No Impact Man Documentary Film Is Low on Carbon, High on Awareness

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TreeHugger attended a pre-release screening No Impact Man, a documentary made about Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) and his family's yearlong experiment to live a zero waste lifestyle in New York City. We were happy to see that the movie treated its premise with a great deal of self-awareness, addressing the fact that the no impact conceit could easily be labeled as gimmickry rather than an earnest experiment to see what one can and cannot live without. While there were a few moments that wafted of sentimentality (there were two uproarious games of charades), the bulk of the movie presented an interesting commentary about the challenges of transitioning to a lifestyle that is consistent with your ecological values.

Particularly interesting was broaching the topic with Beavan's significant other. His wife, Michelle Conlin, was a Prada-loving, Starbucks brandishing, Manhattanite. In the beginning, we see Conlin submitting to the experiment mainly to support Beavan and his professional ambitions (beside the movie, there's a book coming out in September). She seemed to see little in it for her. But as the movie progresses, the benefits of their new lifestyle win her over. For example, in the beginning, she describes food—not eating out, not eating packaged foods, etc.—as her main challenge. But by the end of the film, she's cooking local cuisine, making regular trips to the farmer's market, getting to know her local dairy farmers, and saying that her newfound connection to food was one of the most valuable byproducts of the experiment. She remarks to a friend toward the end of the movie, "There's no going back. This is for our family."

The movie also follows the media frenzy that surrounded the experiment. Reactions ranged from the quizzical (and tad condescending) NY Times article "The Year without Toilet Paper", to the vitriol of a Gawker comment that read, "My first impulse was to rake these people with Uzi fire while screaming 'IS THAT ENOUGH 'IMPACT' FOR YOU?'"

Throughout, Beavan and directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein seemed cognizant of the contradiction of promoting a no-consumption lifestyle through channels (press, radio, film) that are generally mediated by consumer interests. Moreover, they were aware of how the media's treatment of the experiment as one freak's excursion into extremism could undermine the spirit of the project. As one character remarked, "If anyone [big media] thought you were going to have an impact there [on business] you wouldn't be getting the attention you are."

Whether the movie will be considered eco-confection or a valuable case study in low impact living will likely have to wait until the September 4th release. But the transformation of values that occurred during the movie—particularly in Conlin—was earnest and inspiring (the author started washing his own clothes in his tub after the movie). The couple really seemed to enjoy life better (with the exception of lacking a good reading light and adequate heat). Perhaps the best lesson of the movie came during a Q and A after the screening. Beavan shared a story about how he was walking his crying daughter in the rain. He was trying to keep an umbrella over her head to pacify her. Then he noticed that when he took the umbrella away, she stopped crying. The story was a nice illustration of how often the things we use to protect us and make our lives more convenient actually do neither.