There has recently been quite a bit of controversy in Portugal over a bill to fine people for throwing cigarette butts onto the pavement. This is a bill that recognizes cigarettes, cigars and other tobacco products as pollutants and also prescribes new ways to dispose of the materials safely and recycle them. Some people in politics and in society at large contested that this bill should even be debated in Parliament, arguing that there are more pressing matters. This dismissal of the problem sparked many conversations between me and my friends and family. Whether it is cigarette butts or something else, there are some heuristics that we should apply to any problem we are faced with. That’s what this essay is about.
Are there bigger and more pressing issues? Yes, definitely. Can they be solved easily? No, they take a lot of effort, a lot of thinking, analysis and years of work over multiple administrations to figure out. Topics like education, the public health system, trade and so on present essentially permanent and timeless issues for governments. They are a balancing act – balancing development, maintenance and policies in such major sectors of society will, for the foreseeable future, be one of the major occupations of a nation’s government. So does that mean that government cannot, or should not, tackle any other issues? Obviously not.
In any significantly deep endeavour, we are faced with several issues to solve and these will naturally have different levels of importance. Importance is not the only metric to consider, though, as some tasks might be incredibly important but at the same time be completely out of your reach to solve. That is, an important task that you also don’t know how to solve should not be given much thought and you should move on to something you can actually contribute to.
This is where accessibility comes in, meaning how accessible or how easy it is to complete the task. If we give tasks an importance value as well as an accessibility score, we can order them by the sum of those two scores and that will be our priority list, with the highest scores being the tasks to be completed first.
This method maximizes tasks completed over time while also allowing one to tackle the more complex problems. The first tasks to be done will be the ones which are important and easy, whereas the last ones will be those which are very hard and unimportant. In the middle fall all the ones which are only slightly important and only slightly hard, as well as those which are very hard but also very important and those which are very easy but not as important. This is what I would call the low-hanging fruit method: go for the lowest-hanging fruit first, the tasks that yield the most “value” for the least time.
Going back to cigarette butts, the extra punishment for throwing them on to the pavement might be a solution or it might do nothing (this will be explored further ahead). In any case the task would fall somewhere in the middle of the priority list, since it is something that can be tackled immediately and has a high potential impact. Cigarette butts are a serious pollutant, with an estimated 12 billion butts being left on the ground every day. They not only add more plastic to the environment (they are essentially made out of plastic fibers), they also release all the toxic chemicals they filter out of the cigarette, like heavy metals lead-210 and polonium-210, carcinogenics such as nitrosamines and obviously nicotine, which have been shown to affect plant growth when cigarette butts are left on the soil.
Another issue I have with this whole controversy is that people seem to not understand the role that the state has – or should have. This is clearly shown by the position “I don’t mind cigarette butts on the street, thus I don’t think the government should care about it” or “this other thing is negatively affecting me, thus I think (or demand) the government should solve that instead.” These are narrow and egotistic views of the state’s role.
I am not politically active. I don’t care much for what this politician said or what that politician thinks about this or that. What I care about is that the whole of the state as an institution fulfills its mission: look after the best interest of the people, present and future. How they go about doing this is the matter of partisan discussions, left versus right, and heated Internet arguments, which I will not go into. I divided the state’s mission into two: looking after the present people and looking after the future people, and that’s very intentional. In our priority list, we could say that the importance score corresponds – or is at least strongly correlated – to the urgency of the task, meaning how far into the future the problem will be unavoidable. With time, certain tasks that might have begun with a low importance score, like decreasing carbon emissions, will go up in importance, simply due to the increasing effect that not addressing the issue has on the people and its “best interest.” So some issues become more important with time. Other issues become less important with time, as technological, economical and social progress makes them less relevant – this usually brings in new issues though.
There is also to consider the impact that each task has over time. Something like tackling carbon emissions might have a much bigger impact over time than adopting a new software in public hospitals. Hence, in a way, reducing carbon emissions is looking more after the interests of future people than new hospital software is.
Once more going back to cigarette butts, I think the fundamental mistake that many people have made when confronted with this issue is that they assume eliminating littering is a now task. “I don’t care about cigarette butts,” “I think something else is more important” and so on, instead of imagining a reality where their grandchildren will not literally step on trash everywhere they go.
With many of these small and seemingly insignificant issues it is often useful to ask oneself “what will this mean for my grandchildren?” That’s one exercise I propose.
Another perhaps unseen consequence of the cigarette butt bill is that it educates people. This has actually been my main argument when discussing the issue with people. If the new law gets even a small percentage of people to stop littering, more than the arguably minute reduction in trash on the street, we will see clear benefits in education. The children of that small percentage of people will not have the example of a parent who throws trash on the pavement. They in turn will not do it. They might confront their friends in school who do litter, since for them it’s so unthinkable. They might change some minds. Their children will definitely grow up in a “littering-free” environment, and the effect spreads. Two generations from now, surrounded by non-litterers, a litterer will naturally feel embarrassed to litter and alter their behaviour. A person who values a clean street might also value clean air and clean water. They might more seriously evaluate their environmental impact and that of their relationships in the world (personal or impersonal). This might lead to other actions, however small, which will similarly cascade into bigger societal changes over time.
Small changes matter.
In looking after the best interests of the people. The state must ensure that not only the immediate needs are met, but also that future generations are better off than current generations. That means having the foresight to identify problems that can be quickly addressed and dealt with, and their long-lasting repercussions.