Friday, April 20, 2012

Don't be a litterbug!

Earth Day raises awareness about a whole range of issues, from climate change at the global level to littering at the local level.  Littering might seem a lot more trivial than climate change, but I think addressing both is partly a matter of changing the daily habits of millions of people.  I’ve been thinking a little about the environment at various levels, and how the issues are similar and how they’re different.

I’ve mentioned before in this blog that, as much as I love living in India, one of the things I find hard to tolerate is the presence of trash all over the place. Twice in recent weeks friends of mine have lamented about garbage in their neighborhoods.  In both cases, my friends told me government trash pickup is not regular so residents dump on vacant land.  In each case, an independent contractor had been identified to pick up the trash for a modest fee.  But the residents of these wealthy neighborhoods were not interested in paying for the service. 

Figuring out how to address garbage in the streets depends in part on why it happens.  When I studied economics, we talked about something called a “free rider” problem.  The free rider problem explains why people might continue littering even if they really would prefer to live in a clean city—and would be willing to pay the cost to have a clean environment.  (The cost of keeping the street clean would be money in the case of a trash collection fee or just the effort to dispose of garbage properly in the case of general littering.)  The problem is, if I pay but others don’t, I’ve paid for nothing, since the environment will still be dirty.  If 90% of us bear the cost but the other 10% don’t, we’ll have a relatively clean environment—and those 10% who continue littering will be getting a free ride.  As more and more people look to get a free ride, the environment gets dirtier and dirtier.  Why should I pay if I don’t think others will? 

In economics, the free rider problem is one of the justifications for government action.  In the example of neighborhood trash pickup, assuming we value a clean environment, if we had a neighborhood association that had the authority to collect mandatory fees, we could all vote to be billed by the association to pay the contractor.  We’d all be happy to pay since there would be no free riders.  In the case of littering more broadly, if we all valued clean streets, we might vote for politicians who campaigned on a pledge to crack down on littering. 

This example, though, shows why government action isn’t the only answer, and may not be effective all by its self.  What if people don’t value a clean environment?  Then they won’t vote for politicians who say they’ll raise rates to pay for trash pickup or pledge a crackdown on littering, and nothing will be done.  It’s also harder to solve the problem the broader it is.  It’s fairly easy to see government action as a solution if people value cleanliness and trash in the streets is mostly a matter of households dumping their garbage.  An effective trash collection service funded by the government based on rates collected by households could work and satisfy everyone.  But if casual littering is a big part of the problem, stricter government laws on littering would be much harder to enforce.   (Imagine the manpower and paperwork it would take if everyone who littered in Hyderabad today was ticketed and fined!) 

What are some alternatives or accompaniments to government action?  A starting point is public education that increases the value people place on hygiene and a clean environment.  For example, a public outreach campaign could explain that widespread garbage encourages rodent infestation and mosquito breeding, both of which increase disease prevalence and childhood mortality.  That might make people care.  Sometimes public education can contribute to other forms of “coercion” that substitute for government action.   In the U.S. littering has declined dramatically during my lifetime largely because of public outreach campaigns. In most places in the U.S. today, laws against littering are pretty much irrelevant, since the social pressure to dispose of trash properly is so strong.  Campaigns focused on children, who were urged: “Don’t be a litterbug!”  Today, a schoolchild who dropped his food wrapper on the playground would be severely criticized by his peers, a penalty much more effective than a teacher’s rebuke.  Social pressure has also made the wearing of fur pretty much socially unacceptable in the U.S. because of concern about abuses in some fur trapping practices—even though the trapping of wild animals only affected a few types of fur, and there is no similar social taboo associated with leather.

The issues associated with global climate change are much more complicated.  For starters, there is no global authority that can assure compliance by all in any scheme.  But one thing that is the same is that a solution will impose costs on everyone, and that will only be sustainable if there is popular consensus about the value of a reduction in greenhouse gases.  Achieving that is complicated by the fact that the benefits of action will accrue largely to future generations.  But the importance of public education is the same for climate change as it is for littering.  The potential for leveraging social pressures is evident in the proliferation of marketing campaigns for “green” products.  In the U.S., we are still fairly far from a real popular consensus on policies to combat climate change.  But I think grassroots trends and increasing popular interest suggest that we can make up ground quickly and reach a point soon when we’re willing to change old habits. 

I’m also hopeful that Hyderabad will soon embrace a new commitment to cleaner streets.

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