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Would Greta Thunberg Advocate Picking Up Trash in the Park?

Climate change is a consequence of the dysfunction of the whole ecosystem.

Key points

  • The scope of the environmental crisis is much larger than climate change.
  • All individuals, not just the leaders of governments and corporations, are responsible for keeping the environment sustainable and clean.
  • For the environment, trash, solid wastes, bacteria, and other microbes are like skin cancer in the body.

There is a pervasive tendency to define the current ecological crisis only as climate change and, subsequently, to view the related responsibility as dwelling on the governments and leaders of big corporations. For example, climate activist Greta Thunberg recently reiterated her accusation that President Biden and his administration, as players with enormous responsibility, fail to treat the climate topic more seriously. This viewpoint about the problem and its solution seems consistent with the focus of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and some local administrative goals (e.g., the ordinances of my city, which has about 170,000 residents). They regard global warming, including increasingly severe and destructive weather, as the major problem. Various governments and large industries are primarily accountable for curbing greenhouse-gas emissions by terminating their dependence on fossil fuels.

However, this position may restrict both the scope of the environmental crisis and the responsibility of all capable individuals who interact with nature, either creating and maintaining healthy and sustainable environments or undermining the ecological world.

First, to explain why the crisis is far beyond climate change, let’s look at an example: Almost daily, I walk in some of the city’s recreation areas, including several trails along the Willamette River. Periodically, I cannot help but notice garbage left on or by the trails: plastics, bottles, soda cans, dirty blankets, clothes, face masks, dog poop, or human feces. Rains have flushed some of them into the water. Some of the trash is visible from the main trail heavily used by joggers, cyclists, and residents walking dogs, but the litter often stays there for months, if not longer. Whenever possible, I carry a bag, pick up the trash, and dispose of it in a garbage container, but the littering scene is much bigger than the places I cross. Certainly, the problems are not confined to the recreation areas; they affect streets, campuses, parking lots, and other locations. I have witnessed similar conditions in several other cities.

On the surface, this rubbish appears to be a minor issue compared with that of global warming. However, there is no disagreement that climate change is a consequence of the dysfunction of the whole ecosystem. There exist interdependent networks among the trees, water, air, earth, and other things (e.g., Finding the Mother Tree by Suzanne Simard, 2021).

Trash items containing various toxic chemicals, solid wastes, bacteria, and other microbes are like skin cancer in the body. They contaminate the land, air, and water locally and in the Pacific Ocean. For example, water pollution threatens the human need for drinking and hygiene alone in the river and has harmed the habitat for fish, ducks, geese, herons, hawks, and other animals and marine life. The injured ecosystem has weakened its normal ability to regulate the interaction among water, earth, trees, and temperature associated with extreme weather. The disgusting scene also generates stress for people who interact through available green spaces.

Second, regarding the issue of responsibility, the above discussion shows that because the scope of the crisis involves the whole interconnected ecosystem, all individuals capable of discerning messages from nature and responding accordingly are responsible. Blaming the perpetrators and city administrators alone will not solve the problem. The city seems ineffective in enacting and enforcing regulations to control reckless persons who directly produce the filthy, unhealthy, and hazardous conditions, but I have learned in several phone conversations with officials that they have neither the assignment nor the resources to patrol and collect littered trash in the city’s land and parks. However, they regularly pick up materials in containers in recreation areas. It is totally understandable, but that also means that the public must be part of the solution by removing encountered junk.

3 essential reasons all capable individuals are responsible for keeping the environment clean

  1. Natural disasters and other ecological abnormalities indiscriminately impact the human community rather than target the individual perpetrators harming the environment. Nature behaves in such a way because as the interconnected living systems regulate their internal and external interactions through exchanging information, energy, and matter, it treats trash and waste as a type of aggressive information and negative energy, thus reacting accordingly. Irrespective of how people blame others and deny their responsibility for an unhealthy environment, in the interaction between humans and nature, it is nature, not humans, that decides who is responsible.
  2. In abusing the environment, perpetrators and bystanders are not qualitatively different in their attitudes: Both treat nature as servants with a lack of reverence and understanding.
  3. All individuals interact with nature to meet basic needs for food, water, fresh air, energy, physical and mental health, interpersonal connections, and green and healthy spaces for activities. Any disruption of the natural processes damages the well-being of each and every individual, regardless of whom we blame for the ecological crisis.

In conclusion, I wish all individuals, particularly climate activists, start to pick up trashes littered on the ground with the awareness that by communicating with nature, discerning its thoughts, emotions, and stresses, we can maintain this harmonious and most important relationship.