Book Review: No Impact Man by Colin Beavan

Last week I was vacationing in Florida, at a beach full of sea-turtle nests (post coming soon!). Normally, my vacations are travel and sight-seeing orientated, always busy trying to make the most of out of my time in a new place. However, my only goal on this vacation was to RELAX and READ, and that I did! One of the books I finished in Florida is the first of my book reviews on this site.

Book Review: 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 

By Colin Beavan

No Impact Man is a documentation of one family’s year-long experiment to leave no net environmental impact.  The experiment was borne out of Beavan’s realization that while he complained, ranted, and lectured about the environmental degradation and global warming facing our planet, he did very little in his own life to offset the major issues of carbon emissions, waste, and environmental toxins. Having no net impact did not simply mean recycling more, driving less, and remembering his reusable bags at the grocery store, but by taking drastic measures to see how far a New York City family could take their commitment to the planet.

What I appreciated right away about Colin Beavan and his family is that they really started from scratch. While he regaled friends and acquaintances about the warming globe and other hazards of our consumerism and other waste-generating habits, at the start of his project in 2006 he wasn’t taking his own bags to the supermarket, nor his own mugs on his daily run to the coffee shop; he was ordering take-out every evening and tossing the containers in the trash each night, and leaving his A/C on all day. He therefore wasn’t just taking his already-formed practices in sustainability to the next level, he was stumbling through the process of developing sustainable practices, the same way most people get started.

Considering that leaving no net impact on the environment requires making no trash, making no carbon emissions, releasing no toxins into the air or water, and being ultra-cognizant of every single consumer choice, Beavan eased his family through this project in phases, and takes the reader through the successes, difficulties, and thoughts that arise through each phase without being too linear in his writing.

Phase 1: No Garbage – This meant no more delivered dinners, nothing bought in packaging, no use of tissues, and no more disposable diapers for his 1-year-old daughter.

Phase 2: No carbon-producing transportation – His wife would walk the 40 blocks to her job, the stairs would get them to and from their 9th floor apartment. No cars, taxis, planes, or trains (though a couple of exceptions were made).

Phase 3: Sustainable Eating – Local food only, nothing packaged, nothing wrapped in paper or plastic.

Phase 4: Smart Consumer Choices – Not only reducing the amount of products bought, but buying only previously-owned items.

Phase 5: No electricity – Cut out the fridge, dishwasher, washing machine, lights.

And, Phase 6: Giving back – This is where Beavan turns to not only negative-impact practices, but positive-impact practices by volunteering to clean up the Hudson and tend to young trees among other efforts.

His theory: negative impact + postive impact= no net impact. 

Throughout the early days of the project, one strong theme immediately becomes apparent. What began as an experiment in environmentalism became the Beavans’ tool for strengthening their family bond, expanding their friendships, and becoming more aware of their community. Farmers at the market became aquaintances, friends were encouraged to drop by any evening for dinner, and without a TV as a distraction, Colin and his wife devoted more personal time to each other and their daughter. This is one of the take-aways that I liked most – stuff gets in the way of our relationships and when you remove the excess time- and resource- wasters, you’re left with no choice but to connect with others and with yourself.

While one may be able to say, “okay, my garbage can is less full and my travel is not producing carbon emissions,” it’s often difficult to put a real value on our habits in the grand scheme of global waste. But what people can quickly and easily discover is how their personal life changes with a change in habits, and it was refreshing to see that unexpected realization emerge in this book.

One aspect of the Beavans’ experiment that was never explicitly discussed was the cost factor of this way of life. One would have to assume, though, that by trading take-out dinners for bulk-bins, getting rid of your fridge and other large appliances, and going from disposable to reusable diapers would save a TON of money. My guess is that Beavan wanted to remain focused on the environmental and relationship impact of this year, rather than the economics. However, I also think that money is something that people who may not yet care too much about the environment can still relate to and I would have liked a little bit of discussion on the topic.

Overall Rating: No Impact Man is not a how-to book, and Beavan’s writing is not didactic. The narrative is thoughtful, exploratory, and also thought-provoking. Beavan works solid research into his book without overpowering the reader with references (a slew of which can be found in the index, however), yet keeps it personal enough to appeal to a wide-audience who may simply be curious about how exactly a New York City family could possibly live for a year making no net impact.

Not only do I recommend this book (it’s a fairly quick read, by the way!), but if reading books isn’t your thing, check out the documentary currently streaming on Netflix, or the original blog (www.noimpactman.typepad.com).

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