Resolutions and commitments

 University of Washington Drumheller Fountain (photo: Assembled Hazardly)

Over the new year, I read a really interesting opinion piece by Ruth Chang in the New York Times on resolutions and why most people see their motivation taper off after a month. Resolutions are different from commitments in that resolutions are temporarily motivational while commitments involve long-term obligations. After reading the article, I decided to commit myself to being someone that I know I can be without having to compromise certain ideals or inherent traits (like being lazy).

I decided to commit myself to:
1. Working out three times a week instead of resolving to lose x amount of pound
2. Spending more time reading a book instead of resolving to spend less time on the internet
3. Being a less pessimistic person, even if this environmental ethics class I'm taking right now is making me so depressed I want to slit my wrists
4. Visiting Instagram and some really unimportant sites only on Sunday

An introspective search made me realize that I could indeed be that person; it wouldn't change me terribly, it would take some hard work, but I could possibly do it. None of my commitments would make me a great person or even a good person but it would be a massive improvement.

Long time readers of the blog will know that Assembled Hazardly has always just been a place where I allow my inner pretentiousness and haphazard train of thought to spill forth, often times in a barrage of word vomit. I think I tend to overshare, which never bodes well in the blogging world. Slate recently wrote about 'The Year of Outrage' where it seems like everyone gets upset about everything these days regardless how things actually started or what the context was or if there really is any truth to the matter. It seems people cherry-pick facts, start a shit storm without thinking about the corresponding consequences and then just fade out - nothing actually happens, no actual justice is done, but it makes one feel good to shame another person or fly off the handle about something just because they can.

The Andrew Goldman story on Slate really struck a chord with me because like this Gawker article points out (albeit poorly), you can be an asshole without being a sexist - no doubt Goldman was an idiot, but he wasn't being sexist in the way that was misconstrued. The funny thing is that most people don't seem to even know the definition of the word they are using except that it's a great sound bite to lob at an opponent. If you call someone a Chinese and they're Chinese American, you're  a racist. If you're slightly jittery and skittish, you have bipolar. If you call a woman crazy, you're a sexist.  If you're President Obama, you're simultaneously a fascist and a socialist. All of which makes no sense.

I'm only pointing this out because as I sat through the aforementioned ethics class yesterday, I thought about what my own personal definition of being ethical, just and fair meant. When I say I want to shop ethically, what does it really mean? Sure, I want respect and living wages for factory workers even if that meant I had to pay more. In an ideal world, socialism would work but this world isn't ideal and thrives on capitalism and greed, so if my demand for workers rights forces companies to raise prices, I don't lose out - poorer people do. This whole green-washing thing seems to serve only one purpose, which is to make richer, liberal consumers feel better about themselves while shaming companies that make a huge profit, all in the name of helping the poor.

People get outraged when things like the Rana Plaza collapse happens or when they read stories about environmental exploitation and animal welfare. They tweet endlessly, call for change on some level because it makes them feel like they're doing something immediate but it all dissipates the next moment another sensationalist story comes along. Being outraged about it and wanting to do the "right" thing like boycotting factories and buying subsistence-farmed goods doesn't make the problem go away. The outrage is misplaced, because it fails to take into account that the entire economic and social justice system is flawed. It's also easier to be outraged than to actively seek a pragmatic, level-headed solution because outrage (as opposed to rage) is temporary emotion that provides an ephemeral sense of urgency. This excellent article by Nicki Cole summarizes my premise more succinctly.

Looking at my own consumption habits over the last year or two have led me to questions about the driver for my habits. I think they are two fold - one is because they give me a sense of being in control about the larger social and environmental impacts and two is because I like humblebragging and my sense of worth is tied very closely to my consumption habits (hence commitment #4 above). I buy a lot of eco-friendly products, I compost and recycle and I grow my a lot of my own vegetables all because they assuage my fears about the environment. I buy sustainably-farmed meat and organic vegetables because they make me feel better about eating an animal and not putting pollutants into the earth.  I buy "ethically-sourced" clothing, handmade artisan jewelry, natural beauty products and try to limit shopping at fast-fashion chains because I feel good thinking that my money is going directly into the pockets of workers and not corporations. Not that any of these things really matter in the grand scheme of things - it's a step in the right direction, but it still is consumerism after all.

I've come to the realization that this is flawed thinking, the world can't be saved by green consumerism (sorry, we've kind of boxed ourselves in) and any single kind of consumption - the very act of human existence - contributes to environmental and social injustice. The presence of the human race displaces justice for every other species on earth. The very fact that the latest IPCC report, put out by one of the most conservative climate panels in the world, is taking geoengineering into account is simultaneously frightening and depressing. Short of suffering from a complete existential meltdown and going bonkers (don't worry, I often sound more pessimistic that I really am hence New Year's commitment #3) the only thing I can think about doing on my end is to be diligent at influencing policies with my work and degree and actively seek to REALLY reduce consumption on every front - which I've admittedly done a horrifyingly bad job on.

So my fifth and final commitment for this year is to finish/wear what I own before purchasing something new. I can't tell myself to buy less because it's so arbitrary and it hasn't work thus far but I can (and should) commit to wearing out something to shreds or to finish a bottle of eye cream or to eat all my cereal or to drink all the vodka (note to self :-)) before making a new purchase which would hopefully cut down on my rate of consumption drastically without me having to resolve to anything temporary.

Final note: I know some of you have stumble here from GOMI, where I am known by The Road Less Jenna (I'm revealing my username as atonement for my snarkery) and am an occasional participant in the That Wife, Product Reviews and Gluten Free Girl threads. There is also a Minimalist Blogger thread that criticizes this blog, constructively but sometimes in fairly unsubstantiated ways, for having double standards. I encourage you to read through ALL the posts on this blog that have detailed my transition from an enthusiastic prep to a sweatpants-wearing, beer-bellied dogmother and to call me out in the comments which is opened to everyone and will never be censored unless it contains more than three swear words or involves embarrassing parts of the anatomy. I like learning from my mistakes and being more critical about my thought process and this blog facilitates open discussion. I don't moderate comments, and when I have to, I don't do it willingly but it's a feature on Blogger that all comments older than 3 weeks have to be held in queue for spam.

24 comments :

  1. I didn't realize until this post that you're a fellow UW student. I've taken Environmental and Occupational Health (ENVH 511) but I doubt we'll run into each other any time soon. Hope this quarter is off to a good start!

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    1. Oooh, I'm terribly embarrassed by my blog in real life, so I guess a bullet dodged :-) This quarter is awesome and is going to be my last - just tying up some loose ends and that's it. Finally!

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  2. Have you ever thought of challenging yourself to buying only used clothes for awhile? I tried it throughout 2014 and it really changed how I look at shopping and consumption. I haven't been in a Target in a year. Malls make me feel gross now. I still haven't bought new clothes two weeks after my year of "nothing new" has ended. It's not a total solution, but for me it was a step that helped permanently change old habits and the way I looked at consumption and budgeting. xx

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    1. Hi Jess,

      I really hate going to stores to shop for clothes including thrift stores. I do a majority (almost 100%) of my clothes/home goods shopping online so buying used clothes has never really occurred to me - I'm also a very lazy person with allergies and the few times I've been to a second hand clothing store, I've only managed to look at a handful of things before deciding I would rather hit a brewpub instead :-) . But now that there are sites like ThredUp and Twice popping up I'll definitely give buying used clothes a try. Thanks for your suggestion.

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    2. I hate shopping in stores too. However, I've been limiting myself to used items (or at least preowned), using Ebay most of the time, and Goodwill if there's something I don't want to wait for shipping for (ie: it's winter and I didn't plan my boot shopping that well - I should also note that the Goodwill is a block from work, this would be a whole different situation if it weren't so convenient). It isn't a hard and fast "no new items" thing for me, it just sort of came about naturally since I've found that buying secondhand is a good way to adjust my standards to my budget.

      It's also pretty easy to find new items that people just couldn't return because they're final sale, etc. and want to get rid of. The brands I wear hasn't changed much since I've switched to buying used items (if anything I have nicer clothes/shoes since second hand brings previously unattainable item into my price range), I'm just buying them off of someone to continue their circle of life, haha. Hope that helps as well!

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  3. You touch on a lot of points I've been thinking about lately. The outrage on social media regarding issues people get upset about but then forget about and never actually get involved in the "action" part of social action... It's all been so prevalent lately and its been making me reconsider my own words and actions. Thanks for sharing this.

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  4. Hi Amanda,
    This comment might sound a little crazy as I've had a long week at work and sentence structure seems to be a challenge right now, but I wanted to at least de-lurk.
    I actually found you through GOMI (I don't have a name there, just read the same forums too much), but I was on another blog's forum and somebody had recommended your blog as a breath of fresh air for those of us looking for some hope in the blogging-world-insanity of "shop shop shop, exploit children's cuteness for profit, repeat".
    I loved what you had to say, I loved the thoughts processes your posts would inspire within me, and it was the first time in a long time I had found a blogger I could identify with.
    I check in for new posts all the time and I was so happy to see another one today. So yes, I am one of the ones who came over from GOMI but I'm so glad I found you!

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    1. Thank you for giving this blog a chance and commenting. GOMI can really help blogs improve despite all the venomous craziness on some threads, but I've certainly learned a lot from that really thoughtful and logical Minimalist Bloggers discussion.

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  5. That's a good point indeed - commitments versus resolutions. It sounds like one is concrete, with actual actions to make it happen, while the other one is more abstract, some kind of general wish without a concrete plan to reach it. I think the overall motivation is important too as it keeps the momentum going past the first month of the year. For example I managed to keep my sports habits fairly regularly when I stopped linking it to arbitrary weight loss and started seeing it as a necessary daily habit to nurture a healthy body and relieve stress. If it makes any sense.
    Also, the "use up what I have first" is very powerful indeed - please do let us know how it works on your habits, but in my case I think that's what drove me to complete my shopping fast, you know, thinking "I'll replace it when it's finished". The interesting part is that making myself use everything I have also made me realize some of these things aren't that necessary after all and I didn't replace them at all in the end.
    And I like this learning mindset of yours ;) I don't comment as often as I should but I keep reading your rants and I find your prose refreshing.

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  6. But what if I only have "meh" bootles of wine and I want GOOD wine? Do I have to drink all the "meh" wine first? Don't make me drink the "meh" wine, Amanda!!

    That's such an interesting point on commitments vs resolutions, because it makes me realize that what I have been doing over the last few years is just that - commitments. Set amounts of money to save, set amounts of times to work out, set amounts of books to read. And it really does work.

    And I love your blog, so never apologize for the word vomit!

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    1. I have only 'meh' gin right now :(

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    2. So I misspelled "bottles" and also completely missed to point of the post. I swear I wasn't drunk when I wrote my comment!

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    3. The question is, why are you drinking "meh" gin and wine? Life is too short. Be minimalistic and buy ONLY the most expensive Grand Crus and artisan gin you can. :-P

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    4. They were wine presents! Amarone or death!

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    5. There's almost always a way to repurpose! I had a couple bottles "meh" wine that I never wanted to drink but didn't want to throw out. I kept them around and consolidated bottles - now I use them for catching gnats in the summer. There's always a use :)

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  7. I'm with you on so many of your points, Amanda. I think the outrage bit is the most concerning for me. What am i trying to prove? I make choices, my impact goes far beyond what I can imagine or sign off on, and I am a social (competitive, empathetic, self righteous, contradictory etc., etc.) being.

    I think the finish/wear before buying could be framed slightly differntly. That is, what does it mean to decide that you have reached the end of the road with a Marni coat that was loved and worn 10 years ago but is little more than a museum piece due to various life changes? It is still wearable. I still like it, but I doubt I will wear it. Can I be at peace with selling or giving it away? And if I do that, can I be at peace with buying a new spring coat? I think this could be an exercise in being honest and more forgiving of ourselves and others.

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    1. Hm, you're right Erica. Perhaps it would make more sense if I said to wear something until it has satisfactorily served its function and outlived its intended use? I tend to buy new things even when I have something equally usable so my thought is always to stop that bad habit. I don't have sentimental attachment to things but it may be different for other people, so you're also right that we need to be mindful of how other people view things or how their though process functions and that what works for us, may not necessarily work for another person.

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  8. The piece on commitments versus resolutions was interesting. Although I refer to my goals for the new year as resolutions, I feel like I generally tend to think about some of them as commitments (i.e. when I say I want to get healthy I am trying to commit to working out x number of times a week or cook instead of ordering takeout whenever I'm eating at home).

    I also initially found your blog fairly recently through that GOMI minimalist blogger thread. I have really enjoyed reading your blog and many of your older posts. I generally like reading blogs where the writing is more personal or thoughtful and I feel like I'm getting a sense of who the writer is.

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  9. I'm so glad you are posting again! I always enjoy your thoughts on consumption -- you are one of the few bloggers that both acknowledge a need to pare back, but also that doing so is a process, one balanced with a human desire for nice things. I'm also trying to focus a bit more on using things up - i feel like if you can delay buying shampoo for an extra week, or a shirt for an extra month or two, it makes a big difference over time. Easier on the shampoo front than the clothing front though.

    FWIW, I found your blog through the GOMI minimalist bloggers thread a year or so ago, so I am super grateful for it. I think you handle yourself really well over there, and don't worry too much about the criticism! I think that thread is meant for having exactly the sorts of conversations you're having here. Hope to hear more from your blog soon!

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    1. I find that not browsing for clothing is a big help! I'm trying to cook more now instead but I realized I have a bad habit of buying a bunch of niche ingredients for just one meal and then they languish in the back of my fridge before I chuck them out 6 months later... I think keeping yourself busy is key to learning to live with what you have - you have less time to obsess about things and all the un-important things in life like clothes and face creams just take a back seat.

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  10. Another great post, amanda.

    can you elaborate on this sentence - In an ideal world, socialism would work but this world isn't ideal and thrives on capitalism and greed, so if my demand for workers rights forces companies to raise prices, I don't lose out - poorer people do.

    Also, while I totally agree about how liberal, more affluent folks (I'm finding a lot of this with environmental colleagues in general) use all the righteous arguments to feel better about themselves, etc and that a boycott of certain companies in itself isn't going to make the problem go away, I do believe boycotts (and similar activities that flex our consumer power) can be effective first steps in or a crucial piece of a larger advocacy campaign that can lead to change, even if only incremental. Ugh, I'm not very coherent right now.

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    1. Hi Jocy, sorry it took me so long to respond - I just wanted to make sure I at least attempt to be cogent when I did respond.

      The premise of socialism seems like a great one - I believe in wealth-sharing to some extent, that if workers were paid a fair and somewhat equal wage, we would all be able to afford similar things on a larger scale. So if we were to demand more ethical made clothing that turned out to cost manufacturers a little more in terms of materials, we would all still be able to afford it. Socialism, however, is a flawed concept and doesn't take into the account human nature, particularly the inherent selfishness and greed. Also, if there is no motivation for anyone to work, why should they?

      The market economy on the other hand is flawed because of inequality that comes with it. Some argue that if we the consumers demand workers rights, the market will eventually fix itself by supplying those rights but it's usually at a cost to the consumer. So for example, someone who is used to buying a Gap t-shirt for $10 might suddenly find herself having to buy it for $12 because of increased cost due to the company having to pay overtime or healthcare or whatever demands of workers rights we want. Most companies don't want to subsidize the extra cost of anything, isn't the entire of premise of capitalism about making profit and satisfying shareholders? $2 might not seem like much, but to a person, say a waitress who makes $2.47 an hour before tips, that's a lot of money.

      I know a lot of people argue that that it's entirely possible to make ethical clothing without passing on the buck to consumers, of course it is. But I think that unless there is stricter international labor laws and wider government regulation on workers rights and environmental responsibility, companies (and by that I mean companies with a wide reach and not just niche ones) are just not going to make ethical clothing that is affordable for the masses.

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  11. Buying less and buying selectively are good things to do, but I think they've dominated the discussion on leading the ethical life, to the extent that people seem to judge entirely based on consumption habits. There are many other ways people can make an impact, like make a micro loan to support independent businesses in developing countries, or support a child's education. These may ultimately provide the less privileged with options other than working in a sweatshop.

    I'm sure boycotts and consumer backlash work to some extent - I think Nestle had to stop using palm oil in Kit Kats or something (for their EU markets at least) because of a consumer campaign. But I look at how China's rules that beauty products imported into China MUST be tested on animals made major EU and US brands go back on their no-animal-testing policies in order to gain share of the market there, and I think, so long as the ones with the spending power don't collectively grow a conscience then the fight must simultaneously be fought on other fronts. I believe in continuing to raise awareness and hopefully this leads to real change, but the public discussion on this can be more productive if we also look at other ways to help people.

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  12. Hi Amanda,
    I am one of the people that have stumbled upon your blog from GOMI. It's refreshing to hear you speak about it openly and also admit you add to the snark. I'm so glad I found your blog through that site, as it's now on my list of favorites. Keep up the great blogging.

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