Book Review: No Impact Man

No Impact Man by Colin Beavan is sort of like the film by the same title, except it has more stories and is better than the film. Beavan chronicles his yearlong experiment to live in New York City with his wife and baby daughter without making net impact on the environment. That means, as Beavan puts it, “no trash (so no take-out food), no carbon dioxide emissions (so no driving or flying), no produce from distant lands, no elevators, no subway, no products in packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV, no buying anything new….”

Just like the film, the book is less about how to live sustainably and more about what Beavan and his family learn about themselves and others during the experiment. Since Eddy and I sort of live like Beavans, I found myself nodding to some of the experiences that Beavans encountered.

Since Beavans swore off motorized transportation for one year, they decided to stay in the city for Thanksgiving instead of going home. Their decision was met by disapproval from their family, with Colin’s father remarking, “You should worry less about your carbon footprint and more about your family footprint.” Despite their family’s disapproval, Beavans discovered that staying home for Thanksgiving can be relaxing and enjoyable.

I often stay home during the holidays so that I can relax, not deal with holiday traffic, and emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions. Some people have a hard time understanding my action. Some times I wonder if I’m putting environmental footprint ahead of family footprint. Generally, I end up staying home and find myself enjoying quiet, stress-free holidays.

Another instance in which I found myself nodding to the book was when Beavans tried to switch to electricity produced from renewable sources. The problem was their electricity provider used natural gas to produce energy. Since Beavans lived in an apartment, they had no legal access to the roof space for solar panels or wind turbines. They did subscribe to their utility’s green electricity option but discovered that, although profits help sustain renewable energy production elsewhere in the country, their actual electricity would still come from natural gas plants in New York City.

Beavan writes:

In fact, it turns out that living in most American cities without access to significant outdoor space in which to generate your own power, no matter how much money you’re willing to throw at a problem, you can’t really get 100 percent renewable energy. Here was an area where individual action could not help me at all. If I wanted renewable electricity, I needed power companies to provide it and—at least while fossil fuels stayed cheaper than renewable energy—the government regulation that forced the power companies to do so.

Eddy and I constantly find ourselves running up against the limits to individual actions. We bike, but many roads are built for cars, not for cyclists and pedestrians. We love public transportation, but the one in Little Rock runs once every half an hour and ends its service early in the evening. We’d love to be able to subscribe to green electricity option, but our electricity provider doesn’t offer it.

Individual actions are great, but collective action is also absolutely necessary.

That realization prompted Beavans to visit their legislators and to volunteer with environmental organizations. Beavans continued to take individual actions, although some accused them of being antiprogress.

[P]eople started labeling me antiprogress. Sometimes angrily. “Are you suggesting we go back and live with tuberculosis?” they might add.

“No,” I’d say. “I just wonder sometimes whether the big hunk of metal and plastic that we call a bread machine is necessarily worth the financial and environmental cost.”

“Yeah, well, before they had bread machines, they also had tuberculosis.”

Eddy and I have had people accuse us of being antiprogress because we keep chickens for eggs, make cheese from milk, brew beer, and live happily without TV, DVR, and video games. We’ve had people accuse us, angrily, of being self-righteous because we do what we do.

The truth is, we like what we do. That’s why we do them. Beavans found themselves enjoying many of the changes they made. Biking and eating locally helped them lose weight without going to the gym. Shutting off electricity made them stop working at night and instead spend more time with their daughter. Beavans continued to embrace laptops and cell phones. They just used them less often.

I refuse to believe living lightly on the Earth is antiprogress. When people had tuberculosis, they didn’t have renewable energy technology. To live sustainably, we need a combination of technology, innovation, and best practices from past and present.

And most importantly, you have to have fun while living sustainably. Because if living sustainably makes you severely unhappy or uncomfortable, you will most likely stop living such a life. 

The book No Impact Man explored acceptable and unacceptable choices for sustainable living. It’s a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it. Central Arkansas Library System has a copy of it, so check it out!

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5 responses to “Book Review: No Impact Man

  1. Do I tell you enough how wonderful you are!
    Our local “Hot Springs Compact” group had a screening of “No Impact Man” at our home last Spring. This Black Friday we will all rebel and not shop and watch “What Would Jesus Buy”, a film produced by Morgan Spurlock. The film chronicles the craziness of our consumerist habits, especially around Christmas. It gives me great pleasure to show it at our home
    with a group of collective friends who try everyday to live life with less of an impact on the Earth.

  2. I watched No Impact Man today -checked out from the library and will return tomorrow-and really enjoyed it. Thanks for blogging about it as I went straight to library website and reserved it. Most of the things they did I was quite interested in and applauded. However, the no toilet paper thing was a step over for me. 🙂 Also I wondered about feminine products, etc. Perhaps the book explains a lot more in detail. I will check it out.

  3. @ Courtney – I heard about Hot Springs Compact group. In the book, Colin Beavan interviews people who started Compact in San Francisco.

    I’ve been celebrating Buy Nothing Day on Black Friday for the past decade or so. But watching “What Would Jesus Buy”? That’s fabulous! I may have to come down for that!

    @ Tammy – Glad you enjoyed the film! I didn’t mention it in the post, but after watching the film, Eddy and I thought about not using toilet paper. We can’t seem to agree on how to go about cutting out toilet paper. He thinks left hand and water is better than rags. I think rags are better. If we ever reach an agreement, I might write about it 🙂

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Nao! I love this post! Especially this:

    “To live sustainably, we need a combination of technology, innovation, and best practices from past and present.”

    I feel like I have a pretty good handle on this philosophy as I am not afraid to reject many modern conveniences and apply a little elbow grease to my existence. BUT, there are many places in my life I could do better! I am inspired by this review, and I am always inspired by you! Hopefully some day someone will label me as “antiprogress” too.

  5. Thanks, Jonelle! You should read the book. You’d love it. He’s just one person trying to make a difference who runs up against all sort of things – limits to individual actions, people being irritated at him because they think he’s nuts, crazy, antiprogress, self-righteous, etc. It wasn’t once or twice that I saw myself in the book.

    And I feel just like you and him, always wondering how I can do more. I think I do what I do because I never feel like I’m doing enough. I know it’s not a very healthy way to look at myself, but I’m working on changing that, too. It’s easier to carry washcloths, though….

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