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Colin Beavan: Advice From an Accidental Activist

How a regular guy found some super power.

Colin Beavan's article from the Spring 2011 article of YES! Magazine

 PEEK INSIDE THE SPRING 2011 ISSUE OF YES! MAGAZINE


So many of us have good ideas for helping the world. But we tuck our ideas away. I did. I’d tell myself that if the idea were any good someone else would have already done it. That I’m not capable of making a difference. I’d sit on my ideas, get on with my “life,” and then feel angry at the world because the problems I cared about didn’t get solved.

I had that fear of going first.

Then I took my first hapless step into what I call accidental activism. In 2006, I started a project where I lived as environmentally as possible for a year—with my little family, on the ninth floor of an apartment building in the middle of New York City—to attract attention to the world’s environmental, economic, and quality of life crises.

I had no experience as an activist. Yet suddenly my project caught fire.

My book and film, both titled No Impact Man, ended up being translated into 20-plus languages. Some philanthropists appeared and offered me funding to hire consultants to get NoImpactProject.org off the ground. About 20,000 people have now participated in our educational immersion program, No Impact Week.

And how have I felt through all this?

Like a deer in the headlights.

How am I supposed to stand up to all this? Surely people can see how selfish and shortsighted I am? That I’m sometimes mean to my family? People like me aren’t supposed to do things like this. We’re supposed to wait for people who have their acts together, and follow them.

But if we wait for those people, we’re done for.

There are a lot of people who know way more about activism and citizen engagement than me. I’m pretty ordinary. Frankly, I don’t even always want to be of service. But I’ve now learned a lot about how to be an ordinary person, filled with self-doubt, who still takes the risk of trying to do something about the world. Maybe you’re like me. And maybe the things that have helped me will help you, too.

Be Stupid Enough to Take The First Step

My first step was just to begin living with the lowest possible environmental impact. A few people said I was “too stupid to know that one person can’t make a difference.” Think on this story (with apologies for high schmaltz quotient):

Two frogs—one very smart and one very stupid—are caught in a bowl of cream. The sides are too steep to climb and they have no foothold to jump. The stupid one begins to swim as hard and fast as he can. The smart one looks over and says to himself, “He’s too stupid to know that all that effort will make no difference.” 

It's time for every citizen with a good idea to get to work, to trust yourself, to start.

Having weighed the hopelessness of the situation, the smart one decides that the most intelligent thing is to give up. So—Blub!—he drowns. The stupid one keeps trying. Just when his legs are about to give out the cream starts to get thicker. His struggling has churned the cream to butter. He’s surprised to find himself on solid ground. He jumps out. By stupidly pursuing the first step (swimming), the second step (jumping out) appeared, as if by magic.

The question is not whether you can make a difference. The question is, do you want to be the person who tries? Do you want to be like the smart frog, who relies on the brain that tells him there is no solution, or the stupid frog, whose heart tells him to try anyway?

Maybe you care about food deserts and kids not having access to good food, or maybe it’s incarceration of local youth, or maybe, like me, you worry about inaction on climate change. Whatever it is, pick up your placard or call your senator or gather your friends. Don’t worry about the second step. Just be too stupid to know the first step won’t work.

Use Your Personal Story to Inspire a Movement

Part of the reason one person can make a difference is that one person’s efforts soon inspire other people’s efforts. So inspire other people to get involved by sharing your personal story. Not just the story, say, of the hungry children in the Global South who you are trying to help, but your own story.

One Hour of Plastic by Rock Farmer
 Food, energy, giving back,
and more: The winning
photos from January's
No Impact Week participants.

In No Impact Man, I share stories of how I tried to keep my food fresh without a refrigerator, how I had to eat mostly cabbage in the winter, and how I washed my laundry by hand. People didn’t suddenly realize that they, too, should hand-wash their clothes. Instead, they learned, not that they should make a difference—which statistics and figures tell us—but that they can make a difference—which personal stories have the power to tell.

It is through the personal that people connect with the political.

No matter what your cause, look for the powerful, personal story about how you got involved and how being involved has improved your life in some way. I’ve heard it said we shouldn’t have to tell these stories—that people should automatically care. The thing is, once they know, people do care. The problem is that they are often overwhelmed by it. So the job is not to shove information at them that makes them feel guilty for not doing something. The job is to give them a story that shows them how to do something.

Get Off the Internet and Into Real Life

Back in the ’60s, a string of civil rights sit-ins began when four students from a black college in North Carolina sat down at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter. In the end, about 70,000 students participated in sit-ins that spread across the state. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in a recent New Yorker article, the action didn’t start with lots of Twitter followers. It started with lots of flesh-and-blood (as opposed to Facebook) friends.

The strong social bonds and long-standing mutual trust gave those first four students the bravery to stand up for themselves. Gladwell says that the strong ties of real friendship and community—not the weak ties of the virtual world—are necessary to make us feel supported enough to take meaningful risks for our values.

I ran a blog at NoImpactMan.com and many thousands of people came there to discuss their views on and methods of environmental living. It was a good thing. In the absence of real-life communities of shared environmental values, the blog provided a lot of people with some measure of community support. But the stronger, more action-oriented communities are formed in my work when people come together for our No Impact Weeks.

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