Exemplary Essay on "Christmas with No Presents?"

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.

Ragan Foley, a student in David Cook's language arts class at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee, read and responded to the YES! Magazine article, "Christmas with No Presents?" by Colin Beavan.

Writing prompt: Does consuming fewer resources actually feel like deprivation, or is it possible that consuming less opens up another way of life that makes both us and the planet happier?

Read author Colin Beavan's response to Ragan Foley's essay here.


Could You Go Green?

By Ragan Foley

In 2003, my family moved into our cabin for the summer. We had driven for three days from Tennessee to Colorado’s Park Range. It had been a long, tiring trip watching movies and eating fast food. Finally we came over the steep, rocky pass. I was instantly mesmerized by the steel gray mountains contrasting against the brilliant blue sky with the endless rolling green hills in the valley below. As soon as we pulled into the newly-paved driveway that smelled of hot asphalt, I quickly jumped out of the car to play in my new backyard. I found a bubbling stream alongside cattails swaying in the gentle breeze. I couldn’t have been happier.

I spent quite a while outside, but being 7 years old, I soon got tired and came inside to watch TV. To my surprise, I found no TV. What? I needed to watch TV! My parents told me that instead of watching television every day we had to take a four-mile walk as a family. That meant no TV, no computer, and no air conditioning. I couldn’t live a whole summer without any means of electronics! I whined and complained to my parents about how I couldn’t exist with this setup, but it got me nowhere. So every morning I would get up and moodily stomp around the house feeling sorry for myself because my parents were depriving me of what I wanted. Looking back, it was probably the best experience that could have happened to me.

A lot of the time people say that living without materialistic things or living “green” is something you have to be crazy to do. I’ll even admit that when I first heard about the No Impact Man Project, I pictured some scruffy guy living under a towel held up by two sticks on top of the Empire State Building. But as you watch his “No Impact Man” documentary and read the YES! article, “Christmas With No Presents?” you realize that “this guy” isn’t some hippie who wants to  “be one with the Earth.” No, Colin Beavan is just an average man with a wife, a daughter, a dog, a standard job, and a typical New York City apartment. The thing that is special about Colin Beavan is that he realized how much the Earth had given him, and how his lifestyle would affect future generations. To show his gratitude and to help make the world a better place for years to come, Colin Beavan gave back by living with no impact.

At the beginning of the documentary, my class and I thought that we couldn’t survive without driving, watching TV, going to the movies, or even go shopping. But as I watched I paused to really think about it. Did I have to have that new, expensive dress? Did I have to see another episode of reality TV that I would forget as soon as it was over? Did I absolutely need to drive to the park even though it was only a few blocks from my house? I was taken aback and forced to reevaluate the difference between what I needed and what I wanted. Also I had to think about how my “wants” and “needs” affected my planet. So that comes back to the seemingly never-answered question: Is living without materialistic things deprivation or does it open up a world of happiness?

For two long summers I lived without a TV, computer, or air conditioning in the house. On those peaceful summer evenings where I normally would have come in to watch a movie, I instead spent hours outside playing with my brother and friends. On Saturday mornings where I would have absent-mindedly watched cartoons, I instead spent an hour walking and just simply talking with my mom and brother. For a year, Colin Beavan and his family lived without unnecessary things. They became healthier by walking and riding bikes and eating locally grown food. They became closer with each other and friends, not by being huddled around a computer or TV, but by talking and spending quality time with each other.

So I think that answers the question. Does living with fewer, unessential items make you happier? Yes, yes it does.



Ragan Foley is currently an 8th grader at Girls Preparatory School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Ragan enjoys reading books and writing. In her spare time, she runs cross-country for her school and looks forward to ski trips and staying at the family cabin in Colorado. ________________________________________________________________________

Colin Beavan, photo by Paul Dunn

Colin Beavan and his family spent a year changing their lives for the environment. Their experiment is the subject of his book, No Impact Man, and a documentary film. Before his No Impact Project, he wrote historical nonfiction, including Operation Jedburgh: D-Day and America’s First Shadow War.

Photo by Paul Dunn for YES! Magazine.

Colin Beavan's Response:

Dear Ragan--
Thank you for your thoughtful essay about No Impact Man, the movie and book. In it, you noted that you had been on camping trips where you had left some of life's luxuries behind and felt that you could actually be happier without them. This made you think that using fewer resources--living environmentally--might also make people happier.
You make a profound point.
How we treat the earth and the happiness with which we live are inextricably connected. Think of this: the more things and "stuff" we buy, the more of the earth's resources are used. Yet at Christmas time, we all buy each other a lot of stuff,  and lots of time none of us even want the gifts we've received. We've used resources and nobody is really happier. What people really want at Christmas is to hang out and have fun!
And it gets worse. Many parents work so many hours that they don't have time to spend with their kids. So they feel guilty and go overboard on their credit cards buying too many presents. Then they have to work even more hours paying off the credit cards and end up spending fewer hours with the kids.
The same happens on a much bigger scale.
Our oil is running out. As a result, we have to mine for it where it is unsafe, which is why the gigantic oil spill happened in the Gulf. Or perhaps worse, we have to send soldiers to foreign countries and fight wars to secure oil supplies. But if we relied on wind, solar, geo-thermal and other renewable energy systems, we wouldn't have oil spills and we wouldn't have to fight oil wars. It's another case where living environmentally would also make people happier.
I think the underneath meaning of your essay was to ask: What are we alive for? Sometimes, we get so caught up in using all our devices and things that we get distracted from the true meaning of life.
So, what is the true meaning of life?
For me, it emerges in this moment. Just now, it is about writing this note to you. But I read that the famous writer Kurt Vonnegut asked his son Mark, "What are we here for?" His wise son said, "I don't know, Dad, but whatever it is, we're supposed to help each other through it."
I hope you get to spend your life as part of a community where you get to help people and they help you. That's way more important and more fulfilling than what we get when we have a lot of stuff.
Love to you and your family,
Colin Beavan