Tag Archives: John Francis

“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.


“Cities are Good for You – the Genius of the Metropolis” by Leo Hollis, part 2.

Yes, I finished this book! See my first review, dated August 9, 2013.

Hollis believes cities are more likely to save us from environmental destruction/climate change than rural approaches. I agree with him on this. Living out in the country and “off the grid” either involves a standard of living most of us wouldn’t accept, or use of all kinds of high tech gadgetry (solar panels, batteries, wind turbines, etc.) that are produced elsewhere, always at some environmental cost. And you have to own a car. Cities allow for many efficiencies, most notably that one may have a well developed social life close at hand, just because there are so many people around.

(Memory… When I went to college, I was surprised how much I enjoyed living in a dorm, and having friends – both close and casual – nearby. As a child in suburbia, I found it hard to get together with friends. A college campus is often more like a city than a suburb, despite all that grass.)

That said, I should make it clear that Hollis is ambivalent about cities, frequently citing situations gone wrong (riots, slums…) as well as examples of smart growth and strong communities. But he considers it inevitable that the human future will be largely urban. He can’t decide if cities are “organic” and sometimes self correcting, or if they must (at least some of the time) be organized from the top down.

Hollis cites so many other authors that you could spend months checking them all out. Two who intrigued me were Colin Beavan (No Impact Man) and Donald Shoup (The High Cost of Free Parking).

Beavan (and family) tried to live city life with “no impact”. He even turned off the electricity in his apartment. Ridiculous… Candles are too dangerous. He charged his computer elsewhere. How did he do laundry? And this was a one year experiment! Interesting, but not significant (to me). Doesn’t mean I won’t read it…

Shoup’s book about parking interests me much more! Hollis says he argues that parking should never be free. This issue is close to my heart. I work on a college campus. I know what parking costs – it is not free, ANYWHERE. Free parking on a college campus sends the wrong message – use your car, don’t worry about the impact. I feel like I’m seeing (once again) something I remember from the early days of recycling. Why was the “container industry” allowed to introduce the aluminum can without taking responsibility for its disposal?? Individuals and municipalities and campuses struggled so hard to deal with single use cans, while the “container industry” got rich. Whether we talk about solid waste or parking, each technology needs to be viewed as a whole process, not a one-way dash towards profit and convenience. 

However did Hollis miss John Francis (Planetwalker)??

Hollis suggests that cities (especially megacities like London or NYC or Hong Kong) will soon be more important than countries. Might this decrease the likelihood of war? In this case, what will global citizenship mean? Do I want to live in a megacity? NO! But what about my sons?

I recommend this book to people interested in the near future, climate change and planning/development. With all the talk currently heard about resilience and adaptation, that’s a lot of people.