A New Year’s Resolution

I’m not very good at making or keeping New Year’s resolutions, which doesn’t bother me very much because it’s not as though there are hundreds of people running around out there who are demonstrably superb at it. I can’t really even imagine where the idea of it came from and why a million magazine articles are written about them at this time of year, considering that no one I know actually seems to make them. Preserving the idea of the resolution, even if not making (to say nothing of keeping) the resolutions themselves, seems to be the most important thing, and seems to suffice as a ritual action for facing the future with hope. It is like an instantiation of the odd little dialogue I hear so often among my beleaguered clients, whereby one person will extend a “Happy New Year!” and her interlocutor will reply sadly-sweetly, “Yes, may this one be a better one.” None of us are immune to nostalgia, and all of us remark the passage of time. All of us, I would go so far as to say, yearn for redemption, and so when the arbitrary end of the calendar comes along heavy with promise, it’s natural that we should want to respond with a promise of our own.

This is especially necessary for our millennial age. In the seventies, Henri Nouwen called human beings “nuclear men,” people paralyzed with fear of imminent apocalypse. A scene from Bergman’s Winter Light (1963), in which a neurotic middle-aged man kills himself over an abstract terror at the possibility of nuclear war with China, drives home how pervasive this angst really is: it has infected even a tiny provincial town in Scandinavia whose remoteness and global insignificance serve as a metaphor for the main character’s more age-old worries that God does not exist or else has forgotten us entirely. In the United States of the twenty-first century, the dread has been palpable. In 2000, we were afraid of Y2K. In 2001, declaring a war on “terror” (rather than naming more precisely and intellectually the complex geopolitical forces at work) demonstrated how far we’d sunk, fearing the only thing we have, according to FDR, to fear: precisely, fear itself. Of course, according to nearly every earth scientist in the world, there are other things we have to fear too (though these fears, a certain number of Republican rhetoricians want to quench in denying their scientific basis): global warming, natural disasters of cataclysmic proportions and appalling frequency, climate refugees, resource wars. Cormac McCarthy’s end-times masterpiece The Road could perhaps only be as meaningful as it is at the beginning of this decade: a horrified and horrifying intersection of microscopic questions about the nature of the human soul and macroscopic questions about the destiny of the human race.

Finally, I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard from people in my neighborhood — taught, already, a certain naive credulity by decades of exposure to strange syncretic beliefs and Christian mysticism of the most superstitious kind — who believe that 2012 really will be the end of the world…and that nothing less than the Bible tells them so.

In light of all this alarmism, the person who (intentionally or unthinkingly) decides to give up Creamsicles or go to the gym every Thursday for the New Year is not to be chastised for lack of millennial imagination; such a decision might even be said to represent an important symbolic blow in favor of sanity. At the same time, I believe that certain aspects of our historical condition do merit alarm.

I am certainly very happy to belong to a religion whose leader seizes upon issues like this one in the homily of his New Year’s Mass:

From the time they are small, it is important to educate children to respect others, even when they are different from us. It already is more common to have school classes composed of children of various nations, but even when this does not occur, their faces are a prophecy of the humanity we are called to form: a family of families and peoples. The smaller these children are, the more they elicit from us tenderness and joy for an innocence and brotherhood that is evident: despite their differences, they cry and laugh in the same way, they have the same needs, communicate spontaneously and play together. The faces of children are like a reflection of how God sees the world. So why extinguish their smiles? Why poison their hearts?

Unfortunately, the icon of the Mother of God of Tenderness finds its tragic opposite in the sad images of many children and their mothers at the mercy of wars and violence: refugees, asylum seekers, forced migrants. Faces lined by hunger and disease, faces disfigured by pain and desperation. The faces of these innocent little ones are a silent appeal to our responsibility: before their helpless condition, all the false justifications for war and violence fall away. We simply must convert to projects of peace, lay down weapons of every kind and, all of us together, make a commitment to building a world more worthy of humanity.

I wonder if the Church’s counter-cultural (or arch-conservative, depending on whom you ask) position on certain other issues allows it to lend gravity to those which might otherwise be dismissed as “simple liberal platitudes.”

I am even prouder to know that Benedict has earned a reputation as “the green pope” for his obvious interest in, and advocacy for, the environment. At a time when professional prognosticators are warning us every week that we have less and less time (if any) to change our ways now before terrestrial life as we know it changes irrevocably, the argument that religious figures should keep their noses out of science that they don’t understand seems less well fitted to a pope clever enough to link his ecological message to a vaster indictment of spiritual self-interest and geopolitical self-destruction than it would, say, to creationist reactionaries in the Midwestern United States who really don’t understand the science they’re talking about:

Without entering into the merit of specific technical solutions, the Church is nonetheless concerned, as an “expert in humanity,” to call attention to the relationship between the Creator, human beings and the created order. In 1990 John Paul II had spoken of an “ecological crisis” and, in highlighting its primarily ethical character, pointed to the “urgent moral need for a new solidarity.” His appeal is all the more pressing today, in the face of signs of a growing crisis which it would be irresponsible not to take seriously. Can we remain indifferent before the problems associated with such realities as climate change, desertification, the deterioration and loss of productivity in vast agricultural areas, the pollution of rivers and aquifers, the loss of biodiversity, the increase of natural catastrophes and the deforestation of equatorial and tropical regions? Can we disregard the growing phenomenon of “environmental refugees,” people who are forced by the degradation of their natural habitat to forsake it – and often their possessions as well – in order to face the dangers and uncertainties of forced displacement? Can we remain impassive in the face of actual and potential conflicts involving access to natural resources? All these are issues with a profound impact on the exercise of human rights, such as the right to life, food, health and development…

…The quest for peace by people of good will surely would become easier if all acknowledge the indivisible relationship between God, human beings and the whole of creation. In the light of divine Revelation and in fidelity to the Church’s Tradition, Christians have their own contribution to make. They contemplate the cosmos and its marvels in light of the creative work of the Father and the redemptive work of Christ, who by his death and resurrection has reconciled with God “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20). Christ, crucified and risen, has bestowed his Spirit of holiness upon mankind, to guide the course of history in anticipation of that day when, with the glorious return of the Saviour, there will be “new heavens and a new earth” (2 Pet 3:13), in which justice and peace will dwell for ever. Protecting the natural environment in order to build a world of peace is thus a duty incumbent upon each and all. It is an urgent challenge, one to be faced with renewed and concerted commitment; it is also a providential opportunity to hand down to coming generations the prospect of a better future for all. May this be clear to world leaders and to those at every level who are concerned for the future of humanity: the protection of creation and peacemaking are profoundly linked! For this reason, I invite all believers to raise a fervent prayer to God, the all-powerful Creator and the Father of mercies, so that all men and women may take to heart the urgent appeal: If you want to cultivate peace, protect creation.

– Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the Celebration of the World Day of Peace, 2010

With so much at stake, where is an individual to start? It is one thing for the Vatican to plant trees in a forest in Hungary (with a mind to becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral state) or to install 2400 solar panels on one of its largest audience halls (generating around 300,000 kilowatt hours of power each year, the equivalent of 100 average families’ annual consumption). Yet even these initiatives are first steps, whose symbolic power vastly outweighs their actual effectiveness. How much better could any of us do?

I have no idea. So perhaps my own New Year’s Resolution for the year is merely symbolic, but here it is, all the same: I would like, in the social services office that I run, to cut down on our consumption of plastic.

Plastic: Alexander Parkes created it in the 1860s, an ingenious cellulose compound which could take any shape its forger wanted while it was hot and which would settle reliably, and permanently, when it was cool. One of the great wickednesses of plastic today is the way that it does break down, does lose its shape — but only to a point. After dwindling to the size of snowflakes, pieces of plastic refuse to biodegrade. If we are worried that so many natural resources are vanishing, the worry with this unnatural compound is the opposite: that it will never go away, that it will survive in vast amounts as stubborn and ineradicable as cockroaches.

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the poorest city I’ve ever seen, many of the streets are lined with trash. But while the heaps of decomposing vegetable matter — banana peels and sodden bread — created the most unpleasant stench, there was something positively sinister about the massive amounts of plastic (bottles, wrappers, bags) lurking everywhere in mounds of detritus, a plague without a cure. This stuff does not go away; soon, it occurred to me, watching people on buses and taxis reach out to vendors on the street selling little fist-sized plastic pockets of water which are thrown onto the road after drinking, the island will suffocate beneath it. In the meantime, much of it — their plastic, and certainly ours — is pushed directly out to sea, or is blown there by the wind or swept there after it leaches into the underground sewage systems of garbage dumps that deposit it, eventually, in the ocean. There, breaking into ever smaller and smaller pieces, the pilgrim plastic is swept by inexorable currents into massive gyres extending from coast to coast in every one of the world’s oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, discovered by Charles Moore in the nineties, extends from Japan to San Francisco to Hawaii, a distended constellation of plastic pieces as big as bottles and as small as grains of rice; if it were to be condensed, it would have a surface area twice the size of Texas, and still it keeps on growing. It finds its way into the stomachs of fish, and so eventually finds its way into our stomachs, too.

It is nigh impossible to clean. Any method of canvassing the entire Pacific Ocean and sifting out every last piece of debris is for now conceptually unfathomable and would be astronomically expensive, besides. The best thing we can do, experts tell us, is to put all our energy into prevention. This, too, is a gargantuan task.

It’s not as simple as committing to tossing plastic waste into a recycling bin. First of all, less than 1% of our plastic bags are recycled, anyway, and besides which, it costs more to recycle a bag safely and cleanly than it does to produce a new one (not that cost should necessarily be prohibitive). Major changes in the way we purchase, consume, and dispose are necessary. One striking slideshow concludes on an unusually upbeat note, calculating that if one out of every five people in the US stopped using plastic bags at the grocery store and instead brought a reusable burlap bag or two when they went shopping, it would save 1,330, 560,000,000 bags over the course of our lifetime…a good place to start (and the slideshow gives inspiring examples of cities and countries that have launched a war on plastic), although the situation is so complex that that statistic is ultimately next to meaningless to me. (Is that good, or bad? A lot, or precious few? What will the rest of the world look like “at the end of our lifetime”?)

I lack the ability to analyze the problem more thoroughly than this; all I know is that after looking at images of dead sea-birds, their split-open stomachs filled to bursting with bottle caps like in the videos I’ve linked to above, it is hard to return to my social service office and double-bag two bags’ worth of food for the approximately ten people coming in for grocery assistance each day. My New Year’s resolution, then, is to figure out what to do about this. Father Marty, who has encouraged me to create a “Guadalupe Green Team,” has given me some good ideas. At HEB, the local grocery store, reusable cloth bags sell for $2. Maybe I’ll try to strike a deal with HEB, buy these bags at slightly lower prices and distribute them for an even lower cost to my clients, and then ask to see their cloth bags too whenever I ask for their license or ID and social security card. Maybe, so as not to be so draconian, I’ll simply offer an incentive of extra food for anyone who brings in a reusable bag. I haven’t decided yet…although I welcome ideas.

Information is certainly key. That’s where we come in, all of us — to preach, and in St. Francis of Assisi’s famous words, to use words only when necessary. Let’s not buy Pepperidge Farm bread (as though bread needed to be wrapped twice). Let’s drink out of Nalgene bottles or those sleek stainless steel ones (I have one, and I love it — it keeps my water cold, too) rather than plastic bottles purchased from vending machines and tossed in the garbage ten minutes later. While I’m on the topic of waste, let’s repair and reuse rather than buying a spare part that will also break in no time flat. (According to Paul Hawken, cited in twenty of the most hypnotizing and intimidating minutes you could possibly spend tonight on a cartoon précis of the problems of the West, “only one percent of the total North American materials flow ends up in, and is still being used within, products six month after their sale.”)

We look back at our grandparents’ generation of smokers, people caught in an addiction they didn’t necessarily understand. Then, as they aged cancerously and our parents grew up with considerably more information than their own parents had, those who continued smoking began to earn our honest scorn. How could anyone be so stupid as to smoke when so much medical information demanded that any intelligent person choose otherwise? Our generation, I would say, is fighting the more ineluctable carcinogens of consumerism, new and different poisonous habits developed and difficult to shake — yet so much information exists which compels our civil disobedience, our counter-cultural protest, and our own rescue.

I’ll freely admit that I’m the wrong person to lecture on this topic, because I’ve adopted precisely the same bad habits as nearly everyone else in this country. …But isn’t that what New Year’s resolutions are for?

4 thoughts on “A New Year’s Resolution

  1. Nicholas,
    I definitely agree with you. In fact, my father has dedicated his career to finding a way to make plastics environmentally friendly (ziplock bags are now 50% corn and can be washed and reused.) It’s always been interesting growing up in a house where plastics and the environment are of equal importance 🙂

    And, by the way, I always enjoy the outside sources that you bring into your blog. You help me stay informed!

    1. Yes, I don’t want to forget the great work of people like your dad! I think I should have made more reference to things like that in this post.

      By the way, speaking of great work, your own most recent post was as beautifully written as ever.

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