No Impact Man and Earth Days: Two Sides of Environmentalism

by Jessica Mosby
- USA -

On Wednesday, the United States will celebrate the 39th Earth Day. In honor of this annual call to environmentalism, I have chosen to preview two documentaries that premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival: No Impact Man follows one family’s year-long effort to live a more sustainable life in the middle of New York City, while Earth Days chronicles the history of the modern conservation movement. Both films are thought-provoking perspectives on our relationship with the planet.

No Impact Man is one part environmental manifesto and one part vanity project. Writer Colin Beavan decides that his new book will record his family’s project to live carbon-free and environmentally friendly for a year beginning in November 2006. He started a blog to document the assignment, and has parlayed the attention into a book (which will be released this fall) and a movie.

Beavan creates the following ground rules: only local and sustainable food, no restaurants, no trash, no cars, no television, no electricity (eventually), and no buying anything new. His family of three immediately stops shopping for anything new and begins patronizing farmers markets, but they save turning off the electricity for a few months. The one caveat is that the family can violate some of the rules outside of the home, for instance they can watch television at a friend’s house or use electricity at work.

It’s easy to question Beavan’s sincerity during the 90-minute film. But the movie is actually very engaging and self-aware, in large part because directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein don’t idolize Beavan during the year-long shoot. Instead, Beavan’s wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin, becomes the documentary’s real star.

A self-professed consumer and reality TV addict, Conlin goes on a designer shopping spree before the project officially starts. She is a reluctant participant who often complains – “I can’t eat anything that tastes good” – and even cheats a few times. The difficulty of the project is sometimes too much for her, especially the lack of caffeine (Beavan bans coffee because it isn’t grown within 250 miles). She describes it as “easy for Colin, murder for me.”

For all of the genuine individual change that Beavan and Conlin embrace, the underlying gimmick of the project is just too apparent. Beavan embraces the project with a monastic-like commitment, including reaching out for help and advice. His community garden mentor, aging hippie Mayer Vishner, willingly helps Beavan learn the ropes of growing food, but he also speaks honestly about the project. For Vishner, conservation is a way of life and not just a year-long experiment; he questions Beavan’s sincerity and motives by asking if Beavan is “dishonest or delusional.”

In one absurd instance, Beavan rigs a solar panel on the apartment building’s roof, but instead of powering their refrigerator, he powers his laptop so he can update his No Impact Man blog from home. The fact that Good Morning America films the family turning their electricity back on at the end of the project drives Beavan’s self-importance home. Even Beavan wonders if, by the time the book and documentary are released, he and his project will be “irrelevant.”

Interestingly, it’s Conlin, who initially hesitated at the radical lifestyle change, who benefits the most; she learns to love biking with two-year old daughter Isabella and cooking meals with locally grown food – and her pre-diabetic condition improves. She seems to genuinely enjoy being environmentally conscious and her constant humor and game attitude ground the film.

If No Impact Man is about individuals changing their daily lives to affect the environment (motives not-withstanding), Earth Days is about the individuals that came together to found the modern environmental movement as we know it. The 100-minute documentary, which was selected as Sundance’s closing film, celebrates the 1960s counterculture that contributed to the founding of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

The film begins in the 1950s as the American Dream is in full swing. Post-war suburbs are popping up everywhere, and environmentalism is not figured into the era’s insatiable need for progress. Writer/director/producer Robert Stone focuses his film on nine people who went against the tide and contributed to what is now known as environmentalism. Interviewees include Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, former Republican Congressman Pete McCloskey, biologist and The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, and astronaut Rusty Schweickart.

For most of the film, everyone reminisces about the “good old days” while long shots of pristine landscapes fill the screen. The interviewees wistfully recollect the era’s failures (the egalitarian communes of the “Back to the Land” movement never really stuck) and successes (the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Endangered Species Act). It’s an interesting history of the environmental movement, but the film ends in 1980 with the election of President Ronald Regan. Has nothing of note happened since? Stone would have been wise to edit some of the back-story in order to bring Earth Days more up to date.

But the film is not without its merits. Everyone interviewed describes a true commitment to their ideals. For some, the environmental movement shaped their entire lives. The reality that they did not change the world in quite the magnitude they had hoped comes as a grave disappointment for many. Environmental activist and author Stephanie Mills believed that society was “poisoning the planet,” and after reading Ehrlich’s book vowed to never have children, a position she publicly announces during her 1969 college Valedictorian speech. Mills stayed true to her promise and has no children today.

Earth Days focuses too much on past efforts, specifically the failures, to really resonate with current audiences, especially those not involved with the original environmental movement of the 1960s and 1970s. And few new ideas are actually discussed, much less executed. Though it’s always important to review the past to avoid repeat mistakes, in order to ensure future sustainability, we need to focus on the here and the now – not romanticize previous efforts.

No Impact Man and Earth Days are not perfect films. And yet, while celebrating Earth Day next week No Impact Man offers a better model of the personal and environmental impact of living simply. Many of the ideas offered – shopping at farmers markets, composting, using cloth diapers, and utilizing self-propelled transportation – can be easily adopted by the viewer, not to mention the bona fide economic, health, and environmental benefits that result. The film depicts real (albeit rather bourgeois) people changing their lives and questioning the validity of a disposable culture – something we should all consider.

All images courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival.

About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.

2 comments on “No Impact Man and Earth Days: Two Sides of Environmentalism
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