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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

Colin Beavan

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux; US: Sep 2009)

Enough about the toilet paper already. If people would just quit obsessing about it, Colin Beavan could get on with more important aspects of his year-long experiment in living with no — or, as it turned out, significantly less — impact on the planet.


But no. At one point, a BBC radio reporter, of all people, is pressing him for details on how he, his wife, and their toddler daughter did without TP for a year.


He hedges. She persists. Finally, he snaps: “Would your mother be proud of you for asking such a personal and embarrassing question within the hearing of millions?” he says. “Because I’m sure my mother would not be proud of me for answering you.” So: ‘Nuff said.


On to the project, which began because Beavan was freaked out about what was happening to the environment. He decided to spend a year trying to do without, just to sort out what he absolutely needed to do with. He wondered just how much of it was avoidable, how much was inevitable.


He talked his wife, Michelle, into joining him in the experiment. Their two-year-old, Isabella, and their dog, Frankie, didn’t have much say.


In their previous lives, they’d been take-out addicts who spent every night vegetating in front of the TV. They bought a lot of stuff.


Now, they got rid of the boob tube. They began cooking foods that were local and in season. They quit using elevators. They swore off air-conditioning. Heck, they didn’t even take public transportation; they walked or rode bicycles. Eventually, they turned off their electricity.


And they were doing it in the middle of New York City.


As part of the project, Beavan decided to write about it. And blog about it. Which has led some to chastise him as indulging in little more than a cheap publicity stunt.


If the book had been merely about his antics climbing 80 flights of stairs and such, that might almost be a fair criticism. Even at that, the project certainly rises above goofy ones like the guy who spent a year saying yes to everything people asked him to do.


But Beavan’s project is so much more. It has significant emotional and ecological heft. No Impact Man works, most of all, because Beavan is intelligent, funny, provocative, and, above all, honest.


He sometimes fails in his attempts, of course, and he doesn’t shy away from owning up to it. Both the book and Beavan are likable because he’s unabashedly naive, and we can share his journey, not just read a polemic. Best of all, Beavan’s many heartfelt ruminations elevate the book from merely interesting to something profound.


Some of the family’s new lifestyle was tough, naturally. Especially on Michelle, who liked to stay current with expensive wardrobe enhancements. But once Beavan’s project became a hit in the blogosphere (noimpactman.com), he could hardly turn back.


He insists the experiment wasn’t about sacrifice. The quest was more like an attempt to recalibrate his life. He wanted to challenge his assumptions.


One of Beavan’s conclusions is that all this stuff, all our modern conveniences, aren’t really making us happy. They’re just making us work harder and come home more exhausted, which often translates into our thinking we need more stuff to make our lives better. It’s a spiral of consumption.


One of the saddest moments, for me, was when friends asked Beavan how he was going to continue to bake bread when he switched off the electricity. Evidently, he had a gas oven. What they couldn’t figure is how he was going to do it without a bread machine. It was inconceivable to them that he would actually mix and knead dough by hand.


His friends also grilled him about what they perceived as his aversion to “progress”. But Beavan thinks “progress” doesn’t have to mean the latest power-guzzling gadget. “Maybe we could turn the great minds that brought us the Nintendo Wii to, say, getting fresh water to the 1 billion people on the planet who don’t have it,” he writes. If anyone thinks this is radical, we’re really in trouble.


Alas, there were some things that not even No Impact Man could do without. Such as his washing machine after his daughter threw up all over her pajamas and sheets. Twice in one night. Suddenly, filling the bathtub with water and stomping the fabric to get it clean wasn’t so much fun.


“This is perhaps the main learning experience from the no-electricity part of this project,” he writes. “That there is a level of non-resource use below which things just get miserable.”


Even today, long after the experiment has ended, Beavan is not sure where it will all end up.
He’s still using baking soda to wash his hair, but he’s decided it’s unrealistic, even cruel, not to travel to see distant family members.
He doesn’t specify whether the family has returned to TP.


So, just for the record — and the oddly obsessed — the closest you’ll get to an explanation of what they did instead is on Page 154, where Beavan asserts that “more than half the world believes that washing their nether regions is far more hygienic than using toilet paper, a practice largely confined to our Western culture.”


Now can we quit talking about it?

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