“No Impact Man” Calls for a Cultural Shift

On October 8, Colin Beaven captured the heart of today’s consumption challenge perfectly while sharing with Stephen Colbert the results of his year living as “No Impact Man”:

Colbert asked: “Do you look down on the rest of us who are consuming all the time?”
Beaven: “No, our whole culture is consuming. That’s the problem….”

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Colbert disagreed, suggesting that consuming is the “solution” because it makes our economy grow. But Beaven is right: the consumer culture is exactly the problem. We define ourselves through our consumption, and considering how much stuff we consume and how unsustainably it is made, this is slowly undermining our very ability to thrive as a species. And the challenge we face isn’t just climate change, but all of the other ecological and societal side-effects of consumerism, such as the obesity epidemic, social isolation, and growing debt loads.

Fortunately, before the interview ended, Colin was able to bring up the real solution, slipping in a well-crafted sound bite:

“What I wanted to tell you was that during our experiment we were able to replace consumption with social connections, because that’s the trade-off that happens in our culture.”

The documentary film No Impact Man provides several examples of how Colin and his family replaced consumption with social connections: getting rid of the TV led to more time socializing with the family; eating locally led to working as a family in a community garden and cooking more meals together; and not using fossil fuel-based transportation led to biking together. In the process, the family’s health improved, Colin’s wife’s pre-diabetes went away, their daughter was less exposed to television (and thus fewer ads and stimulation to consume), and so on.

Of course, to mainstream this, you’d have to strip away the more extreme actions that the family took but that few people will follow, such as using no electricity or toilet paper. But for many categories of consumption, a large share of the problem could be solved with less extreme measures, such as using much less electricity (and making it renewable), using recycled toilet paper, and even eating less, which for those eating the standard American diet filled with too many calories, refined sugars, and fats, would reduce their ecological impact while making them healthier.

Naturally, Colin’s experiment is not the complete solution. When I watched the documentary a month ago at the Center for American Progress, the filmmakers were available to answer audience questions (via Skype video, keeping their carbon footprint low). As they noted, the movie would have failed were it not for one particular scene: the “attack” from the community gardener who shared his plot with Colin’s family. As the gardener noted to Colin, all of Colin’s efforts to be no impact were completely subsumed by his wife’s work at Business Week, a propaganda rag for the consumer economic beast that perpetuates the system.

The gardener was right: the key must be to redirect the institutions that prop up consumerism—making those same institutions nurture cultures of sustainability instead. Hopefully, Colin’s wife, if she has internalized this year’s effort, will start to infect Business Week with an ethos of sustainability and push her boss to let her cover more social enterprises, efforts by businesses to be responsible, the development of new efforts like the B Corporation, and so on. Using that position of leverage could help shift two major institutions: business (as readers get inspired and apply these ideas to their own companies), and the media (both Business Week specifically and, if done well, even rival magazines who might start covering these topics to compete with Business Week).

That caveat aside, it was exciting to see how successful Colin’s effort has been (I admit I was skeptical when I first read about it in 2007). He has very effectively used his fame to encourage people to consume less and shift their lives away from centering on consumerism and instead toward social connections and living no impact. He even set up a website, www.noimpactproject.org, where you can read tips on how to live with less impact or engage in a one-week experiment to become no impact (or, more accurately, “less impact”).

I have one critique of the effort, though. Ideally, it would lead people to lock in some of the changes, beyond simply one day or one week. For example, instead of suggesting that readers wash their clothes in the bathtub with their feet to save energy, the site should encourage them to take the broader step of shifting their electricity to “green power” or Renewable Energy Credits (such as those offered by Clean Currents in the D.C. area). And, of course, it should make this easy to do by giving readers specific guidance. That way, with one day’s action, a participant’s electricity footprint will drop significantly for years to come, even if none of the other behavioral changes stick after the experiment ends.

This way, infrastructure–like where our electricity comes from–would become greener over time making the needed cultural shift just a bit easier, for example, making it so that super-efficient washing machines become nearly as sustainable as bici-lavadoras, which unfortunately only the most committed environmentalists will choose as long as electricity is cheap.

Bicycle-powered Washing Machine

Bicycle-powered Washing Machine

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