Cast by some as an idealistic hero and others as a self-righteous devil, No Impact Man’s Colin Beavan is the first to say his story is only one of a fool who became worried about the world, and whether he succeeded or not, felt compelled to do something about it, through a year-long experiment of living an eco-friendly lifestyle,.
In 2006, as awareness of climate change issues sprung to the forefront after the release of An Inconvenient Truth, Beavan was inspired to find a way to live more sustainably; to be part of the solution rather than the problem. After examining his own consumer-driven lifestyle, and how best to change himself and influence others about living more sustainably, he writes “I had begun with the idea of trying to encourage a little less self-indulgence and a little more kindness in our society. Now, I realized, maybe I ought not to be writing a book about changing other people. Maybe I ought first to worry about changing myself.”
Watch an interview of Colin Beavan
Eventually, the idea of No Impact Man was born. Beavan, along with his wife and young daughter, transitioned over the course of the year into a no-impact lifestyle. Completed in stages, the project’s rules focused on zero waste, no carbon-producing travel, eating from local, organic markets within a 250 mile radius, and finally forsaking electricity.
While many have adopted eco-friendly lifestyles to reduce their carbon footprints, it is Beavan’s sustainability-to-extremes project which caught the attention of the U.S. media. From using no paper products (including toilet-paper), or walking up six flights of stairs in place of the elevator in his apartment building, Beavan sought to not only have no carbon impact, but as he writes, “no environmental impact.”
“Certain resources we stopped using were better for our family…we started biking, and sharing more time together. The American way of life is such that we have gone over the hump of the curve and now we use so many resources that in fact the use of those resources makes us less happy. We need to dispel the assumption that having more resources somehow makes us happier.”
Yet, the idealism which inspired the No Impact project was inevitably challenged. One evening when his daughter vomited on her bedsheets twice, he could not bring himself to wash the sheets by hand, which proves a pivotal point in the project. “I feel like a failure, but I use the machine down in the basement of our building. It is at this moment…that I give up.”
What follows is a revelation Beavan reaches about the balance between modern conveniences and leading an eco-friendly life, which is not always so clear. He describes it as a ‘level of resource use below’, a sense of anti-progress. “It does not feel like finally striking out on our own and choosing a new way. Instead, it feels like deprivation. For all my talk of happiness coming as we use less, there is a point at which the trend reverses. A family will not voluntarily stay away from a washing machine when their kids soil the sheets. A dad will not keep his school-age child away from reading light. This needs to be part of the equation.”
While capturing imaginations on his blog as readers followed his eco-triumphs and falls throughout the year, Beavan shared with Good Planet the cultural conversation, and controversy, the project inspired. “I’m nobody special and some people say, ‘well, are you a guru?, which is crazy talk to me, but also at the same time people should maybe begin to search for the guru within themselves and trust that it is there and if you care about the issues, then start doing something.” Yet, in reflecting upon his own personal journey, he is still unclear about how humanity will solve the environmental crisis.