A Family Tries To Make Zero Environmental Impact for a Year
By Shannon Honeybloom
For a certain period of time, a typical day for Colin Beavan may have begun in this way: Wake up in the dark and light a beeswax candle. Blow nose with handkerchief. Brush teeth with baking soda. Eat a breakfast of homemade yogurt with in-season, local fruit. Drink some home-grown mint tea. No using electricity, no tissues or disposable paper products, no packaged anything, no non-local food. A simple morning without any gadgets and store bought accessories.
So, (A) was the year 1830? Or (B) is this present-day and is Colin Beavan an Amish gentlemen? Or (C) was it 2007, and is Colin Beavan the individual otherwise known as No Impact Man? The Answer is (C).
It was 2007, and Colin Beavan, living in an apartment in New York City, set himself a challenge: For one year Colin and his family, a wife and a two-year-old daughter, would attempt to live without making any impact whatsoever on the environment. That would mean no taking elevators up to their ninth floor apartment, no recreational shopping, no taxi rides, and no creating any trash, except for compost.
In fact, the Beavan family had a very long list of things that they had to do without during their year of No Impact, including (but not limited to) no driving or flying (that meant no visiting the grandparents in California), no heat, no air conditioning, no electricity, no non-local food, no TV, no movies, no subways, no buses, no buying anything new, no laundry detergent, no washing machines, no toilet paper or paper towels, no newspapers, no plastic, no disposable diapers, and so on.
For a year, Beavan and his family attempted to walk the walk and talk the talk of making zero negative impact on the environment. He titled his project, the blog, the book, and the documentary that followed: No Impact Man.
Of course, truth be told, there are millions of people around the world that inadvertently, and without any choice in the matter, make very little impact on the environment in their living choices—people in the deserts of Niger, for example, or people living in cardboard boxes under the Brooklyn Bridge, or people struggling in the slums of Mexico City. But nonetheless, for a modern family living in the lap of luxury, so to speak, on lower Fifth Avenue, it was a year that opened their eyes and raised their consciousness about their consumption, about their lifestyle, and ultimately, about what really matters in life.
So how does a present day family living in New York City, during the same year that Sex in the City the Movie was filmed (some of it in the same neighborhood), survive without all the accoutrements of modern living?
Contemplate, for a moment, giving up all the little lovelies (and big ones) that make your life a little more luxurious—the hot coffee or delicious tea, the square of dark chocolate, the clementine in the wintertime, the box of milk in your fridge, the heat on a frigid day, the washing machine, the sweet smelling imported soap, the exotic olive oil and vinegar, the occasional trip on an airplane to visit a loved one. And imagine having the task of creating not one piece of trash. Not one piece. Not so easy, right?
It wasn’t easy, especially for Michelle Conlin, Beavan’s wife, a senior writer for Business Week. It wasn’t her idea after all. (Imagine if Thoreau had brought along a pretty companion for his year at Walden Pond, not an exact analogy, but an interesting thought). Her presence in the book and in film is honest and conflicted as she struggles with the consequences of their No Impact lives.
Where Beavan is is eager, earnest, committed and keeps things on track, Conlin is hesitant, challenged, and torn over giving up the things she enjoys. She never does kick her Starbucks habit, truth be told. (And the “no laundry machine” rule doesn’t stick either—any parent of a child will recognize when that fell through—when the sweet child got sick on everything). However the entire family does go through a difficult, but ultimately very rewarding transformation.
The year took place in stages, and first things came first—trash, of course, and how to cut it out. For inspiration, Beavan remembered his grandparents—how they “held dear the simple idea that we ought not to take for granted what we had been blessed with.”
When I spoke with Beavan, he talked about the impact his grandparents had had on him—how they were careful with the things they had, and that they had an appreciation for the natural world that they instilled in him. They also didn’t rush through life—they savored sunsets and meals and conversations. He writes, “For my grandparents....the belief that we shouldn’t waste seemed to come not from environmental ideas, but simply as an outgrowth of the idea that we should act with gratitude for this life that we’ve been granted and all that comes with it.”
Being grateful for all that we have is sometimes a challenge, and cutting out all trash is another. In thinking about trash, Beavan realized that “so much of my trash-making and waste is about making convenient the taking care of myself and my family. It’s about getting our needs met and out of the way.”
Beavan realized that if he took the time to do things slowly, make an entire meal from scratch for example, instead of using pre-packed ingredients or meals, this helped him to reduce his waste. And if he stayed in the moment (not try to get things quickly “out of the way”), it was not a chore, but a pleasure.
Early on during the project, they also gave up their television. Conlin, admitting to an addiction to reality TV, was particularly eager to release herself from its clutches. And (bonus) not only would she be free of the mind-numbing programs television offers, they would also be free of the thousands of advertisements telling them they were not good enough and needed to buy some new product to be better.
Beavan cites consumption activist Annie Leonard, and her video “Story of Stuff” as inspiration for limiting their exposure to advertisements which constantly tell us that there is something wrong with us and we need to buy something to make it right. Advertising, consumption, and waste, are all related. And the advertisements also often try to blur the line between what one wants and what one actually needs.
The relationship between wants and needs is delicate and hazy, even without advertising. Shopping, in one way, is a form of hope—if I buy this new dress, I will be loved, if I use this special soap, I will be loved. Colin writes, “Michelle and I noticed that what we wanted on the surface—the minibike or the ‘normal’ ranch house—were just proxies for what we really wanted: to fit in. We wanted to be loved, We wanted not feel what we imagined everyone else didn’t feel—insecurity. We wanted to feel accepted.”
By becoming more conscious of all these wants, and realizing what is behind them, we can redirect our actions in order to strive for what we really want—not the new blouse, but to love and be loved.
Just four weeks into the year, by eliminating trash and cutting out TV, they learned some important lessons that would stay with them for the duration of the project and beyond: be grateful for what you have, resist the constant urge of buying and consuming, take time with your family and loved ones, and slow down and enjoy life. Don’t rush. Love each other.
Of course, we all know these things, but putting them into practice while we are pulled into all sorts of different directions by our busy lives, isn’t easy. The practical efforts of life trip us up.
After trash and TV were eliminated, they turned off the electricity, they unplugged the fridge, they got rid of every packaged item in their home—all cleaning supplies, makeup, and so on; they rode bikes and scooters instead of driving cars (an admittedly difficult task for those of us living in the country or in the suburbs); they cooked meals with local food bought at the farmer’s market; they washed laundry in the bathtub; they grew mint for tea on the windowsill—Beavan’s attempt to coax his wife away from coffee, since there was no local coffee available in NYC. (And, while we are on the subject, what’s the hardest part about giving up coffee? Beavan finds that, for him, it’s not the drink itself, it’s not being able to hang out at coffee shops).
Eating local food, an important part of living sustainably and reducing one’s environmental impact, was a key component of their project. Inspired and encouraged by the activists behind www.the100milediet.org, as well as www.justfood.org, Colin learned to shop at the farmer’s market and eat in season produce. This prompted the humble cabbage to become a well-loved staple food in their diet.
Michelle joked that the project turned Colin into a 1800s housewife—he learned to wash clothes by hand, to cook meals from scratch with in-season produce, to make yogurt and bread and other treats and necessities for his family. He took care of the home life and through his homemaking efforts he reduced his environmental impact.
Colin writes, “But where do you find the time to cook and shop (for food) and make yogurt and bread and sauerkraut and family meals? People want to know. Well, for starters, by not watching TV.” Instead of sitting in front of the TV, they gathered in the kitchen and sat at the table together, enjoying their local food meals.
While researching and learning about local food and agriculture in the New York area, Beavan visited Hawthorne Valley Farm and speaks to the farmer, Steffen Schneider. There he learned more about the inter-relatedness of everything.
Beavan writes: “Hawthorne Valley is ‘biodynamic.’ That is to say, at the center of Steffen’s philosophy of farming is an idea, developed by Rudolf Steiner, that the farm is one big living organism. In the case of Hawthorne Valley, the beating heart of that organism is the dairy herd. First of all, the cows ate the living grass, which carried the life force of the earth, the organisms within the earth, the rain, the clouds, the sun, the entire universe, and the grass itself. Then, too, the grass, as the cows chewed it and it worked its way through their digestive tracts, collected the life force of the cows themselves. Putting the manure of the cows on the 14-acre vegetable garden concentrated the life force of sixty acres in one place, like focusing the sun on with a magnifying glass.”
The herd of cows are closely connected with the entire workings of the farm, not a separate or competing entity.
And the same goes for us too. We are all connected. We are all part of the natural cycle of life. This is one of the things that Beavan learned during his year living without making an environmental impact—we are all related to each other and to the earth. It’s about working together, being together, finding and sharing love, living consciously, consuming wisely, sharing with each other, supporting each other, spending time together and slowing down.
I asked Colin what he had taken away from his year as No Impact Man. He said that he is more aware of the consequences of his actions, that he works hard to maintain balance in his life, to do less bad and more good, to be kind and to be loving and, just like his grandparents taught him, to appreciate nature more and to be grateful for the small and beautiful pleasures of life.
This exercise on living without turned out to be a practical study on how to get more out of life—not through more things, but through less things, and more love.
It’s all connected: living consciously, living lightly, being in tune with each other and the earth, respecting each other, plants, and animals. It’s about community, weaving threads between each other, between people and the earth, nurturing ourselves, our loved ones, our environment, paying attention. Loving. And by consuming less, sometimes we receive more, much more.
For more information about Colin Beavan and No Impact Man, visit www.noimpactman.org and www.colinbeavan.org.
Shannon Honeybloom is an author, actress and mother of three. Her latest book is Making a Family Home (SteinerBooks). Read her blog, Honeybloom at Home at www.shannonhoneybloom.com.
Teach Your Children Well
As part of his No Impact Project, Colin Beavan offers an environmental education curriculum for middle and high school educators. The curriculum is comprised of five lesson plans: consumption, energy, food, transportation and water. The lessons are free and available at www.noimpactproject.org.