The documentary “No Impact Man” opened on Friday in NY and LA. A Huffington Post article from the other day explains a little of the back story, and it’s where I first heard of the film. The movie presents Colin Beavan’s experiment to live with as little environmental impact as possible for a year, in Manhattan. This meant major personal reductions in electricity use and garbage production, eating local and vegetarian, not riding subways or taxis, etc. Although it was primarily his project, his wife and two-year-old daughter got to come along for the ride. I don’t think they had a choice. The experiment sounds both extreme and fascinating. In print, Beavan has been portrayed as somewhat of a novelty (NYTimes “The Year Without Toilet Paper” March ’07) and as an attention-seeking eco-stuntman (Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article “Green Like Me” August ’09).
So, with interest piqued, I read a bit more about Beavan, and he’s got some interesting things to say. I thought his response to Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article was brilliant. He points out that she’s wasting time, energy, and magazine space by infighting (when in the grand scheme of things they are working towards the same goals), and he manages not to react so much to Kolbert’s personal jibes as to the philosophical ones.
A blog post of his from late August has some relevance to any work that promotes sustainability and environmental action; it’s called “Your green lifestyle helps convince people of global warming.” The gist is that a sense of apathy and insignificance in the general public is directly related to the subsequent decision to change nothing in the way of personal habits. And it’s an easy out. If I’m too small to affect change on my own, then what I do doesn’t matter, so I might as well keep doing what I’m doing. So he argues that the opposite attitude can prevail as well. Seeing people make visible and significant changes in their lifestyle — beyond just changing lightbulbs, say — can help to reinforce the idea that our actions do matter. This is important for a number of reasons: first, the actual positive change from people being more responsible results in less garbage produced, less fuel consumed, etc.; second, he argues that the perceived change (being part of the movement) gets more people involved; third, public and political pressure will be needed in order for anything to get done on a larger scale. To quote Beavan, “…wholesale change in our systems — agricultural, transportation, and energy production — combined with cultural lifestyle change” is what it’s going to take to slow global climate change.
I find myself coming down on his side of the debate, recognizing that one person’s efforts do count for something. I have to believe that — as a teacher — understanding that it’s part of my job to instill the belief in my students that they can make a difference. That they will make a difference. In Beavan’s case, the publicity (via book, blog, movie) is also helpful. Watch the trailer, because what is remarkable is that these are normal people that made some serious changes for a year. They didn’t just change lightbulbs or recycle. It sounds hard. Yes, it was an experiment. Yes, he wrote a book, and he documented the process, and he hopes that both do well. I hope they do well. He’s got to feed his family, right? The take home point is this: the Beavan family’s efforts over the course of their “No Impact Year” were significant, but they pale in comparison to the potential effect of many more people making similar strides (even if they’re not as extreme).
He’s a force for good, I think, and it’s all definitely worth checking out.