No Impact Man on Green Parenting

Col Beavan in 2009. (Photo: Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 3.0]/Wikimedia Commons)

By now you have probably heard of No Impact Man, aka Colin Beavan, the New Yorker who embarked upon a year-long experiment with his wife (Michelle), his two-year old daughter (Isabella), and his dog (Frankie) in a philosophical attempt to completely wipe out his ecological footprint. The No Impact Man story is now headed to the theaters and will soon be available in your favorite bookstore.

But I've got an insider scoop. About 10 months into the No Impact experiment, I chatted with Colin (and Isabella) about the trials and tribulations of living light on the planet. Here's an excerpt:

Jenn Savedge: Do you feel like you have achieved your No Impact goals?

Colin Beavan: It’s not intended to be a scientific; it’s intended to be philosophical. There is no way to truly be no impact. Even if you do positive things you are still causing a negative impact in another area. But the question is, “Is it possible to do more good than harm living on this planet?” So, do I think I’ve done more good than harm? I’d like to think so.

Will you continue to live the “No Impact” lifestyle past the one-year mark? Is this your new way of life?

Well, for the purposes of this one year, things are pretty extreme. We don’t use the elevator. We don’t use the laundry machine. So I think we’ll be looking at more of a middle ground afterwards. But what’s interesting is that if we had started from where we at a year ago (because we were just like everybody else) and tried to cut down, we would not be doing nearly as much as we are now where we have cut away everything and now we’re going to add a few things back.

What has been the hardest phase for you?

Everybody asks what has been the hardest for me, and I think that’s really interesting, because that’s an assumption that it would be hard, or that the project would be a matter of deprivation. But actually, we’ve found that there are lots of benefits to the project. There are a bunch of psychologists that point out that if we think that consumption and buying more stuff is going to make us happy we’re mistaken. The things that actually make us happy are things like putting more emphasis on our relationships, living according our values, connecting to something larger and putting more meaning into our lives. And the project has allowed for a lot of that. Like getting rid of the TV. We didn’t know this was going to happen, but it caused the family to come together more because we entertain each other instead of passively watching TV. We eat together and cook together and wash the dishes together instead of eating out of a bunch of plastic takeout cups. So when people ask me what I’m going to give up about the project when it’s over, I think, what should I give up? The fact that I’m eating more healthily or that I spend more time with my daughter?

But that’s the long answer to your question. The short answer is ... the hardest thing is not having a laundry machine!

Was this project especially challenging for you to do with a child?

No, it’s actually the opposite. Isabella is the leader of the project. I once heard about a Zen master who was asked by a parent, “When do we start teaching our children Zen?” The teacher laughed and said, “We don’t teach them Zen, they teach us Zen.”

Early on in the project, when I was still getting used to the idea of not rushing around by subway or car, I took Isabella out and we were going to go to the park. On our way she stopped at a fire hydrant. There was a little chain that hung off it and she poked it with her finger and watched it swing back and forth. She poked it again and I said, “Come on Isabella, let’s go the park and have fun.” And then we walked a little bit further and she started playing with this pole and I said, “Come on, we gotta go have fun.” I finally realized that we were already having fun. That was really germane to the project because we have this idea that you have to buy stuff or watch TV to have fun. And this has all taught me that maybe I need to look for the fun in the moment rather than being told where to look for fun.

Which phase of the project was the most successful for you and your family?

The “no carbon-producing transportation” means that we’ve been on our bicycles, which is no end of joy for us. We got this new rickshaw today. (I say new, but it’s made from entirely secondhand parts.) We ride around on our bikes all of the time now and we really love it, so that’s been successful. The local eating means that we don’t do the takeout thing and we actually eat together around the table. So, that has been really successful. The fact that we don’t have a TV is really good for our family. And just the general fact that we feel we’re making an effort is really good for us because it makes us feel like we’re not contributing to the problem as much as we were.

Do you have any advice for parents that are hoping to reduce their own impact?

This whole thing is not rocket science, and it’s not new. My grandparents told me not to waste. So just look at your life and ask yourself, where am I wasting resources? For instance, why leave your house heated when no one is in it? Could you get a smart thermostat or something like that? Look for the waste. It will be different for each of us. I don’t use non carbon-producing transportation, but if you live in the suburbs, you have no choice. But on the other hand, I can’t turn my heat down because I live in an apartment whereas someone who lives in the suburbs can control their heat.

Now some people may find it too daunting to change the way they live. They could get involved in the political process. I’m not saying they should be liberal or conservative, because I don’t consider this a partisan issue. But we can all convince both our liberal conservative representatives that we care about the planet and would like to do something about it.