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Picking Up Trash

Over the past few months, I've discovered a new thing I like to do, namely, picking up trash in the parks and public spaces near where I live.

So far I've figured out three reasons I like to pick up trash.

The thing that provoked me into trying it in the first place was that I was tired of seeing trash everywhere. The trash wasn't really everywhere, of course, but its bright and artificial colors drew my attention and distracted me. In other words, I like picking up trash because of the result, which is that I don't have to look at the same trash over and over again.

Much to my surprise, once I tried it, I found that the activity of picking up trash is rewarding in itself. It gets me outside in the sun; it exercises my visual and motor skills in much the same way as working a jigsaw puzzle does; and, strangely, it causes me to lose all sense of time and self.

That last point reminds me of what I've heard about flow. Also, the idea of work being rewarding in itself reminds me of my favorite passage from Carlyle.

The third reason I like to pick up trash, which also came as a surprise to me, is that it is a fine thing to be able to walk in a place and know that it's clean because of you. That would be pride, I guess.

So there you have it. In no particular order, here are a few more thoughts.

On the one hand, it seems kind of stupid for me to be going around picking up trash … I mean, it's not an efficient use of collective resources. On the other hand, it needs doing, and it makes me happy, which leads me to a new rule of thumb.

It's OK to do stupid things if they make you happy.

On second thought I'm not so sure I like that rule.

Here's another slightly surprising fact I've discovered: once you know you're capable of picking up trash, it becomes much more difficult to ignore trash when you see it. That, I think, makes the idea of picking up trash a good candidate for spreading virally—once you've seen someone pick up trash, you become much more likely to do the same thing yourself.

If I've got all that right, then the idea of picking up trash is an exception to the rule that all strident memes are bad.

I suppose it's possible that the infectious part of the idea could be captured in writing, but I'm not counting on that. In fact, I suspect that the idea can only flourish under certain conditions … for example, when the volume of trash, and rate of generation, are low enough that one person can make a difference.

The idea, for me at least, is constrained in a couple of ways.

First, it only works for trash that's local to me, that I have a chance of seeing again. I might pick up trash I saw in, say, a national park, just because it would offend me, but that's about the only exception I can think of.

(In the iterated prisoner's dilemma, one of the requirements for the emergence of cooperation is that the two players have some chance of seeing each other again. That must mean something, but what? Am I cooperating with the trash?)

Second, the idea only works as long as the task is unofficial. If I were obligated to pick up trash every so often, I'm sure I'd see it as an unpleasant chore. The folks who sign up for those “adopt an X” programs must have some slightly different motivation.


  See Also

  Disposing of Things
  General Impressions
  On Graffiti
  Other Adventures
  Walking Barefoot

@ June (2001)