The Impact of No Impact Man

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On a sunny September Saturday afternoon, I invited urbndervish and my little brother to see a documentary in the lower eastside of Manhattan with me.  I watched the trailer and my curiousity was instanty peaked. 

The documentary told the story of a Manhattanite; a self-described “guilty liberal”, who attempts to live for a year without negatively impacting the environment.  His zeal is admiral though some considered him extreme, radical and impractical.  His mission began with a blog, blossomed into a book, and unfolded to become a documentary.  Most would look at his efforts as unreasonable, thus making the documentary more theatrical than instructional.  However, what gives colour and flavour to this documentary is the involvement of his shopaholic, coffee-guzzling wife and innocent, two-year old daughter in this year-long journey.

The subject, Colin Beavan, is completely committed and creative in planning their No Impact Year.  They have a pre-No Impact Year trial week, where they live without producing any waste.  Everything is reused, recycled, or composted.  The year to follow has several phases which included a local-eating phase, emission-free transporation phase (i.e. walking, biking, or scooting to every destination), a gardening phase, a social service phase, an educational phase, but the most intriguing phase to witness is the no-electricity-usage phase.  The Beavans shut off their apartment’s electric supply which meant no lights after dark, no fridge, etc.  The Beavan family also rebelled against the machine by vowing not to use elevators, despite living on the 9th floor of their apartment building. 

Some of the film’s best criticisms are presented in the film.  How realistic is this year-long experiment?  Is this a pitch for selling Colin’s new book?  How will people take eco-friendly living seriously if he presents it as so foreign, insane and extreme?  Who’s really going to give up using toilet paper or wash their clothes in the tub?  This project apparently had lots of media attention in New York and worldwide.  Colin became an eco-celebrity overnight and the media was not always flattering nor forgiving.  Interestingly, one environmental blogger shown in the film retracted her criticisms and attributed the harsh backlash towards Colin’s highly publicized project as a reaction of self-guilt.  People don’t like feeling guilty, right?  Everyone wants their ego coaxed and praised, so to start telling happy recyclers, car-poolers, and eco-product consumers that they’re not doing enough makes them angry.  Colin’s wife, Michelle, was hurt by her co-worker’s wife telling him to not shake her hand because they don’t use toilet-paper and that’s just down-right unsanitary. 

I love Michelle.  She voices quite a few legitimate criticisms of the project, while bravely forging ahead beyond her comfort zone.  She honestly struggled against her self to make this project work.  Poor thing went through caffiene withdrawal, restaurant-dining withdrawal, and good ole’ plain consumption withdrawal.  The shopping as therapy paradigm keeps plenty of people swiping plastic cards or dishing out money and Michelle was just itching to buy.

Isabella, as are most children, was just along for the ride.  No urgency to buy something new, completely content eating veggies, and stomp-washing their laundry in the tub.  She’s a cutie pie and lightened the tone of the film.

Another critic presented in the film is a gardener who candidly tells Colin what he thinks of the project.  He pretty much tells Colin that though this project may make you feel good about yourself, corporate politics and big business dealings dwarf the impact of concerned, conscious individuals.  He cited corporate capitalism as the major source of environmental degradation and purported that Congress needs to take real measures to change the “business as usual” mentality that keeps both the planet and its citizens polluted and oppressed.

Overall, we all enjoyed the doc.  It pointed to some very real environmental conondrums that would be avoided by taking more self-responsibility and accountability for our actions.  So, skip the plastic versus paper dilemma by carrying your own bags.  Instead of questioning where your supermarket’s produce hails from or how it was grown, go to the farmer’s market and ask the growers directly.  Instead of researching one eco-cleaning product over another, make your own.  Change does and should start with one’s self.

Another feature I really appreciated was that Colin moved from self-change/awareness, to family-change/awareness, to small-circle-of-friends change/awareness, and the radius influenced ever-radiated outward from there.  It was interesting to learn that Colin actually didn’t want to have any children and shyed away from the thought of having a second child.  I’ve always felt very strongly that raising children with whatever consciousness we choose to embrace; be it spiritual, environmental, social, etc. is one of the biggest contributions we can make to change the world.  Obviously, a child needs room to be a child, so I’m refering to exposure more than to indoctrination.  When a child is of age, they will have to synthesize their experiences and circumstances to chart a path that is their own and that is true to themself.  However, I’m always surprised by activists, “revolutionaries”, or idealists that consciously choose not to have or raise children and nurture family.  A healthy, happy, and enlightened family is one of the best gifts that we can give to the future, in my humble opinion.

Another feature that I wanted the film to highlight was the economic benefits of an eco-friendly, no or low-impact life.  For the last six months of the No Impact Year project, their electricity bill was absolutely zero.  They tried to maximize their use of sunlight and used candles in the evening.  Urbndervish added that a film documenting how a working-class family experienced a No-Impact Year would be much more profound.  The financial benefits of the project’s success, as well as the financial limitations in procuring eco-resources would give the film more broad-based appeal and keep the motivation tangible, not just for the intellectuals and professionals.  Perhaps even some more cross-cultural or cross-class interaction would show that eco-living or environmental consciousness is not just for white, educated professionals.

There is an interesting scene where even Colin, our eco-pioneer, begins to lose steam.  He’s sitting in a dark room lit with a few candles, eating stove-popped popcorn and he’s despondent.  The no-electricity phase was becoming more of a burden than he imagined.  His worm-composting efforts were producing more house flies than his patience could tolerate.  His alternative clay-pot/sand refrigeration system caused his little girl’s glass jar of milk to spoil.  The No Impact tank was running on empty at that point.  Michelle had her share of challenging moments too, but they were there to encourage each other and motivate each other along the way.  As with any experiment, there are successes and failures.  However, the failures are opportunities to reassess your hypothesis and protocol.  The Beavans concluded that their year was not intended to prove how radical they could live but to prove how their needs could be met with minimal environmental impact.

Throughout the latter part of the film, we see how the Beavan family tweaked their long-year plan to accomodate their needs.  They take a train to spend their vacation at the farm that grows their local produce because riding a bike that far would’ve been plain unreasonable.  Colin hooks up a solar panel to deliver the energy supply needed to run his laptop and maintain his blog.  Michelle uses ice from her neighbor’s freezer to keep their milk cold in an old cooler.  Though critics might be eager to mock their “failures”, their project succeeded in many ways too.

A recurring theme that I appreciated about the film was how the No Impact Year enhanced their family time and quality of life.  They ate and became healthier by eating locally grown produce and ditching public transportation.  They became better spouses and parents by unplugging the TV and spending quality time with each other and their friends, both indoors and outdoors.  They found their overall life to be much happier and whole and this is important for keeping our passion, purpose, and zeal for life alive and kicking.  A sustainable life must be sustainable both outwardly and inwardly.  If you’re not happy living your lifestyle, then how do you expect anyone else to want to join you in your ideals, values, or views?  If No Impact Man is being shown in your city, it’s worth seeing but don’t forget to walk or bike to get there.  😉



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