The family who just said no

"No Impact" couple Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin on the new movie capturing their year without A/C, TV or T.P.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 11, 2009 10:18AM (EDT)

Colin Beavan and his daughter at the market
Colin Beavan and his daughter at the market

Colin Beavan and his daughter at the market

Driven along by Al Gore, the fluctuating price of gasoline, a procession of dire news reports about mounting ecological catastrophe and a vague sense that our civilization is running out of time, most of us are trying to do at least a little about it. We downsize our vehicles, segregate aluminum from newspaper and remember (sometimes) to shut off the air conditioner when we're not home. And we're depressingly confident, the whole time, that whatever we do or don't do won't make a damn bit of difference.

Well, what if it did? What if we could reorder our priorities such that we had dramatically less impact on the environment -- and led happier, less stressful lives at the same time? That was the question that led New York writer Colin Beavan to propose a quixotic, charming, maddeningly naive and borderline-nuts project to his wife, Business Week reporter Michelle Conlin. It's the project that came to be called "No Impact Man," which is the title of Beavan's long-running blog as well as his just-published book and the documentary film about his family's adventures made by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein.

In 2006, Beavan suggested that he, the reality-TV-addicted, espresso-guzzling Conlin and their daughter, Isabella, not yet 2 at the time, should interrupt their relatively normal Manhattan creative-class existence in order to live for an entire year while making no net impact on the environment. None, as in zero. No air conditioning, no TV, no electricity, no gas or oil heat. No takeout containers, no plastic bags, no recycled paper cups from Starbucks. No food grown more than a day's drive from New York City, which meant hardly any winter vegetables beyond cabbage and potatoes. (And no coffee whatsoever, a stark change for Conlin, who sometimes imbibed three or four iced quad-espressos a day.) No commercial soaps, shampoos or cleaning products, "natural" or otherwise. No journeys on planes, trains or automobiles (including the New York subway). Infamously, no toilet paper.

Beavan's book -- its full subtitle is "The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process" -- and Gabbert and Schein's "No Impact Man" documentary are remarkably different experiences. I recommend them both, but where Beavan offers an earnest, searching account of the project's religious-cum-philosophical roots and logistical difficulties, the movie is a hilarious, riveting must-see about a family as it breaks down almost all the way and then reinvents itself.

As Beavan presents her in print, his wife is almost a stock-comedy figure, a shopping-obsessed "Sex and the City" gal who can't tear herself away from the plasma screen and has never so much as cooked a pot of pasta in her life. (Actually, that last part appears to be true.) On screen, though, the quick-witted, winsome, self-effacing Conlin is most definitely the star of the show. Where Beavan is a cloaked persona who can come across as diffident and judgmental, Conlin is completely relatable, as they say in TV, and also follows a far more dramatic and emotional trajectory than he does.

Before the No Impact project begins, Conlin buys a pair of boots for a sum so obscene I won't print it -- and before it ends, she has not merely adjusted to but embraced a lifestyle free of TV shows or new clothes, where instead of eating takeout in front of "American Idol" she eats her husband's cabbage-and-eggplant frittata (again) after walking up nine flights of stairs to their candlelit, unheated apartment.

After a March 2007 New York Times Home Section profile bearing the unfortunate but irresistible headline "A Year Without Toilet Paper," which painted a medium-snarky portrait of the couple's low-wattage existence, Beavan and Conlin first became the center of a media feeding frenzy. Of course their household did not literally reduce its carbon footprint to zero, and of course their year of self-enforced asceticism did not affect global climate change in any meaningful way. But it's unfair to argue that they haven't made a difference.

Beavan's blog and the media coverage have inspired many people to emulate their example, and have provoked disproportionately angry responses from many others. A lot of  environmentalists who were initially suspicious of the publicity-stunt aspect of "No Impact Man" have warmed to its effects, and Beavan is highly in demand as nonprofit fundraiser and speaker. That doesn't mean that the rancor has abated from other people who feel criticized, lectured or insulted by Beavan, his worldview and his project. One poster on Gawker suggested that mowing down the Beavan-Conlin family with an Uzi would benefit the environment, and I imagine commenters on this article will come up with colorful images of their own.

If the No Impact Man project was partly a marketing opportunity from its inception -- Beavan intended to write a book all along -- that doesn't make it less sincere, or less of a threat to the dominant ideology of American consumerism. In their foolhardy plunge into uncharted terrain, Beavan and Conlin pose a fundamental challenge to a central tenet of American life: the idea that the "pursuit of happiness" is permanently and necessarily attached to economic growth, to the manufacture and consumption of ever larger quantities of stuff.

If any significant number of Americans downscale their consumption to any significant degree (setting aside the Beavan model) we would see a widespread economic collapse that would make the current downturn look like a glamorous European vacation. If some of those people actually decided, as the Conlin-Beavan household genuinely seems to do, that they were happier with a low-stress, low-consumption existence -- that working all the time and buying more junk did not correlate with happiness -- well, then we'd be forced to deal with a massive restructuring of our social and economic lives. But isn't that day of reckoning coming, one way or another?

Beavan and Conlin called me from their Manhattan apartment, where they were nursing Isabella, now 4, who was home with a bad cold. She broke in occasionally with requests for a drink of water or a bathroom visit, but didn't seem interested in answering my questions. Conlin says that Isabella adjusted seamlessly to the No Impact project, and then to the electricity being switched back on: "She was very Zen or gnostic about it. She just grooved with the moment."

Colin, having read the book and seen the movie, I think they paint really different portraits of the same experience. How do you evaluate the differences and similarities?

Colin Beavan: You know, the book is me telling what I consider to be important about the story. The movie is basically Laura and Justin telling what they consider to be important about the story, and they don't entirely overlap. There's places where I watch the film and go, "Geez, I wish we could have emphasized that more." But given the ideas we're trying to promote, there's tremendous value in having both. The book is in the world for audiences who are likely to be interested in the book, and the movie provides an entry for a completely different audience.

In the book, for example, you gradually out yourself as a Zen Buddhist, and it gradually becomes clear how much that informs your thinking and your decisions. Now, the viewer of the film can watch whole thing and have no idea that that's part of who you are and the choices you've made.

Honestly, the film is 90 minutes long, so it can't accomplish as much. It does provide a certain sense of intimacy that the book cannot, and the book can provide a certain depth that the film cannot. In truth, there were many, many conversations about the values that went into No Impact and they didn't make the cut of the film, and I miss those sometimes. Not necessarily my involvement with Zen Buddhism per se, but the thematic commonalities between religions that "No Impact Man" is based on -- I would have liked to see more of that in the film.

You write a lot about the fact that you see No Impact as rooted in various religious traditions.

There are many commonalities between the religious traditions. They're the ancient roots of wisdom. They're all struggling to tell us how to deal with human existence, and that's what we're struggling with now. All the great religions tell us, at root, to do less harm and more good. Probably the biggest consolation that all the religions give me is the understanding that we're all intimately connected, and not only are we intimately connected, but at a very real level we can't always see, we're actually one. The only thing that really makes any sense is trying to figure out how to get through this together. That is very much at the root of "No Impact Man."

You've had a lot of time to think about why this project pushes so many people's buttons. I mean, a lot of people have been inspired by you. But there are also these violent, negative reactions, and I wonder what you think about those.

There's at least two elements. One is that so many people are just working so hard, trying to do the best by themselves and their families, the people that they love. They don't have any time to themselves, and this so-called American dream is not turning out to be everything it's cracked up to be. So they're not as happy as they thought they would be. And then somebody comes along and says, "Hey, I'm living as environmentally as possible!"And there's an inference that you're not.

So basically, people are like, "I'm working my rear end off, I'm doing my best, and now you're telling me that the way I'm living my life is destroying the planet. Leave me alone!" People are overwhelmed, and I totally get that. We live in overwhelming times. Sometimes the natural reaction is to push the problem, and anybody that's discussing the problem, away from us.

On another level, there are people in the environmental movement who sincerely believe that absolutely the only way forward is through collective action leading to regulatory change, and they consider any emphasis on individual action to be a distraction. My belief is that collective action has not yet reached the head of steam that we need, and therefore that regulatory change is not as strong as we need it to be. We need to find ways of rallying people who are outside the choir and getting them involved. That means cross-aisle support, and part of the way to get that is to examine the intersection between the personal and the political, to say, "How is your life contributing to the problems our culture has?" Once people have skin in the game by examining that level of detail, then you can get them involved in the politics too.

Michelle, both the book and the film present you as going into this almost unintentionally, as if you were barely aware of how big an undertaking this was. Is there a degree of shtick to that, or was it really that way?

Michelle Conlin: Basically, Colin had been writing books and they were historical nonfiction. He told me, "I don't want to do that anymore. I want to write about global warming," and then he figured out a way to write about it. He was so excited about this idea, and I was so excited for him and wanted to be supportive and wifely and all that. So I just said yes, and I didn't fully think through what it would mean. I also didn't really have any idea what I was getting myself into. I just impulsively said yes.

C.B.: To be fair, at that stage of the game neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. We didn't understand just how unsustainable our systems were, and how much you have to withdraw yourself to make anything approximating no impact.

In some ways, you seemed to discover and bring together all these themes or trends that already existed, whether it was the local-food movement, the voluntary simplicity movement, the DIY crafting movement. Not to mention cooking at home and growing your own vegetables, which hardly qualify as new inventions or rediscoveries. To what extent were you genuinely naive about that stuff?

As far as the local food movement goes, I was absolutely and completely unaware of it. Of course I knew that the farmer's market existed, but I had always been flummoxed by the farmer's market. You know, a rutabaga. What does one do with a rutabaga? [Laughter.] I was genuinely flummoxed by that. When I say that neither of us knew what we were getting ourselves into, I think that in some ways I believed we'd just buy organic food. And then when I started to research the impacts of our food system, I realized that organic food was an insufficient standard, and we had to move to local food.

I mean, the conceit of the book is that I'm an armchair liberal who spouts off about everything but doesn't do much about it. Of course I had been involved in some political actions but I really didn't know what to do about it. So this really was a journey of enlightenment, in the sense of learning the details.

I get the sense that there are some people in the environmental movement who view you with some bad blood. They see you standing on the shore like Christopher Columbus, saying, "I've discovered a new world!" And they're like, wait a minute. There's already people living here.

M.C.: Honey, let me jump in here, OK? Andrew, I think Colin makes it really super-clear in the book that, like, we really didn't know anything, and there are people who've been working on this stuff for decades, who have dedicated their lives to it. We in no way consider ourselves to have discovered any of this. We're very aware that there's a huge legacy of people who've worked on these issues forever, and we stumbled into all of this in 2006.

C.B.: Basically I'm a communications professional. I'm in the lucky position of taking the work of people who've come before us and to communicate what they've learned. As far as I'm concerned, I'm largely popularizing other people's work.

In terms of that ability to communicate, I wonder if it's actually helpful that before you started this you guys were much closer to the lifestyle of your average urban professional couple. You weren't environmental activists or super-educated organic consumers or whatever.

M.C. I think it is. I don't think we were environmentally awake. I mean, intellectually we knew what was going on, but I don't consider that we were active in the movement or super-conscious in our own life. I think that made the whole thing more interesting.

C.B.: You know what it's like when you're going to write a piece. You start to get obsessed and you want to research it. There was a time period between when we decided we were going to do it and when we actually started, and I deliberately didn't start doing research ahead of time. I thought that story about a naive person who cares but has no idea what to do was really important. I wanted to be like everybody else. I am like everybody else.

M.C.: That was a story I was looking for and wanted to read about, because that was a story I could relate to.

Now, how does your family live today, with the official No Impact project in the past? Have you made permanent logistical and physical changes, or are the effects found somewhere else, in spiritual or psychological ground?

M.C.: I'll answer first just because my answer will probably be shorter. Yes, there are specific physical manifestations to it; we bike and eat local food and all of that. But for me, the spiritual and psychological benefits and dividends were just as deep, if not deeper.

C.B.: There are so many adaptations we made that we kept, but one of the big spiritual or psychological changes for me was the understanding that all of our voices count. All our voices count, and we have a right and a responsibility to talk about how we want to live together. Actually, if we start doing that then change will happen.

M.C.: Can I add one more thing, Colin? I realized early on that we were redesigning our whole lifestyle. That's pretty exciting, and now that we've had that experience, it makes for a very intoxicating adventure, to approach life that way.

Do you honestly wish, in retrospect, that you had never 'fessed up on the whole toilet-paper question?

C.B.: Yeesh, that's a good question. If I have any regrets, it's that at the time of that early publicity blast I was a little bit apologetic about the idea that we need to change our lifestyles as Americans. I didn't say as forcefully as I do now that we need to change substantially -- we emit five times the carbon of the average Chinese person -- and not all of that's going to be achieved by regulation. We have to live more environmentally, and we also have to address our quality-of-life crisis. We need to figure out how to be happier and more environmental at the same time.

As for the T.P. thing, I do prefer that we talk about the kinds of issues that are brought up by the No Impact Man project: individual action or collective action, quality of life vs. standard of living. All sorts of things that have nothing to do with bathroom hygiene.

"No Impact Man" is now playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York and the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles. It opens Sept. 18 in Chicago, San Francisco and San Jose, Calif.; Sept. 25 in Denver, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Calif., Seattle and Washington; Oct. 2 in Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, San Diego and St. Louis; Oct. 9 in Cleveland; Oct. 16 in Kansas City; Oct. 23 in Dallas and Houston; and Oct. 30 in Atlanta, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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