Without a Plan, Trying to Change the World (Review of ‘No Impact Man’)

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Published on December 8th, 2009  |  Discuss This Article  

Overflowing Trash
I started reading the book No Impact Man without any expectations that I would like it. Probably because I thought that writers-turned-bloggers who conduct year-long experiments — whether it be “going green” or cooking all of Julia Child’s recipes — were just looking for the quickest route to book or movie deals (jealous, much?).

But I have to say, Colin Beavan’s yearlong journey into sustainability in No Impact Man is not only a page-turner, but a mind-bender as well. (Sorry, I didn’t see the documentary film by the same name.)

So, here’s the premise: Colin, his wife and young daughter spend a year living in Manhattan not making any trash, not using any transportation, eating only food grown within 250 miles, not buying anything new, etc. Basically they slowly move toward having zero impact on the planet.

Colin went into the project without much of a plan, and he did that on purpose. The reader didn’t just see the best solution (taking small cloth bags to get grains out of the bulk bins at the local store), but the stumbles and falls it took to get there (taking glass jars to get grains, which the cashier had to subtract from the total weight, eliciting eye rolls and impatient foot tapping all around).

As interesting as reading about all these small things was (you can use baking soda as shampoo?), it was the big-picture questions that kept me engaged. The two most interesting ideas that the book raised for me were based on 1) people’s reactions to his project, and 2) the questions about consumption, happiness and collective action.

As I mentioned in this blog before, you can’t force people to change. And often you can’t even talk to people about changing their habits without them getting defensive. And, as Colin found out, sometimes you can’t even do your own thing without saying anything to anybody without people getting defensive.

As Colin’s friend Sean explains, his first reaction to the project was irritation:

“…[the project makes our] fragile denial come tumbling down and we feel guilty and our first reaction is to feel angry and irritated with the person who has made us feel that way.”

Throughout the book, Colin discusses the idea of what positive psychologists call thehedonic treadmill,” where people buy things to get a burst of pleasure that wears off quickly, so we buy something else to get another burst. These psychologists found that the happiest people were not on this perpetual loop, and that a life with less stuff was not only better for the planet, but better for the people, too.

So, why do we consume so much? Or, more appropriately, why do I consume so much? What kind of void am I trying to fill? Is all the information that comes into my head through Web sites, blogs, emails, text messages and TV commercials making me less happy?

Colin also talks about something that’s really important to me: collective action. It’s the idea that in reality, no one person can make that much of a difference, but that person certainly can’t make a difference if they don’t try.

For me, giving up meat was fairly easy, but I did that 9 years ago and made the decision with my heart, not my head. Luckily for me, it also means that I now have a lower carbon footprint than most Americans. But would I really be willing to walk past the elevator and walk up and down 10 flights of stairs every time the dog needed to go outside (as Colin and Michelle did)? Even when it was late? Even when I was tired? The answer is: “I don’t know.”

The book can make you uncomfortable. The experiment makes Colin uncomfortable. It brought up so many questions about myself, my life and my priorities. But they are the exactly the questions that we too often shove to the side, and tell ourselves we’ll think about when we have time (you know, when we aren’t watching reality TV or checking Facebook). This book will convince you it’s time to dig those questions back up and face them before it’s too late.

(Image credit: hyperscholar/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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