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The Personal IS Powerful

Climate change requires action on many levels, personal as well as political. We shouldn't be distracted by attacking each others' methods—only by uniting behind the same agenda can we hope for change in the very little time we have to effect it.
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No Impact movie

Colin, Michelle, and Isabella Beavan learned to live a no impact lifestyle in New York City: no electricity, no mechanized transport, no take-out boxes.  A new book and documentary, both called No Impact Man, tell their story.

Last week, Elizabeth Kolbert, a respected New Yorker journalist who writes admirably about issues to do with our climate catastrophe and the environment, wrote a scathing attack on my project, No Impact Man, which is chronicled in my just-released book and in a documentary to be released this weekend. Sadly, casualties on the battlefield of Kolbert’s wrath included not only me, but also the work of James MacKinnon and Alisa Smith (authors of 100 Mile Diet), Henry David Thoreau (author of Walden) and other writers who used their own experiments in alternative lifestyles as narrative vehicles to, hopefully, propel into the popular discourse vital cultural issues that transcend the particularities of their experiments.

MacKinnon and Smith wrote about their year of eating locally as a means of publicizing—very successfully—the tremendous failings of our centralized, industrialized food system in delivering healthy food to people in a way the planet can sustain. Thoreau, of course, attempted to use his year in the woods to bring to our attention the diminishing adherence to any sort of transcendent human values as we veered into unmitigated materialism in the wake of the industrial revolution.

Kolbert dismisses these writers and others as something similar to renegade circus clowns who are distracting attention from the Big Top. She derides the use of the year-long-living "stunt" as a distraction from the important environmental and social issues at hand, which she presumably believes are discussed more effectively in her own books. And her work does, of course, have tremendous value.

Indeed, it is Kolbert's deep concern for our planetary climate crises that I suspect—or at least I hope—is at the root of her stridency. She wants attention focused squarely on the dimensions of the crisis and the necessity for swift and effective solutions. Her priorities are correct in this regard and I admire her for them.

Where Kolbert is deeply wrong, I'm afraid, is that it is she herself who has become the cause of the major distraction of the moment. In her extremely powerful position as a top climate journalist, she wasted four pages in one of the nation's most highly regarded magazines to attack my and my colleagues work as "stunts." The ripple effect, in sections of the environmental blogosphere at least, has been a distraction from the important message delivered in my and the other writers' works. Instead of a discussion of the merits of what we have to say, bloggers on both side of this meaningless debate discuss whether we have the right to say it.

This is neither to suggest that there should be no differences of opinion nor to seem ungrateful to those who have publicly defended my honor.

It is to say that Exxon, the coal industry, and the thousands of their lobbyists slithering through halls of Congress with  campaign-contribution checkbooks rub their hands together with glee at this kind of in-fighting by people who should be on the same side. After all, Kolbert's using four pages to attack her fellow environmental writers is four pages less that she could have used to convince the public of the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuel and that we could have a better way of life without it.

Indeed, it is this—the possibility of real progress in this area—rather than Kolbert's misguided emphasis that I want to address. Whether my book No Impact Man and the companion documentary are remembered as the stories of a stunt or not is ultimately immaterial. Of course, as a writer and a person, it hurts to be trivialized, but the truth is that No Impact Man is both a stunt and not a stunt. My hope in living and writing about my year was to put myself in a crucible where I could examine some important cultural issues surrounding solutions to our environmental crises, and the quality-of-life crisis which is so closely related to them. And yes, I hoped to popularize these important issues.

What issues do I mean? There are three.

Christmas With no Presents
Read about the Beavan family's first Christmas with No Presents
in YES!'s special issue,
Sustainable Happiness.

First, is it just possible that the meme is wrong that suggests that a culture that it aligns itself with the needs of its habitat will have to be less aspirational and somehow deprive itself? My answer, having lived the no impact year, is a categorical yes. The local eating element of the project alone meant we were healthier because our food was fresh and real. And this was just one of the benefits my family experienced by living environmentally. Examining the possibility of environmental living on a cultural level, it makes sense to me that a renewable energy industry established to align ourselves with the needs of our habitat will also create an economic boost that will provide jobs. I call this sort of synergy the "happier planet, happier people" principle.

Second, is there a place for individual and community-based action in the quest for a more sustainable culture—or must we wait until government and industry do something through the pressure of collective action? The sad fact is that the level of change required cannot be created by government alone. Our climate crisis is so profound that we must not only change the way we transport ourselves and create energy, we must reduce how much we use as people. That means changing the way we live. This is not only my own conclusion but that of the International Panel on Climate Change.

Third, is it just possible that, by encouraging people to change their lifestyles for the benefit of themselves—by reducing their expenditures, say—and the environment, we might also be creating an on-ramp for the masses into the politics of environmentalism? To this I answer with a pointed yes. People's politics are informed by the way they live. A victim of a drunk driving is more likely to be an advocate for drunk driving laws. A person who experiences the benefits of environmental living is more likely to advocate for climate change mitigation from either side of the political aisle.

No one will be surprised to hear that I believe, most vehemently, that I am right in these points. Indeed, I have started a nonprofit project intended to advance them (NoImpactProject.org). Still, I could be wrong. I wish it was the rightness or the wrongness of these points that Kolbert had chosen to discuss. In doing so, she would have advanced a meaningful discussion rather than the silly Stunt vs. Not Stunt debate.

Kolbert's mistaken approach is nonetheless instructive. It reminds us that those who care about these issues shouldn't attack each other. We should respect each other's differences while understanding that we all hope to advance the same agenda. That is the only way we can hope for change in the very little time we have to effect it.


Colin BeavanColin Beavan and his family spent a year trying to live in New York City without causing negative environmental impact.  That experiment is the subject of his book No Impact Man and an accompanying documentary of the same name.  Beavan blogs and suggests follow-up actions at NoImpactProject.org.

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