One of the most inviting parts of our city is Lake Saracen. With its large pavilion, accessible walkways and scenic piers, it’s a great place to host an outdoor event or just spend a little time. If you visited the lakefront this past weekend you would notice how high the water is. Small waves lapped at the base of the wooden pier. The typical sloping bank was covered almost to the sidewalk.

One of the most inviting parts of our city is Lake Saracen. With its large pavilion, accessible walkways and scenic piers, it’s a great place to host an outdoor event or just spend a little time. If you visited the lakefront this past weekend you would notice how high the water is. Small waves lapped at the base of the wooden pier. The typical sloping bank was covered almost to the sidewalk.


Lake Saracen is a great asset to our community. For all that it gives us, visitors to the lake this past weekend would have noticed something very ugly. Just as the rising waters covered the banks, they also brought years of trash and debris to the surface.


All along the lake’s perimeter there were thousands of pieces of floating garbage — garbage that didn’t get there by itself. Garbage that was placed there (or blown there) because local residents chose to litter.


Sadly, littering is so woven into local culture that streets and gutters throughout the city are covered in bottles, cans, fast food wrapper, cigarette butts and all manner of other detritus. While there are local ordinances in place to punish those who choose to unlawfully dispose of their casual waste, enforcement of such is pure fantasy. Local police are sufficiently overburdened with more grave matters that keeping narcissistic litterbugs in check hardly ever percolates to the top of the enforcement list.


In fact, some quarters of the city are even habitually used as dumping grounds for appliances, furniture and other larger items. While some on the City Council have rallied support for interdiction efforts against this kind of disposal, it’s the smaller incidental trash that makes the largest negative impact on our community.


All of this causes us to ask a simple question: Why do people litter? As it turns out, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), one of the nation’s oldest anti-pollution and anti-littering campaigns, has studied the matter in depth. As their research indicates, people most often litter for three reasons. 1) They feel no sense of ownership, even though areas such as parks and beaches are public property. 2) They believe someone else — a park maintenance or highway worker — will pick up after them. 3) Litter already has accumulated."


These reasons are emblematic of other, greater problems facing our community. The first reason KAB presents — no sense of ownership — goes to the fact that a large portion of the local populace has no grounding. They move from rent house to rent house. They are not connected to a neighborhood or each other. They are nomads for whom a trail of trash is just a fact of life. Poverty and a paucity of laws governing rental practices drive this trend.


The second reason — someone else’s problem — is similar to the first. Disconnected people have a lowered sense of the generalized other. If there are consequences for other people, they just don’t care. In a world where they themselves perceive injustice, the social contract has little bond on them.


The third reason — litter has already accumulated — goes straight to the so-called "Broken Windows Theory" of crime. With one pile of trash nearby, what harm does a little more do? Or so they might reason.


Combatting these forces is a complex matter. How do we give people a sense of groundedness so that they feel a part of the collective obligation? How do we make people understand that their individual actions make life for the rest of us a little worse? Instilling a collect conscience among those who lack it is no simple task, but the future of our city demands we try.