The city is spending $5 million a year picking up the garbage residents leave lying around. How can this be? I asked. Surely you’re not all such scofflaws that you’re wilfully dirtying up our city.
Philosophers like to ask what it is that separates people from animals; we have created civilization, after all, where lesser mortals have not. Surely something fundamental sets us apart from and above the rest of the ecosystem.
Whatever it is, it's not much. We have far more in common with our fellow animals than we would like to admit. Genetically, there's only a 1.3% divergence between human DNA and that of our closest relative, the bonobo. There's even less of a difference between the bonobo and the chimp, with the difference being assumed to have resulted from the growth of the Congo river. It should come as no surprise that geography should have played a role in creating distinction between species; within our own species, geography has played a huge role in influencing cultural development.
Is there a logical connection between rough, mountainous terrain and tribalism? Of course there is; in tough terrains, you need to be tough to survive; the triggering of survival-of-the-fittest hard-wiring also fires up territorialism, single-minded focus and a certain degree of fatalism. Is there a connection between arid landscapes and the deification of ancestors? There is - dry terrains mummify bodies, helping them retain life-like qualities after death. Mummification has been understood and practiced the world over for more-or-less the same reasons. When you're ancestors are always around, watching over your shoulder in supernatural form, you gain a new respect for your place in the continuum of history; personal motives naturally gravitate towards the notion of maintaining/expanding family legacy. Dan Gardner wrote an article on the relevance of culture to work ethic, etc; take that a step further, you can legitimately say that geography informs culture as much as culture informs behaviour.
These are all factors that are beyond our control; we do not decide into which family in which country we are born; all we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. But even then, how many of our decisions fall under our conscious control? We like to focus on teenagers as exemplars of short-sighted, potentially destructive behaviour embodied by the notion of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Yet they're hardly the only ones. Adults get into sex scandals, say things without thinking through the consequences and then try to justify or deny them after the fact, drive unsafely and do all kind of things that can be immediately and personally detrimental or, in aggregate, socially (and therefore personally) detrimental.
The European Debt Crisis is a recent example, but you can look to the Great Fire of London or the Bubonic Plague for others. Littering would also fit into this category. Indeed, the history of waste management is the story of urban development and the increased centralization of coordinated authority - government - to manage the collective risks of waste. It makes sense to ban activities like throwing waste on the street if the collective risks of such behaviour include things like plague. Sneezing without covering your mouth, sudden lane changes and not moving to the back of a bus that's quickly filling up are variations on the same theme. While we frame issues like getting inoculations as matters of personal choice, each of these issues have consequences for everyone else. We provide social programming like EI or public healthcare for the same reason; you can put all the emphasis on individual responsibility as you want, but the fact remains that when people don't act with society in mind, the consequences get faced by the group, not just the individual.
Of course, in sparse populations, these collective risks are minimal. If a couple of farmers have a pistols-at-dawn duel, there's less chance of a stray bullet hitting someone else. If a nomadic people dump their waste out their front doors, those doors will move; the risks of contagion are reduced. So it is that our ape cousins and other species are less concerned about their waste; they produce far less and are less likely to sleep where they dump. Their genetic programming (of which we have so much in common) doesn't account for things like planning waste disposal or being mindful of the two-step consequence of actions like public littering or passing on viruses by sneezing without covering.
People litter for the same reason that any species litters - the overwhelming drives of our genetic programming is to not waste energy on activities that aren't of personal benefit. Call it the genetics of laziness; not something we develop, but something we overcome. Litter has no relevance as a concept until the waste we produce grows to a certain quantity. Humans have been urban for a scant spec of time; our genetic programming still lags behind the needs of communal living. Cleaning up after ourselves isn't instinctive, as any parent can tell you - it's learned behaviour. The same holds true of not engaging in risky behaviour that could bring discomfort (or dishonour) to one's family or tribe; in the absence of an internalized awareness of social consequence, bad behaviour is more likely to flourish. This is something as true of the human animal as it is of others.
There is a social tool that we have developed that helps us bridge the gap between biological drives and social needs - discipline. Key to developing any craft, discipline is the ability to ignore discomfort, distraction or a lack of clarity on end product and work through a task regardless. Discipline allows us to push beyond what we are inclined to do and explore what we are capable of, including considering eventual consequences.
Of course, humans aren't the only animals capable of discipline. Dogs, birds, elephants, etc. can be trained to wait or perform tasks if the right carrots and sticks are employed. What perhaps makes us unique is the ability to discipline ourselves, internally, without need of external motivation. Whereas trained animals perceive a path - a leads to b - at our best, people are able to perceive the bigger picture and be aware of content, context and consequence of actions yet to be performed. Miyamoto Musashi, author of one of the world's favourite books on strategy, described the features of mindfulness thusly:
1. Do not think dishonestly.
2. The Way is in training.
3. Become acquainted with every art.
4. Know the Way of all professions.
5. Distinguish between gain and loss in worldly matters.
6. Develop intuitive judgement and understanding for everything.
7. Perceive those things which cannot be seen.
8. Pay attention even to trifles.
9. Do nothing which is no use.
Musashi dedicated his whole life to being the greatest warrior in Japan. Accepting no limitations as acceptable, Musashi broke down one personal barrier after another. By the end of his journey, Musashi had realized like so many others that the greatest enemy he would face wasn't another swordsman or even an army, but his own ignorance.
When we become mindful of content, context and consequence, we gain insight into the actions of others as well as the broader ramifications of our own actions. With this insight, we start to act in a more pro-social, strategic way.
If there is one thing that separates us from them, it would be consciousness.