Three years ago, the NYTimes did a profile on Colin Beavan and his wife, Michelle, who were engaged in a year-long experiment to see if they could go that length of time without causing detriment to the environment. One in four Americans over the age of 25 must have read that piece — I remember it, as well as the conversations it inspired around my home about whether we could go a year without using toilet paper. (The answer is a resounding ‘no’).
While that headline certainly attracted eyes (which is why I’m repurposing it), it was also reductive, cheapening Beavan’s year-long experiment into a gimmick to sell a book. The cynics among you, of which I include myself, would no doubt come to the same conclusion. But that’s because it’s easier to assume the worst — it requires the least amount of thought. Colin Beavan, whose year-long experiment is also the subject of the documentary, No Impact Man, on review here, would concede that it was a hook to sell a book — he is a professional writer, after all — but it was also about raising awareness, about activist writing. Maybe Henry David Thoreau’s Walden was a gimmick, too (and a good one), but that doesn’t lessen the influence of that novel over the last 150 years (not that I’m comparing the two).
Nevertheless, if you allow yourself to get over your initial skepticism, you might be impressed with the phenomenal No Impact Man. Gimmick or no, Beavan’s experiment — to produce next-to-no carbon footprint over a year-long period in New York City while raising a young child — is an honest one, and given the torment it caused his wife — a senior writer at Businessweek — something of a brave one, as well. The results, I found, were absolutely fascinating. Beavan is not an environmental wacko, a fringe tree-hugger; he’s a “bourgeois fuck,” who lives in a nice NYC loft and managed to do what the back-to-landers did in the ’70s without leaving the his urban center.
He and his wife, Michelle, stopped using carbon-burning transportation. They stopped eating at restaurants, and ate only root vegetables they could find at a farmer’s market. They gave up their television (to the wife’s infinite displeasure, as she was something of a reality-show whore). They laundered their clothes in the bathtub using environmentally friendly products (Borax). They didn’t use elevators (in a vertical city). They brushed their teeth with baking soda. They only ate locally. They gave up coffee (I’m still not sure why that was necessary). They turned off their electricity, and attempted (poorly) to keep their milk cool using the double-pot method. And yes, they even gave up toilet paper.
But what makes No Impact Man such a compelling documentary is not that they gave up all of these things and became self-righteous environmental wankers who would go on to lecture us on on consumer-rich, wasteful culture. The interesting part was watching how they struggled through the process, how it affected their marriage, and how the experiment raised their own awareness. They were, after all, individually a huge part of the problem.
Initially, all I could think was: Goddamn, that poor woman, who is being dragged along and forced to suffer for her husband’s career. In the initial weeks (and months), Michelle resented the hell out of Colin for what he was forcing upon her. Not only did she have to give up cosmetics, and coffee, and public transportation, but she also had to deal with the attention (mostly negative) that the experiment brought in the wake of that NYTimes article and the countless radio and television appearances that would follow. There’s no place for earnest intentions, it seems, in our media-driven culture.
But as the experiment wore on, and as she began to reap the benefits (she lost weight, she reversed her pre-diabetic condition, and she better connected with her family, as they were forced to spend considerably more time together and outside), Michelle began to embrace the experiment, and she became the rallying voice when her husband’s resolve would waver.
Look: I’m not going to suggest that what this family did was difficult in the universal sense. Obviously, they were well-off people subjecting themselves to this experiment and there are children in third world countries and homeless people in America dot dot dot. But on a more individual level, I could sympathize with their frustrations and even appreciate the sacrifice they made to demonstrate that it could be done. Could you imagine raising a child, in a city, without take-out food, the use of a washing machine, without toilet paper or a car or the use of an elevator or being able to go to a grocery store? I can’t go an hour without producing trash; can you imagine going a year? It’s these wasteful consumer conveniences so many of us take for granted. Did they do it to sell a book? Sure. But does that make the experiment any less enlightening? Not really. At least they approached it honestly. (Of course, my wife who grew up without electricity or running water, as her parents were actual back-to-the-landers, scoffed at my reaction to the documentary as she tooled away in her Prius to pick up some more seeds for the garden. Smug.)
Was it worth it? I couldn’t say. But No Impact Man certainly impacted me by providing a human element to raising awareness. Their idea was not to live that lifestyle forever, but to endure it for a year just to see what they could live without at the end of it. Of course, they turned their electricity back on, and I’d like to think, began drinking coffee again (and got rid of the worm-ridden compost box in their apartment. Blech). But in conducting the experiment, they did realize how easily it would be to give up a lot pointlessly wasteful things.
The point was not to inspire the world to give up electricity and toilet paper, but to encourage us to see if we could maintain our own lifestyles with less waste and consumption. Be more efficient about it. It’s difficult to know what you can live without until you’ve tried to live without everything. And maybe Beavan’s book, and this documentary (which is on Netflix Instant Watch, which I highly recommend) will encourage others into similar action. And while it’d be easy to doubt that notion or impute our own cynicism into their intentions, there’s little point in that besides abdicating our own responsibility. After all, it’s easier to view everyone else’s intentions with skepticism than it is to contribute something positive of our own.
Stream it on Netflix Instant. There’s less waste involved that way.