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
What does it really take to live eco-effectively?
For one year, Colin Beavan swore off plastic and toxins, turned off his electricity, went organic, became a bicycle nut, and tried to save the planet from environmental catastrophe while dragging his young daughter and his Prada-wearing wife along for the ride. Together they attempted to make zero impact on the environment while living right in the heart of Manhattan, and this is the sensational, funny, and consciousness-raising story of how they did it.
With No Impact Man, Beavan found that no-impact living is worthwhile–and richer, fuller, and more satisfying in the bargain.
I read this book many years ago when it first came out, around 2009. I showed the documentary at the public library a few years ago when I worked there. I just re-read the book for a book discussion as part of the Social Impact series at Lynn University, and it struck me that it is as relevant today as it was more than a decade ago – maybe more so. It’s also more depressing to realize that nothing much has changed in all that time.
Colin Beavan described himself as “a liberal schlub who got tired of listening to himself complain about the world without ever actually doing anything about it.” He decided to try a social experiment to try and make zero impact on the environment. It was not easy, to say the least. He dragged his “espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping wife, Michelle, and their two year-old daughter…into the fray.”
Colin was very lucky. Michelle agreed to go along with it, and honestly, I think she changed more than anyone from this year. Their daughter was a lot like her mother; willing to go along, easily entertained, and remarkable agreeable for a toddler.
The plan was divided into six parts, and each part was gradually introduced and adopted.
1. Transport: Travel without creating any carbon emissions. Walk, ride a bike, take public transport, car-pool.
2. Food: Buy organic, local, seasonal produce (with minimal packaging). Go vegetarian.
3. Energy: Reduce household energy use. Seven months in, they stopped using electricity at all.
4. Waste: Reduce waste by buying products with no, minimal or recyclable packaging. Food scraps go to the compost bin and the worm farm. No bottled water. No disposable diapers. No toilet paper.
5. Consumption: Buy nothing new. Shop at thrift stores or consignment shops or online like Freecycle (a Yahoo group where people advertised stuff they didn’t want anymore and gave it away.)
6. Positive impact: Get involved in and support projects that are making a positive impact.
Oh, did I mention they lived in New York City? When he first started talking about this project, people generally responded by saying, “you need to move to the country.” Like living in a rural community makes a difference. By the end of this book, I was pretty convinced it couldn’t have worked anywhere but NYC.
They started with transport, which meant no cars, trains, planes, subways, buses, escalators and elevators. They lived on the 9th floor and used the stairs. Beavan’s office was on the 12th floor and he took the stairs. Michelle’s office was on the 34th floor. She took the elevator.
Michelle worked full time through this ordeal as a writer for Business Week. She enjoyed her air conditioned office and the elevator ride to get there. She was also a serious caffeine addict and by rights, should have given it up. To stick with the local only diet, that meant no coffee as it isn’t grown anywhere in NY. But eventually they caved on the coffee.
They switched to cloth diapers. They shopped for food at the farmer’s market and brought their own bags and muslin fabric to wrap food like cheese in, so no plastic wrap or anything that was prepackaged. Their entertainment was having friends over and playing charades. Oh, early on Michelle decided she was addicted to reality TV and insisted they get rid of the television.
Beavan’s writing style is humorous and fast paced. This may have been the longest year in his life, but it is a quick read. I found it very inspirational, albeit sad that global warming really hasn’t been addressed in a significant way, especially due to the last president and his administration. Biden is desperately trying to play catch up but it is not easy.
The documentary is available on various streaming services. I highly recommend either reading this book or watching the documentary. Both are worth your time.
9/2021 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch
NO IMPACT MAN by Colin Beavan. Picador; First edition (May 25, 2010). ISBN: 978-0312429836. 288 pages.