Volume 78 - Number 46 / April 22 -28, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

No Impact Man tries to widen his message’s impact

By Lincoln Anderson

Sitting on the table in front of Colin Beavan was a glass jar with a bit of water in the bottom of it and the word “Natural” on its brown lid. Once, it contained natural peanut butter; but for the past few years, it’s been Beavan’s omnipresent portable cup. 

“It’s ostentatious,” he explained. “It starts the conversation — plus a lot of baristas give me free coffee. ... It goes everywhere. ... If I go to a party, and they’ve got plastic cups, I’ll take out my jar.”

Beavan is No Impact Man — or, more accurately, he was for six months in 2007. Nowadays, he calls himself just Moderate Impact Man. During that half-year stretch, however, as No Impact Man, he pushed the boundaries of no-carbon-footprint living to the maximum — or perhaps that should be to the minimum.

Along for this environmentally rigorous ride were his creature-comfort-loving wife, Michelle (think Prada and Four Seasons), their young daughter, Isabella, and their rescued shelter dog, Frankie.

Beavan, who lives on lower Fifth Ave. in the central Village, spoke about his experience as No Impact Man over a sandwich and a cup of water — naturally, in his natural peanut butter jar — last week at The Grey’s Dog Coffee on University Place.

As for what inspired his transformation into his environmental alter ego, Beavan, in his mid-40s, said it was when he came home to what he fondly calls his “high-class hovel” on a blisteringly hot day. He’d left the air conditioner running full blast, and it caused a cold shock of awareness to hit him.

“I just slowly became aware of my own use of resources,” he recalled. “I thought, ‘And we’re fighting for oil that’s in someone’s backyard; at the same time, we have global warming.’ So I thought I should shut up and do something about my own life.”

Before, he would just complain about global warming to his doorman. 

“What I discovered was that, if you’re powerless, it feels better if you do something about it,” he said.

Plus, as a writer, the idea of this eco-spartan lifestyle was the perfect “narrative” device for him. In fact, he has finished writing a book on the experience, and a “No Impact Man” documentary also has been made, both of which will be released later this year. 

“It was always intended as a narrative vehicle to change people’s minds — because otherwise, we’re done for,” he said.

Beavan didn’t become No Impact Man, at least not fully, overnight. It was a gradual process of shedding superfluous aspects of modern life.

In a nutshell, he said: “Check out what’s not making us happy — and get rid of it.”

The first thing was no more takeout dinners while vegging out in front of the TV: The television was turned off and takeout was ruled out — because of the nonbiodegradable plastic containers. They instead started to eat only locally grown food, becoming regular shoppers at the Union Square Greenmarket.

He’s a vegetarian, a lifestyle, he noted, that’s also good for the planet.

“Beef production causes more greenhouse gases than all the cars and transportation worldwide — the cows’ farts and burps,” he said. “Because they’re ruminating, their burps have a lot of methane in them.”

It wasn’t too long before Beavan and his wife began composting their kitchen waste.

“Every time we started a new phase, it would be tough,” he said.

He admits it was hard living without electricity. They sneaked a solar panel onto their building’s roof, but it would barely power one light bulb briefly at night and the computer for only a few minutes. Beeswax candles made it a bit more bearable.

During the hot weather, they hung out in Washington Square Park to cool off. He said a favorite moment in the documentary is when Isabella, then 2, slowly immerses her head in one of the fountain’s water jets. More recently, they’ve really missed the fountain and the park during phase one of Washington Square’s renovation, he said.

“Do we need more air conditioners, or do we need more parks — and which would make us happier?” he asked earnestly.

Of course, there was no way No Impact Man could ride in elevators. The most flights of stairs he climbed in one day was 120.

Beavan started a No Impact Man blog, writing on it a few hours each day at The Writers Room on Astor Place.

His wife, also a writer, walked to her job at BusinessWeek magazine in Midtown daily, faithfully following the No Impact lifestyle.

“She was a really good sport,” Beavan said. “You should read the book and see the film — she had a conversion experience.”

He spent a lot of time tooling around in the “No Impact S.U.V.,” a large tricycle, with a rear seat for Isabella, built by George Bliss of the Hub Station.

He said the worst part of the whole experience for him was doing the laundry old-school style — in the bathtub — which he readily concedes made him “miserable.” 

“I had to wash the clothes by hand,” he said.

Some who see the movie, though, might think there are things worse than doing hand laundry. A blurb for the film notes he “composts his poop.”

Although Beavan’s grueling six-month experiment ended a year and a half ago, he and his family are still living more sustainably than before.

“You could say I’m Moderate Impact Man instead of No Impact Man,” he said. “We gave away our air conditioners. We continue to shop at the farmers’ market. Our dishwasher died during the project... . We didn’t see a need to replace it.”

And Beavan still maintains his No Impact Man blog. 

“The blog itself kind of exploded,” he said. Soon after he started the blog, people began to respond, saying they were inspired by it, even if they couldn’t be as hard-core about the lifestyle as Beavan was. Beavan said that, curiously, he got a lot of responses from evangelical Christians, saying they admired his approach.

In turn, the blog became a tool for what Beavan calls “citizen engagement.” In one case, he got 1,000 people to write Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, asking him to meet with Beavan about a bill to stop construction of coal-burning electric plants. Two weeks later, Beavan got a call from a Nadler aide saying the congressmember would co-sponsor a bill on the issue.

Another empowering incident occurred after Beavan, in No Impact Man mode, had turned into a self-described “bike Nazi.” He was cycling on Lower Broadway and a driver veered into him. After angrily slapping the car, prompting heated words from the driver, Beavan noticed the vehicle had a New York State Senate license plate. The driver turned out to be Senator Jeff Klein of Queens. Again, Beavan used his blog to ramp up the pressure — the result being that Klein helped pass some pedestrian-friendly legislation. 

Beavan doesn’t plan to stop blogging, or advocating, anytime soon.

“This is the space that I’m staying in,” he said. “I’m not going back to writing history books. I get to use my skills as a writer, and I like to speak, too...in service of something I feel is most important. I started as a writer, but I’ve become an activist — an accidental activist.”

In that vein, to help others lead more environmentally sustainable lives, Beavan is starting the No Impact Project. He’s currently looking for an assistant director to lead this undertaking, though Beavan will continue as the face of the project. One of their first events will be a national toy swap — reusing toys — with the Center for a New American Dream.

But what about, well, human apathy? Recycling, composting and book reading by beeswax candles probably don’t rank among many people’s favorite activities.

“That’s part of what the No Impact Project is about: We’re providing an easy pathway to people,” Beavan explained. 

Asked for some basic steps people can take to help humanity tread more lightly on the Earth, he offered a few, including one harkening back to ancient tradition.

“Observe the Sabbath,” he said, “not necessarily in the religious sense, but don’t use lights, don’t buy things, and see how it feels — once a week, or once a month. In general, don’t waste — and look for waste in your life.”

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