“No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan

Last August, when I wrote about Cities Are Good for You by Leo Hollis, I noted Hollis’ reference to No Impact Man by Colin Beavan. I was dismissive because the thought of living very “simply” in New York City struck me as silly. But I just read the book, and was more impressed than I expected to be. (I agree with Hollis in thinking solutions to our environmental problems are likely to arise from the cities.)

First consider the subtitle, The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes… Sounds like he managed to undertake this without taking himself 100% seriously. Whew! The last thing the environmental movement needs is more dead serious gloom and doom. Reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature in 2007 shut me down emotionally for months.

Colin Beavan was much more engaging. It takes nerve to begin an experiment in radical simplicity when there is a toddler in the house. Beavan’s wife Michelle alternated between a high level of cooperation and occasional rebellion, as in “It’s YOUR project”.

Beavan started with a plan. He worked in stages, rather than trying to change his whole life at once. For starters, he wanted to produce NO trash. Challenging for a family that was living on take-out food! They were buried in packaging. Next came travel, from taking the stairs instead of the elevator (6 floors) to re-evaluating holiday travel plans. It got much more complicated that the usual problems associated with figuring out which relatives to visit.      

With respect to food, Beavan wanted not only to avoid excessive packaging, but also to limit himself to food grown within a 250 mile radius and to stick to a vegetarian diet. He found out considerable effort was involved. I don’t think I would be happy eating that way. Beavan was surprised that he would have to learn to cook.

I won’t review the family’s steps with respect to overconsumption. 

A few months into the project, Beavan turned off the electricity in his apartment. This was what attracted my attention when I first heard of this project – fear of fire. I still think using candles in an apartment is too risky. Changing your schedule to take advantage of daylight is great, but hard in winter.

Along the way, Beavan wanders off into occasional reflections about life, families, nature and the future. I enjoyed this.

Such a book inevitably causes the reader to start making comparisons. How am I doing compared to this dude? My lifestyle doesn’t look impressive, but I give myself a pat on the back for certain things. Thirty years of composting! Two sons who don’t own cars. A small house only a few miles from work. Food wise, I’m in a gray area. I’m an omnivore. But I cook, and cooking (have you noticed?) is now a subversive activity.

I wonder if NO IMPACT MAN ever met PLANET WALKER, aka John Francis, whose book Planet Walker is subtitled 22 Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence? I met Francis at a neighbor’s home. A generation older than Beavan, he’s now a semiretired environmental icon. He seems content.

Beavan’s last effort during his one-year project was to find ways to improve the environment. He started by picking up trash, then moved on to organizations and politics. His comments on organizations and their members make interesting reading.

And then? After the no-impact year was over, Beavan looked back over his year of living “according to rules” and reconstituted a more moderate life style. I look forward to seeing what he does next.


2 thoughts on ““No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan

  1. It’s one of my favorite genres of writing, a personal account of a challenging adventure as a writing project. I also enjoyed reading Colin Beavan’s account, both the nature of his project, a “waste free” challenge, and how he ruminated on it. A similar story, set in Oakland is Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter. And the movie Julie and Julia, with blogging inherent in the adventure, .

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