Before he could change the world, Colin Beavan had to put his money where his mouth is.
Before he could change the world, Colin Beavan had to put his money where his mouth is.
By Alexandra Wolfe
Colin beavan began byeliminating his trash. Given that he and his wife, Michelle Conlin, had a five-nights-per-week take-out habit and an 11-month-old daughter in diapers, this brought an immediate shock to their Manhattan lifestyle. For one thing, it was all his idea and Conlin was not much of a cook, so it was Beavan who found himself preparing all of his family’s meals, using only container-free foods. Fruits and veggies were bought from farmers markets; rice and grains were brought home in glass jars from the bulk dispensers at the local natural foods store. Even slice pizza was off the menu unless he could convince the pizzeria to serve it without a napkin and a paper plate.
Next came carbon emissions. Beavan and family bypassed subways and elevators for push scooters, bikes, and climbing nine flights of stairs to their apartment on Fifth Avenue. Then Beavan took a step even he considered ludicrous: He shut off the electricity to their apartment — no more coal-powered TV, washer-dryer, or air conditioner. The couple learned to love board games, stomped their clothes clean in the tub, read by beeswax candlelight, all while Beavan researched ways to keep his daughter Isabella’s milk from spoiling without a refrigerator. An intriguing Nigerian pot-within-a-pot device recommended by a green-living website “plain didn’t work,” Beavan admitted. “The milk went sour. The veggies rotted.… I learned to buy less food and go to the market more often.”
It was all part of a yearlong experiment that began in January 2006 to see if his family could zero out their contribution to global warming, and grist for Beavan’s blog, No Impact Man. A memoir of the same name is now out, and, along the way, the couple picked up a documentary film crew, too. No Impact Man, the movie, is open in limited release.
Watch the trailer here:
“People ask if part of this save-the-world thing is about making a good book,” Beavan says. “I do cop to that. If you’re a megalomaniac and you use that for the good of the world, why not?”
On a clear day this spring, Beavan, 45, takes a stroll near his home in Manhattan’s West Village. Slim, with tousled dirty-blond hair, he wears old jeans and a loose T-shirt, and looks every bit the Gen-X bohemian. Though the power is back on in his apartment, and his book all but finished, he continues to wrestle with which modern conveniences to bring back and which he’ll continue to forgo. Polite and unassuming, he is pleasant company but easily vexed. After complaining about the exhaust from a nearby car, Beavan says he can’t help but notice these things — “just like I noticed when you got your coffee in a throwaway cup.” Beavan’s own coffee mug is an old organic peanut butter jar filled to the brim, spilling down the sides, scalding his fingers.
Beavan had struggled with bouts of existential worry all his life, but one winter morning he awoke from a bad night lower than ever. Afterward, he couldn’t help but notice that everyone was happy that it was 70 degrees in the middle of winter, except for him. He watched passersby in tank tops and shorts and started to panic.
“I was just in despair,” Beavan recalls. “And it wasn’t necessarily about the environment. I was just feeling like people in the United States, who were supposed to be at the top of the world, were feeling stressed. The world’s melting and this societal hunger for oil is resulting in not-nice things, and I was connecting it all together and wondering, Is it really working?” For him, the answer was no, and so he began looking for practical ways to be less of a guilty liberal whiner.
An author of two works of historical nonfiction, Beavan knows he’s not alone in rallying for the global warming cause, and that he’s far from the first to write about such an experiment. The model for this sort of thing goes back to Walden and Henry David Thoreau’s two years of “living deliberately,” if not earlier. What distinguished his effort is that he has been remarkably strict in keeping to his self-imposed rules, endearingly candid about his mistakes, and has managed to create a memorable alter ego.
“This isn’t about being Moderate Impact Man,” he has often had to tell people who question his steadfast approach, like when he canceled a family visit to Massachusetts in order to spare the atmosphere more CO2. “I remember suggesting that they take the train,” his mother, Judith, tells me. She pointed out to her son that “the train would travel whether or not they were on it, thus they would not be contributing to that particular carbon footprint. But I didn’t get very far with that line of reasoning.”
Beavan questioned every last thing in his family’s cupboards. Coffee, a global commodity, was eventually phased out — despite the fact that Michelle relied on caffeine as a deadline crutch in her job as a reporter for BusinessWeek. Red meat was out: too carbon-intensive. Even salt was banished, except when baking bread, as it was the one ingredient necessary to make it edible. While Michelle initially refused to replace her tampons with silicone menstrual cups, she eventually relented, and Beavan even succeeded in getting her to toss out her lipsticks and makeup. But his best PR move was giving up toilet paper. Though he feels that a New York Times profile entitled “The Year Without Toilet Paper” trivialized his effort, it also made him an in-demand talk-show guest. “To a reader it was really funny,” Beavan reflects. “But it took away from people’s ability to really think about it.”
More than any unconventional practice, what emerges from Beavan and Conlin’s story is a glimpse into a marriage and the art of negotiation. If their experience really is a guide, solving climate change may require a lot of marriage counselors. “When we got married, I said, ‘I love you; I’ll do anything for you, but the one thing I won’t do is go camping with you,’ ” Michelle jokes midway through the documentary. “Now my whole life is a campground!”
Although No Impact Man grew out of Beavan’s own despair, the project almost certainly would not have come to fruition if not for an argument he had with his wife about fur. When they married, they made a pact that she would give up fur if he let her watch reality TV. So when a friend offered her a free fur shawl worth $1,000, it caused such a fight that the two talked it over with her shrink. Beavan made Conlin read aloud an excerpt from a PETA brochure, after which she finally agreed to refuse the gift. But winning this battle simply made Beavan realize he spent an awful lot of time telling others how to live, yet rarely looked within. He told his agent that by making an example out of his own life, he might be able to convince others to change their ways. At the same time, Michelle had been wanting a second child and, in what becomes an affecting if melodramatic subplot of the memoir and documentary, Conlin reminds her husband of the sacrifices she is making to help him live his convictions. They decide to try to get pregnant.
One evening shortly after our walk in the West Village, I join Beavan, Conlin, and Isabella in their 700-square-foot apartment. They never reinstalled their 46-inch flatscreen TV, still shop at the farmers market, bike around the city, and eat no meat, aside from the occasional hot dog for Michelle. They have plugged the fridge back in, but not the freezer, which is filled with soil during my visit. Isabella, stalling to avoid bedtime, opens the freezer door for me. “It smells yucky in here,” she says.
When the year was up, the first thing Michelle did was book a flight home to Minnesota so that she and Isabella could visit her folks. Anxious not to regress, Beavan didn’t go and wandered New York alone, wondering if the masses would be willing to sacrifice even a fraction of what he had to stanch global warming.
“I practically wiped out everything I did with that one flight,” Conlin says, as we sit together on the sagging secondhand furniture.
Beavan shakes his head. “Not everything.”
“Okay, I didn’t wipe it all out, but still, I’m more comfortable with ‘I’m just going to cut this and that,’ whereas you’re more of an idealist,” she tells her husband. “For you, it was a little bit of an identity crisis.”
The greatest realization for Beavan: For his experiment to remain meaningful, it can’t end. “[When I finished the book,] I thought I wasn’t going to be No Impact Man anymore,” he sighs. “Little did I know I would be No Impact Man for the rest of my life.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue of Men’s Journal