Compassionate Communication for the Planet: Asking People to Pick Up Their Butts

Ever since I was in high school, if I saw someone throw their cigarette on the ground, I responded. Sometimes I would pick it up and hand it back to them and say, “Excuse me, you dropped this.” Sometimes I would honk if I was behind someone who threw their butt out the window. (And once, stopped as we were at a red light in Philadelphia, the driver got out, picked it up, ran to my car, and apologized to me.)

I was recently in Florida, and I saw a man throw his butt on the sandy ground at the hotel before ascending the steps to the outdoor bar. I called out to him saying, “Excuse me, would you mind picking up your cigarette butt and throwing it in the trash?”

He was miffed, but he walked over and bent to pick it up, commenting that he wasn’t the only one (there were several butts on the ground). I said I knew, but that I’d seen him throw his on the ground. He got very testy and leaned towards me with the butt at my face saying, sarcastically, that he’d love to do that for me.

I walked away, shakily, wondering if my efforts had done any good.

I thought about Kim Korona, one of the graduates at the Institute for Humane Education who speaks so kindly and compassionately to people. I wondered if she would have spoken to this man, and if so what she would have said, and what his response would have been.

I reflected upon my goal. Truth be told, for years my comments stemmed more from my irritation that smokers don’t consider throwing their butts on the ground to be littering (and this made me mad), than from a sincere desire to use the wisest, most effective means to keep the planet from being trashed. I could just remove the butts myself, if my goal was simply to keep that inch of ground from being littered. But my comments were meant to wrong, and perhaps embarrass, the person. But now my motivation is deeper. I’m trying, in my own way, to be a humane educator all the time, and this means attempting to use my best communication skills to convey the importance of treating ourselves, each other, other species, and the environment with respect. My hope is that in speaking to someone, he or she will be less likely to litter, more likely to consider the consequences of their choices. Perhaps this is na├»ve, but I feel like I have to try, and now I make every effort no to let my irritation seep into my voice and comments.

What, if anything, would you have said or done? What is MOGO (most good) in this situation?

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education
Author of Most Good, Least Harm, Above All, Be Kind, and The Power and Promise of Humane Education
My TEDx talk: "The World Becomes What You Teach"

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