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Colin Beavan had written a couple of history books; he lived in Manhattan with his wife and daughter; he was a liberal who believed that we are messing up the earth through our negligence, and that we will make the world virtually uninhabitable if we keep on as we do. But he did not want to add to the large literature of despairing literature that tells readers that the world as we know it will disappear unless we change our ways. So he described his own project instead: a year of doing as much as possible to reduce his family's impact on the environment. At the start of the year, he knew his goals but he did not know how to achieve them. Indeed, he started out with less green awareness than most -- in 2006 he had not heart of reusable bags, and had never thought of using handkerchiefs instead of Kleenex. But the end of the year, he and his family had given up using paper tissues, laundry detergent, public transport, elevators, toilet paper, and electricity at home. They gave up eating meat, and ate only locally produced food, and so had to change their habit of ordering out from local restaurants. So it seemed that the whole enterprise would consist of self-denial, living a much more Spartan and pleasureless life. However, Beavan's main point in No Impact Man is that his year-long experiment made his life richer and more enjoyable. Through rethinking how he lived, he came to change his priorities, his friendships, his marriage, his relationship with his daughter, and of course his relationship with the earth.
So it turns out that his account of his family's experiment in no impact living is surprisingly philosophical, delving frequently into the question of what counts as a good life. His conclusions are hardly surprising: it is better to be more connected with one's food, to slow down and savor the moment, to enjoy relationships with real people rather obsess about characters in TV dramas, to talk and make love with one's wife rather than watching TV, to stop accumulating more stuff and creating more waste, and to focus more on what's important: friendships and ideas. Most of us already know all this, but we don't put it into action. Instead, we succumb to what feel like externally imposed requirements of buying bigger TVs, more computers, bigger motor vehicles, giving people gifts they don't need or want, and even watching TV shows that we don't even like much. So the real interest of No Impact Man is to see the efforts of a family to push against those pressures.
Of course, Beavan's experience is not going to be typical of most families. For one thing, from the start his family was being followed around by a film documentary crew, and he was blogging about his experiment. Half way through the year, he got attention from the media and started being interviewed by newspapers, radio and TV shows, and getting thousands of emails a week. His project attracted a great deal of interest, and aroused strong feelings. Some people greatly admired him, while others dismissed it as a gimmick, or even worse, as a distraction from the political goal of changing public policy. In the book, Beavan addresses all these reactions, and sets out why he still thinks it was a worthwhile experiment with a permanent effect on his life.
To be honest, I had not expected to enjoy this audiobook, because judging just from the cover the basic idea seemed silly and self-indulgent. In recent years I have felt a considerable amount of environmental burnout. I felt it hard to keep on worrying about how many plastic bags I was bring home from the supermarket when American's voted twice for a president who was hand-in-glove with the oil industry, and right now when thousands of gallons of oil are escaping into the Gulf of Mexico. I had started to feel that there was no point making small efforts to conserve energy and reduce waste when the larger battle against global warming is so clearly being lost and we are destroying the planet with a shrug. Why should I care about the effects of my actions on future generations when the majority of the population obviously does not give serious thought to it? So it was very refreshing to be reminded not only of the importance of each individual making an effort for the sake of others, but also of the potential selfish reasons there are for rejecting the consumerist society and the personal benefits of living green.
Beavan himself performs the audiobook, and this makes it carry a little more conviction. Fortunately he is a good reader, bring plenty of energy and emotion to the listening experience without being overly dramatic. I have not yet seen the No Impact Man documentary on DVD, but judging from the trailer, it shows more of the perspective of Beaven's wife Michelle in living through the year long experiment, and this would certainly be a helpful balance this his own memoir.
No Impact Man website
No Impact Man blog
No Impact Project
© 2010 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York