When Colin Beavan woke on Day One of his family’s year-long attempt to have zero effect on the environment, he grabbed some paper towel and blew his dribbling schnoz on it.
Not the best start in a remarkable attempt to create no garbage, cause no carbon dioxide emissions, disseminate no toxins, purchase naught but locally produced product, buy nothing new and nothing in packaging, use no transport, no air conditioning, no plastic, watch no TV… for 365 days, with a baby girl, in the middle of New York City.
Tee hee ha ha tee hee ho!
No wonder things didn’t start well. But if author Beavan is anything, he’s a tenacious green superhero. He’s also a realistic one. Upon explaining how a ‘schlub like me gets mixed up in a stunt like this’, this down-to-earth (‘scuse the pun) author notes that when all is said and done, at least he should have been able to change himself. If he could not have solved the world’s environmental problems via his singular efforts, he’d at least be able to say he’d tried.
How many of us can truly say that about ourselves and the impact we’re having daily on the ecological trajectorty of Mother Earth?
Naturally, upon embarkation of said ‘live inside a cave with the lights turned off for a year’ concept, Beavan realises his grand idea was all a ‘massive mistake’. If blowing one’s nose is going to pose a series of literal and metaphorical difficulties (if one uses disposable paper, we dislodge trees; if we wash cloth, we pollute the waterways), how on earth (‘scuse the pun) is he going to eat, move, work, express bodily solids as well as fluids? And let’s not even go into the nappy-wearing necessity of his eighteen-month-old daughter. After all, eighteen-month-old daughters need to poop.
Fundamentally, Beavan comes to the conclusion early in his remarkable book that no one can live without making some impact on the environment. ‘Even breathing creates carbon dioxide’, he reminds us. But what he also concludes early is that he embarked on his 12-month project with no idea about the ‘right way’ to do things. Paper or plastic? Disposable or washable? Breathe or don’t breathe?
The answers are convoluted and the author’s entire point was to learn The Way from scratch. Unable to find a reliable environmental roadmap to live by, he instead began to forage through the melée and evolve as a person – not a superhero who could fish the world from a gargantuan pile of garbage or shade its skin from a gaping ozone-hole wound, but more clearly understand the future of our planet as single human being.
After all, if we can gain better personal understanding, as individuals, will we not be better equipped to educate the poppets on their way up the ranks – the very children we’re leaving this unholy mess to?
(What a legacy.)
What I like about No Impact Man is the simplicity in thought. Beavan makes this journey personal but he also displays a depth of character, clarity and self-effacement that allows us to clearly see and appreciate his well-thought conclusions. Yes, there are some philosophical musings and there are also many well-researched facts, but there is common sense and a deeply embedded ‘hello, reality!’ essence to his journey that make it not only interesting to read, but seriously enlightening.
His train of thought, for example, on the fact that it’s not about choosing different products to alter the course of ecological disaster, but rather less product altogether. Ideally, it would mean less less less, across the board, including less two-legged environmental pillagers.
Hello! Don’t you love the logic and fundamentals behind this realisation? If the earth is a fat, tired bus hauling fat, tired humans around, it’s eventually going to a) run out of fuel and b) be capable of holding only so many of us. Can our planet really hold double or triple or quadruple its current population? Will we run out of gas or simply run out of room? Will we be falling off the edges?
No Impact Man doesn’t claim to solve these complicated (and a little frightening) projections. What it does do is personalise the journey and make it yours. Ours. Singled-down to one – where we can far better look it all in the face and more clearly see what we’re up against here, what we need to do – collectively yes, but also as singular entities in that collective morass.
In discussing the ‘hedonic treadmill’ modern day humans are seemingly trapped on, galloping ever forward on a pleasure-seeking mission for more more more, Beavan realises, via his research on modern psychology, that the happiest people do not live their lives trapped on this perpetual loop of physical acquisition.
The happiest people are those who find meaning in their lives – work, friends, family, everyday living. They, for the most part, shun ‘new stuff’ – designer stuff, expensive stuff, useless stuff, extra stuff, just-in-case-stuff – acquisitions that can never fulfil our souls and the true font of achievement and contentment. Stuff that is teetering in expendable piles all over the planet, clogging landfil sites and garages and attics and many a worn psyche. Stuff that takes so much energy to produce, market, ship, utilise. Do we really need all this stuff? Is the answer to a more sustainable life simply having less?
No Impact Man may not aim to save the world (although I am still picturing Beavan in lime green tights and an emerald green superhero cape), but what it will do is change your world. It will provide intellectual stimulation, creative thought, fascinating fact, emotional drive and best of all – hope. Funny, thoughtful, relatable, soul-challenging and good fun – this is a book that’s not only well-written and interesting, it’s as vital as phosphate-free washing powder.
As Superhero No Impact Man says – ‘We cannot wait for the system to change. We are individuals of the system.’ Fire up your inner greenie. It’s all systems go.
(Yes, the book is printed on natural, renewable and recyclable paper. Just in case you wondered, you ecologically-thoughtful soul, you.)