Book Review: No Impact Man

I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I saw the documentary, which made me laugh and fear for our environmental future in equal measure.

I’m not sure what I expected from the book. I knew that Beavan and his family spent a year trying not to generate waste, use fossil fuels, or buy new products. I was also well aware that Colin Beavan’s No Impact experiment was excoriated by the New York Times, which wrote

Living abstemiously on Lower Fifth Avenue, in what used to be Edith Wharton country, with early-21st-century accouterments like creamy, calf-high Chloe boots, may seem at best like a scene from an old-fashioned situation comedy and, at worst, an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion.

Beavan, author Penelope Green concludes, is a shameless self-promoter more interested in benefitting himself than the environment. A self-aggrandizing poseur. Takes one to know one, as my Grandma Becca relished saying, regarding the name-calling we grandchildren engaged in. Beavan alleges that all writers are megalomaniacs. Green certainly portrays Beavan this way. But I think there is something genuine and compelling about his experiment. His No Impact year took place from 2006 to 2007, but the project continues through his book, documentary, and blog. Here is what I found redeeming about Beavan’s experiment:

  • he maintained a sense of humor about himself.
  • he set an extreme and measurable goal (no negative environmental impact by the end of one year), and stood firm even when he was ridiculed for it.
  • he was bracingly honest about his cheats, his failings, his own misgivings
  • his wife was along for the ride, talking sense to him when he got carried away (Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, is the best part of the documentary. She’s game for the experiment, for the most part, but never misses a chance to call him out and keep him honest).
  • he provided some real suggestions about ways to reduce our own environmental impact. I have no intention of giving up toilet paper or electricity, true, but I did try going for a semester with no car after watching the documentary. I have taken many of the leaps I find most reasonable, such as composting, getting most of our food from the farmer’s market, and buying my clothes secondhand.
  • He wrote not only about planetary health but about emotional health, and how this experiment ultimately helped his family live happier, healthier lives.

Project Minify sometimes feels to me like it falls woefully short of the mark. I set a soft goal – live smaller and happier, give up the things I didn’t need, the ones that weren’t contributing to my happiness or wellbeing anyway. Yet those small steps have had some big impacts, on our waistlines, our household carbon footprint, and yes, our happiness. I’m just about due for a year-in-review post about how all of that has worked out for us. That’ll happen by August. I feel comfortable saying at this time that I’m not convinced that you have to give up elevators, toilet paper or balsamic vinegar in order to change the world. I’m not going to ridicule Beavan for doing so, either. He found a way to make a living by benefitting rather than harming the environment. That’s not shameless self promotion. That’s the kind of work a lot of us would love to be doing!

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