His stunt is over, his book published, his movie released, but Colin Beavan is still living without a TV set, air conditioner or dishwasher, buying seasonal produce and not much else, and making his way around Manhattan by bike. During a year-long experiment in radically “green” living, Beavan, 46, his wife Michelle Conlin (a writer for Business Week) and their baby daughter tried to limit their impact on the environment: They made no trash (no more take-out food or toys wrapped in plastic), cut way down on their greenhouse gas emissions (no taxis, AC or flights to see family at Thanksgiving), and shopped at the local farmers’ market (no strawberries in December).
Beavan has since written a terrific book about the experience, called No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Plant and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process (FSG, $25). Upending conventional wisdom, he found that consuming less stuff made his life a whole lot more fun. As he puts it in the video below:
I saved money, lost weight, gained energy, improved my health, spent more quality time with my family and friends, renewed my relationship with my wife and discovered an overall sense of freedom.
I learned that, yes, sometimes less is more.
This is a valuable insight even for those of us who can’t or won’t bike in the winter, stop flying, or get rid of our air conditioners, assuming we could figure out how to trash them. Living in ways that are environmentally responsible, which mostly means consuming less, can get us off the hedonic treadmill and make us happier.
“What’s good for the planet is good for the people” is how Beavan put it when we talked last week by phone.
Of course, it’s hard break lifelong habits and harder still when you are swimming against powerful cultural tides. To his credit, Beavan candid about his own foibles and never preachy (well, almost never). I was pleased to learn that he is the kind of person who, before his no-impact year, bought canvas bags to take to the supermarket, then left them crumpled and forgotten in the back of his closet. (Mine are usually left in the trunk of car.) Replacing disposable diapers with cloth ones confounds him:
I have to choose between the “angel twist, the “newspaper fold,” the “reverse newspaper fold,” the “thigh fold,” and on and one. All I want to do is contain my child’s poop, but apparently I’m learning origami.
He and Michelle find it hard to give up coffee and store-bought yogurt, and he tires of people asking him over and over what he uses instead of toilet paper.
Beavan has taken some flak for his book. Some environmentalists think it’s counter-productive to ask people to sacrifice, and argue that only innovations in clean technology will solve our environmental problems. As techno-optimist Michael Shellenberger of The Breakthrough Institute wrote in an exchange with Beavan:
I don’t think we can convince very many Americans or Chinese to do what you’re doing. And I don’t think we should try because we’ll only alienate them. Instead I think we need to find ways to allow people to keep on consuming without generating emissions or depleting resources. Technically, renewable energy and infinite materials recycling should make this possible. Both, however, remain expensive. Hence, the need for breakthroughs in performance and price.
But this misses the larger point about, once basic needs are met, consumption on the American scale makes us happy,
Betsy Kolbert, writing in The New Yorker, took issue with what she calls Beavan’s ”nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit,” in part because saving the world goes beyond individual action (a point Beavan makes), in part because he doesn’t come close to achieving zero impact:
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.
I do think there’s a legitimate question about whether individual actions–the proverbial changing of a light bulb–leads people to the collective action that’s needed to deal with environmental crises, or whether once they have traded down (or up) to a Prius, people feel they’ve done their part. When we spoke, Beavan made a distinction between what he says as superficial changes, i.e., “greener” consumption, and deeper lifesyle changes around how we eat or travel. “If a movement around local food happens, or a movement around cycling, these are flashpoints around which wider cultural change can happen,” he says.
To his credit, Beavan is trying to bring his no-impact movement to a broader audience. This week, he’s launching what he calls The No Impact Experiment, in which people are invited to change their ways for a week. “It’s not about giving up creature comforts,” he writes, “but an opportunity for you to test whether the modern “conveniences” you take for granted are actually making you happier or just eating away at your time and money.” He’s written a 17-page how-to guide in which, among other things, he encourages people to work with one of three nonpartisan groups agitating for political change: the 1Sky campaign, Food & Water Watch and the Alliance for Biking and Walking.
Even though I write about the environment almost every day, No Impact Man reminded me not merely that each of us can take steps that make a difference–eat less meat, drive less, buy less stuff–but that we’ll feel better once we do. This is the mirror-image of the message we get from the culture every day.
As Beavan puts it:
If it’s love we’re after, how about we cut out the middleman—the stuff—and just hang out.
Sounds good to me. Here’s Colin, talking about the No Impact Experiment: