No Impact Man and the National TV Circuit

A series of interviews this week, from CBS to Comedy Central, put Colin Beavan in front of millions. But can viewers laugh and learn?

Posted by kime at Oct 09, 2009 02:20 PM |
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“Did you do this to save the planet?" funnyman Stephen Colbert asked Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man.

But before Beavan could finish his answer, Colbert quipped: “You’re the only one doing this, right?”

And so went Beavan’s Oct. 8 appearance on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. It was his latest on the national stage discussing his recently released book, No Impact Man, and the documentary of the same name. In the interest of background, Beavan and his wife and daughter spent one year living as green as possible in New York. Many of his blog posts are reprinted at, and YES! Magazine will feature a new article by Beavan in its upcoming issue (available mid-November).

I read Beavan’s book and have been following the progress of the No Impact Project, so I’ve been curious about the way that the national media portray his experience and his message about the climate crisis. Print publications and Web sites have offered commentary and reviews of the book and film, but his TV appearances—on Good Morning America and CBS’ The Early Show—expose him to even wider audiences that may have never heard of him.

These TV interviews are barely five minutes long and tend to focus on the more “extreme” anecdotes of his family’s experience. The Early Show interview, for example, wrapped up with the question that most reporters have (fruitlessly) asked, based on a New York Times article about Beavan entitled, “The Year Without Toilet Paper”: What did the Beavans use instead?

Beavan shut it down. “What we want to talk about here is that we have a big emergency.”

Cue the music, cut to commercial.

Beavan family

Colin Beavan drives the family vehicle. In the NoImpactMan world, cars are a big no. There are others: No trash, no carbon emissions, no toxins in the water, no elevators, no subway, no packaging, no plastics, no air conditioning, no TV …

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine.

No Impact Man is certainly a curiosity, and at least according to The New Yorker, that was the only point of the year-long experiment. Living by candlelight, walking up and down nine flights of stairs several times a day, giving up TV and new clothes and toys—taken together, these can be seen as radical changes, and even trying just one of the things Beavan did may be too much for some people. (Though really, should it be that hard to recycle or buy produce in season?) Trot this out before millions of viewers, and some will see Beavan as a hippie freak, others as a planet hero.

As we prepare our winter issue on climate change, we at YES! Magazine have spent considerable time talking about what it will take to propel the American public to change its behavior and help preserve the Earth for generations to come. We know that not everyone will get on board. Those who hear Colin Beavan’s message about individual action promoting broader social change and see only a fringe lifestyle or a bunch of climate-hysteria hooey won’t bother.

But many, many other people will. Beavan’s No Impact Project challenges people to gradually reduce their environmental impact over the course of one week and evaluate how the experiment changes their lives. (Beavan, incidentally, suggested Colbert sign up, to which Colbert laughed, “No way in hell…As a matter of fact, while you’re doing this, I’ll just burn a stack of tires.”)

Perhaps even a little exposure, humorous or not, raises awareness about climate change. A four-minute interview is hardly time to deliver a comprehensive message, but if people take away one idea, contemplate one change in their lives, that’s something.

Colbert, always ready with the one-liners, asked Beavan this question: “Did you manage to stay true to your intentions?”

And Beavan, in one of the few moments he was allowed to complete a thought, said, “I hoped to show that each of us could make a difference…but the real question is, we’re in a climate emergency: Is there anything that all of us can do?” 

Stay tuned. We’ll be right back.

Which of Colin's ideas—eating local food, not producing trash, not using fossil fuel-powered electricity or transportation, buying only used things, etc.—have you incorporated into your life?

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