On Dog Poop and the Human Condition

Spaniards in Brunete, a small, middle-class suburb of Madrid, are fed up with their dog poop riddled parks and sidewalks. So the mayor of the town decided to send the dog poop back to dog owners. I kid you not. Read the full story here

As explained in the New York Times:

Volunteers were enlisted to watch for negligent dog owners and then to approach their dogs to pet them. After a few flattering remarks about the beauty of said dog, they asked what breed it was. Then they asked the dog’s name. Back at City Hall, where more than 500 residents have their pets registered, that was enough information to get to an address.

Mayoral money quote, “It’s your dog, it’s your dog poop. We are just returning it to you.” The Times reports that:

The dog owners got their packages — white boxes bearing the seal of this town and labeled “lost and found” — within hours. Signing for the curious parcels, they must have been intrigued, though surely unsuspecting. . . .Delivering 147 boxes of the real stuff seems to have produced a . . . lasting effect in this town of about 10,000 residents. The mayor guesses a 70 percent improvement even now, several months after the two-week campaign.

Brunete’s Mayor deserves points for creativity and boldness, but I’ll be surprised if their parks and sidewalks are much improved next August. In part because dog owners have already stopped giving up their dog’s names, but more importantly, because it’s very difficult to teach old dogs (the masters that is) new tricks. As one commenter of the NYT article wrote, “Personal responsibility only works for people with a conscience. For the rest, it takes shame, videotape and public humiliation, all of it well deserved.” I disagree with the second sentence which I’ll return to shortly. First a related anecdote.

A few years ago I was enjoying a hard earned lunch at the Crystal Mountain turnoff late into RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). While trying to recover for the final push, I was admiring a fellow cyclist also in his late 40’s/early 50’s—his bike, cycling kit, and obvious fitness. My book cover assessment. . . badass. Then he opened a Cliff Bar, ate it, and TOSSED the wrapper on the f#*king ground.

Stunned, I wondered, what kind of person litters? That’s why God created jersey pockets and trash cans. There’s tons of evidence on the side of our roads that lots of people litter, but we hardly ever see them. This was up close and semi-personal. It’s bad enough in an urban environment, but we were smack dap in the middle of some of God’s finest handiwork. Somehow I suppressed my instincts to open a can of whup ass on my lycra-clad compatriot.

If it’s not built-in, and I don’t believe it is, how do people develop a conscience and learn to take personal responsibility for maintaining their part of the public square—whether a park, a sidewalk, or a natural setting? It’s modeled for them at a young age by a constellation of caring adults—older sibs, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders. For the vast majority of peeps, the first ten to fifteen years of life tells the story.

Shame, videotape and public humiliation will not inspire meaningful change over time. If I’ve learned one thing as a life-long educator it’s that encouragement and positive feedback are far more motivating than shame and public humiliation.

Which makes me wonder, what if Spaniards and you and I used the postal service to acknowledge selfless acts of personal responsibility? What form might those types of notes, letters, or packages take? Here’s just one of many examples that come to mind. A friend who lives on a nearby lake is always inviting our family to enjoy their primo community dock. When we take advantage of her generosity, she often barbecues dinner—hamburgers, salmon burgers, veggie burgers, chicken. Typically, we bring a salad or some fruit, but there’s a clear imbalance. I should go “reverse dog poop” and send her (or drop of rather) a package of frozen burger patties as a token of appreciation along with a note of thanks.

Granted, she doesn’t need that recognition, because generosity is integral to who she is. It was probably a part of her nature at age ten or fifteen, but everyone appreciates being appreciated. Let’s spare the postal service any more dog poop and watch for random acts of responsibility, thank the person or people involved, and create positive momentum in the public square.

Problem Solving

In response to last week’s social science/wealth inequality posts, a comment averse reader sent me the exact kind of response I had hoped to generate when I started blogging. Let’s call her Private.

Private wrote:

Duh? Were you surprised by ANY of those stats? I was not. For me, the far, far, far bigger question concerns my personal responsibility, your responsibility and our corporate responsibility to address those numbers.

She continued:

My Tuesday Lunch Club is superb at identifying social trends and issues therein. It’s solution we struggle with. My Friday dinner friends frequently discuss the week’s news. Again, no useful, doable answers. Based on your variety of sources quoted, you, too, spend a fair amount of time gleaning news stories. It’s my hope that thinking people, such as yourself, spend equal time pondering and yes, even working on and discussing with others, solutions to the problems you identify so clearly. Let’s see some posts about that!!!

Three exclamation points demand a response.

I’m an educator; consequently, I believe consciousness raising is important in and of itself. Ideas matter because they shape our behaviors. But Private would most likely reply what good is awareness of social problems absent concrete actions to solve them? Put differently, quit intellectualizing, roll up your sleeves, and do something to create more equal opportunity.

I don’t have any special insights on problem solving probably because I’m too content with the ambiguity engendered by good questions.

Nonetheless, here is an overarching belief: social problem solving takes many forms all of which should be encouraged equally. Among the forms, 1) practicing selfless, socially conscious, caring forms of parenting; 2) modeling socially redeeming principles such as humility, kindness, and empathy in one’s day-to-day interactions; 3) practicing socially redeeming principles in one’s purchases and lifestyle choices; 4) choosing work that explicitly improves others’ qualities of life; and 5) giving money and time to causes and groups that have proven track records of helping people locally, nationally, and/or internationally.

What would you add?

The GalPal is way more inspiring on this topic than I’ll ever be. While I’m reading, thinking, questioning, debating, and writing, she’s often organizing a team of friends to make dinner for a hundred homeless men and women at the Salvation Army.