A new year is upon us! It may not feel like it as we are still within the COVID time soup, but time marches forward and we all must deal with it.
I’m too old now to ring-in the New Year with a champagne toast. Instead, one of my new traditions is to lay out some goals I’d like to accomplish over the next year. These are not resolutions, which are ephemeral and unstructured and almost guaranteed to fail within a month. No, these are tangible ideas for positive changes I want to make. A good goal grabs your attention and keeps you focused. Goals have rules, and here are the ones I follow when creating a list.
1. Have a definite end state. If you want to work on your fitness, making a resolution to “go to the gym more” is destined for failure. What are you doing at the gym? How are you measuring progress? Does sitting at the smoothie bar count? No. Make it explicit. One of mine for next year is to run a sub-8:30 mile. When I go in, I know what I’ll be doing, I know if I’m getting close to achieving it to stay motivated, and I can experience catharsis when it’s done.
2. Failure must be an option. Completing a trivial goal is a trivial accomplishment. If you’re not pushing yourself, then what’s even the point? Similarly, reaching the end state in February means you didn’t set the bar high enough and need to reevaluate. Stretch yourself. Stretch goal, or something. As a corollary, fewer difficult goals will be more satisfying than a multitude of easy ones. You can always roll a goal over to the next year if you’re making good progress too.
3. Make success independent of others. You can’t make a good personal goal out of something you don’t have control over. It might be tempting to say something like “I’m going to write a bestselling book,” but that’s a terrible goal. Such a milestone is dependent on the decisions of myriad people whose actions you have no power over. You want any potential failure to arise from within, otherwise you’ll drive yourself nuts pursuing an outcome you can’t achieve.
Rule three is precisely why I won’t include anything related to my greenhouse gas footprint on the 2022 goals sheet. Going down that path only leads to despair and discouragement, as any effort you expend will not yield visible results vis-à-vis the warming planet. The following excerpt from my book explains why we need to turn climate change mitigation away from individual responsibility to one of collective action to avoid that pitfall.
A question I was asked early in the process of writing this book was, “how can I change my behavior to help fight climate change?” Such a question is perfectly logical to ask if you care about the future. The activities they were looking for were all based on individual choice and action. It boiled down to changes in buying habits: how one eats, how one shops, and how one uses electricity. Basically, they were really asking the question, “how do I change my consumption?”
The choice of what we consume has become a proxy for the values we claim to have. Consumption is a performance meant to signal to others how we view ourselves and how we think others should view us. Your choice of a grocery store and restaurants, as an example, acts as a shorthand for your politics in the public eye. You might buy organic food, recycle, and install LED lightbulbs because you want to show concern for the environment. Partially, if you’re like me, it’s because you’ve internalized a sense of guilt, knowing you aren’t making the optimal choices, and you have to atone for them somehow.
That individualism is illogical. You are not solely responsible for climate change. We are collectively responsible, as are the systems we put in place. Guilt over our consumption makes no sense when there is presently no moral consumption regarding climate change. When every product you can possibly buy is mined, processed, or manufactured in some way using fossil fuels, it is not possible. Herein is the illusion of choice you must see through if you want to make real change.
This realization goes against everything we are taught since birth. We are socialized to internalize the notion that any negative aspect of our lives is our fault. It makes us blind to the realities of overarching systems that have much more control over us than our personal decisions. We fault people for their health, even though social class determines access to health care. We categorize people by education, even though academic success is largely determined by zip code. We judge people’s morality based on their consumption, even though your choices are predetermined by a market that gives the illusion of choice.
In the grand scheme of things, your choice to pick one product over another, avoid flying, or consume less meat does not matter. Carrying reusable bags for your entire lifetime will not offset a fraction of a fraction of a percent of a coal power plant’s daily emissions. What does matter is the collective choices we make as a society. The question from the concerned citizen above should have been, “how can we change our behavior to solve climate change?”
The first step is to recognize your solidarity with those around you. Buying into false divisions only serves to make us easier to conquer by those with a vested interest in the status quo. We need to move from an individual mindset to one that recognizes the common good that will result from this strategy. Not only is a chorus of voices harder to ignore than a solo, but it is also easier to stay in tune when others are standing beside you. Doing so can only be made possible by abandoning our solitary and individualistic existences in favor of collective action. We must revive the civic mentality that served past movements so well in making this a better society. You must be willing to step outside of your bubble and join something greater than yourself. So, join a local group of similarly minded climate folks. If one doesn’t exist, gather a few friends and start one. The key is to help build infrastructure at the local level because that’s how you turn people out to vote when the time comes.