Jon Moses argues that the obsession with public littering in the countryside lets the real culprits off the hook – and demonises ordinary people.

On December 12, Alexander Darwall, an investment manager with a fetish for restricting access rights, is taking the Dartmoor National Park Authority to court in an attempt to revoke wild camping rights enshrined in the Dartmoor Commons Act. Blaming ‘anti-social behaviour’ and littering, Darwall claims wild campers are damaging his 4,000-acre Dartmoor Estate. We would do well to be suspicious. [Update Jan 13, 2023: Darwall’s legal claim was successful, leading campaigners to vow to fight back]. 

Words: Jon Moses | Main image: wild camping on Dartmoor. Credit: Hanna Lindon

Complaints about the ignorant masses blighting the countryside with rubbish are nothing new. When the countryside experienced a boom in popularity in the interwar period, complaints about littering were not far behind.

Cyril Joad, then a well-known intellectual and broadcaster, dedicated a whole book to the subject in 1934, declaring litter the “grimy visiting card which democracy, now on calling terms with the country, insists on leaving after each visit.”

A socialist in all but conviction, Joad bemoaned the “hordes of hikers cackling insanely in the woods, or singing raucous songs as they walk arm in arm”. As an article written in 1933 pithily summarised, “the only way to save the countryside for democracy is to keep democracy out of the countryside.”

Littering, broadly conceived, was not a novel problem. What was different was who was dropping it. Fixation on litter went hand in hand with concerns from pressure groups like the Anti-Noise League, who called for the ‘prosecution of the loud’, and declared their hostility to the sound of “negroid music” brought by daytrippers into the countryside.

Terms like ‘disobedient bathing’ (me neither) were invented to chastise anyone who might be having excessive fun in non-approved ways. Prejudiced shorthands about working class cockney ‘litterbugs’ were an easy way to fuel a broader sense of moral superiority.

Crisp packets

In the two years the Right to Roam campaign has been arguing for an extension of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in England, litter has been the most common argument used to oppose us.

Arguments that better access could facilitate huge benefits to physical and mental health, or bring outsize ecological gains as people are enabled to form deeper, more meaningful connections with their local environment, are derailed by a relentless focus on abandoned crisp packets. The public’s belief that the public cannot be trusted is pervasive and all-consuming. 

Much of this results from the rash of articles which emerged during the pandemic, highlighting an apparent crisis of ‘lockdown littering’. Yet we might well ask how many lessons can really be drawn from an explosion of visits to honeypot sites during an unprecedented moment where the entirety of the indoors had become off-limits. Hardly a model for ‘what will happen’ if a true Right to Roam were introduced.

The more substantive lessons of lockdown, like the sharp inequalities in access to green space it highlighted, appear to have had a much faster half-life in the public consciousness. 

The real litterers

Yet, if we were really serious about the litter problem, then errant crisp packets and the odd abandoned tent would not warrant as much attention.

It doesn’t take a lot of hiking (though it might take some trespassing) to realise that much of the litter in the countryside derives from agricultural or industrial waste. Fly-tipping, controlled by criminal operations, comes a close second.

Visit any wild beach in the country and the jetsam washed ashore will most likely belong to the fishing industry: the biggest plastic polluter of the world’s oceans.

Even the long strings of litter which bedeck roadside fringes – usually attributed to feckless drivers – is often blow-in from commercial bins or landfill carried along the verge by car currents, like a motor-powered version of longshore drift.

Even when we do the ‘right’ thing, we’re not necessarily dealing with the problem. We might cart litter from the forest to the bin, only for it to likely end up on a ship destined for Turkey or Malaysia, where it will be buried or burned. When we focus on individual behaviour we’re not solving the litter crisis, just moving it around. Even the most righteous are complicit. 

Learning to care

This isn’t to excuse littering consciously undertaken by the public. It’s a legible symbol of disregard and can be completely perplexing behaviour in beauty spots where your parting act undermines the very quality you’ve sought out.

I grumble the same as anyone when I pick up some crap deposited around an extinguished fire pit. But in my more cosmic moments, I think of it as an unofficial social contract extended between me and whichever (often young) people left it behind. I’d rather they were out here, having some experience of nature, albeit in immature and inconsiderate ways, than be condemned to a lifetime of disconnection from the natural world.

In time, I believe, the small insights gleaned from those experiences will stick. In time, some of them will return as grumbling litter-pickers too. Given time, we can all learn to care.

That is also the belief of brilliant organisations like Trash Free Trails, whose members I’ll wager spend more time at the frontline of litter removal than any of our detractors. Their core principle? “We will never use blame, shame, guilt or aggression when talking about litter.”

Instead, they’ve pioneered initiatives which turn the litter issue on its head: using litter picking as a way to drive positive feelings of pride and connection among the very people most likely to experience alienation. Their TrashMob Academy provides free mountain biking lessons, conditional on school attendance and a morning of litter picking, to kids excluded from mainstream education. Their work, alongside others like We Swim Wild and Surfers Against Sewage, is showing how access and nature protection can go hand in hand. 

Perception is about power: what we register as out-of-place is an expression of who is perceived as out-of-place. We see the crisp packet and are blind to the overgrazed field stripped of its wildlife-friendly riparian buffers. We shake our fists at bored teenagers and let the industrial polluters off the hook because one is good honest country work and the other a symbol of outsiders. 

Perhaps if we knew about the biggest damage to nature, our eyes would see differently. Perhaps if we were empowered to do more, then rage at abandoned crisp packets would cease to be a proxy for our lost ability to care. 

Join Right to Roam outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on December 12th for a protest against the attempt to ban wild camping on Dartmoor