Why has the Shamokin-Mount Carmel area never completely recovered from the decline of the coal industry?

There are the usual theories:

- Coal is our one and only natural resource. When it was no longer in great demand, there was nothing to take its place.

- We're way off the beaten track. There are too many miles from here to the nearest interstate.

- In the 1950s and '60s, the powers-that-be discouraged prospective industries because they wanted to keep wages artificially low at their own businesses.

- Our economic development efforts have been somewhat lacking, especially on a regional basis.

- Ineffective or unfocused local leadership.

- Extremely bad luck.

There's probably a bit of truth in all of these, some more than others, but let's not overlook another likely culprit. To quote Pogo in Walt Kelly's classic 1971 Earth Day comic strip, "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Well, not all of us, actually - just a very small minority. But that minority stands out, in a very annoying way, much like the kid who slowly scrapes his fingernails all the way down the chalk board.

They are, to give them a name, the "messies." They are the ones who toss debris along highways, throw their empty cigarette packs, beverage containers and fast food wrappers on the sidewalk and allow trash-filled garbage bags and assorted detritus to accumulate in their yards. On a more sinister level, they are the absentee homeowners who allow their properties to deteriorate to such a state that they become certified eyesores and fire hazards.

It's a matter of degree, of course, but the impact is the same. When a visitor complains about how her old neighborhood looks just a little bit seedy nowadays, blame the "messies"; the rest of the folks on the block, whether they have lived there 50 days or 50 years, are almost certainly doing their best to be good neighbors and good citizens.

A visitor to town can spend all day learning about the thousand and one initiatives that are under way to improve the community. He may start to doubt, however, when he walks down the street and sees plastic bags blowing down the gutter. Or even worse, dog feces on the sidewalk which errant pet owners neglected to pick up. First impressions are the most lasting, and it just takes a few bad ones to create a lasting, and highly unflattering, image.

The problem, of course, isn't unique to just our neck of the woods. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation District 3-0, there are 33 groups in Northumberland County that volunteer to pick up trash along 76 miles of highway. In all, there are 609 groups in the eight-county district that work tirelessly to make this part of state as beautiful as possible. Our beautiful state would resemble one big garbage dump if it wasn't for the heroic efforts of these citizens.

Just as volunteers "Adopt a Highway" under this PennDOT program, able-bodied residents should be encouraged to take a weekly walk along the perimeter of their properties or around the block, with garbage bag in hand, and pick up any litter that has been carelessly discarded there or just happened to wind up there in the latest wind gust. Be sure to don gloves, though, because God only knows what germy things you may have to pick up. If you encounter broken glass or something really nasty, the obvious best course is to come back later with a shovel.

None of us have any control over where the interstates are placed, and few of us have time or the expertise to recruit new businesses. We can't create a new market for coal, and it's unproductive to second-guess the unsuccessful economic development strategies of past decades or the motives behind these strategies.

What we can do is control our own environment. We have it in our power to make our communities as attractive as possible. Community beautification breeds community pride, and community pride is a necessary ingredient of economic viability.

Is it too much to expect all properties to be well-kept and all streets and sidewalks to be in pristine condition, absent even the teeny-est, tiniest speck of paper or the slightest smidgen of cellophane? You bet your Pogo swamp, it's not.

(Jake Betz is assistant editor of The News-Item).