Archive for September, 2009

No Impact Man opened Friday 9/11/09.  Image:

No Impact Man opened on Friday Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories

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 hardYes, 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.



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A Lot of Fuss about Sugar

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene

…and deservedly so.

I’ve been reading a lot of Marion Nestle’s blog, Food Politics.  I’ve found her writing to be well researched, thoughtful, and sensible about all things related to food and, well, the politics of food.  Her book What To Eat is on the shelf in my science classroom, and it has been helpful as students research the pros and cons of fish farming (for a unit of debates in environmental science).  Through her recent posts I’ve learned quite a bit about the intricacies of sugar policy.  Complicated stuff.  Here’s a post of hers with some good background information on sugar (after her appearance on the Colbert Report).  But the main point of this post is about all the beverage and advertising ruckus that’s been happening recently in New York.

Marion is keeping tabs on the situation;  she has been updating things on via her Twitter account, and here is what I have learned from her so far:

1) the American Heart Association finally came around to recommending that people eat less sugar.  It’s amazing to me that this is a recent recommendation. But there it is.

2) the New York City Health Department comes up with an ad campaign called “Pour Off The Pounds” (that they’ve spent significant money on) to get people to drink less soda.  There are gobs of fat pouring out of the soda bottle, which is a nice touch.  See the NYTimes’s take on it here.  This ad campaign is related to the AHA recommendation (though not a result of it), as there are benefits to having fewer people run into health problems related to over-consumption of sugar and soft drinks.  Here’s an ABC News spot on soda and extra calories.  So NYC Dept of Health and Mental Hygiene tells people to drink less soda.  Tell people to be a bit healthier.  It’s like mom telling you to eat your vegetables and not so much candy.  Simple, right?  Ah, no…

3) the American Beverage Association freaks out.  They sell A LOT of soda, you know.  Plenty of sugar.  So they weren’t happy first when the AHA came out and said that people should consume less soda: their response (which sounds frighteningly close to those HFCS commercials, which were just uncomfortable.)  And then they certainly weren’t excited about this ad campaign: their response to that. “We can’t have NY telling people not to drink soda!!  It’s not our fault that people are fat.” (my paraphrase).  What a mess.

It would be naive to think that sugar issues should be more simple.  It reminds me of those “This is Your Brain on Drugs” commercials from the 80’s.  There’s some history out there for shocking ads from various health departments.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.  Don’t smoke, don’t do drugs.  That’s not new.  But what would have happened if there was a response from the drug community after the “Brain on Drugs” commercials?  Like outrage, you know, a press release about such a prejudiced ad campaign…

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