No Impact Man’s Colin Beavan on the Lessons of Living Unplugged

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In November of 2006, Colin Beavan — a self-described "guilty liberal" — began a "No Impact Experiment" with his wife and young daughter, in which they attempted to reduce their net environmental impact to zero. A documentary film crew followed the New York–based family for a year as they gave up packaged goods (to eliminate trash), coffee and other supermarket food (they only bought local, seasonal produce), and eventually even the electricity in their home. Beavan describes his adventures in eco-conversion in his new book, No Impact Man. The documentary, also titled No Impact Man, hits theaters tomorrow.

It was your birthday recently. Did you celebrate no-impact-ively?
Well, you do know that we turned our electricity back on a long time ago, right?

So no more candlelit vigils like we see in the film.
Let's take the example of [my daughter] Isabella's birthday, since mine doesn't really matter. Part of the No Impact project was that we'd only buy secondhand stuff, and we've largely continued that, so for her third birthday we went to this secondhand store called Jane's Exchange and said, "Pick out anything you want." She picked out this pair of gold slippers that cost like two dollars, so we said, "Okay, what else do you want?" And she just kept yelling, "These, I only want these." People always ask us what we taught Isabella during our No Impact year, but moments like that remind me that it was really more about what she taught us.

Your year-long experiment ended in November 2007. What parts of the lifestyle have you kept up, and what else did you "plug back in"?
I suppose we probably kept 60 percent of the "rules." We have little refrigerator that we just keep cool enough to stop the milk from souring in three days. We continue to ride our bikes everywhere and buy our food at the farmers market. We've gone back to taking elevators, but, that said, we did discover that taking the stairs is usually faster.

Is it harder or easier to do what you did in the city as compared to a suburb or rural area?
The average citizen in New York City emits a third of the carbon per capita of the rest of the country, so it's easier to have less impact in the city than it is in the suburbs. Having said that, there’s things that are easier depending on what city you're in. For example, we find it’s easy to get rid of the car and bike everywhere, but that would be more challenging in, say, L.A. On the other hand, many people in L.A. have gardens, so they could actually be growing some of their own food.

You've started a nonprofit organization, the No Impact Project, which will guide people through a weeklong version of your No Impact year. What good will that do beyond providing a new kind of ecotourism?
The nonprofit's general mission is to offer people an easy entry point into the environmental movement. It’s intended to be an experiential-learning opportunity, while getting you to ask yourself whether you might want to reach out to your politicians, whichever side of the aisle you’re on. There are many people in our country who are psychologically challenged by getting onboard with the environmental movement simply because it's has been largely co-opted by progressive politics. In some ways what we’re promoting is an approach that opens the door to the other side of the aisle. I’m not saying they’ll ever vote Democrat, but our hope is that people in the red states will begin to reach out to politicians on their own and say, "look, I’m not sure what the free-market solution to this problem is, but we want the problem solved."

Other "green" writers and bloggers seem to have gotten their knives out for you. Why is that? Aren’t you all supposed to be on the same team?
Well, people feel very strongly and they're scared — justifiably so — because we have this stark deadline and we’re seeing very little movement [on climate issues] in the regulatory and legislative spheres. They’re scared of attention being taken away from that and focused on a different arena. I think that they’re right to be scared, but they’re wrong to believe that different kinds of ‘shoulders to the door’ should be dismissed. Also, the individual-action approach, by nature, just makes people feel guilty because they’re worried that they’re not living that way. But there’s no need for that — this isn’t about bad getting good, it’s about old habits becoming new habits.

Inquiring minds want to know: Are you back on toilet paper?
Usually when people ask me that kind of question, I point to the bathroom and say, "You want me to show you?"

That whole toilet-paper thing that got so much attention was such a red herring — meanwhile, every minute, six football fields of trees are coming down in the Amazon Rainforest. And that would be fine, maybe, if we could say that we were really using those resources for things that advanced human life. But actually we’re using those trees for things like paper tablecloths. Is that kind of product worth wrecking the environment for?