The Impact of No Impact Man

Picture 1I’m in love with Colin Beavan.

Even though I don’t know how to pronounce his name.

“This guy, Colin Beaver, is amazing–”

“It’s bev-an,” James interrupts.

“Whatever. He’s amazing. He stopped generating trash. He made his own vinegar. He started baking bread, eating food within a 250-mile radius, and he even turned off his electricity. Plus he’s a really good writer. He’s funny and down-to-earth and inspiring. You have to read this book.”

“Okay.” James is agreeable as long as my diction is correct.

I took No Impact Man out of the library but I want to buy a case of this book and give it to everyone I know. (Wait, wait, is that too consumerish of me?)

The book, which came out in 2009, chronicles a year in Colin Beavan’s life when he, his wife Michelle, and their 18-month-old daughter Isabella tried to live in a walk-up in New York City without having any negative impact on the environment.

It’s a very honest and self-deprecating book. Beavan calls himself a “schlub,” reveals how hurt his feelings are by some of the sensational press coverage of the project (the article written by the New York Times reporter who shadowed him was entitled “The Year Without Toilet Paper,” and openly admits that he’s not an expert on the environment but just a liberal-minded worrier who realized he needed to stop ranting about global warming and dwelling on what everyone else was doing wrong and start examining his own wasteful habits.

See why I love Colin Beavan?

One of my favorite parts of the book is the relationship between him and his wife Michelle, who “grew up all Daddy’s gold Amex and taxi company charge accounts and huge boats..” He often calls her “my poor wife,” and his guilt at dragging her through his year-long project is almost palpable. But Michelle is right there with him, scootering to work, eschewing the elevator, deciding to get rid of their big screen TV because she’s too addicted to it, and coming home in tears after the wife of one of her colleagues tells him not to shake her hand.

It even turns out no impact on the environment has a positive impact in the bedroom.

“I’m sitting around, doing not much. The front door opens and Michelle comes in. Isabella is in bed, taking a nap. At first, Michelle and I are at a loss for something to do to amuse ourselves. Then we figure it out. I won’t say much else except that we’ve finally realized the best thing to fill the space in our schedule once occupied by TV.”

To stop generating trash, Beavan has to stop wrapping Isabella’s butt in plastic six times a day (this is how he puts it). With guidance from Lori Taylor of the Real Diaper Association, he switches from plastic petroleum-derived diapers to organic cotton pre-folds with wool covers. He starts bringing a glass jar with him wherever he goes so he can drink tap water without using paper cups, and he has a local bike builder make his family a cargo tricycle from all reusable parts. The resulting contraption is big enough to carry groceries and Isabella and unusual enough to start lots of conversations. Beavan notices as he examines–and changes–so many aspects of his family’s consumption habits that their lives take on more meaning. He starts spending more time with his daughter and paying more attention to his wife, and his apartment becomes a place where friends gather to talk and eat and enjoy each other’s company (by candlelight after they cut the electricity.)

“So much of my trash-making and waste is about making convenient the taking care of myself and my family. It’s about getting our needs out of the way … When did taking care of ourselves become something so unimportant that it should be got out of the way rather than savored and enjoyed? When did cooking and nourishing my family become an untenable chore? What is more important that I’m supposed to do instead?

“For every task I need to accomplish there seemed to be some throwaway item I could buy to help get it out of the way. My whole life appeared to have turned into a moneymaking machine intended to buy more convenience, with the seeming purpose of getting my life out of my way. I’m like a snake eating my own tail. It’s as if I’m just trying to get the whole thing over with…”

I’m so inspired and heartened by this book! My superhero crush isn’t on Batman or Superman. It’s on No Impact Man.

After he reads the book, I bet James will have a crush on Beaver, I mean Beavan, too.

Are you worried about global warming? Has your family changed any of your consumption habits? How far would you be willing to go to stop wasting resources? Have you read any books lately that have inspired you to think differently about yourself and/or the environment?

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28 thoughts on “The Impact of No Impact Man”

  1. Wow – I admire him and more importantly, can relate to him. I think I remember that someone told me about him a few years ago. I don’t understand the anecdote about someone telling her husband not to shake his hand – what was that all about? I think I’ll have to read the book to find out! I’m sure it will be good. And as for your question, yes, I do feel worried about global warming and constantly wish we could do much more to stop wasting resources. I do feel glad that we have limited our diaper use by doing EC with all four of our children, but I know there is always more one can do.
    .-= Christine´s last blog ..Picture books =-.

  2. I think I remember hearing something about this too. His book sounds like he’s very honest about the ups and downs of trying to be better. What I’m wondering is what happened next? He did this year experiment–is he still living without electricity or has he added a few things back in? I must admit, being without a laundry machine would be tough.
    .-= Kristen´s last blog ..the asaparagus contest =-.

  3. I’m bummed that I didn’t see this 2009 documentary when it came to the Traverse City Film Festival, but I’ll definitely make an effort to see it after reading your post.

    There’s also a feature film from Columbia Pictures scheduled for release in 2012 – less documentary-ish, more “based on a book” type film. It’ll be interesting to see what they do with it, and who they pick to star (no casting news yet).
    .-= Jane Boursaw´s last blog ..Exclusive- Interview with Tomm Moore- Director of The Secret of Kells =-.

  4. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I had to smile when you wrote you were thinking about buying copies and handing them out. Actually that is what I have done with Our Stolen Future, by Theo Colborn. I bought 10 copies and so far have given one to the County Commissioner, in charge of hearings with our utility company about spraying herbicides under the power lines of Cape Cod, and one to our marvelous rep to the State Senate, Sarah Peake. I intend to number the other copies and lend them to friends. (Have you read this amazing book?) Now, as to what we have changed here on the Outer Cape so far. There was no pharmacy, so everyone had to travel 20 miles to fill a prescription. I’m on the town’s Economic Development Committee and we have succeeded in getting Wellfleet a pharmacy, starting in February, and Outer Cape Health took out a five-year lease. As for me personally, I have become adroit at uniting errands, so that I do my shopping, for instance, when I have a dental appointment, because it is necessary to travel for that type of thing. I always carry tote bags with me around town and challenge any clerk who automatically hands me a plastic bag. I also am getting educated on toxic chemicals in the environment and will be showing documentaries at our library, starting with Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber. In other words, getting the word out. Thanks for writing about this. I firmly believe change will come through the mothers and grandmothers of the USA. Politicians will not lift a finger to change the status quo if we do not bug them. It is not only about saving the planet. It is about saving ourselves.
    .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Fall Foliage &amp Discover Wellfleet =-.

  5. I saw the movie when it played in Boston last year, and I found it really interesting. My impression, though, at least from the movie, was that giving up electricity, bath products, etc. strained their marriage. Although I try to conserve energy and recycle as much as I can, I really felt for Michelle and worried they might take things too far (particularly in the scene where they set up that pot and were trying to keep milk cold). I’d be interested in reading the book and seeing if I get the same impression from t hat.

  6. Alexandra — I have read excerpts from Our Stolen Future and read about the book but I haven’t actually read it. I will definitely put it on my to read list. I’m glad to hear a pharmacy is coming to the Outer Cape. I agree with you that change has to happen (and will happen) with moms and grandmothers. And with dads (like Colin Beavan) and grandfathers too!
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After =-.

  7. Marital strain is definitely part of the story! I think it’s one aspect that anyone in a relationship can relate to (though in my case I’m more the Colin of the family, James is more the Michelle.) But isn’t that what a good marriage is all about? Working through conflict, helping each other grow and change? I’ll be curious to hear your impression of the book, if you decide to read it Susan.
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After =-.

  8. Good question Kristen. The book has an epilogue, “Life After The Year Without Toilet Paper,” but in the interest of full disclosure I have to admit I haven’t read it YET. I’ll let you know what it says as soon as I finish it!

    p.s. I lived in Niger, West Africa for a year where few people use toilet paper. I think it’s actually more hygienic and certainly better for your body (especially if you have hemorrhoids) to wash your privates with soap and water.
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After =-.

  9. I remember reading about the “no toilet paper” family back then. I’m happy to hear you enjoyed the book so much. I’ve read a couple of these doing without memoirs and find them fascinating. Part of me thinks it’s become more of a stunt these days, but the original ones sound pretty genuine.

    The three biggest things I do to cut down on energy consumption are:

    1. Almost never using our clothes dryer and hanging clothes outside (or on some inside lines in our basement) instead.

    2. Driving a much more fuel efficient car than I used to and driving very little. I can go 4-6 weeks on one tank of gas.

    3. Keeping our house on the chilly side. We try only to heat the spaces where we are at the moment.

    We have all-in-one recycling at the bottom of our canyon, so we’re down to just one bag of trash per week, which I think is pretty good compared to other families.
    .-= Roxanne´s last blog ..Product Review- Hartz DuraPlay Ball =-.

  10. I’ve read ABOUT this project, but haven’t read the book. I’ve just requested it from the library though. We are down to a bag of trash every 4-6 weeks. Between buy fewer things that come in a lot of packaging and the compost bin, our trash output has plummeted.
    .-= Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last blog ..Quick Kitchen Tip- Greasing Pans =-.

  11. This is great. We have an ongoing issue in our household. My husband packs his lunch. He likes his items in plastic bags. I am trying desperately to rid our home of these, but it’s a battle. I’ve tried reusable containers (and admittedly, he does use lots of them) but they don’t work for everything. I’ve tried waxed paper bags. We use tin foil, but those are not waterproof. Sigh. It’s an ongoing issue, but I’m hopeful that we can continue to use fewer until it just feels natural.
    .-= Kris Bordessa´s last blog .. =-.

  12. Kris, some local moms who I’m on a list with recommended this company to me: PlanetBox.

    I’ve been thinking about splurging on these for my kids as a gift. They seem to have really considered every aspect of production of their product and then once you have one you never waste again. Maybe this could be the avenue towards marital harmony in your house?
    .-= Jennifer Margulis´s last blog ..Why You Should Believe in Your Book and Never Give Up- Guest Post by Alisa Bowman of Project Happily Ever After =-.

  13. I’ve been thinking for a while that I want to make a project out of making less impact. I don’t really want it to a year long thing, tho. I want it to be a rest-of-our lives thing. I probably would never give up TP, but I would love to get to a near zero use of prepackaged crap–even food. I hate how much we put in landfills. Even with conscious recycling, it’s still too much.
    .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..The Art of Being Happily Married- Part 3 =-.

  14. I haven’t read No Impact Man, but I did see the film and I enjoyed it immensely. I agree – Colin Beavan is really inspiring.

    As for me, personally, I do strive to reduce my impact. I eat locally, I drink tap water, I cloth diaper, I compost and recycle and buy second-hand. But I’m not quite sure I’m ready to give up electricity or toilet paper. And I sometimes feel a little bit guilty about my love of creature comforts.
    .-= Amber´s last blog ..Autumnal Thoughts =-.

  15. Although I couldn’t do without electricity – hey, I make a living through the internet! – I fully admire Beavan and his family for making such a public statement about consumption. We all need to try harder.
    .-= Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last blog ..Anatomy of Vegetable Stock =-.

  16. What an interesting concept and I do admire Beaven for giving it a try. Just reading about him makes me feel very, very guilty for falling into some bad habits, like using too much paper and keeping too many lights turned on. I try to be conscious of it all, but I’ll admit that sometimes it gets away from me. I’ll be very interested in reading about his year following this experiment.
    .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Shocking Obesity Facts =-.

  17. Sounds like an interesting read; I’ll have to check it out at the library.

    To play devil’s advocate here, I wonder why Mr. Beavan chose to sell paste and paper books instead of having it available for download on the web? It would have certainly saved some trees!

  18. Kristen–Now that I’ve finished the book, I can answer your question about what lifestyle changes Colin Beavan and his family continue now that their one-year project is over.

    Apparently, this is one of the most common questions he is asked.

    On p.222 he writes: “The refrigerator is back on but the freezer, which is separate, is not. After a year of disuse, the dishwasher would not come back to life, and we did not replace it. We gave away our air conditioners and sweated through the summer and plan to keep doing so. The radiators are still turned off. There is no TV, though we park Isabella in front of a movie on the computer once in awhile. I carry my jar everywhere for coffee and water and, mostly, ride my bike. I have been in perhaps ten taxis in the year since the project ended. I take the subway when it rains.

    “I still wash my hair with baking soda, and use if for deodorant. I use homemade moisturizer and soap with no toxins. We still don’t eat meat…”

    He also adds, “Paradoxically, it may not have been the creating less trash and other measures per se that made the greatest difference. Instead, what made the difference was publicly letting people know that I was trying, and trying hard, and having them see the efforts. Going to extremes for a year changed the way I think about these things–another result of the experiment. Changing the people around me–the unforeseen consequence of individual action–is still one more result. By continuing to think about these issues and doing my best, even if it’s not as extreme as during the project proper, I continue to change the people around me. We can all change the people around us by changing ourselves” (pp.223-224).

  19. Tracy, I think that’s a fair question. If one is striving to be a model for low impact, then the way one conveys that message needs to be low impact as well, yes?

    To that end, Beavan (and his publisher) really pushed the envelope in the book publishing world by printing the book on 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper and cardboard without chlorine. Additionally, the paper was manufactured using energy generated from biogas (for more details see p. 228 “A Note on Production”).

    I also think that he was able to reach hundreds of thousands more people by having a printed book than he would have been if it were only an eBook. Perhaps that justifies some of the carbon emissions that were inevitably generated to produce the book?

  20. I need to read this too. All these people who bake their own bread, and make their own vinegar, and hold down day jobs, parent, have an adult life…some days I feel it’s all I can do to put dinner on the table & compost most of our waste, know what I’m saying, Ms. Mama of Four?
    .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..A Meat Lover

  21. I just requested the book from the library. We enjoyed the documentary (streaming on Netflixs by the way), particularly since they are an urban family like we are. I particularly found his tone engaging.

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