I have been a follower of the No Impact Man blog almost since Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) began his experiment in living without having any negative impact on the environment–all while raising a toddler in New York City. Beavan and his family took drastic measures like forswearing the elevator (they live on the 9th floor of an apartment building), washing their clothes in their bath tub, switching off their electricity and giving up toilet paper.
Beavan’s extreme green lifestyle experiment, which had already gotten a lot of press, in large part because of his extremely intelligent and compelling blog, has been getting even more now that The No Impact Man book has come out.
At least some of this press has been negative. In her New Yorker article on the book, Elizabeth Kolbert labeled Beavin’s experiment a “stunt” and, as such, dismissed its value:
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is … a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways… But sadly … the real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of actions that “No Impact Man” is all about.
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He would talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Statin and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit… Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
Kolbert’s assessment misrepresents Beavan’s experiment, which included a lot of advocacy, and which has been reincarnated as the non-profit organization No Impact Project whose mission is to “To empower citizens to make choices that better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in environmental politics.”
Moreover, Kolbert’s critique shortchanges the power of individual lifestyle choices–even “stunts” like No Impact Man–to affect change. She is absolutely correct to prioritize collective action and public policy (of course giving up toilet paper won’t save the world!). At the same time, she seems to overlook the synergistic relationship between individual and collective action, between personal choices and public policy that Beavan’s experiment exemplifies.
Individual actions and personal choices do have the power to inspire others to not only change themselves but also to effect broader social change, especially when they are incorporated into a thoughtful, sincere, and instructive storyline like No Impact Man. All the more so when this storyline includes compelling vignettes on political advocacy, as the No Impact Man blog does.
Moreover, individual actions and choices have value in and of themselves. One of the most moving lines I read in the No Impact Man blog is this: “If I’ve forgotten my jar and the only coffee available is in a throwaway cup, I forgo the coffee. Does that save the planet? Probably not, but on some level, it may save me.” There is a great deal to be said for living according to one’s principles–sure, we’re all hypocrites–but trying to be less of one is nonetheless a worthwhile endeavor.
Finally, there is a value to Beavan’s experiment precisely because it is extreme. By living beyond the limits of what is possible for most people, Beavan revealed that more is possible than we, or at least I, previously thought. My family hasn’t foresworn toilet paper, but we have stopped buying paper towels and paper napkins. While we haven’t stopped driving we have started walking and biking a lot more. Not to mention that I refuse to buy bottled water, to the point that I will let my kids go thirsty.
Beavan’s experiment in extreme green living helped show me that these actions were possible. His experiment has also informed my venture as a green home and green lifestyle consultant, insofar as it provides a model for using my personal struggles and choices to help others. As my business is still very new, I can’t predict what kind of impact it will have on my community (of Newton, a suburb of Boston). But the data has already come in about Beavan’s experiment and it runs counter to Kolbert’s assessment: No Impact Man has already had a large impact. I only hope that in its reincarnation as the No Impact Project this impact will continue to grow.
(If you’d like to follow this story further you can read Beavan’s response to Kolbert here, a defense of Beavan’s experiment on Treehugger, and a defense of Kolbert’s critique on Grist. Interesting stuff.)