Now that I’ve read so much about winter solstice, the Persian custom of Nowruz (meaning new day)—which celebrates the New Year on the spring equinox—makes most logical sense for when to celebrate the start of a new solar cycle. Why wouldn’t the New Year start with the new spring—when the new farming season begins and life comes out of hibernation after the long, dark winter? But then again in the south that’d be the start of autumn, so in a globalized world when to celebrate New Year is going to be arbitrary for some part of the world’s population.
As the dominant New Year’s celebration is January 1st (even if China is a rather large exception) and much of the world uses the Gregorian calendar, today is a good time to talk about New Year’s Resolutions.
While somewhat arbitrary and often quickly forgotten, resolutions are valuable in focusing oneself on making a change in one’s lifestyle, behavior, or habits, and often specifically consuming less (losing weight, quitting smoking, drinking less, etc.). All of those are good for both the body and the planet so it’s worth taking a moment to reflect in these last few days of the year and make a resolution or two.
First, one rule: don’t make a resolution that’s impossible to keep—such as never having dessert again—but one, ideally, that might shift your consumption permanently for the better, with little or no difficulty. Some resolutions that I’m setting for myself:
Giving up drinking is difficult, even drinking less, if you lean on alcohol to relax or socialize. But reframing this to say, I will only drink in celebratory moments makes these limits more palatable. Of course, how you define celebratory is the rub—does that mean “Yay, it’s the weekend, let’s celebrate,” or “Yay, it’s your birthday.” (And that’ll depend on your current baseline—whether you imbibe a drink a glass of wine every day or a beer every weekend.) If celebrations are limited to holidays, birthdays and other big events, and exclude pouring a glass of wine with dinner, or grabbing a beer after a hard day, that could limit alcohol consumption significantly—and make those drinks far more meaningful and enjoyable. Assuming this cuts about two extra drinks off per week that’d be 104 additional drinks in a year. That’s at least 10,000 extra calories—or one pound of fat added to the waistline—and a significant addition of carbon emissions (this older article mentions that the US alcohol industry produces the same amount of CO2 as 1.9 million households). And alcohol impairs judgement, is a carcinogen, and is addictive so putting healthy limits on it is valuable.
The biggest resolution I’ll be making is to eat fewer sweets. Like alcohol, these are not necessary but very enjoyable, and as with alcohol and other drugs, the science increasingly supports that sugar is addictive—as addictive as cocaine as this study that fed Oreos to rats suggests. Sugar is an easy vice to lean on. I crave sugar at low points after meals and love to have a sweet after dinner with my family (and like many express my love by making or buying dessert). Sweets are a daily part of my diet—which, of course, would never have been the case when our bodies evolved, as nature significantly limited our access to sugar. Limiting sweets just to celebrations would be even more difficult for me than never having a drink again. But sugar, too, needs boundaries. One sweet per day shared with family might be as realistic as it gets right now for me (without setting myself up for failure) though limiting these to the same degree as alcohol would make sense from a health and environmental perspective. Maybe the long-term goal is to make them a weekend treat (to space out these pleasures rather than focusing them all on celebrations).
Coffee is so ubiquitous in this culture we don’t even see it as a luxury any longer but a necessity (the case since the 1800s). But it takes a lot of resources to grow, and at least for me, it’s a gateway to extra sweets, calories, and environmental impacts—in the form of milk and sugar. Plus, caffeine is highly addictive and makes many people anxious. Shifting from 3 to 2 cups or 2 to 1 cup a day can shift this habit where you might actually savor the coffee more (since you’re not bathing in it all day long) and reduce your daily habitual consumption in a way that improves your well-being and the planet’s. (And if you aren’t already, shift over to a sustainable and fair-trade brand of coffee—it’s slightly more expensive but as with eating meat, if you’re consuming half or two-thirds as much, the additional cost might not even be felt.
Those are a few of the daily consumption habits that I’ll be grappling with in 2020, though meat, tobacco, media consumption, and increasingly marijuana (now that many places are making it legal and culturally normalized) should be considered if those are challenges for you. One other less frequent albeit ecologically devastating habit to consider limiting is flying.
We know that other than having more children, the single worst thing an individual can do is fly. Flying less in 2020 would be a very valuable resolution to make. Notice, I didn’t say don’t fly at all. That is impossible for most to consider—though Greta Thunberg and the Flying Shame movement are pushing the envelope on that.
But for those with family spread out over vast geographies, it is hard to accept never seeing them again (or uprooting one’s life to move back to them). So what George Monbiot calls “Love Miles” will be the hardest part of this. However, choosing to not fly for leisure, finding ways to reduce work travel, or even visiting family for longer but less frequently (though that might pose its own challenges) can all help reduce ecological impacts, costs, and reduce support for this climate-destroying industry.
Embracing Limits in Your Life
Ultimately, all of these examples come down to living with limits. In our consumer culture we have the ability to consume without limit. And the cultural forces—marketing, the media, peers, holidays, the infrastructure (from the lack of water fountains to the rise of the drive-thru), and the frenetic pace of life (which primes you to crave a drink, a sweet, a coffee, or a burger)—push us to make bad choices day after day, to indulge and relax through how we consume. That’s a recipe for ill-health for individuals, society, and the planet.
But recognizing the value of limits and providing oneself with new habits like “I only drink one cup of coffee a day” or “I only drink when celebrating” can help supersede that incessant encouragement. And help us reclaim the joy of those sweets, drinks, cups of coffee, and flights that we actually do indulge in.
May you have a happy and healthy New Year!