Fifty years ago today, we took a step in cleaning up America.
On Oct. 22, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Highway Beautification Act. While the most trumpeted element of the act was an attempt to limit billboards, it also included an effort to clean roadside messes and beautify natural spaces.
Let’s set the stage for those not old enough to remember. As our country became more mobile and developed a more throwaway style of consumerism, roadways became lined with trash and litter.
Sure, they are still trashy but nothing like they were back then. Decades earlier, the thought seemed to have been that nature could handle anything we threw onto the ground. As we’ve come to learn (and are still attempting to grasp … see global climate change), man’s ability to mess his nest is almost unfathomable.
In addition to the glass, paper and tin being tossed out of car windows – and the furniture and appliances dumped alongside country roads – the post-World War II era also brought a broad proliferation of plastic products.
In the mid-1950s, the Keep America Beautiful campaign began. Its initial primary focus was public awareness, attempting to reduce litter through public service advertising. It has had many successes, the most prominent of which was the 1971 campaign featuring Iron Eyes Cody, a popular Native impersonator actor, as the “crying Indian.”
So, yes, there was already a movement attempting to address America’s litter problem, but the effort that undoubtedly had the most influence on the president came from within the White House, Lady Bird Johnson.
The First Lady was integral in programs promoting natural beauty, most notably the planting of wildflowers along highways and in cities. She was such a driving force behind the Highway Beautification Act that it was known as “Lady Bird’s Bill.”
Fifty years ago, we took a “step” toward beautifying America, but the long journey continues.
Thousands of volunteers turn out every few months to pick up trash along highways. Contractors are often hired to do the same, along with regular public employees. People with minor legal problems are commonly assigned public service sentences that sometimes put them to work picking up garbage.
Why all of this? Because we’re still tossing trash to the curb. Leading the trash parade is tobacco products, doubly befuddling because of the accompanying risk of wildfires. Grocery store plastic bags are particularly obvious due to their tendency to take flight on a slight breeze and get stuck in tree limbs. Our society’s fixation on drinking water from disposable plastic bottles create a litter problem that will last forever.
However, while the quality of our trash might be worsening, there genuinely is less of it. There was a time that shoulders of a road were fairly well highlighted at night by a car’s headlights gleaming off cans and glass. It’s just not that bad now, in most places.
So, maybe there’s hope but not without continued vigilance. Don’t litter. Speak up to those who do. Reduce, reuse and recycle. Take an extra step and pick up someone else’s trash. Employ reusable grocery bags. Carry water in a washable, refillable bottle.
“Beauty belongs to all the people,” President Johnson said at the signing ceremony. “And so long as I am president, what has been divinely given to nature will not be taken recklessly away by man.”
Or, perhaps more eloquently by Lady Bird: “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.”