Binning self-control

Who's responsible for rubbish?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Politics

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  • The war on fat

Fast food has been subjected to something of a beating recently. The industry has become a convenient scapegoat, what with Britain becoming a nation of porkers in the past couple of years. In its war on obesity, the government even mooted a plan that all items in fast-food joints have a calorie count beside them, so that customers could know just how fat that pie and chips or deep-fried pizza is going to make them.

Fast-food joints also face the charge that they are responsible for the mountains of litter that blight our towns. Observe the streets on a Saturday morning and this argument seems legitimate. Witness the chip wrappers, half-eaten pizza slices, polystyrene McDonald’s containers and so on – grim testimony to the previous night’s post-pub feastings.

A recent study by the group Environmental Campaigns points to an 18 per cent increase in the amount of discarded burger boxes, soft-drink cartoons, remains of curries, etc, that disfigure our streets and countryside. To combat this, the government this week launched a consultation exercise on a new ‘fast-food code of conduct’ to make our streets cleaner. Oh dear, you might say, not another ‘crackdown’.

To its credit, the plans do contain one or two sensible recommendations, for instance, that fast-food proprietors should only put rubbish outside in bags on days scheduled for collection. Yet others are flaky, or just silly. The initiative suggests more ‘please dispose of your rubbish sensibly’ posters. This kind of pleading has never deterred litter louts or the inebriated in the past. Why should it work now? It also suggests that retailers should put up litter bins around their premises. That’s funny, I thought that public litter bins were the kind of thing our council taxes paid for. Most ridiculous of all, it says that those who work for fast-food outlets should themselves pick up rubbish dropped by their ‘lazy customers’ in the streets.

All the suggestions fail to address the real problem, and the real culprits: it is people who throw litter who are responsible for their behaviour. At the risk of sounding like someone from the National Rifle Association: burger-flippers do not throw litter, customers do. How one legislates against this, is, of course, hard to say, but it seems ridiculous to penalise one lot of people for the misconduct of others. Why not hold the makers of marker pens responsible for graffiti? Why not slap a fine on beer-makers for incidents of assault or impotence? Sometimes I keep my neighbours up late at night. This is of course entirely the fault of Metallica and AC/DC. If only they’d stop making such music!

The growth of litter mirrors the mental infantilisation of society, in which individuals have not the self-discipline to wait for their next meal, and instead stuff their face with fatty, sugary food, and invariably expect someone else to clear up for them afterwards.

  • Gross suggestion

The government’s recommendations sound positively sane and watertight compared to sentiments expressed by John Ashton, regional director of public health in North West England, who argues that because some people are incapable of eating modestly, the government should come to their rescue. ‘Individuals cannot protect themselves from bioterrorism, epidemics of SARS, the concerted efforts of the junk-food industry, drug dealers and promoters of tobacco and alcohol’, he said last week. ‘The state is the guardian of the weak and underprivileged. It should intervene to encourage people to eat healthily and take exercise.’

What a strange outburst, reminiscent of a panicky, apocalyptic Daily Mail leading article, or a speech one might have heard made by an eighteenth-century enlightened despot. It seems a bit odd, too. Is this the same John Ashton who recently called for the legislation of brothels in Liverpool? Surely, he would say, the state, in all its benign imperviousness, should intervene to protect vulnerable women from going into what will always be a sordid business, which attracts the nastiest elements of the male population? I personally think that people have the right to do stupid things, unlike Mr Ashton, who regards the state as a substitute father and the rest of us little better than nappy-wetting babies.

As with litter, the best way to ‘combat’ obesity is to promote a climate of self-responsibility and self-control. The first step to achieving such a state of affairs is to jettison the notion that we need a ‘guardian’ to hold our hands in the first place.

  • Pull a fast one

The month of Ramadan, the time when Muslims around the globe abstain from food, drink or sexual activity between sunrise and sunset, is with us again.

For those who think that this not a big deal to observe such a regime in November, they should keep in mind that it does not take place every winter, like Christmas. Because the Hijri calendar is lunar, with all dates advancing 11 days a year against the Gregorian calendar, in about a quarter of a century Ramadan will fall in mid-summer, which will not be much fun at all.

But spare a thought for Muslims in Australia and South Africa, who are entering summer now. Still, it could be worse. One year saw a Saudi scientist in Antarctica and a compatriot in outer-space. Given special dispensation, they were allowed to observe the sunrise and sunset times of their native land.

I do not envy Muslims at this time of year, but I do have enormous admiration for those who can exercise such self-discipline, and for a religion that holds in such high regard the virtues of patience and perseverance. Instead of pursuing our increasingly ridiculous-looking ‘war on terror’, maybe it is time to emulate one of the central tenets of Islam as part of our ‘war on fat’.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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