Point/Counterpoint: Michael Shellenberger vs. No Impact Man


TreeHugger likes both No Impact Man and Michael Shellenberger (half of the duo that brought us The Death of Environmentalism and its follow-up, Breakthrough); through their separate (and wholly disparate) efforts, they've both helped advance the cultural conversation about living green and creating a more sustainable world. They've done this in very different ways: No Impact Man -- aka Colin Beavan -- undertook the challenge to live without negatively impacting the planet for a year to prove that individual actions make a difference; Shellenberger thinks that, while those things are nice, we need a "10-year, $500 billion public-private investment into cutting-edge clean energy technologies to achieve energy independence and restore America’s economic competitiveness" (read our interview with his co-author Ted Nordhaus for more).

The two recently got into a friendly email debate about whose method was more effective; both make excellent points and both arguments aren't infallible. Shellenberger says that, while inspiring and demonstrative, Beavan's model is tough to apply to very many people -- "I don't think we can convince very many Americans or Chinese to do what you're doing. And I don't think we should try because we'll only alienate them. Instead I think we need to find ways to allow people to keep on consuming without generating emissions or depleting resources." -- and Beavan replies that convincing people wasn't really the point: "It isn't necessarily to convince people to live the way I have been, though -- it's true -- I offer it as an option, if people are interested. But more importantly I share my experiences living with lower resource consumption to show that using less doesn't have to feel like deprivation, and to illustrate that, often, living a lifestyle that is better for the planet is better for the person or the culture, too."

It's a really interesting debate (read No Impact Man's version and Shellenberger's side of things for more) and not one where an out-and-out winner can be declared after a series of emails have been exchanged. We think they're both right; the important thing to remember is that we shouldn't get caught up in the letter of how they both live and think -- that is to say, we all don't have to live with no impact, nor should we toss our hands up and wait for the top-down economic approach to bail us out -- but to embrace the spirit of their arguments. Yep, it's possible to make lifestyle changes to live with less (or almost zero) impact, and it's also possible to redesign and remake systems so that when we do consume, we aren't depleting resources faster than we can replenish them (though this isn't happening on a large scale today). And we think we should be working from both ends.

Because of differences in the scale of both approaches -- No Impact Man's individual change is short-term; Shellenberger's economic and systems reform is long -- it's tough to compare the relative impacts of both and declare who's "more right" or "less wrong." Perhaps the most important takeaway from a discussion like this is that there is more than one way to do things, and do things well. You don't have to pick sides; you can affect positive change by reducing your impact today and looking to the future for zero-waste packaging, compostable everything, and waste = food.

The debate will continue via email until the two meet up to chat in person after Shellenberger and Nordhaus speak at Focus the Nation in New York on January 31, so stay tuned for more. Who wins in your book? ::No Impact Man and ::Breakthrough Blog via ::Living Small

See also: No Impact Man on Colbert Report and No Impact Man finishing up his year of (nearly) no impact.

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