Written by: Russell Davidson, CC2K Sports Editor
Colin Beavan is the author and subject of both a documentary film and a book detailing his life as No Impact Man. He was nice enough to talk to me about his environmental experiment.
RD: Thanks for taking the time, Colin.
CB: My pleasure.
RD: In the wake of such recent films as An Inconvenient Truth, Flow and Food, Inc.., do you think that movies are a new form of activism, of informing?
CB: Sure. I think it’s a question of narrative, of using storytelling as a way of getting stuff out. Film also brings us a certain form of intimacy with image and sound. It’s a way to reach an audience that might not otherwise be reached.
RD: How does it feel to be a spokesman for this cause? I know prior you had written some non-fiction history books, and now you’re the No Impact Guy. Is this something you wanted? Are you just rolling with it?
CB: A little bit a rolling with it, sure, but the whole reason we did No Impact Man was because in 2006, I was so worried about the state of things with global warming, so in doing this, writing about this, I was able to use my talents for something I really care about. I consider it a privilege to be allowed to talk and write about this big question, how we can live a good life without costing the Earth.
RD: Were you surprised by the media attention that was given to your experiment? Alarmed by those who gave you grief?
CB: Well, when you’re making a movie you have to put in the most dramatic elements. What didn’t make the cut in the movie was the fact that I was also getting thousands of emails from people saying they were going to change their lives too, and that they found it inspiring and that was really gratifying. But I was surprised by all the attention it was and is getting. But you know, when there’s a problem, and nobody feels they can do anything about it, they tend to ignore the problem. It’s just human nature. One of the things that No Impact Man shows us is that we all are responsible and have the power to makes changes in our lives, and also to speak out politically.
RD: One thing I really liked about the film was that it was on a smaller scale, as opposed to some of these other documentaries that are heavy on science and big questions and are complicated and confusing. Yours is easier to relate to. I didn’t feel as if I was being lectured at.
CB: When I started this project, I wanted to do a book or movie that would basically hector everybody, like a finger-waving film. Then, one day I came home and realized that I’d left both air conditioners on all day long so it would be cool when I got back. I was like, wait a minute, I’m part of the problem. So I thought that before I told everyone else what to do I should worry about myself, first. And then it came together, I could tell the story of keeping my side of the street clean and it wouldn’t be a lecture, it would be about what concerns me. And maybe that would be an effective way of convincing other people, too. It would be about giving people a look at what we were doing.
RD: Your film is great at accentuating not so much the sacrifices you chose to make, but the benefits that came from living a lower-impact life. Did the upside of it all come as a shock?
CB: Well, we started out thinking we had to live differently out of a sense of responsibility, but then slowly but surely what happened, we got rid of the tv, got rid of processed foods, so instead of watching the tv and shoveling bad take-out food into our mouths, we were sitting at a table eating good food, and friends were starting to come over. Instead of hanging out in front of computers so-called social networking, we were playing charades, we were getting exercise, so what was surprising was that sometimes using less makes your life more.
RD: You almost get a sense, I think, of connecting to the past, living that way, living simpler, like when I’m gardening, I get the feeling of what it would be like to be a farmer, somewhat, you get that sense of history, and you lose that with all these gadgets and gizmos.
CB: That’s exactly right. These gizmos disconnect us from life in a way.
RD: How important was it to be living in New York City in order for this experiment to be successful? Could you have pulled it off in the Midwest, say?
CB: Wherever we live presents different adaptations. So, for example, if you lived in the suburbs or in a rural area, one thing you could do that people in a city can’t is grow your own food. Or, if you own your own house, you could set up a solar panel or a wind turbine. We did manage to sneak one solar panel on our roof. So depending on your life circumstances there are different things we can do. The advantages of New York are the efficiencies of scale, we share our transportation system, we heat our homes together, and the farmer’s market is just around the corner.
RD: In the 60’s, there was more of a let’s-hope-for-better vibe. That seems lost now. Why do you think optimism and idealism are such a rare commodity these days? Are people just more cynical, like everything’s out of their hands?
CB: People look at the political system and see so much spin and counter-spin, and we see all the money that’s involved in politics now, but what we forget is that politics is only just part of our lives. When we look at the great movements like civil rights or the women’s movement we see that it didn’t start in Congress, it started on the ground, people saying they wanted things different. The corporations have the money, but we have the people. Optimism is so important because if we accept the fact that we’re powerful, that all of our voices do actually make a difference, we can change things and make life more like we want it.
RD: After the experiment, did you continue to live a low-impact life? Did the habits fade? Did you get your tv back?
CB: No, no tv. It turns out getting rid of the tv was one of the best things we did. The average person watches 4 ½ hours of tv a day, so between me and my wife, that 9 hours of parenting time out the window. Similarly, what we’ve kept hold of is what makes sense. For example, it makes sense for us to save $1200 a year by not using an air conditioner. On hot nights, we go down and play in the Washington Square fountain. We get by. It makes sense for us to get our exercise as part of our daily routine. I mean, we joke around, it’s almost a NY cliché, people are taking taxis to the gym so that they can run in place. And the food from the farmer’s market is just better for us, so it makes sense to keep doing that.
RD: And the exercise and healthier food makes you feel better.
CB: And it also makes you feel better to know you’re doing a little something. To be involved, rather than powerless. Being powerless is a terrible feeling.
RD: How did you get your then two-year old daughter to eat the more natural, healthy stuff you guys were eating in the film? No chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese were evident.
CB: The hardest part was the vegetables. But eventually Isabella would go to our little garden plot and see the vegetables grow and she’d just think it’s like magic. So because she’s grown it herself, she eats it. To her, it’s just amazing.
RD: Do you think there’s room for both consumerism and a sustainable Earth-friendly system? Also, how do you keep people’s attention on the subject?
CB: I think we’ve developed an economic system that used to work well for us, but now we’re in this situation where we think that our economic well-being is based on how many planetary resources we use, like the more stuff that’s dug out of the ground and manufactured into something and then bought the better we are. There just have to be different ways to do business. For example, computer companies deliberately hold back innovation so you have to buy a new computer every couple of years. Why don’t we build our computers so they can be repaired and upgraded? Why do we have to throw them away every time? Providing services instead of just more stuff. So yes, consumerism is at odds with protecting the environment, but it’s also at odds with our quality of life. I think we can do better for ourselves and the planet.
RD: Do we laws passed before things will change, or do we need individuals to say no, I’m not buying that unless you do it right?
CB: I think the two totally work together. Government tends to reflect the way of life the people want to lead. And as people change their lives, they’re more willing to put pressure on their representatives to have the laws changed.
RD: One of the guys in your movie, Mayer Vishner, is a classic New York character. Has he received any publicity because of the film? Any sort of boost?
CB: It’s funny, I think he’s of two minds, like he said in the film. But the fact that so many people are writing to us and telling us they’re changing their ways, I think he’s thinking there’s actually a chance this project will do some good. In terms of a boost, Justin Schein, the director of No Impact Man, is doing a short film on just Mayer.
CB: Also, we’ve started something called the No Impact Project, at noimpactproject.org, to help people with lifestyle adaptations that are better for the planet and that we believe will also make their lives better. Usually we associate environmentalism with depravation, so this is a benefits-based approach. The site also introduces people to some of the environmental politics involved and the crisis’s we face. We plan to hold a one-week experience where people can try different aspects of low-impact themselves, to see what works for them.
RD: Thanks, Colin. Good luck with the film and the book.
CB: Thank you.