Looking Upstream

The recent death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu brought a few of his quotes to my attention that I thought were worth sharing.

This is a warm, fuzzy reminder that striving to make things better is worth doing, no matter how small it seems or how local we act. Every so often it’s helpful to be told that what we do does make a difference.

At the same time, there’s also this quote. Less warm and less fuzzy, with a rather pointed message:

It reminded me of Joseph Malins’ 19th century satire “The Ambulance Down in the Valley”.* It’s well worth clicking on the link to read the poem in full, but here it is in brief: a town at the bottom of a picturesque (but dangerous) cliff decides to spend money on outfitting an ambulance to patch up the poor sods who tumble over the cliff edge … rather than putting a fence up to stop people from injuring themselves in the first place.

Once you become aware of this pattern—a focus on mitigating the effects of a problem but not addressing the root cause—it’s everywhere.

We have food banks, but not a genuine solution to food insecurity.

We have new pills to help once people are already sick with Covid, but not the necessary investments to improve ventilation.

We have regular litter picks across the country, but comparatively little time and effort is spent encouraging people not to litter in the first place.

Benjamin Franklin is said to have written that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Yet over and over again, we as a society throw thousands of pounds at fixing the symptoms but not the cause, splashing around downstream while the actual problem continues unabated.

In part, this is because identifying the cure is easy: provide food to those without, take a tablet, pick up litter, pluck people out of the river. It is also straightforward to quantify what has been done—number of food parcels given out or bags of rubbish collected—compared to the alternative. How does one record the amount of litter no longer on our streets because it wasn’t tossed out in the first place? Or the number of wildlife not killed by a balloon release or drowned in a bottle?

Meanwhile, prevention typically involves a multi-pronged approach and a willingness to focus on long-term strategies and actions rather than quick fixes and photo ops. Further complicating matters, there’s no certainty as to what specific actions or programmes will lead to the best outcome. It’s very difficult to get funding and support when you say, “Something like this should work, but we won’t know until we get the results. It’s all an experiment.” Much easier to purchase new litter pickers and call it a day.

But … imagine a world where cans and bottles were sent to be made into new products rather than left under the nearest bush or tossed in a river. Where the most interesting thing you can spot on a winter walk is wildlife rather than the season’s latest discarded red cup. Where smokers binned their butts. Where the overriding culture was one of “my rubbish, my responsibility”. All of this requires upstream work.

Of course, none of this is saying that we stop carrying out the mitigating actions: the food banks, the pills, and the community clean ups are all important and absolutely necessary. But the key word in Reverend Tutu’s quote is “just”: if these are the only things we do, we miss an opportunity to improve the situation for everybody.

Finally, one more quote:

For far too long, those of us in the battle against litter have been raising our voices to each other. We share photos of the rubbish we’ve collected on social media with those who are already on our side. We design posters and craft slogans that resonate with us, but which don’t seem to get through to those who are more likely to litter. Communities covered in plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and discarded PPE show that our current arguments are not working.

So, as we begin a new year, I have a request for my fellow litter pickers.

Be willing to think in preventative ounces instead of pounds for a short-lived cure.

Be willing to step out of the choir and listen to those who would never attend a litter pick.

Be willing to look upstream and come at the problem from a different direction.

Sound familiar? It was later immortalised by singer John Denver, and I have Ray of the North Devon Wardens to thank for bringing it to my attention.

If you’re like me and tired of constantly picking up rubbish, please consider getting more involved in prevention efforts if you’re not already. The Putting Litter First series outlines what we can do within our communities by harnessing the power of those we know, and if you would like to understand the systemic issues that keep us pinned to the riverbank—and how we can overcome them—please check out Dan Heath’s excellent book Upstream.


1 Comment

  1. January 6, 2022 / 4:55 pm

    Very well said, Elaine! The last time we were in the Galapagos the guides were telling us about the massive litter “prevention” training they are doing with their residents. They reiterated beach cleanups are not the answer; teaching people not to litter is. One of our boat captains (and it was a pretty large boat) did a u-turn to go back and pick up a hat that had blown off someone’s head. “Can’t have that in the ocean!” he shouted.
    Happy New Year!!

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