Wednesday, April 22, 2015


When I was in elementary school, Earth Day went largely ignored. Sure, we had a goofball peanut farmer in the White House who put his clodhoppers up Detroit's tailpipe to build us this glorious embarrassment:
Remember that? Good times, man.

Note something amiss in the photograph: There isn't any rubbish on the ground. That's how you know it wasn't taken in 1976. Even in the eco-chummy Oregon college town I spent my first few years, it was impossible to leave the house without seeing damnable litter everywhere. And it seemed like it was always fast food wrappers. Or cigarette butts. 'Twas truly a nasty time to be an American.

So I have to hand it to environmentalists. They accomplished something that should be downright impossible according to ordinary textbook treatments of collective action problems: they not only got nearly every single American to stop littering, they turned nearly every single American into an anti-littering scold. Can you even imagine what would happen if you were to attempt to throw your trash on the ground in any major metropolitan area in 2015? You wouldn't hear the end of it. We now enjoy (relatively) clean streets through the force of collective will backed by the threat of public shaming. Pause for a moment today to appreciate that triumph.

And then tremble at the power. Anti-littering efforts were low-hanging fruit compared to the many other social ills that busybodies catalog. It might be worth it to clean up the streets that everyone enjoys jointly and severally, but that shame mechanism is a powerful weapon. Neo-anti-littering activists have been deploying it against folks who make off-color jokes or who have poor sartorial judgement when appearing on TV or who have the audacity to follow the bylaws of the Hugo Award nomination process.

Cleaning up the environment is a step in the euvoluntary direction: it internalizes some of the negative externalities of littering. But we need a little filth. Perfectly sanitized, sterile environments breed allergen sensitivity and weaken the immune system. Eat a handful of dirt before you die.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?