I took Friday and Monday off of work last week to visit São Miguel, an island about 2 hours off the coast of Portugal. And it was a fantastic trip. And I did a lot of thinking while admiring the island that I thought I’d share. This trip has been absolutely my favorite part of my internship, but it’s also reminded me that there is always good in the bad.
Look at this view.
I was awestruck. I sat here for about 20 minutes, just trying to take it all in. Contemplating the blues, the greens, the rolling hills, the red-roofed houses that are out of view but coexisting harmoniously with the landscape around it. I sat at the edge of this lookout reflecting upon my life with gratitude and admiration, for the opportunities I’ve been blessed with, for the personal and academic progress I’ve made, and the incredible views I’ve been able to see throughout my short 19 years. I had so much appreciate for Mother Nature, for whatever force that has made this landscape possible, for the history behind it. For the inhabitants of the island for preserving their land so well, thanking them for protecting these trees and these trails.
And then I looked around, and I saw a cigarette butt. And another, and then, another. A candy wrapper. A chip bag. A plastic water bottle, an unidentifiable piece of paper, more cigarette butts, all scattered around me, flicked from the fingers of who knows how many people, carelessly and shamelessly. And I was so frustrated.
Here I sat, filled with an extreme amount of gratitude and irritation that only worsened over time. I felt futile. Wonderstruck. Disheartened and aggravated. Dumbfounded, both from the immensity and the grandness of the view in front of me and my inability to do anything.
It took 30 seconds and about 4 square feet to fill my right hand with trash. I have long since realized that sometimes, picking up the trash that I see actually makes me feel even worse, because I quickly become aware that I will not and will never be able to pick up everything. I am not capable of collecting the entirety of the world’s misplaced trash; one person cannot eradicate litter. And truthfully, I don’t think I’d ever be able to completely clean up even this trail, as short as it is. Even if I did, it wouldn’t take long for it to revert to its human-induced state.
It just completely baffles me. Especially at a place like this. How do you look at a view like this one, and then decide to disrespect it so blatantly? Why do we consider the land underneath us as a dumping ground for all of our waste? Even in cities, where the grass is now pavement and the trees are now skyscrapers, what gives you the right? To decide that the inconvenience of finding a trash can weighs out preservation? Responsibility? Respect? What makes you so important? More important than the earth underneath us?
And sure, I could blame it on a cultural difference. Maybe the concept of littering isn’t as negative here in Portugal, maybe they’ve never viewed it as a threat to their environment. I’m not really sure. But, quite frankly, it doesn’t matter. This problem is worldwide. It’s certainly rampant even in the United States, where conservationism has taken an increasingly large role in current politics and lifestyle choices (Whole Foods, anyone?). Cigarette butts account for 25-50% of our nation’s litter, depending on the state and study. We are all to blame. Even if you don’t litter, when’s the last time you picked something up off the ground?
Something very important that I learned from my mother is that you shouldn’t have to be asked to do something that’s your responsibility in the first place. If you dirty a dish, wash it. If you make a mess, clean it. If you smoke a cigarette, properly dispose of it. And sometimes that means taking the responsibility for others, too, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the nice thing to do. We all have a communal investment in the Earth, and some people just don’t realize that. But that’s okay, because I’ll take their share of the responsibility. I don’t mind. I want their grandkids to be able to see what I see, to feel how easy it is to breathe when you’re surrounded by trees that are older than you are. I want what’s best for the world, I want to repay all the joy and wonderment and love I’ve gotten from the world, and sometimes that means picking up the slack for others.
So I guess the whole point of this all is to encourage you to do the same. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here; picking up trash is not something I want to be thanked or recognized for. It’s my responsibility. It’s a duty I expect myself to fulfill. I don’t expect everyone to do the same, but I do hope so. One person can’t eradicate global litter, I don’t deny that. But I do think we could make a dent in it if we tried.