A New Year's resolution might not change the world, but what if it could change how you see things?
Consider doing one thing differently, for a whole year.
Here are three resolutions, tried and tested by yours truly, that could make a small difference in the world. And you might just learn a thing or two.
Curb your plastic use
An astonishingly low number of throwaway plastics are recycled – only 5 percent of plastic bags in the U.S, according to Alex Sivan, professor of biotechnology engineering at Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Plastics that aren't recycled threaten the environment for generations. The average time it takes for a plastic beverage bottle to biodegrade is 450 years, according to NOAA's Marine Debris Program. Plastic in the environment breaks apart into tiny pieces that animals, like fish and birds, can mistake for food. Once it enters the food chain, it can even cause negative health effects on humans.
"The term 'recycled' is incorrect," said Carolynn Box, science program director at 5 Gyres Institute. "Plastic is not like glass, which can be recycled over and over. When a water bottle is recycled, it is never made back into a water bottle, it is downcycled into a lower grade plastic."
Innovators are working on new materials to replace plastics. For example, a New York firm is creating a material made out of mushrooms that is plastic-like but without the harmful environmental and health effects. But until natural plastic-like material becomes pervasive, the best way to reduce your contribution to this problem will be reducing your use of plastic altogether.
If going plastic-free is too difficult to tackle in 2018, try something simpler. Soda, wine, milk, bottled water, and juice can all be found in glass or cardboard containers, so pledge to eliminate all plastic beverage bottles for one year. Don't forget to bring along your reusable water bottle because you might find this New Year's resolution is tougher – and more fun – than it sounds.
About 30 percent of the world's ice-free land is used for meat farming, and there is increasing evidence that meat production is causing an incredible strain on the environment.
"From a purely environmental perspective, yes, we should all be vegetarians," said Klaus Weber, Northwestern University professor of Management and Organizations. He said it isn't just a land-use problem. For example, making one quarter-pound hamburger requires 52 gallons of water, 74 square feet of grazing land, and 1,036 BTUs of fossil fuel.
But, as an omnivore, Weber recognizes that reducing our meat consumption is the best place to start. "If you can reduce it to levels like before World War II, where meat was a special treat [eaten] like once a week rather than three times a day, that would go a long way."
Vegetarian fare can be delicious. Pledge to "go vegetarian" for just one day a week. And if you think "vegetarian" is a tasteless word, then try other trendy labels like flexitarian (only eat meat sometimes) or the reducetarian (eats less meat).
#MeToo media diet
The #MeToo movement has put the spotlight on a not-so-secret fact of life: that women routinely face sexual misconduct, assault or harassment, but might not discuss it publicly or see little remedy if they do. It can happen to movie stars, members of Congress, executives, journalists, factory workers — just about everyone. If #MeToo has you wondering what you can actually do to change things, you aren't alone.
"This isn't about a diseased individual, it is about a systemic problem," said Arizona State Film and Media Studies professor Julia Himberg, "The only way to change that problem is to change the way we view and relate to women."
Some of the high-profile men recently alleged to have sexually violated or mistreated women were responsible for shaping Hollywood's stories or the news of the day. On a more basic level, the media landscape is dominated by the male point of view. "It is called the male gaze, and we take that point of view for granted," said sociologist Myra Marx Ferree at at University of Wisconsin–Madison.
The Geena Davis Inclusion Quotient uses computer learning technology to identify gender in the movies and tally up screen time. Scientists used it to analyze the highest grossing films in 2014 through 2016 and found that men are seen and heard on screen twice as much as women. This does make a difference. Movies like "Hunger Games" or "Brave" inspired a generation of girls to take up archery. And research shows that exposure to negative attitudes toward women in media influence how individuals treat women.
"We are a product of a form of gender construction, whether you are conscious of it or not. Even if you don't consider yourself sexist, the broader social institutions in which we live are built on sexism," Himberg said. "Let's write a different story."
In 2018, pledge for the entire year to only read books and watch movies by women and about women – a challenge Himberg said will be "eye-opening" because of the limited choices. Since #MeToo was started by Tarana Burke, whose nonprofit supports young women of color grappling with sexual trauma and harassment, try consuming media only by women of color, about women of color.
Here are five books from writers featured on the NewsHour this year to get you started: