No Impact Man


When you would like to see urgent steps taken to tackle climate change, it is easy to point the finger and demand action. One New Yorker who was tempted to do this  realised that he was part of the problem, and decided as an experiment to first address his own lifestyle in a radical way.

Colin Beavan is a history writer and self-described ‘guilty liberal’ who in 2006 decided to live in the middle of New York City without any net negative environmental impact. The most common response to this idea was to be called ‘crazy.’

His wife Michelle agreed to join in, together with their two-year-old toddler and the family’s dog. In order to avoid getting overwhelmed, they introduced these changes one at a time, with the full transition process taking about seven months. The No Impact criteria included:

  • Avoiding purchases of new items. Secondhand was fine.
  • Only eating unprocessed food grown within a 250-mile radius, although one exception was leftover items from a nearby bakery. In order to stick to the diet, Michelle had to give up her Starbucks coffee habit.
  • Limiting transport to walking and cycling, with the exception of Colin’s business trips.
  • Switching off the electricity. Handwashing in place of the washing machine, and living without a fridge.
  • Zero garbage production.
  • Walking up to the ninth floor rather than taking the elevator.
  • For many people most alarming of all, they managed to live without toilet paper.

While Colin would cycle when he wanted to travel, Michelle would commute to and from work using a push scooter. Both became much fitter. Without sufficient avenues for spending, savings piled up, and they started donating 10% of their income to charity.

One of the most interesting findings was that the No Impact lifestyle liberated a large amount of time that had previously been eaten up by rituals around consumer items. More time was available to spend with their daughter. For Colin, it was a first-hand experience of how living frugally can enhance happiness.

An important part of the project was for Colin to communicate his story via an Internet blog, to inspire rather than preach, and connect with other like-minded people. Interestingly, shortly after the No Impact year, the global financial crisis struck, and some people were obliged by necessity to live ultra-frugally. The blog aroused a range of responses including some angry ones.

As the No Impact lifestyle attracted national media coverage, it gained momentum, and was followed by a book that with some humour relates the story of how the couple survived the various pressures that arose. In keeping with the subject matter, the book was produced on post-consumer recycled paper using biogas as a fuel. A movie has been distributed digitally and can be downloaded for free online.

October 18th 2009 marked the start of No Impact Week, a partnership involving the Internet news outlet Huffington Post. Thousands of volunteers in the US  signed up to trial a full or diluted version of the Low Impact life, often with a friend. As many people obviously need to work, it is accepted that some activities are practical to give up, while others are not.

Two years later, about 60% of the couple’s original changes have stuck, including the locally-grown food, the lack of air conditioning, and a life without shopping sprees. Colin is now in a better position to demand action from the political establishment, and in his calls for cuts in carbon emissions he is demonstrating a dynamic and forthright leadership.


No Impact Man Blog View theTrailer Video
Steam or get your own copy No Impact Man movie

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