Kolbert goes back to the original green stunt of Henry David Thoreau.
Thoreau referred to his time at Walden as his "experiment of living." As Robert Sullivan points out in his new book, "The Thoreau You Don't Know: What the Prophet of Environmentalism Really Meant" (Collins; $25.99), it could just as easily be called something else. "It was a stunt, plainly put," Sullivan writes.....
The nouveau Thoreauvians have picked up from "Walden" its dramaturgy of austerity. Their schemes require them to renounce (if only temporarily) various material comforts—cars, elevators, Starbucks—that their neighbors take for granted. Renunciation sets them apart and organizes their lives in the name of some higher purpose. The trouble—or, at least, a trouble—is that it's hard to say exactly what that purpose is.
Of course, Kolbert is absolutely right in her conclusion that, as Rick said to Ilsa, it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
A more honest title for Beavan's book would have been "Low Impact Man," and a truly honest title would have been "Not Quite So High Impact Man." Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan's Fifth Avenue apartment.
Kolbert has written serious work, and no doubt finds these best-sellers to be profoundly unserious; they certainly started that way. Serious environmental blogs say much the same thing about TreeHugger. She writes:
The real work of "saving the world" goes way beyond the sorts of action that "No Impact Man" is all about.
Indeed. But Kolbert read the books; I followed the blogs from the start of these experiments to their finish. While they all ended after a year, it was very clear that the people involved were profoundly changed, and that there is more to come. They are unfinished works.
More in the New Yorker
Illustration from the New Yorker.
More on Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man:
No Impact Man Documentary Film Is Low on Carbon, High on Awareness
No Impact Man on the Colbert Report
More on Vanessa Farquharson of Sleeping Naked is Green:
Sleeping Naked Is Green
365 Small Steps Cover a Lot of Ground
There's Plenty of Grey Area in Living Green
The Gig is Up: A Year of Green Steps is Over