Superman and picking up garbage

July 30, 2020 by Joshua
in Art, Creativity, Events, Evolutionary Psychology

As you probably know, I pick up at least a piece of litter every day from the ground and put it in a trash can. I’m not reducing the amount of trash, but at least saving some from reaching the ocean. More importantly, I’m developing skills, experiences, and beliefs about changing culture around trash.

Overflowing trash can

Since restaurants and bars started serving outdoors on mostly single-use plastic, the amount of litter has skyrocketed. Every trash can in my neighborhood is filled to overflowing by around noon, spilling into the gutters soon after. People’s slightest whim for, say, water instead of waiting an hour, leads to trash that will last centuries. I end up picking up ten or more pieces a day, just pieces in my path that I’d have to put in effort to step around.

Picking up others’ litter gives you insight into human psyche. What goes through a person’s mind and heart to leave waste in public places for others to deal with? What ignorance do we force onto ourselves to imagine that our buying takeout or bottles isn’t driving the system?

I feel forlorn at our wanton negligence, selfishness, short-sightedness, and gluttony smothered in self-righteousness, telling ourselves others are causing the problem but not ourselves. I’d prefer we kept this gift of a world clean and pure. As long as we don’t, I’d rather maximize my consciousness of it that be blissfully ignorant of pollution of all sorts increasing.

But the litter hurts me. It wounds me for the suffering it brings. Americans think of litter as unfortunate but no big deal, but people suffer for it—helpless people. Some were displaced from their land to extract the oil underneath. Others poisoned from refining processes. Others their homes and communities destroyed from the waste. Others starve when they can’t fish or farm.


A comic book scene of Superman express how I feel at our waste, despoiling our only world.

If you don’t know the comic book The Dark Knight Returns, like many, I consider it a great work of literature—not just of comics but of literature. According to Wikipedia:

the series is today widely considered one of the greatest works in the comics medium. IGN Comics ranked The Dark Knight Returns first on a list of the 25 greatest Batman graphic novels and called The Dark Knight Returns “a true masterpiece of storytelling” with “[s]cene after unforgettable scene.” In 2005, Time chose the collected edition as one of the 10 best English language graphic novels ever written.[11] Forbidden Planet placed the collected issue at number one on its “50 Best of the Best Graphic Novels” list. Writer Matthew K. Manning in the “1980s” chapter of DC Comics Year By Year A Visual Chronicle (2010) called the series “arguably the best Batman story of all time.” It was placed second in a poll among comic book academics conducted by the Sequart Organization.

The comic book

This scene shows Superman trying to help where a nuclear weapon has detonated. Since the sun’s fusion powers him, the weapon’s fusion blocks his power source. If you aren’t used to Frank Miller and his team’s art, it may look unusual, but I find it more expressive than everyday comic book art.

What the Earth and Sun mean to him and his helplessness to help except by luck illustrate what nature means to me. So do his compassion and pity for those who hurt nature.

I hope including this much below helps you see the emotion he feels and expresses the sentiment of how we could all feel about our callous waste.

To clarify, I don’t think of myself as Superman. He’s a fictional character. Only that Frank Miller’s work of art expressed a pain I feel. While I don’t want people to feel pain, if something painful is happening that I can do something about, I prefer to feel it, not numb myself to it or ignore it.

EDIT: After writing the above, I wanted to include the hopeful ending. As a comic book, it over-dramatizes the hero riding in on a horse to save the day. I believe it resonates for an underlying truth. Note that Batman is the one superhero of the big ones that I know of with no super powers—in principle strong and intelligent, but genetically human. He trains a lot and inherited money, but otherwise lacks special powers.

He sees the elements of a city falling apart and how to appeal to what people want to help them achieve what they want while creating peace. The gang members might look like they want to create mayhem, but they probably just wanted to feel a part of a community, which the psychopathic leader Batman defeated earlier (after first losing to him) provided it. The regular citizens don’t want chaos and ruin. They can’t do anything alone. They want a voice to give them purpose and meaning.

While I don’t believe in a leader coming in on a horse, I do think we humans will lash out to be heard and feel important if we feel unheard and misunderstood. I don’t consider giving people meaning and purpose through action based on their deepest interests—leadership—the only way to avoid lashing out, but it works, if the leaders begin with listening and understanding.

Here’s the story’s resolution:


The nuclear weapon Superman steered away from destroying its target still caused electrical power to go down in Gotham, including security failing in prisons, allowing a large gang just imprisoned to escape. Riots began.

Batman arrives:

He gives them a way to act, which they want, in a direction that helps, which they couldn’t see before. It happens too fast and too pat. It’s a comic book, so the time scale is off but it works because it gets the emotions.

The book skips how he organizes them and how urban hoods learned to use lassos in a few minutes. Fiction enables us to suspend our disbelief when we find something plausible to compel us forward. The dramatic image helps, but again, I think the emotion feels plausible. Batman feels compelled to restore a city from a state like what led to a criminal killing his parents over a necklace. He wants to restore order and steer its youth to productive activities. The youth want to feel important.

Between the above page and the one below—the final page of the four-book series—I skipped everyone resolving the problem. The story ends with Batman training the next generation in civic service. A “good life” isn’t peace on Earth. People’s values differ so they will conflict. For Batman, a good life is disciplined work that acknowledges the inevitability of conflict and finds meaning and purpose in enabling people with conflicting values—that is, us—to live together.

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