About two and a half years years ago, Jon and I were in the car together when we heard an NPR report about a strange guy who had decided to turn his life into an experiment in green living. Specifically, we heard the voice of this man who was disappointed at the time that a security guard had not let him walk up 19 flights of stairs to the studio in which he was being interviewed, because electric elevators were not part of his experiment, who had decided to try to live with as close to zero environmental impact as possible for a year, despite living smack in the middle of New York City. It would be an experiment to prove that it was possible, even in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities, to live a green life, and to suggest to others the power of small, personal choices in effecting change. He called himself No Impact Man.
When we got home, we immediately Googled this fellow and found his blog. We became regular readers. And over the course of two years, we followed along as No Impact Man and his family lived without a washing machine, stomping their laundry like grapes in the bathtub. When they turned off their electricity. As a rickshaw became their main mode of transportation. As they ate only locally grown food. As they composted, with worms, IN THE CITY. As they produced next to no trash. I could go on and on linking to various posts, but more than his specific actions, No Impact Man’s positive attitude began to influence us. He wasn’t a finger-wagging, guilt-tripping eco-scold. He was just a guy, trying a new way of life, sharing his experiences, and inviting us to come along. And as he honestly shared that this new way of life was making him happier and healthier, and bringing his family closer together, we began to WANT to come along.
After two and a half years of following No Impact Man and his family, my husband proudly tells people that he “changed the way we think about everything.” And it’s true. We compost. We bike. We use public transit. We try to grow some of our own food. We try to buy local food. We try to buy ethically raised food. We avoid processed foods. We eat less meat. We recycle. We bring our own bags. We use all natural cleaning and body care products. We try to produce less trash. We got a low flow showerhead. We’ve made our home more energy efficient. We’ve made all sorts of small changes in our lives, and we can honestly say most of them started because of No Impact Man.
Which is why I get annoyed when I see publications I usually enjoy, like the New Yorker, dismissing No Impact Man’s journey as just a stunt. Elizabeth Kolbert writes:
A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.
Ah yes, there is nothing like criticizing someone who has done a good thing by wondering why they haven’t solved all the problems in the world in one fell swoop. SURE YOU ARE LIVING GREENER, BUT WHY HAVEN’T YOU SOLVED HOMELESSNESS OR GLOBAL POVERTY, HUH, BUDDY?
Elizabeth Kolbert also writes:
The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about. What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
This is where I wonder if Kolbert even did her research at ALL. No Impact Man has frequently used his blog to urge wider activism, even as his experiment remained largely focused on small, personal choices. He has highlighted political discussions, urged readers to contact their political leaders, and even spoken to some political readers themselves. His posts on these topics are easy to find if you visit his blog and click the line in the right sidebar marked “Activism.” I’m not sure how much more the New Yorker can expect from one man.
Yes, Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, conducted an experiment in living, which some ungenerous folks might call a “stunt.” The sequel to the story is played out every day on his blog, as No Impact Man has returned to some of his old impactful ways, having decided they were too much of an inconvenience, but kept many of the practices that he took up during his year of living greenly. He has a book and a documentary film coming out this month. And if he changed OUR lives so drastically with just his blog and an NPR interview, I can only imagine how many others will be “impacted” through the book and the film.
And that’s when the criticism of this “stunt” breaks down. It’s not an either we all change the way we live OR we enact huge sweeping societal changes. It’s a BOTH AND. Because there ARE lots of us out there who have changed our lives largely because of this man. And if more and more of us begin to change our lives, and make ourselves and our planet happier and healthier in the process, and in turn inspire others around us to also change their lives, then this No Impact “stunt” will have quite an impact indeed. Because those of us who have changed our lives, even in small ways, are also the ones calling and emailing our Congresspeople and signing petitions and carrying signs. And we know from first-hand experience that if we can change our own lives, we can certainly change the world.
Here’s the trailer for the film, which I can’t wait to see!