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Natural Awakenings

A Conversation with No Impact Man: Is "No Impact" an impossible concept? Colin Beaven shares his ideas.

Oct 01, 2009 03:00AM ● By Ellen Mahoney

From November 2006 to November 2007, New York City author Colin Beavan, his Prada-wearing wife Michelle and 18-month-old daughter, Isabella, went on a yearlong reduce-recycle-reuse odyssey to cut down on their daily ecological footprint. Beavan’s new book, No Impact Man, chronicles their extreme year off of America’s conspicuous consumption merry-go-round. Their story, also featured in a documentary film of the same name, reveals unexpected lessons about what brings happiness.

What does having “no impact” mean to you?

The concept of the no-impact experiment was that we would reduce our negative environmental impact as much as possible, by changing everything from not making trash to not using carbon-producing transportation. Then, we increased our positive impact through volunteering for environmental nonprofits, helping to plant trees and cleaning up litter on the street on our own.

The reduced negative impact, plus the increased positive impact, resulted in no net impact. Philosophically, ‘no impact,’ was a matter of trying to do more good than harm and living life more gently.

Why did you and your wife challenge yourselves and your toddler daughter with a yearlong experiment in no-impact living?

I was in deep despair about global warming and didn’t feel that anyone was really paying attention, so I wanted to write this hectoring, finger-wagging book, telling Americans how they were all bad and wrong. But then, one day I came into my house and saw both air conditioners were on and thought, “Oh my God, you’re such a hypocrite.” I realized the truth of the adage that when you have one finger pointing away from you, there are always three fingers pointing back at yourself. I realized that if I lived my core values in my own life, it could be a story vehicle to discuss environmental issues at the same time.

Please share the most vital lessons you and Michelle learned in your efforts to live a greener, cleaner lifestyle for a year.

I learned that I can personally make a difference, and by extension, that everybody can make a difference. I realized that living life according to one’s values and being involved in your community through civic engagement actually does change things; we’re not powerless as individuals. I think that Michelle, who would be the first to tell you she was a consummate consumer, learned that letting go of the consumption paradigm can result in being happier.

Are you going to continue your no-impact lifestyle?

We have kept a lot of it these past two years and we continue to do what makes sense in our lives, but there are no ‘rules’ left. So, for example, it makes economic sense to give away our air conditioners. We use electricity, but now we only use 20 percent of the electricity we used before. We sometimes use the subway now, but mostly we get around on our bicycles. We will occasionally eat in restaurants, but we prefer to shop at farmers’ markets and choose food that’s good for us.

The adaptations we’ve made in our lives are not done out of a sense of moral obligation, but because they are better for us.

What are five important sustainable living tips we can all realistically adopt to immediately minimize our impact?

You can stop eating beef, give up bottled water, make getting fit part of your everyday life and volunteer for an environmental organization. Also, take an ‘Eco-Sabbath,’ which means taking an hour, an afternoon or a day a week when you don’t buy anything, turn anything on or off and don’t travel anywhere.

What do you tell people who think the whole concept is impossible or unrealistic for them?

The reason why it looks so hard is because our larger systems are not sustainable. This means we need to get involved in collective action and let city officials and state and national legislators know that we want sustainable systems. The truth of the matter is that, sooner or later, we are going to have to start living differently if we want to maintain the habitat that we depend upon for our health, happiness and security.

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Ellen Mahoney is a freelance writer and teaches writing at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Contact
[email protected].

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