In 2007 a New Yorker named Colin Beavan talked his wife Michelle into joining him on an interesting sabbatical of sorts — for one year the couple (and their toddler) would abstain from all things environmentally unfriendly including but not limited to electricity; shopping; eating meat or anything not produced within 250 miles of their Fifth Avenue apartment; motorized transportation including elevators; and television. The year was to provide the material for Beavan’s book No Impact Man, and a documentary by the same name was released last year, offering an oft-comical firsthand look at the family’s environmental transformation and inevitable misadventures along the way.
In the film, Beavan points out at the onset of their year that the idea was to cut away the excess, to live in a manner which would make as minimal an environmental impact as possible in order to see how feasible a no impact lifestyle really was in our modern world. But as the year went by his hypothesis changed: “It’s not about using as little as we can use, but about getting what [we] need in a sustainable way. Getting people what they need in a way that doesn’t hurt the planet.” Upon this realization they did not, of course, resume rapacious consumption. In addition to their strict local vegetarian diet (no exceptions for even coffee or olive oil), the family made their own soaps, did laundry in the bathtub, kept their milk in a cooler, always took the stairs, bought nothing but food, and produced no trash. Michelle had to forfeit her makeup, her penchant for designer labels, her reality television shows, and her beloved iced quad espressos (though that last one didn’t go without a fight).
It seems a lot to wrap your mind around, right? As I watched the film I found myself thinking: How far would I go? What could I live without? While I could understand the criticism Beavan and his family faced, my dominant reaction to their efforts was inspired. It was hard not to be, for as you watch the year play out for them they answer a resounding “yes” to their own question: Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much?
Television time had turned into family and friend time. They developed relationships with the people who grew their food. The seasonal local diet even helped Michelle reverse a pre-diabetic condition. As summer came and went, Michelle — the project’s would-be saboteur — was awestruck with how present and happy she felt. “The days feel like they last forever,” she says at one point. And not in the bad way.
Long story short: Watch the movie. Or read the book. Or do both. If you already live off the grid and family cloth (read: cloth toilet paper) is so 1994 to you, then you may find the Beavan family’s experiment lacking in authenticity. But if you’re committed to a sustainable lifestyle that you’re not always quite sure how to live, it may provide you with some excellent insights. No matter what, it is food for thought. I’ll leave you with a particularly dense dish: “If we lived according to our independent conviction, rather than a collective momentum — regardless how destructive — how may that change our world?”
Check out Beavan’s blog and the international non-profit No Impact Project.