21 March 2009

Civic self-harm or self-esteem?

By Marguerite Finn

A small light was extinguished in my local community yesterday. My neighbour's black and white cat was killed, outside its own door, by a car using the loke as a 'rat-run'. The driver did not stop, and was spared the horror of the residents who had to pick up the remains of the much-loved family pet and comfort its distraught owners. It could easily have been a child. It happened close to the Village Hall, which hosts a pre-school group. The hall was not built to accommodate the number of cars that regularly overflow its car-park on to the grass verges and pavements alongside the nearby houses.

Car-fouling is changing the nature of the village. Grass verges are disappearing under a sea of churned-up mud – with some of the ruts so deep they have standing water in them. Then there is the litter that accumulates along what is left of the verges. With the arrival of spring, the timely publication of the Litterbugs Report, from the Campaign to Protect Rural England, has seen a blossoming of articles in the press about the increasing problem of litter.

Terence Blacker, (Guardian, 11 March), says: "It is not difficult to find symptoms in everyday life of our low self-esteem as a nation. Binge-drinking is one, casual violence another. But the most obvious and universal sign of Britain's dislike for itself is before our very eyes on pavements, by the side of the roads, on public transport, down country lanes. Litter is the nation's favourite form of self-harm."

I read this with a sense of shock but I also realised the truth of it.

Research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology (Chaurand & Brauer, 2008), listed the types of behaviour that provoked most anger and stress. They were:
  1. Failure to pick up after one's dog
  2. Littering
  3. Illegally parked cars
  4. Graffiti
  5. Aggressiveness towards others
Jeremy Paxman, (Guardian 6 March), writes: "The ludicrous 'respect' culture, that sees knife-fights start because someone has failed to accord due deference to another person's trainers, is just the most extreme expression of a cast of mind that now seems universal. The flipside is not merely increasingly frenetic attempts to persuade us to spend money on things we don't need. It also encourages a belief that what is not personal property has no value. I might respect your trainers – but I couldn't give a toss about the park or the bus shelter that belongs to all of us."

What does this say about our values? If Paxman is right, then surely we need to move from such a pathologically individualistic mindset to a more community-oriented one?

Moves are already being made in that direction, beginning with an acknowledgement that limitless growth in the number of cars and roads is not only unsustainable but also is harming both the environment and the community. However, as reported in the EDP (Letters, 17 March), North Norfolk has been named as the 'Cleanest District' in the UK. This was achieved by volunteers from the local community giving their time to cleaning up local areas and enhancing this part of Norfolk.

Norwich City Council and City Centre Partnership (CCP) have organised volunteers from Norwich businesses and schools to join together for a one-hour litter pick in the centre of Norwich on 25 March. CCP Manager, Stefan Gurney, says: "We want to involve the community, schools and businesses. Everyone who lives works and shops in the city centre must take responsibility for the cleanliness of the city centre and our environment."

Good for local government! Since our national masters show no inclination to discipline themselves - let alone us - it is our own self-discipline locally that will make us feel better and therefore act better.

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