The license plate on the truck read Alabama. It could have been any state really. We were stopped at a light on Highway 98. It was a beautiful day. Summer puff clouds were building, as they do, into mountainous mounds. The sea air blew gently through open car windows. An American flag saluted palm trees as sea gulls flew overhead. Then it happened.
A cigarette butt flew out the window of the truck ahead of me. It hit the ground still smoking. There were no cars in that lane yet. The light was still red. With oil spills, tender ecosystems, and the ongoing discussion about our squeaky clean sand, it felt wrong to let that cigarette butt lay there.
It was ridiculous, I know, to be worried about a cigarette butt in a land of millions of disposable water bottles and plastic throw-away meal containers. The devil is in the details, no? We’ve got to start somewhere. I tried to calculate if I had enough time to get out of my car, walk to the burning butt, pick it up after squishing it, get back to my car and buckle myself back in before the light changed. I imagined the looks I wouldn’t acknowledge from the truck’s passengers.
A car rolled over the cigarette and stopped alongside the truck. I could still retrieve the butt. I glanced at the light. Was there time? Another car slowed to a stop. The butt was now crushed and flattened. It would wash into sewers or be blown into someone’s piña collada.
It was too late now. I had to let it go. I wondered why we don’t have signs warning of $500 fines for littering as I’ve seen on roads in my travels. I imagined how we wouldn’t need such signs if everyone would stop and pick up one piece of paper or discarded can. How tourists would comment that locals pride themselves on the cleanliness of their town.
“We have grown accustomed to thinking of ourselves as separate from creation,” says author and theologian Megan McKenna in Harm Not The Earth. “From a biblical, but also from an ecological, point of view this position cannot be sustained. We do not simply live on the earth, but from it and within it.”
When we ‘dis’ our planet by discarding toxins into its waters, cutting too many trees, littering, ignoring recycling, allowing oil wells to leak undersea for years without repair, or any of the million ways we do so, we and the earth suffer. “If we take care of the earth, we ourselves are taken care of,” advises McKenna.
I see you who gather trash unceremoniously during your beach walks, looking for no attention, a cleaner beach their happy reward. Thank you.
The statistics for animals and plant life are appalling. It is estimated that 60% of the ecosystems that support life on earth… are quickly being degraded and depleted.* They are not expected to last until 2050.
Thirty species are lost every day in the world. That means more than ten thousand each year! In this century alone, more than half of all the known species will be gone.
As I go about my days now, I look for one piece of trash I can remove. It’s not much, but it makes a difference, if not to the tourists, at least to the beautiful people who live here. Everyone knows we have a lot to protect. It’s not just the sand we like squeaky clean.
* from “To Serve and Preserve,” an article by Ched Myers, quoting David Helton, originally published in Sojourners, March 2004.