In 2006, Colin Beavan and his wife and toddler daughter began a painstaking process of reducing every impact their lifestyle choices had on the environment. For one year, they stopped using electricity in their home in Brooklyn, New York, took the stairs instead of the elevator, and got around the city on foot and by bicycle.
Beavan chronicled his experiences on the “No Impact Man” blog, which became widely popular online. The experiment led to a movie, a book, and a national movement (including the “No Impact Week” collaboration between YES! Magazine and The No Impact Project).
“A few people said I was ‘too stupid to know that one person can’t make a difference,’” Colin wrote about the experience.
This year, Beavan made a departure from his focus on lifestyle-based activism—he is running for Congress on the Green Party ticket in New York’s Eighth Congressional District. YES! Magazine spoke with Beavan about his latest effort to prove that it’s possible to make a difference—this time by tackling the political process.
Madeline Ostrander: What led to your decision to run for political office?
Colin Beavan: I believe that we are in a dire emergency for the climate, for the economy, and for our quality of life. And all of those things are connected. They’re all based on the use of fossil fuels to power a corporation-based economy, and it’s dangerously close to collapse.
What we need to do is replace the system, not just make adjustments to it. But in the political realm what they’re talking about is all the old, well-worn social issues, like who should we tax. In other words, we are talking about exactly the same things we’ve been talking about for the last 50 years and completely ignoring the big problems. My campaign is doing something different.
Ostrander: Why did you choose to run for a congressional seat rather than a local or state position?
Beavan: Things like restructuring the economy, breaking down the mega-corporations, and getting off of fossil fuels need to be done on a national level. And honestly, I am stronger on national issues than I am on local issues at this stage.
Ostrander: Can you tell me a little bit about your district and the people you’re representing?
Beavan: It’s New York’s eighth congressional district. It has a totally weird shape. It starts in one part of Brooklyn then goes around to another part of Brooklyn, then into Queens, then out to Coney Island.
It’s been slammed by the economic downturn. And I’m arguing that many of the social problems that exist in these neighborhoods are the result of this screwed-up economic system. The current paradigm is that the corporations suck the wealth out of communities, and then elected representatives go to Washington to beg the corporations for campaign money. What we need to do instead is start investing in local communities and businesses to make the communities themselves resilient.
Ostrander: Do you worry at all about a Ralph Nader phenomenon—dividing the left in your district?
Beavan: In my district? No. My district votes something like 70 percent Democratic so there is no way a Republican is going to win. The front-running Democrat, Hakeem Jeffries, has collected campaign donations from Wall Street law firms and Wall Street banks. It’s important to give voters an alternative to that kind of candidate.
I think we have to be a little careful about worrying too much about the Ralph Nader phenomenon. We have to be willing to take some risks, or we’ll never make any change.
Honestly, if we as progressives had thought about whether No Impact Man was going to work as a media phenomenon and take us where we wanted to go, we would never have done it—because I got so much criticism from progressives when I launched the project. We have to try things at the margins, or we just won’t get anywhere.
Ostrander: Can you talk about the key pieces of your platform?
Beavan: One is that the current United States two-party system is failing to address the emergencies of climate, the economy, and the coming end of oil, because both Republicans and Democrats are funded by corporations. So we need to find alternative ways of funding our democracy. There should be no corporate money in politics. Elections should be publicly funded.
Two, move away from a consumption-based economy. Consumption can no longer serve as the foundation of our economy, in large part because we’re running out of resources, including oil, to keep it going. We need to base our policies on something like national happiness rather than GDP.
Three, climate change will increasingly and dramatically affect poor communities that can’t afford to insulate themselves—think of more events like Hurricane Katrina. We should tax fossil-fuel use by rich corporations, instead of the incomes of the middle classes.
Next, jobs could be created by moving away from a fossil-fuel-based economy. We need massive increases in mass transit, a high-speed rail network, energy-efficiency measures, and renewable energy investment. All of that will create plenty of jobs. Much of that money can come from slashing the military budget by half—which we won’t need if we’re not fighting for oil.
Finally, government investment—in the form of stimulus and other subsidies—should be made in small, local businesses with strong ties to communities. The growth in those local economies will make for more jobs, reduce social strife, and make them resilient in the face of economic collapse and climate change.
These are not positions that most other politicians are running on.
Ostrander: You’re running against somebody with a lot more money and political party support than you. What’s your strategy for reaching voters?
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Beavan: I’m talking to people. I have weekly campaign meetings, which are open to everybody, where volunteers can show up. The two campaign managers think about what tasks need to be done before we talk to people at the meetings. The tasks are assigned by show of hands, and we ask questions like “Who can do this?” and “Who can print some fliers on a photocopier?” By the way, we’re only using paper recovered from the waste stream. So that means that our fliers are free. So that’s saving us a lot of money.
So, just the very idea that a campaign can be run by the people, for the people instead of by the corporations, for the corporations to me means that we’re already winning, regardless of what happens on Election Day.
Ostrander: So part of the goal of running—in addition trying to win the congressional seat—is to influence public dialog about the elections process?
Beavan: Yes, our campaign comes into this with three non-electoral goals. One is to bring a conversation about system change to a community that doesn’t get to have that conversation. Ethnic minorities, like the ones in my district, are the ones most at risk from climate change, and they deserve to be included.
The second is citizen engagement, which has always been a part of my work. We have an all-volunteer campaign. For most of them, when they come with me to a debate, it’s their first time doing something like that.
The last non-electoral goal is to use what profile I’ve built to model the idea of a citizen occupation of politics on a local, national, and international level. The professional politicians are no longer being professional, so it’s time for citizens to go in.
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