Monday, 13 September 2010

No Impact Man and other thoughts

Goodness know how I ended up hosting a Q&A session at the local screening of No Impact Man last week, but it certainly felt like a surreal milestone in what has become a very peculiar period of my life.

Although presented as The Rubbish Diet blogger and billed as a local "expert", for those who don't know, behind the social-media garb I am simply an ordinary housewife still struggling to equate how my family, with its "old world values",  fits into this "new world" of peak oil and its need for carbon reduction, ethical consumption and simpler living.   As a result, I know some of my friends regard me as a nutter, yet others openly share the same issues or at least an intrigue in the subject matter.   And for that I am very much relieved and thankful they were in the audience last week.

For anyone who hasn't seen No Impact Man, in summary, it's a movie about Colin Beavan and his experiment to engage his family in a twelve-month challenge to reduce their impact on the environment, by finding ways to live more sustainably. They don't venture off into the wilds to live in a yurt and raise sheep, but function from a high rise apartment block in New York, commiting themselves to a year of buying nothing except food, switching to local produce, producing zero waste, getting involved with the local community and finally switching off the electricity.

Now that's what I call an extreme lifestyle makeover.

Like other eco-bloggers with extreme sounding projects, Colin Beavan has been highly criticised by many individuals, including some environmental writers who felt that his high profile project went too far in the drive for sustainability, as well as those critics who believed he was meddling with the "American Way" and its diet of consumer growth.  One of the ironies of this project is indeed that his wife, Michelle, was a writer for US publication Business Week, which promotes the latest trends in the technology and innovation that help drive the American Way, a point made on-film by one of Beavan's friends.  Naturally others have criticised that the sole purpose of the project was simply that Beavan, already an established author, could secure a contract to write another book.

Well, he probably has pushed sustainability further than most families would accept.  And yes, his writing really could meddle with the American Way, threatening the happiness of capitalists, but only if everyone did it of course (see first point).  And it is true, Colin Beavan did plan to write a book based on his experience.

However, whether you're eco or not, or indeed someone with a grudge that he got a book-deal (and a movie), I wouldn't let any of that get in the way of watching the film and drawing your own conclusions.   It is really worth it to debate ways in which you can downsize aspects of No Impact Man to apply to your own lifestyle far away from New York, especially in an age where other practicalities may drive change as opposed to eco flag-flying.  Take the impact on their health for instance.  By simply changing their diet and cycling more, the family admitted to being much healthier and fitter. 

But if you are a green crusader, please don't get absorbed by a pile of guilt should you feel that you haven't done enough by comparision.  And don't get uptight in thinking their extreme action may get in the way of the more mainstream green message.   Only the few can manage extremism for whatever reasons those may be, and since finishing the No Impact experiment, Colin Beavan and his family, having learned much more about themselves, have ditched the stuff that was too inconvenient but kept the sustainable habits that made a positive difference to their busy city lives.

When I first discovered the No Impact Man blog, in 2008, my own thoughts were that the project was too extreme for my tastes and even now, the extent to which they unplugged from the grid for six months I simply regard as an unecessary step.  However, I acknowledge that they ventured out more and took up new activities which they would never have done if they still had the comforts of electricity at home.  It shows how in some cases you have to experience "giving up" to enjoy the benefits of "taking up".  Even so, that said, I can't quite see any benefits in giving up loo roll, no matter what the argument Colin.  Take up recycled toilet paper maybe, but not ditch it all together.

I see Colin Beavan as a "nouveau vert", one of the many people along with My Zero Waste and Fake Plastic Fish who are beginning to actualise their own motivations for modern eco action and openly share their experiences online using the platform that social media gives them - or rather, "us", if I should include my own musings at The Rubbish Diet.  Often the "nouveau vert" set themselves challenges and goals that can be openly discussed.  They rarely proclaim this is how things should be done, but share their experience in a "By heck, I did it" kind of fashion or a "Well, that didn't quite work did it" type of approach, coupled with knowledge sharing about what does work and why change is important to them.

Aside from the No Impact Man movie and back to the UK, I think Dave Hampton, The Carbon Coach, sums up well the subject of eco-change and the impact it brings.  He recognises that change can only come from within and that "happiness increase" and "damage habit reduction" go together.  He says it may look slow acting, but change can be joyfully contagious and exponential.

But when faced with guilt that you are not doing enough, or indeed that society isn't doing enough, what then?  This can lead to frustration in you and in others and  this is a real issue that affects many people.  It's all about the discrepancy between the practicalities in becoming more sustainable, the guilt for not doing more and the wish to expand beyond an individual's boundaries. In a Facebook update the other week, Dave Hampton seemed to crack it.  And these are his words of wisdom...the same words that I shared with the audience of No Impact Man last week.

"Please ONLY reduce your personal footprint to the extent it makes you and yours authentically HAPPIER!!! Then STOP doing so!
Celebrate and enjoy. 
Pause and witness - all around you - the scenery going a slightly brighter shade of green - with you.
Repeat as necessary for your ongoing happiness."

So now that I've shared that with you,  in the hope it lifts any feelings of eco-guilt,  I'd better get back to the more important task in hand, which today happens to be washing up and mopping the floors...using my reusuable cloths, chemical-free mop and refillable washing up liquid of course.  

You see, you don't need to be an eco-expert to change the world, just a mop and a dishcloth will do at times, in which case I'd better go and find my housewife's apron.


Colin Beavan's blog No Impact Man can be found at   More information about the movie can be found at


  1. The thing I liked about No Impact Man the movie is that it seem more like his wife's story than Colin's. I started reading Colin's blog when he was already deep into the project and sometimes he got a bit too...lofty. It seemed that no matter what some of us where doing way before he started his project wasn't good enough. It was nice to see how his spouce who largely agreed with the big changes that can have a positive impact but was there as a sounding board of a bit more common sense when it came to extreme things like the pot in a pot instead of using the refrigerator.

  2. Thank you for the review of the 'No Impact Man' film, Karen, and for your words of encouragement.

    I haven't seen the film, but from what you have said I wonder if It was less reflective than the book. I found the book inspiring. While I agree that he did go to extremes in the year of the experiment, it seemed to me that Colin showed just how much more we can all probably do to stop climate change from getting any worse, stop using fossil fuels up so quickly and stop destroying any more of the planet, even by doing some of what he did.

    I thought Colin's book also showed that we could live a fairly normal life and in fact an even more enjoyable life, while reducing the damage we cause to the planet to a minimum. I also like his idea of trying to do as much as we can to have a positive impact to counteract the negative impact of living in the society we do.

    I felt that he acknowledged that we want all be able to do everything because we are all different and our circumstances are different, too. That is something I hope to get across in my 'new improved' blog ( while helping people to make positive changes to the way they are living step by step and at their own pace.

  3. LOL Lisa - Colin's wife was brilliant wasn't she. I think for many she came over as a real heroine of the project. Great point ;0)

    Hi Karin - I haven't read the book but it sounds as though it would give a much deeper background for those who have only seen the movie. The benefit of a book over a movie is that there is far more scope for embedding ideas and reflection, rather than fly on the wall narrative of the project as it was happening. However, they should both complement each other beautifully. :0)
    P.S. thanks to the link to the new blog, will pop over for a peek x