No Impact Man Colin Beavan: Running for Congress, the Future of Green (Interview)


The modern environmental movement has come a long way since Colin Beavan began his year-long experiment documented in No Impact Man. The focus seems to have shifted from personal action (remember all those simple green steps?) to political action, with mainstream politicians in the US of both major parties, seemingly drifting farther and farther away from talking about green issues.

Now, Colin Beavan is running from Congress, in the 8th district of New York, in central Brooklyn, on the Green Party ticket. TreeHugger recently sat down with Beavan to talk about his campaign and what sort of changes are needed in the green movement and in green politics.

Engaged Citizenship Links Personal and Collective Action

TREEHUGGER: How did you make the transition from working on projects that seem primarily individual in focus—such as No Impact—to ones that are more outward focused like current campaign for political office?

COLIN BEAVAN: The press, especially Elizabeth Kolbert, always portrayed No Impact Man as an individual action thing. But, if you read the epilogue of the book, it says that the model I am promoting is a philosophy called 'engaged citizenship'. Engaged citizenship tries to get away from either the words individual action or collective action. An engaged citizen is someone who is engaged both in their own life and their civic life.

I've never believed that individual actions or collective actions were the answer, because they promote different types and reinforce different types of change. Individual action, not all by yourself, but when you're talking and moving and in a community of your friends is about cultural change. Cultural change support regulatory change. Regulatory change also supports cultural change. I've always believe the two have gone hand in hand together, but No Impact Man in particular took a largely individual approach for a number of reasons.

One, was being completely fed up with government and being like 'let's just start changing.' Also, what I didn't realize at that stage, there are multiple levels of change from the federal government down to the individual. So, by individual action, we can also talk city action, state action, too.

Furthermore, No Impact Man, from its inception—though this has never been popularly discussed—was a communication strategy. How could I as an author contribute to as many people as possible talking about climate and the associated consumption-based problems?

It turns out that Americans, in particular, tend to come to politics through its intersection with their personal lives. When they understand how it affects their personal lives, they're in politics. It's not like the Europeans. Europeans have an opposite view: "I can't do it; I have to wait for the government to do it." Americans have a kind of "I have to do it; the government doesn't do anything" view.

For those reasons, No Impact Man, was an individual action thing at the outset. But if you read to the end, it says "be involved as a citizen." Similarly, No Impact Week, is Sunday through Friday is individual action, but Saturday is collective action. It's volunteering with non-profits, or doing something political. Once you've gotten people to do six days of individual action, they're like, "What about the culture?"

So, it's not so much a philosophical leap for me, as much as it's a pragmatic leap.

Climate Activists Need to Run For Political Office

Environmentalists may have become more political, but becoming more political is different than entering politics. What I've done is entered politics. In my own pain in the ass, needle in the side of the environmental movement way, I'm suggesting to the environmental movement that it's from this vantage point we should be fighting the fight.

TH: So you're saying that more people should be...

CB: Climate activists should be running for office, yes. They shouldn't be at rallies, asking, "What do you intend to do about climate?" And the politician goes, "That's a very good question. Did I tell you my opponent thinks that more taxes on the working class...?"

We seem to be unable, from outside the process, to get the politicians to address climate. But when I face Hakeem Jeffries a week from Wednesday, you better believe that every question is going to come down to fossil fuel use, the consumption-based economy and climate change.

Not that I'm going to pervert the question, but every question is related to those things: Joblessness, the economy, even housing—because while we are investing a trillion dollars in a private security force for the oil industry in the Middle East, we can't afford housing for our poor.

People Need Somewhere Else to Go Other Than the Democratic Party

TH: How does the Green Party become more relevant in the United States? Is it just that enough people start running on the local level, and start putting those views forward? It's a perennial problem: People don't want to vote for the Green candidate because they don't think that person is ever going to win or will be a spoiler. How do we get beyond that?

CB: Let's put it this way: How do we actually get the Democrats to listen to us, if we've got no other place to go? In this constituency, here in central Brooklyn, the Democratic candidate has been campaigning around the country, helping other candidates. He doesn't need to campaign here, because he could be Charles Manson on the Democratic ticket and he'd get elected. This community has no where else to go.

So, social activists of various kinds who have been praying, wishing and scraping, and having meetings with Democratic politicians need to start to be prepared to let the Democrats know that there is somewhere else to go—and that they will go somewhere else, even if they won't win.

If you want to reform the Democratic party, you need a robust Green Party—or a robust third party, and it seems like the Green Party is it. If you want the Democrats to do better, then you have to get the Green Party into it.

We Need to Take a Long View of Change

TH: It's a valid argument, because you're expanding the range of what can be talked about politically, moving things to the left...

CB: Let's get away from talking about left and right. Most young people aren't interested in those distinctions anymore—and I have to admit that I'm not either. I kind of generationally bridge the gap. I know that I'm considered to be left-wing, But on the other hand I am a real advocate for building community, which is usual a conservative position. Now, I'm for communities that aren't normative, and support autonomy, but I'm still for community.

As far as the spoiler thing goes. I do think we have to take a longer view. The possibility that we could end up with another George Bush is hugely frightening to so many of us. But the possibility that we end up with Barack Obama as our next—nothing against Barack, but a good man doesn't seem to do a lot of good in the present system. So, we have to take a longer view and accept that there might be some hard transition periods.

So, the spoiler? What is there to spoil?

The Green Party Must Become More Relevant in its Communication

Another thing: The Green Party itself has to make itself more relevant—and I say this with loyalty to the Green Party. I spoke at the Green Party national convention this summer. No one there was paid to be there. There were no lobbyists having fancy dinners. There was a bunch of people who really care about politics, our country, and the constituencies where they are activists, people who paid their own travel, paid their own hotel rooms—amazing people. But because of the level of sacrifice they put in personally they cling pretty strongly to their activist rhetoric.

There was a point at which a Green Party activist got up at the Green Party convention and his speech pretty much comprised of getting the whole room to chant "No more war! No more war! No more war!" I agree we don't want anymore war, but the problem is that that kind of rhetoric and that kind of presentation is frightening to the American public. It's a fact of life.

The Green Party ultimately has to decide if wants to be a party that just appeals to the activists, or if wants to make itself relevant in the national scene, in which case it has to find a path where it remains true to its values but finds a way to communicate them—because the values, I think most Americans agree with the values of the Green Party—that doesn't frighten Americans.

We're in Cultural Crisis, Not Just Climate Crisis

TH: A lot of the small stuff that we thought served as an entryway for people into the deeper green issues a few years ago, no one seems to care about anymore. It doesn't make news. Talking about energy efficiency, or better lightbulbs, or reducing your personal carbon footprint, don't seem to draw interest. Why do you think that is?

CB: Part of it is that we were in a cultural crisis, but we thought of ourselves as being in a climate crisis. There were some of us saying we're in a cultural crisis and there were some people who were saying 'shut up, we need to be talking about the climate crisis.' Then things happened...and pretty much everyone's aware that we're now in a cultural crisis. We have, in this community, the militarization of the New York Police Department, stop and frisk going on. There just seems to be so many things breaking down. I think, for one thing, some of that stuff is harder to rise above the noise now than it was.

Also, I had a bunch of people around for brunch on Sunday morning, and everyone was asking not where the recycling was, but where the compost was. I mix in certain circles, true enough, but it does seem to me that the cultural shift that we were trying to make is actually happening. Look at the number of bikers in New York City. Look at the fact that young people, demographically, are like, 'Fuck cars. Cars suck." My seven year old girl, her mom drives a car, but she says, "I don't mind mom's car, dad, but I don't like cars." It's in the culture. That's a positive thing.

Jill Stein, for example, isn't talking about climate in isolation. She's talking about the green economy. What I'm saying is, maybe the way to get people excited again is by showing them that this constellation of problems comes from one place. It's the siloing at this stage that's problematic.

TH: Let's tear down the silo then. You said that climate is a subset of a cultural problem—and I tend to agree—but there are some aspects of that cultural problem that seem really difficult to address. Say, dealing with the ingrained assumption that economic growth is always good...

CB: I think that economic growth is sort of a conversational lowest common denominator. If you get a bunch of people together, somebody says this, somebody says that, and then it's like, "I don't know, maybe the solution is economic growth, more money."

I don't think that everybody believes that, but because it's the lowest common denominator it's the only thing the people from the two old fashioned parties can discuss. They can't discuss anything else, because then how can you get everybody?

Economic growth may be the lowest common denominator in conversation, but I'd argue that anyone who thinks about it, knows that there's something wrong with the way the system works. This economic growth, economic growth, economic growth...there's something wrong with that.

Maybe the problem is the next stage: If growth isn't the answer, then what could be the answer? The idea of a business sector and a governmental sector that are intent on improving human quality of life, instead of just improving money flow? The nice thing about economic growth is that it's a giant lever, making more money wash through the system and everybody will be better. But as soon as you let go of economic growth as a big lever then you have to start talking about what do you do about healthcare, about livable streets, about housing. You have to start breaking these things down. You also have to start talking regionally instead of nationally. The real problem is that we don't have a cultural rhetoric for that.

People are beginning to say that economic growth isn't the problem, this is not what we need, but there's no common language or common idea of a solution. Culturally we're moving out of the idea that economic growth is a panacea, but we haven't found the next panacea.

Build a Culture of Stewardship

TH: How do we link environmentalism to these other issues you're talking about in the campaign? You said the most popular postcard you've got is one about young men in jail and communities. How do we link that to environmentalism?

CB: Van Jones is the one that made this link. I can't remember the exact words he used, but he said something like, "How surprising is it that a culture that trashes its young people trashes the planet?"

You're talking a culture of stewardship. The direct connection is that young people are the biggest asset any community has. The last thing you want to do is send them away. What you really want to be doing is giving them the skills they need to make the community vibrant. Sending them to jail is not that. The thing with jail is that something like 70% of people in jail committed their crime while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, so that means that crime is a public health problem first, not a criminal justice problem.

If you believe as I do that for a society to be environmentally sustainable the basic unit needs to be the community, then how do you make communities resilient, so that they can make their own goods and food locally, and they can be resilient against the end of oil, the disruption of distribution systems caused by climate change—all of that means that you've got to be investing in this human capital.

Tags: Environmental Policy

Best of TreeHugger