Is the current outcry over “dirty camping” in Scotland’s beauty spots an overreaction to an occasional problem or an expression of justified concern about a new and depressing trend in youthful behaviour?
There were 22 full bin bags of rubbish after the annual community clean-up of our local beach in north Fife this weekend – the smallest amount collected for a while. But that’s because local stalwarts are active every weekend from June onwards to haul out waste and perfectly serviceable goods left behind on beaches and in the nearby woods. It’s camping, Jim, but not as we knew it. It’s dirty camping.
A few items stood out from the mounds of beer cans, plastic wrappers, trays and fish and chip packaging this weekend. There was a perfectly good pan containing two new mugs, a packet of tea and a metal spoon, all stashed behind a bush. The kit might have meant for future use but the pan was full of mud and leaves, suggesting a long, seasonal gap between visits. Other folk discovered a tyre – perhaps a form of instant, comfortable seating, or perhaps a form of instant combustion. A tree was set alight by a burning tyre a few months ago in the middle of the forest – not clever.
Earlier this summer I helped carry out a single mattress, the remains of a tent, a massive sheet of polythene tied to branches as a shelter, a functioning radio and two perfectly good chairs. I’ve also bumped into a few disorientated youngsters stotting around on Sunday mornings.
It’s a bit clatty. But really, in the great scheme of things, is a bit of rubbish and the odd discarded tent or puggled 20-something really something to get het up about?
Given that we face a no-deal Brexit, an even more imminent snap election, accelerating climate change thanks to fires in the Amazon and record-breaking Arctic ice melts, the discovery of abandoned objects in forests, lay-bys, verges, beaches and lochsides seems like very small beer indeed.
But it’s a sign of deeper, worrying changes in society. Scots seem to have become resigned to omnipresent litter and bags of rubbish dumped illegally in beauty spots. But it’s not just trash that’s being left behind, it’s also perfectly serviceable, functioning, reusable bits of furniture, camping kit, clothing and foodstuffs – all carried into natural beauty spots and then abandoned there.
Many of the older folk who spend time hauling the remains of single-use “camping” from pristine natural environments believe the mess is clear evidence of a collapse in moral standards. Older folk wistfully recall parents and grandparents who endured war, depression, unemployment, grinding poverty and hopelessness, yet so lovingly cared for walking boots, tents, bikes and flasks that some are still in use today. It almost hurts to see such apparent wantonness, such a lack of care and pride.
So what’s going on? First, no one can be certain that young people are responsible for the current outbreak of dirty camping, though twenty-somethings predominate in my neck of the woods. It’s also true that complaining about the younger generation is an age-old custom and many of the older generation tut-tutting about the excesses of today’s teenagers were no angels themselves – myself included. And yet, no matter what wild escapades occurred in decades past, I don’t recall piles of rubbish or perfectly good tents and other usable objects being left behind. And that’s the puzzle about the dirty camping phenomenon.
Today’s youngsters have issued a vigorous challenge to politicians and adults over the unsustainable society we’ve created. Yet members of that same generation seem to feel no shame or responsibility about leaving rubbish, beer cans, plastic and sometimes even brand new, unopened objects in their wake.
Who or what is to blame? Music festivals such as T in the Park seemed to encourage the “wasted” behaviour and drinking to excess that left young fans unable to carry back what they had carried into venues. A friend who helped police T in the Park ten years ago was astonished to find many of the £9.99 tents left behind were also filled with unopened 12-packs of beer, brand-new clothes and sleeping bags, still in shop packaging. Was the cheap price of the tents partly to blame? Could festival organisers have policed venues better so revellers couldn’t leave without their belongings? Did the usual shortage of toilets, affordable food plus the mud and rain combine to produce a grungy vibe that rapidly took youngsters beyond the normal rules of home behaviour? Who knows? But, tempting though it is, blaming any specific age group or musical pastime is pointless and unfair.
Adults have created a disposable society. We did it. We created a world where it’s cheaper to throw out broken white goods than to get them fixed; where it’s acceptable to buy clothes, wear them once and throw them away; where it’s normal to use wipes instead of reusable cloths; where we throw back healthy fish in the name of conservation, export our plastic, judge the success of our economy by the amount of unnecessary goods produced, cling to dangerously unsustainable growth models, yet accept poverty, squalor and food banks as normal and inevitable.
Why should we be surprised that some young people have transported the disposable society into the great outdoors? We have also created a massively unequal society where some people regard beaches, forests, mountain tops and beauty spots as their own personal fiefdoms, and others correctly feel that nature always belongs to someone else. Without family weekend huts or overnight access to our industrial, fenced-off forests, it’s always been a struggle for working-class Scots to truly feel at home in the countryside and almost impossible to spend a summer immersed in nature, learning how to forage, climb, swim and fish. Of course, some exceptionally hardy men and women have managed it.
But without the knowhow, transport, kit and confidence, many urban dwellers instinctively avoid “real” camping and aim instead for “camping lite” in more accessible, signposted and easy-to-find beauty spots. Without strong feelings of connection, such random trips can easily resemble “raids”.
The solution is in our hands. Overcoming dirty camping means more, regular, habitual, organised access to nature, not less. Scotland’s natural environment cannot be the preserve of the lucky few.