In 2006, Colin Beavan, the author of two works of popular history, was casting about for a book idea. Beavan was living in lower Manhattan, near N.Y.U., and that winter there was a weird heat wave that sent bevies of coeds out onto the streets in tank tops. He didn’t know much about global warming, but the sight of all those bare-armed girls in January got him thinking. Maybe his next project should be “about what’s important.” Over lunch at a pricey midtown restaurant, he told his agent that he wanted to “find a way to encourage a society that emphasizes a little less self-indulgence.” His agent reacted coolly. “The way you talk about it is a bummer,” he said. “How will I be able to convince a publisher that people will spend twenty-four ninety-five on a book that tells them how screwed up they are?”
At a second lunch a few weeks later (presumably at another restaurant), Beavan came back with another idea. What if, instead of encouraging society to change, he set about changing himself? For a year, he and his family would attempt to live, in his words, “as environmentally as possible.” They would not be satisfied with well-meaning but relatively easy measures, like switching to compact-fluorescent light bulbs and diligently recycling, or even with wildly ambitious, fantastically difficult ones, like eliminating their carbon emissions. No, they would try to live in a ninth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village without producing any environmental impact whatsoever—“zero carbon . . . also zero waste in the ground, zero pollution in the air, zero resources sucked from the earth, zero toxins in the water.” All the while, Beavan would write a blog about it. This time, his agent was intrigued.
“One guy tries to save the world?” he asked. “Like Superman or Spider-Man?”
“How about No Impact Man?” Beavan responded.
Beavan’s stunt, or, as he likes to refer to it, his “experiment,” is now complete. He, his wife, Michelle, and his young daughter, Isabella, spent twelve months striving, under increasingly trying circumstances, to reach zero. As planned, Beavan has chronicled their efforts, and named the book after his favorite superhero, “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” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $25).
The basic setup of “No Impact Man” is, by this point, familiar. During the past few years, one book after another has organized itself around some nouveau-Thoreauvian conceit. This might consist of spending a month eating only food grown in an urban back yard, as in “Farm City” (2009), or a year eating food produced on a gentleman’s farm, as in “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” (2007). It might involve driving across the country on used cooking oil, as in “Greasy Rider” (2008), or giving up fossil fuels for goats, as in “Farewell, My Subaru” (2008).
All of these stunts can be seen as responses to the same difficulty. Owing to a combination of factors—population growth, greenhouse-gas emissions, logging, overfishing, and, as Beavan points out, sheer self-indulgence—humanity is in the process of bringing about an ecological catastrophe of unparalleled scope and significance. Yet most people are in no mood to read about how screwed up they are. It’s a bummer. If you’re the National Academy of Sciences or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the Pope or Al Gore, you can try to fight this with yet another multivolume report or encyclical. If not, you’d better get a gimmick.
On the first morning of his experiment, Beavan wakes up with a stuffy nose. Back in his high-impact days, twelve hours earlier, he would have just used a Kleenex and tossed it in the garbage. But the initial challenge he has set for No Impact Man is eliminating trash. After wandering around the apartment for a while in his underwear, he has an inspiration. He will blow his nose in a cloth napkin, and then throw the napkin in the wash.
No sooner has this problem been solved than another presents itself. Isabella, awakened by his honking, wants to get out of her crib. Beavan finds that she has a wet diaper. This eventuality, too, he seems not to have anticipated. He puts her in a new disposable diaper and throws away the old one. Isabella next demands milk. Beavan pours her a sippy-cupful, only to discover that he now has an empty milk carton to deal with. Yet another unforeseen complication!
At this point, maybe fifteen minutes into the project, a less persistent person might well have given up. But No Impact Man plows on. He spends a day scouring the city for a net shopping bag of the sort he has seen in Paris, so that he can tote home his tofu without using paper or plastic. No store in New York seems to carry net bags, so he ends up ordering Mexican takeout. Eventually, he reconciles himself to ordinary tote bags, starts supplying his own containers at restaurants, and comes up with a system of buying grains from bins at the local natural-food store. He cancels his newspaper subscriptions and takes to writing on the back of used pieces of paper that he collects from his publisher. He orders cloth diapers for Isabella. “My family’s trashcan and even our recycling bin is yawningly empty,” he writes happily a few weeks into the experiment.
To make the project manageable (and narratable), Beavan divides his effort into phases. Phase I, no trash, is followed by Phase II, “no carbon-producing transportation.” This part of the project means renouncing flying, thus putting an end to trips to visit the in-laws in Minneapolis. It also means no driving, which in Beavan’s case means giving up taxis, and no subways or buses. (Michelle works in midtown; Beavan buys her a scooter and she gamely propels herself to work.) The biggest difficulty arises from the fact that No Impact Man lives on the ninth floor. Since elevators operate by electricity, they, too, must be excluded. The family dog, Frankie, needs to be walked at least three times a day; this entails climbing up and down a minimum of fifty-four flights of stairs. When Beavan’s other trips—to the store, to drop Isabella off at her babysitter’s—are added in, the total number of flights often comes to twice that. “My record for a day would ultimately be 124 flights—nine more than the Empire State Building,” he writes.
As the year goes on, Beavan introduces further restrictions. He insists that the family give up toilet paper and keeps hassling his wife to forswear tampons. He decides that they can eat only seasonal food grown in the Northeast, which eliminates coffee. Michelle, a devotee of Starbucks quadruple shots, develops a debilitating caffeine-withdrawal headache. Beavan spends a lot of time worrying about the family’s—i.e., Michelle’s—lapses. When he finds a Sunday Times lying on the table, he accuses her of betrayal. “Are you taking this project seriously?” he demands. “Are you buying newspapers when I’m not around?”
Finally, he screws up his courage and flips the circuit breakers. No electricity in the apartment means living without a refrigerator. (To keep Isabella’s milk from spoiling, No Impact Man tries to construct a sort of cooler out of clay pots and wet sand, but it doesn’t work, so his wife ends up cadging ice from a neighbor.) No power also means no electronic entertainment (they learn to love charades) and no lights (they use a lot of candles). Laundry gets done by sloshing the clothes around in the bathtub. Beavan’s apartment building is heated by oil or natural gas—he never specifies—so he decides to turn off the radiators. Fortunately, his neighbors’ apartments are so warm that heat flows out of their homes into his. Sometimes it gets so hot that, even when it’s frigid outside, he has to throw open the windows.
Seven months into the project, Beavan announces that “everything is pretty much in place” and “all we have to do is continue to live this way for five more months.” By this point, he and Michelle are climbing the stairs to eat cabbage slaw in the dark.
On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into the tiny cabin he had built at Walden Pond. Except for a night in jail, a sojourn in Maine, and, as critics like to point out, frequent trips home to visit his parents in Concord, he lived there for the next two years. In a field that he cleared near the cabin—the land belonged to his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson—Thoreau planted beans and potatoes and turnips. He made a little money—$13.34, he reports—by “surveying, carpentry, and day-labor of various other kinds,” and spent the bulk of it—$8.74—on staples like rice, molasses, and lard. For a while, he made bread, which he baked on an outdoor fire, but later he decided that yeast was too much trouble, and so subsisted on a sort of rye-meal matzo.
Thoreau referred to his time at Walden as his “experiment of living.” As Robert Sullivan points out in his new book, “The Thoreau You Don’t Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant” (Collins; $25.99), it could just as easily be called something else. “It was a stunt, plainly put,” Sullivan writes. When Thoreau moved to Walden, he was just shy of twenty-eight. He had tried his hand at teaching and also at pencil-making—his father owned a pencil business—but he really wanted to be a writer. A few years earlier, while serving as a tutor on Staten Island, he had tried to break into the New York publishing world, with little success. (“My bait will not tempt the rats; they are too well fed,” he wrote to his mother.) Living out by the pond, doing occasional odd jobs and baking flatbread, gave him plenty of time to work on his first book, “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.” It also provided material for the second.
Thoreau’s voluntary asceticism struck his contemporaries as ridiculous, and this suited him just fine: “The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad,” he wrote. The goal was to strip life down to the “true necessaries,” which were few: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things.” His acts of self-denial, he claimed, denied him nothing; while the townspeople toiled away, slaves to their debts and accumulated furniture, he was free to roam the woods. (According to “Walden,” the furnishings of his cabin amounted to “a bed, a table, a desk, three chairs,” and “a looking-glass three inches in diameter.”) “I go and come with a strange liberty in Nature,” he wrote.
The nouveau Thoreauvians have picked up from “Walden” its dramaturgy of austerity. Their schemes require them to renounce (if only temporarily) various material comforts—cars, elevators, Starbucks—that their neighbors take for granted. Renunciation sets them apart and organizes their lives in the name of some higher purpose. The trouble—or, at least, a trouble—is that it’s hard to say exactly what that purpose is.
Consider Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon’s “Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet” (2007). Smith and MacKinnon, freelance journalists who live together in Vancouver, are concerned about their “ecological footprint.” They consult a computer program that asks people to punch in basic information about their housing, transportation, and diet, and, in return, reckons the number of acres’ worth of resources they consume in a year. “To drive the point home, the software then alerts you to the number of Earths we human beings would need if everyone on the planet consumed in the same way you do,” they write. “It’s usually a shocker—nine planets is a typical figure for a standard-issue North American.”
Smith and MacKinnon decide that they will spend a year eating only food produced within a hundred miles of their apartment. Eating locally, as it has become known, has many virtues: it reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, helps small farmers, and probably encourages a healthier diet. (Who really knows where Doritos come from?) Even setting a limit of, say, a hundred miles as a rule of thumb makes sense. But to insist that everything be produced within that limit brings with it challenges that, while essential to the structure of the book, are in all other ways pointless. Smith and MacKinnon can’t turn up any local flour, so they drive out to visit a farmer who had grown wheat the previous summer and found no market for it. He lets them help themselves to his year-old wheat berries, which, they discover, are generously laced with mouse droppings. Separating the berries from the turds proves to be so time-consuming that the wheat just sits in a bag in the corner of the living room until, eventually, MacKinnon notices weevils crawling out of it. He ends up throwing the entire bagful into a dumpster, while Smith washes down the walls of the apartment with bleach.
Smith and MacKinnon also can’t find any local salt, so in the final scene of the book they make a twelve-hour journey—by car, by ferry, by steamer, and, finally, by rowboat. “A blue horizon, forever and ever to Japan,” they write. “The open Pacific Ocean rushing in as clear and clean as the air.” They fill a huge stainless-steel pot with salt water, which they carry back to shore and boil down. The journey is made to sound poetic, but from an ecological perspective it would have made a lot more sense for them to walk around the corner and buy some Morton’s.
MacKinnon wants us to know that he recognizes the futility of the undertaking. “I am acutely aware that efforts like the 100-mile diet are readily dismissed as ‘the new earnestness,’ which is currently enjoying a very temporary cool,” he writes. “And I am not deluded enough to feel that I’m making a difference or being the change I want to see in the world.” (The italics are his.) He is unwilling even to attempt a reasoned defense of the project: “My actions are abstract and absurd, and they are neither saving the rain forests nor feeding the world’s hungry.”
Vanessa Farquharson, an entertainment reporter for Canada’s National Post, is the author of “Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $13.95). Farquharson opens her book with the proposition that it is better to take small steps on behalf of the planet than to do nothing at all. She transforms this sensible idea into a book-worthy stunt by resolving to make one “green” life-style change every day for a year (all the while posting her resolutions on her blog). At twenty-eight, Farquharson is almost exactly the age that Thoreau was when he set off for Walden Pond. And she’s a lot like him, too, if he’d been the type who, as she writes of herself, enjoys blowing a “month’s savings on a bottle of pink Veuve Clicquot and pairing it with back-to-back reruns of ‘America’s Next Top Model.’ ”
Farquharson’s “green-ovations” range from the significant (“sell my car”) to the useful (“turn down my thermostat,” “fix things rather than replace them”) to the downright ditzy (“go to eco-friendly spas,” “shop at green malls,” “use a natural lubricant instead of K-Y”). The day after she resolves to “use no more toothpicks,” Farquharson is shown a house that’s for sale not far from her apartment in Toronto. It’s newly renovated, with three stories, and, in terms of Farquharson’s ecological footprint, represents an awful lot of toothpicks. She immediately buys it. (“I must have this house,” she writes.) Meanwhile, even though flying is pretty much the most carbon-intensive activity possible, Farquharson is constantly taking to the air. At one point, she flies to Banff for a writers’ workshop. At another, she flies to Portland, Oregon, to undertake, of all things, a sustainability-oriented bike trip. (During the trip, she sleeps with one of the trip’s leaders, and so a few weeks later he flies to Toronto to stay with her.) She flies to Tel Aviv to visit another guy she will eventually sleep with. Finally, she flies to New York, where she seeks out Beavan, because, as she puts it, there’s “no way” she is going to go all the way to Manhattan “without confronting my competi— . . . I mean, meeting my fellow green blogger.” They rendezvous, at Beavan’s suggestion, at the Grey Dog’s Coffee, on University Place, which, Farquharson sniffs, doesn’t seem “especially green in any way.” Naturally, the talk turns to shit.
Farquharson, who has, in her words, gone “off TP for number one,” but has been unable to persuade herself to “go all the way,” tries to press Beavan for the details of his excretory routine. How, exactly, does No Impact Man get by without toilet paper? He is not forthcoming, and she is suspicious.
“I wondered if Colin was perhaps being purposely coy,” she writes. “Maybe he planned to go into more depth about his bathroom proceedings when it came to writing his book and didn’t want to leak—pardon the pun—any of this information to me beforehand.”
Thoreau’s stunt was, qua stunt, a disappointment. Though “Walden” sold better than “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers,” it grossed its author only $96.60 in royalties. Thoreau tried to put together a lecture tour of the Midwest and Canada, but most of it had to be called off, owing to a lack of interest.
No Impact Man, by contrast, has already been a public-relations triumph. Before he had even finished his experiment, Beavan caught the attention of the Times. A reporter came to his apartment for dinner and wrote a long profile that ran on the front page of the House & Home section. This led to a flood of media requests. Beavan got calls from television stations as far away as Japan and Australia. He was interviewed by Diane Sawyer, Scott Simon, and Stephen Colbert. Meanwhile, a crew of documentary filmmakers followed No Impact Man and his wife around the city. (For maximum impact, their movie is being released simultaneously with the book.) Reportedly, Beavan has sold the rights to his story to Hollywood.
No Impact Man’s appeal to the media is no mystery. His shtick deals with a serious subject but is easy to poke fun at. Colbert characterized it as “like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ only completely implausible.” The Times called it, at best, “a scene from an old-fashioned situation comedy and, at worst, an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion.” (The headline was “THE YEAR WITHOUT TOILET PAPER.”)
In his book, Beavan reports that he was “devastated” by this treatment. “I feel that it has trivialized my work,” he writes of the Times piece. “It worries me that I’ve single-handedly managed to make a mockery of the entire environmental movement.”
There’s something a tad disingenuous here. Beavan is, after all, a man whose environmental activism began over lunch with his agent. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in electrical engineering to see through his claims to experimental rigor. Indeed, in its own candlelit way, his project is almost as incoherent as Farquharson’s. When No Impact Man shuts off the power at his apartment, you might think that his blog would have to go dark (and along with it his compulsive checking of his ratings on Technorati). But every day Beavan bikes to the Writers Room, on Broadway at Waverly Place, and plugs in his laptop. Meanwhile, Michelle scooters off to work at the offices of BusinessWeek, and Isabella spends the day at the (presumably electrified) apartment of a sitter.
So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t—or won’t—see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.
A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:
Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.
So, what are you going to do?
If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.” ♦
No Impact Man
by Colin Beavan
Colin Beavan records his attempt to become completely environmentally sustainable in his book 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.
At first Beavan sounds like a mumbling, grumbling “environmentalist” who blames the degradation of our planet on the government and feels powerless to change anything. But then he decides to take matters into his own hands by attempting to eliminate his own negative environmental impact for one year. As though this isn't challenging enough, he also drags his designer-clothing-loving wife, Michelle, and their toddler daughter, Isabella, into his radical experiment.
Beavan breaks his daunting task into phases, which he puts into action during the no-impact year. He tackles everything from eating only local food to giving up toilet paper, all in search of a clear environmental conscience. In addition to chronicling his struggles and successes, Beavan shares shocking environmental statistics relevant to the changes he is making, which add a sense of urgency to the lifestyle shift he demonstrates and advocates. Equally enlightening are the personal and sociological observations that Beavan makes as he becomes an outsider looking in on our way of life.
No Impact Man is useful as a guidebook for changing your life, and it's an entertaining reflection of the life of its author. The most valuable aspects of the book are the many suggestions for lifestyle changes, ranging from simple to radical, that can be adopted by readers.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed No Impact Man. It encouraged me to make a number of changes in my own life, and led me to the realization that one person can make a difference if they truly want to. I would recommend No Impact Man to anyone who is interested in environmental affairs or simply wants to read an entertaining and enlightening book.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.