Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

New Year's Resolutions
distributed 12/28/01 - ©2001

New Year's resolutions are something of a cultural joke.

In this season when we hang up our new wall calendars and endure countless "year in review" stories in the news media, people do tend toward self-reflection. The Christmas holiday provides a stimulus, too, by hitting us with a dramatic break from our routines of work and study, and a stronger-than-usual awareness of those things which also compete for our primary allegiances -- relationships, consumerism and spirituality. All of these factors can stimulate us to a probing look at how we are living our lives.

For whatever reason, the start of a new year seems to coincide with an itch toward doing things differently, toward being a better person in some way. Eat less. Get more exercise. Clean the house. Volunteer in the community. Live within your means. Bike to work.

New Year's resolutions are grounded in noble motivations and aspirations. Few people will lampoon the genuine desires to make changes that they represent.

The jokes that we will start hearing in a few days arise, not from the good intentions, but from the reality of how poorly people do in following through on them. Will the resolutions of New Year's Eve even make it through New Year's Day? Will the exercise routine still be in place at the end of January?

Change is hard. Habits are hard to break. Institutional patterns and strong incentives turn us from our noble goals and lead us back into destructive behaviors.

If we want to follow through on our resolutions, we have to be honest about how difficult they are. Exercise routines fall apart because they don't take account of all the other competing demands on our time. Eating lower on the food chain gets more difficult the first time you try to grab a quick lunch at a fast food place. Any significant change is next to impossible if it goes against the wishes of family, colleagues and community.

New Year's resolutions become a joke when we act as if change is easy, when we pretend that we can separate any one behavior from the rest of our lives. The resolutions that do succeed in achieving a significant change are those that are undertaken seriously, and with a full awareness of the difficulties involved. They are resolutions that set out to change a life, not a behavior.

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What is true of personal change is also true of social change.

Our efforts at doing the right thing in our communities, nations and world often fail because we don't take the change seriously enough. We try to change one piece of the social fabric, without taking into account the intertwined and interlocking forces that hold the society into its familiar pattern. We set our sights too low, because we are not willing (or able) to make the sweeping changes that would be needed to reach our goals.

  • We try to save the forests by addressing logging policies, but we don't know how to stop the newspapers, phone books, magazines, junk mail and excess packaging that demand trees for paper pulp.

  • We want to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, but we're unwilling to infringe on the blessed freedoms that make profligate use of fuel -- for travel, wasteful lighting, or excessive heating and air conditioning.

  • We want to stand for economic and social justice, but only a few seem to have the vision and strength to take on the complex international web of laws, governments and corporate relationships that propagate inequality.
Our social resolutions are destined for the same fate as most New Year's resolutions. Despite being grounded in the best of intentions, they are unlikely to succeed because we don't take them seriously enough. We don't admit how hard it is to make real changes. We want to change one piece, without addressing the other institutions and behaviors that touch on it.

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I do hold onto hope for change. But that hope is tied to approaches and strategies that deal with the profound difficulties of reshaping both individual lives and entire societies.

My hope for change looks to those projects which are the most comprehensive -- which wrestle with the conflicts among our most deeply held values, which confront the power structures of institutions, and which link the need for personal and institutional change.

New Year's resolutions provide a vivid warning that a half-hearted or simplistic commitment toward a challenging goal is a joke, destined for failure.

This New Year's Eve, I pray that you will join with me in a deep and encompassing resolution. I pray that you will commit yourself to questioning and confronting the way of life that draws our world into environmental and social crises. For it is only when we make that bold sort of resolution that we stand a chance of success.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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