Learned Behavior

I saw it happen recently while visiting a local Costco warehouse. A mother and her young daughter were walking up to the store. The child ran ahead, grabbed a shopping cart and began climbing in. Once inside, the girl noticed a discarded clear plastic bouquet bag lying in the basket area. She quickly reached down, grabbed the bag and tossed it over theLitter-November 18, 2012-DSC_0721 vSmall v2jh edge where it fluttered to the ground and began to blow away. Mom gave a reproachful shout, chased and caught the bag. She then brusquely pulled the girl out of the cart, handed her the bag and sternly pointed to the trash.

As glad as I was to see simple environmental knowledge being passed from one generation to the next, I began to wonder about our internal wiring and natural tendencies. There are many behaviors that seem counterintuitive to young children that make perfect sense to adults. Don’t run in the house, toys must be shared with others, demonstrate good manners and that people should be treated with respect are some of the early lessons that everyone learns. It seems we must also be taught not to litter.

Remember Ranger Rick, Woodsy Owl and Smokey Bear? Sometimes parents are aided by fictional, cartoon characters in teaching their children good conduct in the wilderness. Woodsy Owl is famous for his “Give a hoot, don’t pollute!” message and Smokey Bear is legendary for his statement that “Only YOU Litter-November 18, 2012-DSC_0700 vSmallcan prevent forest fires.” Of course, the hope is that cartoon characters will appeal to a young audience and their Earth-friendly message will be retained throughout life.

Education often takes a lifetime and message reinforcement is sometimes needed. Since the 1950s, advertising campaigns and television commercials have been used on both a national and state level to remind people of basic Earth etiquette. Quite possibly the most famous anti-pollution television message featured the crying Indian. Originally released in 1971 as part of a national campaign, the commercial was wildly successful at raising awareness of the tragedy of pollution and, more importantly, establishing an emotional connection with the issue. During the late 80s and early 90s, the state of Texas implemented a very successful anti-littering campaign featuring celebrities from Texas and the phrase, “Don’t mess with Texas.” According to Wikipedia, “The campaign is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways roughly 72% between 1986 and 1990. The campaign’s target market was 18-35 year old males, which was statistically shown to be the most likely to litter.” A commercial featuring blues rock legend Stevie Ray Vaughan was the first installment of this campaign and was one of the most popular versions.

Despite their effectiveness, the popularity of these campaigns is only momentary. Inevitably, attention and commitment fade as time passes. As I travel through my tiny corner of the world on foot, bike and kayak, I am stunned by the presence of so much litter. It is so ugly, wrong and out-of-place; I find myself asking, why? Why do people litter? Isn’t it self-evident that litter and pollution are wrong? Why are campaigns like those previously mentioned needed in the first place? Catchy slogans like “Keep America Beautiful” and “Don’t Mess with Texas” only go so far. What breakthrough in our social consciousness is needed so that there is less litter not more?

Television Campaigns
1. Keep America Beautiful featuring Susan Spotless PSA – YouTube
2. Crying Indian PSA #1 – YouTube
3. Crying Indian PSA #2 – YouTube
4. Crying Indian PSA #3 – YouTube
5. Stevie Ray Vaughan PSA – YouTube
6. Confederate Air Force PSA – YouTube
7. Woodsy Owl PSA #1 – YouTube
8. Woodsy Owl PSA #2 – YouTube
9. Smokey Bear PSA #1 – YouTube
10. Smokey Bear PSA #2 – YouTube
11. Smokey Bear PSA #3 – YouTube
12. Smokey Bear PSA #4 – YouTube

13. Keep America Beautiful
14. Litter
15. Don’t Mess With Texas
16. Woodsy Owl
17. Smokey Bear
18. Ranger Rick

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