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Q&A with No Impact Man Colin Beavan

Colin Beavan with Isabella.
Colin Beavan with Isabella.

Author and self-proclaimed No Impact Man Colin Beavan is loved and hated with equal passion. In 2006, the New York City resident came up with an idea for a new book: He and his family, consisting of wife (and BusinessWeek writer) Michelle Conlin and toddler Isabella, would spend a year trying to make no impact on the environment (or at least as little as possible), and he'd write about the process. The clan subsequently gave up everything from TV to toilet paper as Beavan energetically publicized his efforts via regular appearances on Good Morning America and interviews with pretty much any media outlet that would provide him with a forum (and plenty did). Along the way, he was either celebrated as an ecological hero or savaged as a egomaniacal putz trying to ride a stunt to fame.

Today, Beavan remains in promotional mode. He's just published 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, and he's at the center of a No Impact Man, a documentary film that opens today at the Chez Artiste. Look below for an extended conversation with Beavan about both projects, during which he alternately defends himself from criticism and does his best to focus attention on what we can do to improve our lives and the planet -- his oft-stated goal.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Before you began the No Impact Man project, did you see yourself as an obsessive person?

Colin Beavan: (Laughs.) No, in some ways, I think the No Impact Man project turned me into an obsessive person. What was happening, and this was in 2006: Basically, I started to become obsessed with the fact that I was reading this news that said we were melting the planet, melting the icecaps. And I was looking at my friends and thinking that everybody was working so hard, and I really didn't think they were as happy as they could be. So it'd be one thing if we were trashing the place and having a party doing it. But I felt as though we weren't trashing the place. Not in the developed world, where everybody's suffering from anxiety and depression. And not in the developing world, where a billion people don't even have access to clean drinking water.

WW: As you set up the plan to document this year-long experiment, I'm sure you saw all kinds of ways in which you couldn't possibly have no impact, from the energy it took to keep your blog online to eventually writing a book that required as least as much paper as the toilet paper you didn't use during the year. How did you rationalize those kinds of things in the overall scheme?

CB: Just being alive is so full of contradictions. And here's the thing. I write books for a living, so resources get used when I publish a book. I changed my career; I used to write history books. And I changed my career in such a way that I hoped I'd attract a lot of attention to important issues having to do with our climate and our planet that need people to pay attention to them. So yes, I'm using resources. What I like to think in some sort of way is that I'm using resources for something good and worthwhile.

WW: At one point in the No Impact Man film, you see individually wrapped items at a farmers market, and you say to yourself, "How can I say this without seeming like a dick?" That struck me as one of the central questions in the movie. Did you see that issue coming? Or did you not anticipate that the way you talked about things would be just as important as what you said?

CB: I think the way I say things is... Basically, No Impact Man is the story of what I did with my own life. You never hear me saying, "Everybody should do what I do," or anything like that. So really, this is the story of one person who thinks carefully about their own lives. What I'm saying is, "I thought about my life this way. If you're interested, think about your life also. But if you're not, that's okay, too." One of the things I'm proud of is that it's not a finger-wagging documentary, and it's not a finger-wagging book. It's just about one little family trying to negotiate this strange intersection between the highly personal and the highly political.

WW: At the same time, though, a lot of the movie finds you wrestling with the response you're receiving, and wondering if the way you're going about it was the best way. Were you completely blindsided by the response, and by people's inability to see things as you just described them? As them not taking it as, "We're not telling you what to do, we're telling you what we're doing"?

CB: Oh, I understand your question better now. Yeah, I was surprised by that stuff. But one of the things that we didn't get to cover in the documentary so much is that meanwhile, I was receiving thousands of e-mails from people. Literally, over time, I've received thousands of e-mails from people saying that they've heard of the blog or they've heard of the book and they've decided to start working on changing their own lives, too. So even though there was a response from a certain sector where people felt challenged by what we were doing, there's also been a huge positive response, where people have decided that they wanted to make changes in their own lives, too.

 

WW: Do you regret that the movie doesn't give the positive responses more play? In the film, there's a lot of focus on the negativism, and the way you deal with that negativism.

CB: Sure. But as you know, there's both a book and a film, and basically, the book is me getting to tell the story of what happens, and the film is the filmmaker's version of what happened. Both of them have real value, but I didn't get to control what was said in the documentary. Looking at things through different lenses means there's access to what we're talking about to two entirely different groups of people.

WW: So when it comes to the movie, did you have no input about what stayed and what went? [Beavan is credited as a co-producer on the film.] I'm thinking particularly of a scene where you're talking to an urban gardener, and he says the fact that your wife works for Business Week completely contradicts the entire project, which is a fairly devastating comment in some ways. Is there any part of you that wishes that scene wasn't in there?

CB: I don't think it's so devastating. Obviously, the way Mayer [the gardener] says it, it might seem that way. But it points to something that's really important. Every human life is full of paradox. Basically what we're talking about here is how can we go through life doing more good than harm, right? And so all of us have an impact on the planet, and we all have an impact on the communities in which we live. And Mayer points out that there are paradoxes and ironies in my life, yes, but that's true of all human life. That's a really important theme, and what's especially important about it is, just because we can't be perfect doesn't mean we shouldn't try to be good. We mustn't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We must try to do our best.

WW: Do you think that's an aspect of the project that's become more understandable to people over time? That they don't have to do everything you did. And even if they don't do exactly what you did in any respect, as long as they're trying to improve in certain areas, that's a good thing.

CB: We've come to a stage in American culture that we don't feel responsible for the way our society is. We kind of imagine that somebody else is in charge and we're just supposed to do our little part to make our living, and stuff like that, and there's all this stuff we're powerless over. And if there's one thing I hope people will get from reading the book or seeing the film, it's just this idea that actually, it is way more fun, and it feels way better, to realize that we do matter, and what we say and how we live does affect the people around us. And that goes for our general culture. We should be involved in our politics, we should choose to live our lives according to our values only because it makes us feel better to do so. To feel as though you make a difference, when we actually do all make a difference, is a wonderful thing to acknowledge.

WW: At the same time, though, in the movie representation of your story, while there are occasional mentions that you're having fun, there are also sequences when it's clear that you're not having any fun at all. There seems to be a lot of tension between you and Michelle, and also scenes in which you beat yourself up about whether or not you're actually accomplishing the goals you want to accomplish. Do you fear the sense that this was a fun adventure could get lost?

CB: No, because I think that basically what's happening here is a story about how do we make choices about what resources improve our quality of life and what resources don't improve our quality of life. I think what happened in our story is, we gave up so much of what caused environmental impact, and some of what we gave up actually represented an improvement in our life. Like not being hypnotized by the television. We felt we turned out to be better parents because we were able to spend more time with Isabella in the absence of the TV. So not using the resources we used for the TV was an improvement in our lives. On the other hand, a laundry machine, which we gave up, too, meant that I had wash clothes by hand, and that was really hard. So a laundry machine was an improvement in our lives.

This is a general discussion we need to have as a culture: Where are we using resources? Not just planetary resources, but our very lives. Where are we using these resources in such a way that they're not making us happy? And where are we using resources in such a way that they do make us happy? Because if we are able to dedicate our resources just to the improvement in the quality of our lives, instead of to the degradation of the quality of our life, then we'll actually start to make movement in that direction, where it both improves the planet and improves our own lives. These are really big questions that are being begged, and that need to be discussed.

WW: That dovetails into a question that I'm sure you've heard a lot in the aftermath of the experiment: What are the things you continue to do as you did during that year, and what are some of the things you no longer do for the reasons you just explained?

 

CB: We continue to do things that really make sense in our lives. It makes sense for us to save $1,200 a year for having given away our air conditioner. Five or six nights a year, it gets really hot and uncomfortable, so what we end up doing is, we pack ourselves up and end up playing in the fountain at Washington Square Park. That really makes sense for us. Similarly, it makes sense for us to get our exercise as part of our daily routine. Instead of taking the taxi to the gym in order to run in place, we ride our bikes everywhere. Similarly, with food, rather than eating food that makes us fat and is filled with chemicals, we continue as much as we can to eat food produced by our local farmers. Which means we're eating good, fresh local produce, which is better for our bodies. What I'm saying here is, so much of environmental living on a personal level is better for us as well. On a cultural level, environmental living means building a robust renewable energy economy. And if we build a renewable energy economy, we're creating lots of jobs. So that's another case where it's both better for the people and better for the planet.

WW: On your blog, you recently wrote about a New Yorker article that wasn't complimentary toward your approach. One of the things that struck me in reading it is, you've acknowledged that in some ways, the No Impact Man project was a stunt. Why not just embrace that fact? Why not say, "It's a stunt. So what? I'm getting attention for important things," and not let some of the censoriousness bother you so much?

CB: Thank you for putting my argument so well. What you just said is totally true. But I don't think the conversation so much bothers me about whether it's a stunt or not.... Well, what bothers me is the conversation about what we've done is a stunt or not. Who cares whether it is. What's really important is that we get to the issues. And the issue is, the United States' top climate scientist, James Hansen, is saying if we don't stop burning coal within the next eight years to create our electricity, we're going to irrevocability change the planet's ability to support us as a species. So it's not that I care so much about whether people say I've embarked on a stunt. That's unimportant to me. What is important to me, and what I really hope happens from my work, is that people discuss the larger issues. Which is, how do we have a good life that doesn't cost the planet.

WW: Obviously, No Impact Man has pointed you in new directions from a career standpoint. What are some of the upcoming projects you're involved in, and are they along the same lines?

CB: The thing I'm working on the most at the moment is a little nonprofit we've started, the No Impact Project. It's at www.noimpactproject.org. We have programs that help people to choose changes in their lifestyles that both help the environment and hopefully make them happier, too. It's not prescriptive. It assists people in examining their own lives. So much of environmentalism is associated with deprivation, and this is an attempt to say, what benefits might you find in living environmentally? And also, what benefit might you find in actually raising your voice and being part of environmental politics, no matter what side of the aisle you're on, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat.

WW: As an author, do you wish you could do more actual writing, as opposed to all these activities? Or has it been in some ways liberating for you to be putting things into action instead of just writing about them?

CB: I'm in this kind of wonderful position where I get to use my favorite topics, which are writing and public speaking, communicating. And I get to use them for things that I care about. You can't be at more of a sweet spot in your career. So at the moment, I am having to devote a lot of administrative time to No Impact Project. But I also get to talk a lot. I get to talk about the issues with people. It's another way of reaching out, just like writing. But soon enough, I'll get to write some more.


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