An itching conscience

On the train this morning: lots of litter on the table opposite – newspapers and coffee cups and such. A woman sitting down at that table picks it all up and dumps it all down on my table, then says “what?” in response to my incredulity and raised eyebrows.

So I say that there is probably a bin at the end of the carriage. She says there is never a bin on trains, and anyway, she didn’t leave the litter on her table. (I think: you did leave it on mine).

I pick up the cups and paper and take them to the bin at the end of the carriage, figuring that since they’re on my table now, they’re my problem. As I sit down again, the woman says to her travelling companion, loudly and pointedly: “He only did that to show me up.” And since we left the station, she’s been shooting resentful looks at me, checking whether I’m sending aggression back at her. I’m annoyed, but I don’t want an argument. Instead I ponder the strange ways that people are niggled by their conscience, and the things they do to find scapegoats for their feelings.

The funny thing is this: when we got on the train, we were the only people in the carriage. She could have chosen from any litter-free seat, including two other pristine tables.

As could I. I could also have cleared away the litter on her table before sitting down at mine, which probably would have been more responsible. But I just chose to sit on another table.

As I sit here with her bad mood jumping the gangway towards me, I think about the situation. Responsible it might be, but I don’t go around clearing up litter wherever I see it. I don’t think many people do. But if it’s near where I want to be then I see it as my problem to clear up. Her attitude seemed to be closer to: “if I didn’t make the mess then it’s not my problem, full stop.”

What does this say about social behaviour and our attitudes to our environment?

We both (and those who left the litter in the first place) had the notion that disposing of mess was someone else’s job. We differed in the efforts we would make to facilitate that: the original litterers none at all, the woman opposite very little, and me a little more.

She also seemed to experience pangs of conscience about palming it off on me, or at least about her bad manners, though whether she recognised them as such is another matter – I think actually she blames me for makig her feel bad.

But we both wanted to do something about it when the litter affected our immediate surroundings.

I can’t help feeling there this situation has some applicability when thinking about wider environmental questions such as climate change. As people, and as a society, do we see our environment as something that affects us? A thing we are part of? Probably most people perceive, on some level, that the planetary environment is too remote and abstract to them to be real. And do we have a clear idea how to clear up our mess? No: not only do we not really see that its ours (simply by virtue of our being human), but also there are too many incompatible ideas about what to do. Among these we tend to choose the one that costs us the least effort and trouble, with some variation among people in the extent of inconvenience they are willing to accept.

Anyway: a mundane situation, but it made me think, as well as feeling a little bit more pessimistic about people than I did when I left the house.