger were both women.

Why was I shocked?

I’m not as hardcore on this as Michael Medved who actually gets out of his car and picks up other people’s litter when he sees it. Usually I don’t notice litter at all. But it was the boldness of the tossed cup that amazed me. There were two cars behind the pickup and maybe the Starbucks cashier as witnesses. It was broad daylight. I understand when people do something wrong when they think nobody’s watching. But to hurl garbage out of your car, in a perfectly nice, tidy business neighborhood in Redmond, Washington, indicated a total lack of shame. And it was a woman doing this!
It’s not the piece of garbage that disturbed me but the shamelessness of it. It struck me as a snapshot of how a civilization crumbles. Or am I overreacting?
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Karen Brown

posted July 23, 2009 at 10:38 pm

I wouldn’t be as shocked as you were. Actually, that’s an area where we have gotten better. I’m guessing you either weren’t around or old enough to notice such things in the 60’s and 70’s? It was common, and casual, for people to just toss garbage out their window, I mean whole fast food bags full of trash, while going full speed down the highway. The sides of the roads were just jammed with trash. Remember or hear of that crying Indian commercial?
They started enforcing littering laws, there are now people who ‘adopt a highway’, your being shocked by it is actually a sign its better, because nobody’s shocked by something that’s commonplace. And it used to be.
Sorry if you’re disappointed the world isn’t getting inevitably worse in every single way.

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posted July 23, 2009 at 10:39 pm

You’re not overreacting. George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson wrote a groundbreaking article called “Broken Windows” showing how unchecked vandalism eventually leads to anarchy. Later Kelling and his wife, Catherine Coles, wrote “Fixing Broken Windows,” a book on the same topic, which I was privileged to work on.
The jist is that if you arrest a turnstile jumper and run him through the system, other outstanding warrants will probably pop up. Getting him off the streets therefore decreases crime.
Of course, their theory has been challenged. It’s possible that the dramatic decrease in violent crime results in large part from the switch from leaded to unleaded gasoline:

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Gabriel Hanna

posted July 24, 2009 at 2:04 am

I’d second Karen here–trash on the road did used to be a much bigger problem.
I remember when Washington first required a litter bag in your car. The first year they gave people tickets for not having them, they don’t now. My uncle talked his way out of one by showing the office how much trash he had accumulated on the floor of the car (the trash was level with the seat cushions)–the officer said, “You’re clearly not throwing anything out on the road, then.”
Trash on Washington highways is rare compared with many other places I’ve been.

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Karen Brown

posted July 24, 2009 at 10:33 am

To be honest, I think the two things that made the government try to stop that was first, of course, it just escalated to an insane level. The amounts of trash you saw in that commercial were not exaggerated at all. But more importantly, fire. People also flicked still lit cigarette butts out the window regularly. Besides the chance (it sounds like it’d be rare, but I’ve been in several cars where this happened) that it’d end up being sucked into someone else’s window and burn them, or hit dry brush or grass and light it, there’s also all that paper garbage that could catch on fire.
So, they started the ad campaigns and both new laws, and enforcing th ones on the books.
I know its hard to believe that some things get better, but this is one that has.

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Rabbi Daniel Lapin

posted July 24, 2009 at 10:49 am

Well said, David. Your blog has become part of my daily reading ritual. A few months ago I saw a large paper cup come flying out of a car driving in front of me down Island Crest Way. Being less philosophical and civilized than you I raced after them and when they finally stopped I confronted them and insisted they drive back to retrieve their cup right then. I am not sure exactly what my threat was had they refused, but they didn’t. I followed them back and watched them stop and get the cup. I felt quite saintly all day. One legitimate standard of immorality is an act that would destroy the community if everyone did it. By this barometer, littering is clearly immoral. Keep writing-your consistency is inspiring. Shabbat Shalom

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posted July 24, 2009 at 11:45 am

Things are much better than they were when I was a kid, but it is shocking that after all these years of the anti-littering message people would still do that (especially at a Starbucks! You’d think that crowd would be more eco-conscious than average!).
In one of his later Foundation series books (I think it was Forward the Foundation, but I’m not sure), Isaac Asimov has a character observing many little things that are being allowed to fall into disrepair, when they were formerly taken care of promptly, and he sees that as the very first intimations that the Galactic Empire, though still ostensibly healthy and vital, is beginning its slow decline. Not sure if this is true for us, but an interesting thought, at least.

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What's Good for the Goose

posted July 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm

Add in the cussing that passes for discourse and humor, the lack of beauty in art and music, the refusal of much of society to enforce through social and legal sanction, minimum standards of behavior. Rudy Giuliani got it and cleaned up NYC. The minions of Seattle and San Francisco (among others) don’t, and as a consequence those beautiful cities are going down the drain.

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maryann moon

posted July 25, 2009 at 11:36 am

I think it’d be a good idea to stop and pick up the trash yourself. You never know how someone may
react to your chastising them for their incredibly distasteful manners. It makes you wonder what their
homes, though, must look like. They probably step over all sorts of trash at home. The planet
is not something they cherish or feel lucky to be alive and able to walk upon and be nurtured by!
Mother Earth is worth praising God for every day!

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Al Eastman

posted July 25, 2009 at 12:18 pm

The percent of the population that are slovenly, careless, inconsiderate, littering slobs has probably not changed that much over the years. As our population grows, so do the numbers of these slobs.
Rabbi Lapin, I do not know where you live, nor do I care. However, you did a very foolish thing by chasing after those litterers and confronting them. In some urban areas that is tantamount to a death wish. Of course, if you were on Mercer Island, then your life expectancy did not change.

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Christian Korn

posted July 25, 2009 at 2:02 pm

I do not think that you (David) are overreacting. Every day we see “snapshots” of how a civilization crumbles.Normaly we just go by, feeling shocked not only about what we saw, but also about the fact of being unable to do anything. Let me tell you another “snapshot”. I was walking along a lonly, tropical beach …could be paradise. But there was a big amount of plastic bottles on that beach. I asked a native fisherman about the origin of these bottles and he told me that they are part of the tons of garbige and litter which is every day thrown from the cargo-freighters into the ocean! (…) So, my question is: Things are really much better than they were 50 years ago??? Probably everbody of us can tell his “snapshot”. But we can DO something: Care about our own homes, educate our children and SHARE all our “snaphots” whithin our comunity!!! Thanks for you article, David!!! It’s a beginning …

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posted July 25, 2009 at 2:18 pm

The problem is we all need a paradigm shift. You’re missing the point. The slogan we all grew up with was “Put litter in its place.” Litter’s place IS wherever it lands after being tossed from a car window. If you put it in a trash can, its trash, not litter. Litter by definition belongs wherever it lands. So yes, bud, you’re overacting.

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posted July 25, 2009 at 2:53 pm

All Dears,
One: There is NO overreacting; Merci for pointing the Point!
Two: Messr. Medved is in our good company–if only!–when he picks up droppings, junk, litter, trash!
Three, Trite+True: Think globally; Act locally! Whether the *local* is one’s own mind, family, community, ALL could be better sooner if ALL of us consistently manifested that mantra, at least on Fridays!
Let us go forth and litter–in NO way–anyMore!

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posted July 25, 2009 at 4:56 pm

Mr Eastman’s admonition to Rabbi Lapin, that ‘You did a very foolish thing by chasing after those litterers and confronting them; in some urban areas that is tantamount to a death wish’, made me think that sadly there are hordes of questionable humanity who equate humanity with garbage, anyway. I lament their apathy, environmental and human. And add to this the garbage generated by the promulgators of partial-birth abortion. In many an urban jungle, garbage-strewn sidewalks are easily discoverable. Nevertheless, I suppose it would be better to be dimmed by blinders and a shadow-roll, while envisioning the dung-heaps of humanity to be of negligible consequence. I shall focus, rather, on the cleanliness of my minuscule and cosmically insignificant life.

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posted July 25, 2009 at 6:00 pm


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posted July 26, 2009 at 8:39 am

Finally, some common ground! Maybe there is some hope for us after all.

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