Weekend Review: No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes Abo

Colin Beavan is a New York writer who decides to undertake a very personal project. For one year (2007), he, his wife, and their toddler-aged daughter will strive to make no net impact on the environment. This means that they will reduce their negative impact as much as possible (create no garbage, use no electricity, etc.) and to offset any impact that they can't eliminate, they will do charitable acts (volunteering to care for urban trees, donating money, etc.). Interested parties could follow along during that year on Beavan's blog and a documentary and the book No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries he Makes about Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (2009)were produced after the project ended. He undertakes these things in stages. First he tackles not producing any garbage, then eliminating any non-human-powered transportation. Eating a local diet, not buying anything new, not using electricity, and "giving back" follow. At each stage, Beavan ruminates about how these extreme life changes have affected him and his family and he shares how these experiences reinforced and sometimes altered his worldview.

Throughout, Beavan acknowledges that large-scale change is necessary to make any real differences, but he believes that this has to come from the ground up. People won't invest the time to challenge the system if they first don't experience these changes in their own lives. This can be a very inspiring and empowering message for those who are looking for a way to live more meaningful and mindful lives. By demonstrating the "extreme" end of the spectrum, Beavan hopes to illustrate how these are changes that we all can make.

It's hard for me to jump completely on the No Impact bandwagon, however. The bones I have to pick, however, have little to do with Beavan as an individual and more to do with how he fits into the entire discussion around issues of low impact living. As an example, at one point Beavan is offered the criticism that if he "really" wanted to live low impact, he should move out of the city. This spurs him into a long-winded justification of urban areas (which I don't necessarily take issue with) that includes his claim that "city dwellers tend to set the consumption patterns for the rest of the world. People buy what metropolitan people buy" (28). Living in the fly-over state that I do, I find this incredibly patronizing. Beavan is reinforcing the tired old stereotypes of coast-dwellers as the keepers-of-all-knowledge-and-culture and those of us who live in the middle of the country as poor lost sheep who need to look to him for guidance. Even if we grant him the indulgence of the opinion that city folk have dictated what the rest of us consume, why would this mean that we should also look to metropolitan people for examples of how to live sustainably? Instead of looking to a privileged New Yorker who can afford to "slum it" by shutting his power off, maybe we should really be looking to the people who live Beavan's "extreme" lifestyle on a daily basis as a means of survival. I'm sure that the homeless man down the street could teach me a hell of a lot more about what it's like to live in an energy-depleted world. I'm sure the single mother across the way could school me in feeding a family on pennies a day. But, they don't have book deals. I'm not suggesting that Beavan should be ignored or condemned solely because he is popular or even because he is privileged. He's carrying an important message that I, for the most part, agree with. And he's right. Those who have a lot need to learn to live with a whole lot less so that there's something left for those who have nothing.

A second note is a seeming lack of sincerity in his professed goal of demonstrating ways to live with less impact. As part of the "no waste" goal, the family eschews disposable toilet paper. To Beavan's chagrin, the first question out of everyone's mouth is "what did you use instead?!?" A question that he refuses to answer. Here he misses a great opportunity to provide a sustainable alternative for his audience. He claims that part of this project is to inspire others to live lower impact lives, but he never stops to consider that by actually answering this question, he might be giving them the tools to actually do so. I guess one could argue that this is out of modesty, but it seems an odd line in the sand to draw. Beavan invited us into his life and his experiment and as soon as someone asked a real question, the answer to which could be helpful for others, he stubbornly refuses to answer.

I hesitate to be too critical because, again, his goals are my goals. I think we should all be living lower impact lifestyles, regardless of what motivates us to get there. His motivation just doesn't seem to jive with mine.

1 comment:

  1. Bingo! I felt the same when I saw him at the start of all this (was it really 2007?) I felt he was patronizing in his blog and refuse to see his movie, or read the book. To be honest, the whole thing felt like a set up to get those deals.