Tuesday, April 16, 2024

‘It’s beyond obvious that environmental education without enforcement is a complete waste of money’

‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’ – it’s an old phrase which Google attributes to a French writer, Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, in 1849; who are we to argue with the interweb? There’s certainly something in it, especially when it comes to education.

Society, through central and local government, has spent huge sums of money educating young people (all of us, really) on caring for the environment.

It goes on still, of course, but today’s generation have no excuse for being ignorant of caring for the environment. Yet no matter how much is spent on it, sometimes it seems to be such a terrible waste.

In last week’s edition, we learned that Westmeath County Council has allocated another €82,000 in an anti-dumping initiative, identifying black spots and trying to eradicate them. Really what the Council wants is for people’s behaviour to change, and it spends a lot of money and devotes a lot of time to trying to do that.

But sometimes you’d wonder why it bothers.

We’ll tell you our tale and, since you’ve come this far, you might as well read on. We happened to be strolling along Dominick Street in Mullingar one evening last week, dodging the brilliant sunshine and the thunder showers, when we noticed four adults with a young child in a buggy at one of the public seats on the street.

They were doing nothing more than enjoying a take-out meal and chatting. They seemed a very respectable group, very well dressed, the adults all in their young 20s. So far, so normal.

About 20 minutes late, we reversed our journey and came back to the same seat. The small group had moved on but had left their litter on the seat and on the ground beside it. Chip papers, foil dishes, unwanted food, just left there. No more than four metres away stood a litter bin.

‘The only response is to track them down and make them pay… education on its own isn’t working, and it never has’

If it was any closer to them, it would have been in their way. But clearly, it was beyond their intelligence to use it to deposit their litter, so it was left on the street – one of the town’s main streets and a street that the County Council and Tidy Town group do so much to keep clean. Seriously, such behaviour would make a stone weep.

What does it take to get people to act responsibly when it comes to properly disposing of litter? How many campaigns, how much money, how much advertising, how many reminders? And when, as a society, do we reach the point when we accept that education isn’t the answer but that enforcement is?

This newspaper often carries stories about how frustrated and angry our local public representatives are about litter, and the stories usually end with them calling for more detections of offenders and stiffer penalties. It’s becoming impossible to disagree with them. It could be that we’ve failed to educate people to the point where they respect their own community and their own environment, and when society has to heavily penalise offenders.

Maybe the people who live in Ladestown, at Lough Ennell, feel the same. Their area is being rubbished (literally) most weekends by people visiting the lake – intelligent people, you can be sure, who somehow become as thick as bricks when it comes to cleaning up after themselves.

Clearly the only response is to track them down and make them pay. Education on its own isn’t working – but then, it never has. You’d imagine, after all these years, we’d know better.

Still, as Jean-Baptiste said: “Plus ça change…”

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