The scholar and poet Andrew W.K. once gave the advice that “if people can’t see your trash cans, they’ll use your entire place as a giant trash can.” Metaphorically, this is a profound statement about how people learn to love and respect one another. Practically, it’s a fact that most American cities could take to heart.
As I’ve detailed before, the problem of litter isn’t a mysterious one. It’s a highly predictable outcome of an easily solved, human-created condition: life in the 21st century produces refuse, and we all need a place to put it. The undercurrent of the issue is more theoretical. Why would anyone care for our shared spaces when they don’t feel cared for themselves?
In his 1762 book, “The Social Contract,” philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau addressed the subject.
“Many people have to work together,” Rousseau wrote. “But each man’s force and liberty are what he chiefly needs for his own survival; so how can he put them into this collective effort without harming his own interests and neglecting the care he owes to himself?”
The social contract, as Rousseau detailed it, requires everyone to take part and to feel both protected and protective of themselves and the well-being of others. A community, basically, where everyone believes that the property and livelihood and health of others are as consequential as their own.
“Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole,” he wrote.
We have allowed ourselves, as a people, to be divided by rhetoric that we are stronger when we are more selfish, when we are individualistic. This is compounded by scarcity mentality — the feeling you get when you see a tent on a sidewalk and it reminds you that home is not a guaranteed human right in this nation — which breeds self-protection and even aggression.
Dividing ourselves makes us less likely to care about the needs or property of others. Many would rather see these tents in a Dumpster (because they’re someone else’s belongings, so who cares?) than there on the sidewalk, serving as shelter.
But it’s a two-way street. If we don’t care about the belongings and the rights of people in tents, why on this green Earth would we expect them to feel protective of this shared place? If everyone treats you like garbage — averts their eyes, sneers, and votes for elected officials who would rather erase you than aid you — why not treat the entire world like your garbage can? Why take part in a social contract that has no room for you?
Read more of the May 4-10, 2022 issue.