by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
The title of Colin Beavan’s book, No Impact Man – not to be confused with the documentary or blog – has a mildly self-deprecating tone that sums things up nicely, No Impact Man: 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.
The documentary is, as I wrote in my April 2009 review, “very engaging and self-aware.” But it also felt a bit too much like a gimmick. The basic premise of the No Impact Man venture, and thus the resulting blog, film, and book, is that Beavan, his wife (Business Week writer Michelle Conlin), and young daughter Isabella transform their lives to exist as sustainably as they can for one year. That means eating only local food they cook at home, no TV, no trash, no new purchases, and the exclusive use of self-propelled transportation – all while living in an apartment in New York City.
For all the vanity and questionable intentions, it seemed like the family was having a lot of fun living in a different way. After seeing the film, I wondered what the Beavans did once they turned the lights back on (they lived without electricity at home for part of the year-long effort).
When Beavan was in San Francisco earlier this month, he candidly answered my questions as we discussed his family’s life and environmental commitment once the cameras stopped rolling and the project officially ended.
Click the play button below to listen to Jessica's full interview with Colin Beavan. - Ed.
Are you still living a sustainable life?
No American is living a sustainable life – not me and not anybody else. Not only do we have the stuff that we do in our own lives in terms of what we purchase and what we use, but we have what’s imputed to us by the culture in which we live. So, it’s actually impossible to get it down.
Having said that, there’s lots that we do that’s more sustainable than we used to before the No Impact Project. So, for example, yes we do have electricity back on in our apartment. But no, we don’t use an air-conditioner, which means we use about 30% less electricity. We continue to ride our bikes, and we continue to eat locally, all these kind of things – and we do those things not because we want to wear the horsehair shirt, but because they make more sense for us. On the whole, they actually make us happier as people.
During the film your motives are somewhat questioned: Are you doing this for the attention, to get a book deal, make the movie or – at least this is what I saw from the film – are you really doing this to change your life? I thought it was interesting that your wife Michelle was initially very apprehensive about the project, but then she seemed to really embrace it. Is that still the case as far eating locally and cooking and biking? Did the project make a real impact in your life?
That’s so funny because sometimes people say, “you know, you don’t really like consuming, you don’t really care about buying so much, but the rest of us do and you want everyone to be like you.” Actually, I don’t want everybody to be like me. One of the things you see in the film, and also in the book, is that Michelle changes. She’s like the consummate consumer, but all of a sudden she realizes that we get this intimation of a better life. A life that’s based more on hanging out with our friends, and whatnot.
So for example, on a hot night in New York City what we used to do is turn the air-conditioners on full blast, sit down in front of the TV, and be lonely by ourselves. During the No Impact Project, and still today because we have no air-conditioners, on a hot night we go out with Isabella to Washington Square where there is a fountain, and Isabella runs around the fountain. And we hang out, we talk, we talk to other people, and we have a better life.
I say I don’t want people to be like me – I want people to be like Michelle. Michelle went into the whole thing very skeptical, but she’s so open-hearted as a person that she kind of saw, “oh wait, there are intimations of something better here.” So no, nobody needs to be like me, but I hope people could be more like Michelle.
Yes. There are two types of change that we need as Americans. People are always going on about China and India, and their climate emissions. The fact of the matter is that the average American emits five times more carbon dioxide than the Chinese. So, this is an American problem. The American consumption paradigm is causing problems for the whole planet.
What I hear you saying is that the long-term effect of doing No Impact Project is really that your life is just better, and you’re happier and healthier?
What we discovered is that we could be happier as individuals living environmentally. But we also have to change our systems, and the good news is that we will also be happier on the cultural level too. So for example, think about this: Whether you believe in global warming as an American is unimportant because the rest of the world does believe in global warming, and therefore, they want solar generation, they want wind generation, they want geothermal generation. If the United States were to create a renewable energy sector, not only would we get jobs and improve our economy, but we could sell these resources to people around the world. In other words, it’s a matter of happier planet, happier people. That you actually get to do what’s right by the planet and create a good industry. It doesn’t matter if you believe in global warming or not, it would still be the best thing for the United States.
How did this whole idea come to you to change your life in these different ways, and then parlay it into a public forum?
In my twenties, my job was to help non-profits with their public relations. So, in other words, my career was social mission oriented. Then in my thirties, I decided that I wanted to be a writer because those were the skills I prized about myself and I wrote a couple of history books. But then in 2006 with all the news about climate [change] and everything coming out, I was really starting to get worried. So, I kind of wanted to bring together the mission orientation of my twenties with the talent orientation of my thirties. How can I write about this global warming stuff? How can I convince everyone else to change?
Then one day I came into my house and the two air-conditioners were on and no one was home. I thought, “Oh my God, never mind about convincing everyone else to change. Maybe I better start doing some changing.” So I started thinking about how I could change my life, then I thought “Oh, wait a minute.” If I were to write a book about how I changed my life, that might be a way to discuss this stuff on a cultural level that doesn’t include the barrier of politics. Everybody understands about living your own life in a way that’s good for the community. So I thought this could maybe be a story that everybody could identify with and read where we actually got to discuss, as a culture, the issues involved.
Have you received a lot of criticism from the documentary, because I know during the film you’re in the New York Times and there is somewhat of a backlash. Some people questioned your motives and the whole project. Since the film came out, has that quelled? What has the reaction been to the film?
You know, what’s interesting is that all of us have both self-interest and public-interest. It’s kind of like the big balancing act of being a human being. How do I take care of myself and take care of my community at the same time? The interesting thing is kind of the middle path – that you have to accept that in order to take care of your community you have to take care of yourself. In order to take care of yourself, you have to take care of your community. There is this whole discussion about motivation and one thing or another that goes on, but that’s like the human dilemma.
And the real question that’s important is, how do we live so that the interests of individual, the interests of myself, and the interests of our community are the same? That’s what it should be! The interests of us as human beings and the interests of the planet should be the same. And I believe they are, actually. I believe to live environmentally is to live a happier life!
What is your next step with this project? You’re obviously very passionate about environmental issues; your life is a testament to making changes and being happier. Are you thinking about another book?
I’m always thinking about another book because it’s in my nature. I’m a writer, that’s what I do. But the work that I’m doing at the moment is on a new nonprofit project. What we’re doing basically is helping people to choose aspects of their lives that they might feel [are] both environmentally more friendly but also will make them happier. It’s not prescriptive. We’re not telling anybody what do to. But we’re providing a kind of framework in which people can experiment with their own lives…Also, in this project, we’re helping to engage citizens in the environmental debate, no matter what side of the aisle they’re on. This is not a Republican or Democratic issue. So, we’re also helping people reach out and talk to their politicians and say, “I care about this and I want you to care about it on my behalf.”
That’s what we’re working on – it’s at noimpactproject.org.
- Audio by Jacob Winik.
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.