No Impact Man

I watched the documentary "No Impact Man" this weekend. If you haven’t seen or read about it, the film is about a New York writer, Colin Beavan who talks his wife into forgoing basic luxuries for one year so that their family will make the least possible impact on the environment. They don’t use toilet paper, they eat only local foods, they don’t drive or take a flight on an airplane. And they turn off the electricity in their apartment for six months of that year. Did I mention that they do all of this with a two year old who is still in diapers?

Although this lifestyle sounds drastic, even for a year, I’m not sure how much convincing Beavan’s wife really needed since the project was part of his book deal. He did the experiment and wrote about it, presumably for a decent advance, and the media exposure they received from the NY Times, Good Morning America, Stephen Colbert's show and elsewhere ensured good book sales which was followed up with the release of the documentary.

Plenty of critics have written that Beavan’s ultimate motivation was money and notoriety. They say the experiment was really a staged stunt. One of the film’s interesting moments occurs when a local urban farmer tells Beavan that he isn’t making an impact at all. “If you were really making an impact, you wouldn’t be getting all of this media attention,” he says. The farmer, who has long white hair and looks like he just made it out of the Sixties, points out that Michelle still works as a journalist for Business Week, a company that kills thousands of trees, he says. And the couple still lives in a 5th Avenue co-op, he continues, so what if they don’t use the elevator to get to their unit on the 9th floor? In short, the farmer tells Colin, you’re still caught up in the capitalist machinery.

Stunt or no stunt, I found the documentary thought-provoking. It made me think about the modern family and how much we consume. It also made me think about the connection between poverty and environmental impact versus privilege and environmental impact. Colin and Michelle chose to downgrade their lifestyles to lessen their carbon footprints, but many people share a similar lifestyle--they don’t have a car, can’t afford to fly, wear secondhand clothing, don’t own a television—but they haven’t chosen to do without these things. They’re just broke.

I’d say that many people I know fall somewhere in between. We buy local, recycle, shop thrift stores, take public transportation. We live this way because we care about the environment, but also because living this way fits into our budgets. In my case, I’m also bringing what I learned from several years of being extremely broke.

I learned how much I could live without in the late 1990s when I lost all of my savings and retirement money on a risky investment. Just like that, we went from two cars to one. A bicycle became the mode of transportation to work. I frequented pawn stores and payday loan stores. I learned to get creative in the kitchen, looking at the one onion, one egg, and package of rice and thinking, okay, fried rice for dinner.

There were benefits to a scaled down lifestyle. Like Michelle and Colin discuss in the film, it does force a family to interact, to go outside, to feel less anxiety about “things.” But when you’re poor, you have a bunch of other problems and thinking about the environment isn’t one of them.

At the end of the film, the couple talks about what they will try to incorporate into their lives from their year of no impact. Colin still blogs about what he's continuing to do to ease our environmental crisis. My guess is that their desire to make the earth more livable has kept them on the path. But never underestimate the power of material status.