Back Off 'No Impact Man': One Family's Yearlong Adventure Without Modern Conveniences Is Drawing Misguided Criticism

I have a love/hate relationship with Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man. I used to hate him; now I love him. And his wife, Michelle, too.


Not in a menage a trois-y kinda way, though. I just really like this smart, funny couple who attempted, for a year, to wean themselves and their toddler, Isabella, off the fossil-fueled conveniences we all take for granted. This meant, for starters:

  • No driving, no flying, or even relying on mass transit. They got to where they needed to go on foot, bike or scooter.
  • No more elevators, either; they took the stairs to reach their ninth-floor apartment (several exceptions to these rules were made: two train rides to visit upstate farms, and an occasional elevator ride when security measures or double-digit floors in a midtown New York high-rise required it).
  • No buying new stuff, except for foods produced within 250 miles of Manhattan. So, no more takeout, out-of-season produce or coffee (although Michelle fought for, and won, a concession on the coffee front). And no meat, because livestock production is such a fossil-fuel-intensive process.
  • No watching TV; the family eventually went off the grid entirely, playing cards by candlelight and otherwise amusing themselves without electricity.
  • No washing machine or refrigerator. Abstaining from these two appliances proved especially challenging, as No Impact Man, the film documenting Beavan's endeavor, memorably shows.

The No Impact Project, which Beavan conceived -- and foisted on an indulgent-though-leery Michelle and eternally cheery Isabella -- was an arbitrary, utterly quixotic endeavor. Beavan's intent was, ostensibly, to ask: "Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much stuff?"

Oh, and not incidentally, to make some money off a book and a film that would chronicle his attempt to answer that question.

And it's a question we really need to ask: Although we make up just 5 percent of the world's population, Americans hog roughly 30 percent of the planet's resources and generate one-fourth of the world's greenhouse gases in the process.

But Beavan cooked up the whole thing to clinch a book deal chronicling his family's eco-extreme exploits. An article in the New York Times famously branded the project "The Year Without Toilet Paper," generating a bit of a media frenzy and leaving a lot of folks, myself included, with the impression that Beavan was an opportunistic schmuck.

I dismissed Beavan's endeavor as "conspicuous unconsumption." In true holier-than-Holden-Caulfield style, I called Beavan a phony, a peddler of "pseudo-sustainable schlock." I threw in a swipe at Michelle for splurging on two pairs of fancy new boots as a last hurrah before subjecting herself, head to Chloé-clad toes, to Beavan's draconian carbon-footprint binding.

Now, with the release of Beavan's film, and the book of the same name, it's deja "ew!" all over again.

Folks in the media are wasting precious space fixating on how Beavan and his family handled their waste -- the forgoing of toilet paper, the adoption of a bin of red wiggler worms to compost their kitchen scraps.

This time, though, I won't be piling onto the bash Beavan bandwagon. I realized, after hearing him speak at Cooper Union's Great Hall, that I had been wrong to mock him. I came away from the Cooper Union lecture convinced that Beavan's Jimmy Stewart-style earnestness was genuine. I became a fan, a friend and a defender.

So when No Impact Man co-director Justin Schein asked if I would be willing to go on the record and explain my change of heart, I said yes. Because, with all the controversy over the effectiveness of Beavan's methods, as well as his motives, two things stand out to me:

First, he has infiltrated the mainstream media in his 350.org T-shirt, encouraging folks to eat less meat, take a breather from buying, volunteer with environmental organizations and lobby their legislators to tackle climate change.

As Beavan wrote, in response to Elizabeth Kolbert's dismissive review of his book in the New Yorker

... my hope in living and writing about my year was to put myself in a crucible in which to examine some important cultural issues surrounding our solutions to our environmental crises and the quality-of-life crisis, which is so closely related to them. And yes, I hoped to popularize these important issues.

To that end, Beavan's launched a nonprofit foundation, noimpactproject.org, whose mission is "to empower citizens to make choices that better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action and participation in environmental politics."

We can argue about how many people Beavan will ultimately inspire to make meaningful changes in their lives, but what, exactly, is so terrible about his desire to inspire "massive citizen participation"?

Lastly, what's wrong with wanting to make a living speaking and writing about environmental issues? Beavan has never claimed to be an expert, simply a layman who wanted to enlighten himself and others about how our choices affect ourselves, our communities and the planet.

Isn't there an infinite array of far more objectionable, and harmful, ways to support your family? Surely, there are easier ways to achieve financial security than putting yourself in the public eye as a potential figure of ridicule and contempt.

Beavan doesn't claim that he's going to change the world, only that he wants to be the kind of person who is game to try. If you are, too, No Impact Man will strike a chord with you.

Otherwise, it may strike a nerve. We've had the Colbert retort: Tune in on Tuesday when Beavan goes on the Colbert Report. I'm hoping that America's favorite faux blowhard will transcend truthiness and reveal that Beavan is the real deal.

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