Walking the walk to encourage sustainable living – No Impact Man

| January 10, 2010 | 8 Replies

I have just finished reading No Impact Man, an inspiring and informative book by Colin Beavan.  Beavan was tired of merely preaching to others about how we need to change our ways with regard to sustainable living.  The full title to his book is 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. This book project complements Beavan’s video documentary.

I made the mistake of thinking that condemning other people’s misdeeds somehow made me virtuous. I become, I realize, a member of that class of liberals who allowed themselves to glide by on way to view political gestures and lifestyle concessions and then spent the rest of their energy feeling superior to other people who supposedly don’t do as much…. I’d been complaining to anyone who would listen, telling people that we lived in an emergency. Yet, as much as I complained, I lived and acted as though everything was normal. I just let my usual workaday life. Wake up, take my daughter, Isabella, to the babysitter, spend the day riding, pick her up, watch TV, start all over. I didn’t feel I could do anything about world problems. After all, if the government wasn’t doing anything, what could I do? Write another history book?

Beavan concluded that his frustration was not only with the world, but it was also a frustration with himself.

I was sick of my comfortable and easy pretension of helplessness.” Instead of simply preaching at others, he decided to dedicate a year of his life to “researching, developing, and adopting a way of life for me and my small family… to live in the heart of New York City while causing as little harm to the environment as possible. . . . I was not talking about taking easy environmental half-measures, by the way. I was not talking about just using energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs or being a diligent recycler. My idea was to go as far as possible and try to maintain as close as no net environmental impact as I could. I aimed to go zero carbon–yes–but also a zero waste in the ground, zero pollution in the air, zero resources sucked up from the earth, zero toxins in the water. I didn’t just want to have no carbon impact. I wanted to have no environmental impact.

An early stage of his regimen involved taking an inventory of the family’s trash, and trying to reduce it to zero by working hard to purchase food without packaging (mostly at the Farmer’s market). Along the way, you will be shocked by some of his statistics. Food packaging is 20% of American solid waste. 80% of products are made to be used only once. It takes 70-times the amount of our stuff to make our stuff. As a result, 98.5% of the materials we use go straight to the landfill. Every American disposes of 33-pounds of paper every year and 1,600 pounds of trash every year. Nine football fields of Amazonian trees are cut down every minute, despite the fact that the “forests are the planet lungs.”

Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin (she obviously deserves much of the praise for the project), canceled their newspapers, img_1482gave up paper tissue and even gave up toilet paper, this last strategy drawing unrelenting attention to the project when it was reported by the New York Times (but also see here).   The family traveled only under its own power, walking and using scooters and bicycles (and even a pedal-rickshaw).  They ditched their TV (saving them from watching many of the 2000-5000 advertisements to which each American is exposed to each day). They decided not to take any mass transportation, including flying on airlines, which constitutes “about the most carbon intensive thing you can do.”

Much of this compelling story involves food choice. Beavan and his wife decided that they would not eat fish, because it has been predicted (page 127) that there will be no more ocean fishing by the year 2048. They gave up meat, since the cattle we raise generate more carbon dioxide than all of our transportation combined. They gave up coffee, at least until they couldn’t stand it any longer (the story is one of many experiments, not all of them successful). They gave up many of the “necessities” of live because they, like most of us, live in a vicious cycle:

We work our butts off so we can get the stuff, but the making of the stuff destroys the planet, which makes us more depressed, so we think we need more stuff to cheer us up, so we work even harder.

It repeatedly occurred to me that the anti-consumerism angle of No Impact Man dovetailed well with Geoffrey Miller’s explanation of why we are the way we are.

You might think that this was an exercise in asceticism, of deprivation and anti-progress, but many of the changes made by Beavan and Conlin had a dramatic life-enhancing effects.   For instance, less TV means more time to do the things that the rest of us claim that we want to do (spend time with our family and friends). Not everything was easy, and, in the end, not everything was workable in the long run. For instance, doing without a washing machine might be fun for a few days, but it’s a lot of time-consuming work that simply might not be feasible based on the other things that one needs to do with one’s precious daily hours. For the last five months of the program, the family opened its circuit breakers to live without any electricity coming out of a wall socket, giving up air conditioning and lighting their home with beeswax candles (created through sustainable solar power, unlike petroleum candles) and operating minimal lighting generated from a solar panel and some batteries.

Beavan and Colin did many other things that many of us might merely talk about doing.  They severely limited their use of water, as well. These strict measures were in reaction to the fact that the average American family uses 70-gallons of water per day, one fourth of that for flushing toilets. Beavan offers some ghastly statistics with regard to many areas of the world running out of water, including several states in the southwestern United States. He points out that our dwindling water supply should terrify all of us because much of our food is grown in these water-scarce areas.  Speaking of food, Beavan spends quite a few pages questioning the source of our food supply. The average item of food on the American plate travels 1,500 miles to that plate.  He and Conlin drew a much smaller circle for their food:  250 miles.  He asks to what extent it could be considered “organic” lettuce when it travels 3,000 miles to Whole Foods.  Amen to that.

No impact Man is a how-to book published on recycled paper, but it is also a story that involves the social impact of attempting to truly going green rather than merely talking about it or green-washing. Truly being green is not always easy on one’s social life given that we live in a culture where social status is highly correlated with conspicuous consumption, including conspicuous waste.  One is not able to get around as well as in a petroleum powered vehicle, and one’s relatives in distant cities are not always understanding of one’s decision to avoid using modern transportation.  Dozens of family anecdotes illustrate the intense discipline necessary to accomplish what the this family did for one year. Beavan is an excellent writer who brings an earnest and often humorous inner story to the urgent need to actually do something about the huge set of environmental problems that seems to have our government permanently stalemated. The how-to aspect of the book is addressed throughout the body of the book, as well as through the detailed Appendix with dozens of suggestions and websites full of good information.

As I read this book, I wanted to try out many of the ideas suggested therein. I want to strictly minimize buying food with needless packaging. I will entirely stop using plastic throw-away bags from the supermarket. I want to make increased efforts to avoid burning petroleum, so I will attempt to increase my usage of a bicycle for commuting purposes (I already pedal to my job more days than not). I want to do a lot more about electricity usage than buying high-efficiency light bulbs, but I’d definitely want to keep using high-efficiency light bulbs. My wife and I plan to take an inventory of the trash we throw out (discussed at page 35). I am talking to a teacher at the school attended by my children to see whether the school can make use of Beavan’s mini-version of a low impact lifestyle lasting one week.

The most terrible things in life are often ruthlessly ironic.  I’ve written several recent posts about one of the most important aspects of preserving resources and living sustainably: limiting population growth.   No Impact Man does not address this issue head-on, and there are hints that it is simply too hot a topic to address in this particular book, given the struggle between Beavan and Colin as to whether they should add yet another human being to their family, above and beyond the charming young daughter they ready had. This, combined with Colin’s miscarriage, a painful episode that was mentioned toward the end of the book.

No-Impact Man had the desired effect on me.  I did not feel that I was on the receiving end of a preaching.  Rather, I wanted to do more by changing my own lifestyle and I want to do less preaching .  I want to live more by example than by word and I have a long way to go.earth-nasa

I was fascinated with the way that the no-impact strategy vividly brought home the widespread deleterious effects of local actions; I now find myself reexamining many things in my own home in a different.  This book reminded me that much of the damage being done to the planet is not intentional.  Rather, it results from conduct and omissions committed out of ignorance–I was often reminded of Hannah Arendt’s concept of “The Banality of Evil.”   It is my hope and my faith that if people really knew the extent to which their local actions were crapping up the world, they would modify their ways, at least as long as they felt that it was a group effort.  Many of us might try many of Beavan’s top ten strategies for sustainable living.

No Impact Man reminded me that we can do many things even when our government has been hopelessly paralyzed by corporate campaign contributions.   But this story was ultimately bittersweet, because I was also reminded me that we really do need government action to complement our individual actions.  Environmentally, we’re headed on a sharp downward spiral and well-intentioned actions, even heroic one-year exercises, can’t successfully turn this ship around.

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Category: Environment, Food, global warming, Sustainable Living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    I've recently viewed Beavan's documentary, No Impact Man, and I highly recommend it. The message closely parallels the message in his book, but the images are powerful.

    One idea that stood out: In the early days of the project, Beavan received numerous hostile emails from people who didn't merely suggest that he was an attention seeker or someone who wanted to make a buck selling this project. The messages were incendiary. Incredibly hostile. Beavan commented on these responses in the video, during a conversation with his wife. They concluded, essentially, that people simply love buying and using their stuff. They feel sharply attacked by anyone who tells them that they shouldn't buy anything that they are used to buying. Even if that messenger suggests that that they might find themselves to be happier without than with.

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