Nov 16 2009

Thoughts on 'No Impact Man'

On one of our quick trips up to New York in October, we checked out McNally Jackson Books and I picked up Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man.  I had heard about the Beavan family’s experiment a few months ago (admittedly, I was a little late to the game!) and had already heard a few interviews, as well as scanned his blog and the preview for the documentary also based on his experiment.  His year-long journey of living as ‘carbon neutral/no impact’ as possible fascinated me, especially because his wife and young daughter were along for the ride as well.  I was curious to hear his rationale behind the experiment, including the steps the family took to become no impact (and steps that they tried that proved to be impossible).  And since I’ve just moved to the Big Apple, I thought I’d share a few of my observations about the book and experiment.

Colin Beavan is a very articulate writer and I was immediately pulled into the book.  His writing is an effective combination of personal stories, statistics, history, accessible scientific thought, existentialism, and most importantly, a recognition that he is quite human and thus full of contradictions and mistakes.  It was a refreshing read, because the goal was not for Mr. Beavan to be completely ‘successful’ and thus the book was not hypothetical, preachy, or self-congratulatory.  He is a normal man with a cute daughter and a kind wife who agreed to come along for the ride, despite some significance evidence that she would have serious problems with the experiment (read:  6 espressos a day and $900 boots).  She found herself embracing and celebrating the year of no impact living.

Beavan addresses the argument that ‘this could only be done in NYC’ successfully by recognizing that while NYC’s pollution is huge, the city  is blessed with a wonderful public transportation system (it truly is amazing!); that the city is highly walkable, but that each person, no matter where he or she lives, can assess the lifestyle that he/she is currently living and seriously ask themselves about what is necessary, what is not, and are they getting what they want out of life?

Lessons He Learned Along the Way:

  • Instead of choosing different products, it might be about choosing fewer products.
  • You can’t avoid using certain resources and nor should you.  Those who don’t have electricity, water, even heat (depending on the climate) need to be brought on par with the rest of the world.  It’s about using what you need (…after re-assessing what you need). It’s not about whether we use our resources, but what we use them FOR.
  • His experiment brought his family and friends together in ways that seemed unimaginable.  By removing himself from the ‘rat race’ for a year, he connected with his wife and daughter, learned and understood the concept of seasonality; the kitchen table became the center of their house, and there was more time for conversation and games.

A few things that I found especially interesting and worth passing on from his book:

  • Cloth versus Plastic Diapers Debate:
  • Cloth:  an average baby will need 30 diapers, washed twice a week (w/the impact of laundering)

    Plastic: An average baby will need 4,000 diapers (pumping oil, shipping to factories, delivering to countries, burying them under the ground)

  • Food packaging makes up 20% of our solid waste nationwide
  • Some 80% of our products are made to be used only once:  10 billion pounds of paper napkins, towels, cups, plates, etc go to landfills ever year in the US
  • Every year, the world trashes 4-5 trillion plastic bags
  • Industrial Agriculture is the US’s leading source of water pollution, its biggest water consumer, and the main cause of soil erosion.
  • According to the EPA:  210 million pounds of fertilizer end up in the Gulf every year
  • 40% of our country’s economic growth goes to the richest 1% of the population.
  • In the US, an average single family household uses 70 gallons of water every day—a full quarter from flushing the toilet…2.5 trillion gallons down the toilet a year.  Arizona is out of water
  • The US government doesn’t require that bottled water be tested for chemicals.

I recognize (as did Beavan) that he was able to do this experiment because he’s a published writer who lives in New York and his schedule revolved around the experiment.

Those of us who work full time (or more) jobs or who live in suburbs would have to approach their lifestyle change in different ways.  Beavan recognizes the need for much better public transportation, linking cities to cities.  Instead of having so many people living in suburbs and commuting to cities for work and back, cities need to become more appealing so that it’s easier to live closer to the place where you work.  People need to find ways to connect with each other and their communities to bring about change.  Even small change, such as where you shop, what you buy, where you volunteer makes a difference.  Individual action joined to a group is quite powerful.

Finally, there is an extensive index at the end of No Impact Man with many ideas for organizations to contact and ways to change your own lifestyle.

I found these particular links helpful and interesting:

The Top Things Beavan did to reduce trash.

Note:  I won't be trying all of these:  I think using baking soda to wash my hair would lead to disastrous results.  And I'm not sure how I feel about baking soda for toothpaste either.   But you can take a look at the list and pick out a few things to do.

How to Compost.