There are elements of the past I find far preferable to elements of today. What crotchety old person doesn't feel that way?! But there are also areas where life has improved exponentially. For example, there was no such thing as recycling when I was a kid. Now, I tote my giant recycling bin out to the curb on a strict schedule, and a large percentage of the waste material in our house goes toward producing something else. The extension of my street before numbered houses appeared was used by dozens of neighbors as a place to let their dogs relieve themselves. There was no thought of cleaning up and disposing of dog waste. On a hot summer day, "Dog Dirt Alley", as it was called by some, became a fetid repository of canine effluvia. Let's just say, you wouldn't want to be there.
It is hard to believe today that littering was once ubiquitous. People unwrapped a Good Humor bar or opened a pack of cigarettes or popped a can of beer, and when they were done they would casually toss the cans and wrappers to the ground. I used to supplement my income by carting around a wagon to collect glass soda bottles for their deposit money. I found many. People would think nothing of tossing the detritus of their visit to MacDonald's out their car window.
People drove much more with open windows back in the day, since most vehicles didn't have AC. On more than one occasion, people flicked their cigarette butts out their car windows without realizing that they ultimately landed in the lap of someone in our car!
Disposing of one's litter seemed to be a worthwhile pursuit that would help Keep America Beautiful, as the campaign was titled following its initial outreach in the late 1940s and early 1950s. To that end, Public Service Announcements (PSAs) made their way into print magazines and on the airwaves. Here's one prominent television spot from that era:
An episode of Mad Men famously depicts the Draper nuclear family leaving the idyllic grounds where they shared a picnic with no concern about the refuse they left behind.
Probably the most famous PSA targeted toward American citizens at a time when they were first becoming culturally aware of air and water pollution, urban decline, and cleanliness campaigns is the legendary Crying Indian campaign, which first hit the airwaves on Earth Day in 1971. It is hard to calculate its impact today, but this one spot resonated more than any other single effort to persuade people to change their behaviors. It was seen by virtually everyone countless times, and the guilt trips it sparked actually made people think twice and walk an extra twenty feet to toss their garbage in a trashcan or waste basket. According to one source, the CLIO-Award-winning spot "helped reduce litter by 88% across 38 states."
So, we live in a much cleaner world today, but a more complex one as well. Almost everything I have written here has been contested today. There were charges made against the big corporations that promoted the Keep America Beautiful initiative because, through this well-funded campaign, they attempted insidiously to draw the focus away from their production of deliberately obsolescent products and excessive packaging (that would require regular replacement or disposal, thus creating mountains of unnecessary garbage) to the behaviors of the consumers, who were meant to feel responsible for the removal of all that refuse. "Iron Eyes" Cody, the almost mythical figure depicted in the Crying Indian campaign, claimed to be a Native American of the Cherokee/Cree tribes and often played one in Hollywood westerns, but it turned out that he was of Sicilian descent and his tear was a manufactured one! Many tribal spokespeople today condemn his character as perpetuating a stereotype of a Native American lacking the agency to dictate how he lives, condemned to suffer ignominiously at the hands of those with greater autonomy (read White Americans). Viewers of the spot couldn't help but associate the despoiling of nature that was now being widely publicized with their dismissive treatment of Native Americans overall (another issue that was featured prominently in news stories of the day).
Nevertheless, the PSA was wildly successful at altering behavior--exactly what a good PSA should do.