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Rubbish, VW & All That Gas

Antelope Chair by Ernest Race for The Festival of Britain. An era when anything seemed possible.

Antelope Chair by Ernest Race for The Festival of Britain. A time when anything seemed possible.

On 3rd May 1951, The Festival of Britain opened. Events were held all over Britain but the central attraction was undoubtedly the South Bank in London.

Here, a vast area of old warehouses and housing had been demolished to stage a showcase of British achievements in industry, science and art. It was intended to be a tonic for the nation (as Herbert Morrison put it), a cultural counterpart to the social benefits of the Welfare State and an antidote to the years of austerity during and immediately following the war.

The aim of the Festival was to raise the nations spirits by presenting and promoting the very best in
art and design and industry. After all, the Korean War had begun the previous year and there were real fears that it could escalate into another drawn out worldwide conflict. The Cold War in Europe started with the Berlin airlift in 1948 at more or less the same time as the Festival of Britain had been conceived.

Britain was now looking forward. At the heart of the Festival were new works of art by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Jacob Epstein. The power of new mechanised production lines that had been so needed during the war were now turning to producing much wanted consumer goods and the reconstructing and improvements to our many bomb scarred cities was under way.

Despite this exuberant show of national pride and achievement, within three years, the Womens Institute was so appalled with the amount of rubbish that was being tossed into our streets and parks that it felt it necessary to start a national anti-litter campaign. Astonishingly, we had already begun to spoil the appearance of the very places that were still in the early days of being rebuilt.

Fourteen years on, the W. I.  borrowed the international Tidy Man logo that had been created to support the Keep America Beautiful campaign in 1961. Its  aim was to dramatise how litter and pollution hurt the environment but with a clear goal to emphasise that individual responsibility was the only way to prevent it. With its distinctive black triangular limbed character dropping litter into a stylised bin, the logo can now be found printed on all sorts of packaging.

However, the fact remains that there is more and more litter around which can cause our blood to boil. This is not just a British problem. Research in Holland shows that people are more aggravated by the visual pollution caused by litter than they are by the frustrations of traffic jams or cigarette smoking. The Netherlands Ministry of the Environment concluded that litter contributes to inner city blight and feelings of unsafety. Put simply, litter is ugly and when we see ugliness we become riled and disenchanted with our surroundings. Thats as true here in Britain as it is across the Channel.

The problem is also growing. Holland has a population of only 16 million but has to get rid of 50 million cans and bottles that are thrown into the streets and waterways every year. Here in Britain, we clearly don’t like litter (as recent letters to this paper show) but somebody’s out there throwing away pizza boxes, polystyrene cups (which are exasperatingly the perfect size to block fall pipes and gutters), crisp packets, chocolate bar wrappers, old clothes and shoes (always odd ones!) as well as the inevitable mattress. In fact 80,000 tons of clothing and other textile products end up in the streets over an average Christmas holiday period alone and let’s not get started on the recent VW engine emission fiasco.

We cannot ignore the environmental harm and danger caused by the likes of plastic bin liners flying around like out of control kites, We also should not ignore the damage caused to wildlife by all the harmful rubbish that is liberally chucked into streets and fields. Indeed, the recent exposé in Leeds of the growth in the population of rats as they eat their way through all the left over food and food containers thrown into the gutters should be enough to make us take head of the enormity of the problem.

But if we cant manage the relatively simple task of depositing litter into commonly provided bins, then there seems little chance of ever tackling the bigger environmental questions of climate change, fuel emissions and global food and water shortages, Of course, implementing the former is within the remit of an individuals direct actions whereas the later is perceived as being the responsibility of international governments who rarely carry out our wishes.

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