What dog poo teaches us about drug policy

Why don't we let dogs crap on the street? Mostly because it's nasty.

Matt Yglesias makes the point that the intersection between rules and norms isn't always clear cut.

When you look at a public health problem like the fact that the streets of Buenos Aires are frequently smeared with dog crap, it is tempting for anyone who spends most of their time thinking about public policy to argue for a political – that is, legislative – solution. But most places where this particular problem has been solved don't need to resort to the law all that frequently at all. As Yglesias writes:

The fact that in major American cities people generally clean up after their dogs is clearly related to the laws on the books about this, but it's also clearly the case that in practice police departments are not dedicating vast resources to the issue. And in fact though the gains from not having dog shit on the sidewalk are meaningful, they're relatively small compared to the costs of a rigorous enforcement of pooper scooper laws. But what I recall from growing up in New York in the eighties is that the norms shifted to the point where enforcement costs are now very low simply because there's not that much violation.

Now, it is possible to change norms with legislation. But it's equally possible to change norms without legislation, or, for that matter, to enact legislation which does nothing to norms. For examples of all three, look to drugs policy. Heroin has been all but eliminated as a socially-acceptable drug, while the same has not happened to marijuana. Meanwhile, despite increasing control surrounding sales, cigarettes have been fundamentally legal for years, but the norms surrounding their use have changed completely.

Groups who want to change society often go straight to pushing for legislation which, they hope, will do the job for them. But the really effective organisations also skip the political aspect entirely, and try to directly change the norms which, on a day-to-day basis, guide our behaviour far more effectively than the intricacies of law.

Take, for example, the idea that one ought not waste water. Unlike recycling, there's no legal requirement there (in Britain at least – unless there's a hosepipe ban). And unlike reducing electricity usage, there's little financial motivation, since few people are on metered water yet.

There is a narrower point to be made too, which is that dog crap on the pavements is something which could be solved essentially overnight, but hasn't. Require dog licenses to own a dog; require DNA samples to obtain a dog license; match any pavement crap to DNA samples on file.

It's an idea which is perennially suggested, and rarely acted upon – except in a few gated communities, where it has been remarkably successful:

The PooPrints process required all current tenants to bring their pet(s) to our office where their mouths were swabbed for a DNA sample. Any new pets introduced to the property by current or new residents must have a DNA sample taken prior to the move in date.

We believe the PooPrints program has been a huge success for us. We no longer have dog waste complaints, our properties are clean and waste free, and our resident retention rate has increased.

Buenos Aires, take note.

A dog. The dog is adorable. But the dog poos. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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