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Colin Beavan: Advice From an Accidental Activist

How a regular guy found some super power.
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One of the most accomplished friendship-based communities I am familiar with,, the grassroots climate organization, began with a group of students who lived together at college and then in the Bay Area. They have grown their little house party into an international organization of hundreds of thousands of climate activists. They use the Web to aggregate the actions of thousands of friendship-based groups. But the point is the actions taken by small communities of friends or neighbors—not the information sharing.

So use the Internet, of course. But use it to get people to do things in real life. What if the many hours spent leaving angry comments on the Huffington Post were instead spent gathering once a week in a coffee shop. Sooner or later, real action—as opposed to real, um, clicks—might occur. Get people to come together. They need each other.

Trust Your Vision

Colin Beavan at Rollins College photo by Watson Tracy

Colin Beavan during a visit with students at Rollins College.

Photo by Judy Watson Tracy.

So you have your idea, you’ve taken your first step, you’ve gathered like-minded people, and now you have a little bit of energy and success. Great news! This is when the critics and second-guessers arrive. That’s a reason for not getting started in the first place, right? Nobody bothers to second-guess you when you’re just fantasizing about your great idea.
I suddenly found myself invited to go on Good Morning America with Diane Sawyer. As they say: WTF? I was horrified. I’m sure I had an overinflated sense of my own importance, but I was worried I could send people in the wrong direction.

I had no real endorsement other than—again—my own trust in my intentions. I had to go on national television trusting in myself and my vision.

Absolutely the hardest thing of all was this: I had to accept that I might be wrong and do it anyway.

Sadly, lots of arguments break out in activist communities about best methods. People tear each other apart as though the scenario is either/or when really it’s and/also. We need many shoulders against many doors. What I’ve learned as I’ve come to meet so many amazing engaged citizens is that it takes many different strategies and many different styles to make the changes we’re hoping for.

So trust your vision. You may find that the biggest sacrifice you can make for the world is to face the possibility of being publicly wrong. And to move forward anyway.

Take Care of Yourself

Once you get involved in this kind of work, the pressures mount—many of them from within rather than without. We need to take care of both the insides and the outsides. I started by saying you just need to take the first step, but this step is just as important. If you can’t sustain yourself, you can’t sustain your work.

No Impact Man, in many ways, began as an extension of my meditation practice. A lot of the confidence I needed came from inklings of understanding of the Truth—whatever the hell that is. And of Service. But while I was making time for TV appearances and press interviews and rallies and favors and guest appearances on blogs I lost time for my meditation.

Then anxiety arrived. And depression. I was running on fumes. I was draining the battery without charging it. The good news is that I am back to my regular practice. I feel better. Of course, I’m not saying you should necessarily meditate, just that you need to find what suits you to take care of your insides.

About the outsides: A couple of years ago, after so many TV interviews and radio interviews and international press appearances (and, by the way, repeatedly having to face accusers who said I was trying to get rich from the world’s problems), I looked at my bank balance and saw I had about $200 left—about $3,000 less than my monthly nut. I’d been working all my waking hours on what I believed in and couldn’t take care of myself.Luckily for me, I didn’t have to change much (like, I began to ask to get paid when someone asked me to make a speech) but I did have to face my guilt and confront my monkish self-image. There is a meme in our culture: You can be a monk or a merchant. Monks do good and merchants make money. If you make any money—if you find a way to take care of your outsides—you can’t be an ascetic monk, and you’re not really doing good.

No Impact Man book cover
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 Imagine, though, if we create a new meme. What if we show each other how wonderfully well we’re managing as a result of taking our ideas for social change and running with them? What if we bragged about outperforming the bankers every so often?

But even if we don’t get the chance to do that, we should at least make good homes out of our lives. Without loving ourselves, the love for others will wither. By taking the burden of the world on our shoulders, we leave no room for the strength of others. In other words, have fun!

After all, the world isn’t worth saving if there isn’t time for joking around.

Besides, we might as well enjoy ourselves when you realize how much work there is to get done. With two wars in progress, melting ice caps, and an economic system teetering on the brink of collapse, there just isn’t time to wait for some guru or leader to give us permission to act on our good ideas.

Who’s going to fix things if it isn’t us? I can’t help thinking that the time has come for us to take back our culture. It’s time for every citizen with a good idea to get to work, to trust yourself, to start. Sooner or later you have to accept the fact that you need no other authority than your good intentions and your loving heart.

Colin Beavan wrote this article for Can Animals Save Us?, the Spring 2011 issue of YES! Magazine. Colin speaks widely to audiences around the country. He is founder of the No Impact Project. The paperback edition of his book No Impact Man was published in 2010 by Picador.


  • When Colin Beavan partnered with YES! for No Impact Week, more than 3,000 people joined him. Read their stories here.
  • Colin Beavan: Help Me Build a Better Future:
    "No Impact Man" on what thousands have learned about happiness, community, and low-impact living through No Impact Week.
  • Watch a trailer for No Impact Man:
    No car, no washing machine, no toilet paper? Preview how Colin Beavan and family fared in their one-year commitment to have no impact on the environment.
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