January 1 is the day most people stop to question their consumption levels and think about what is truly important in life. Writer Colin Beavan took a whole year to do this, along with his wife and toddler, as chronicled in No Impact Man: 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. In this witty and entertaining narrative, Beavan starts with producing no garbage, traveling carbon-free, eating low impact food, and buying only used items. He then progresses to using no electricity, conserving as much water as possible, and, finally, offsetting any remaining impacts through good works such as volunteering for an environmental group.
This ‘lifestyle experiment’ was spurred on by a growing concern about climate change and a general malaise with the rat race of life. Throughout the book, Beavan confronts questions about the true meaning of life: Is it really about working so we can buy more stuff? What are we striving for? What does happiness mean?
He decides that instead of trying to change the world, he will start with himself. In the end, Beavan realizes that reducing his impact on the Earth made him happier, forging stronger connections to his community and family. The message is that living sustainably is not about deprivation but about healthy food, exercise and more time to talk with loved ones.
What makes the book charming and engaging, rather than preachy, is that Beavan admits freely that he had no idea what he was getting his family into, and no idea how to proceed. He is very candid about what parts of the experiment were difficult, what didn’t work, and how confusing some of the choices are (paper or plastic?). You end up rooting for Beavan as he struggles along in his project, doing the best he can.
Beavan lives in New York City, so has access to resources that many of us could only dream about, like his thrice-weekly visits to farmer’s markets. However, there are enough details in the story to inspire everyone to look at their own lives and decide what steps could reduce our environmental footprint. Whether it is taking the stairs, eating less meat, carrying a re-usable mug or investing in solar power, everyone can do something.
The book is inspirational in pointing out how small changes can make a difference, while assuring that it is okay if you can’t manage to be impact-free. The underlying message is that everyone should do their best, keep trying, make deliberate choices and be involved. But the deeper questions Beavan brings up are also tremendously important. By learning that a sustainable, low-consumption lifestyle can be a happier lifestyle, he shows that society needs a new definition of success, one that does not focus on monetary gain. This type of fundamental shift will require all citizens to participate, and in this way Beavan makes it evident that saving the world is up to each of us.
No Impact Man, Colin Beavan, New York: Macmillan, 2009, 288 pages
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