Getting Defensive

by Elli Caldwell

I’m generally of the notion that living simply has a direct correlation to environmental responsibility and overall happiness, so when I read about No Impact Man and his family in the New York Times this week, I was intrigued.

No Impact Man, otherwise and formerly known as Colin Beavan, is shepherding his wife and baby daughter through a year-long lifestyle experiment to minimize their impact on the planet. The rules of the experiment, as the New York Times explains, are constantly evolving, but are focused on eating only local, organic food, producing no waste, using no paper, shopping for nothing but food, and using no carbon-fueled transportation. It’s an ambitious goal for anyone, but more so for a family living in the heart of Manhattan and accustomed to the conveniences and luxuries of upper class urban life.

Beavan, who is documenting his experiment on his blog, is the writer of two books and will use this as an opportunity for a new book project. The family is also being followed by a documentary film-maker, a friend of the family who hopes to produce and release the story after the experiment is complete. Much has been made of the public face of such a simply-inspired experiment. Being featured in the New York Times, after all, isn’t a tactic of those who wish to remain anonymous in their do-goodery. Nor is it environmentally responsible, necessarily, to print a book in high volume, to use and encourage the use of computers through blog readership, or to drive flocks of eager movie-goers to air conditioned, energy-intensive theaters across America, and no one has hesitated in pointing this out. Critics, commenters and even supporters are voicing their doubts that the experiment of the Beavan family manifests as much altruism as it seems to imply:

    If you’re so concerned with your impact, why are you still using a washing machine to clean your clothes?If you’re so environmental, why not commit to a lifetime of green practices rather than just a single year?If you’re really trying to create change, why not spend your time teaching others about the environment rather than focusing only on yourself and your one small family?You’re measuring your non-impact in only subjective ways like “quality of life” and “general happiness.” How do you expect to prove anything that way?

Indeed, dissenting voices are shouting from the rooftops with fingers pointed in blame.

But I dare say, what’s with all the haters?

It’s human, I think, to look for faults and chinks in the armor of the warriors in our world who are striving for something better. It’s a knee-jerk reaction wrought with insecurity that occurs when we realize that someone else may be living our own ideals better than we are.

While it’s certainly true that the Beavans’ experiment is not a shining beacon of environmental perfection, the family is making more deliberate choices every day to benefit the environment than the average human will make in a year. While the Beavans stand to earn a sizable chunk of money and fame (and potentially contribute to some already-damaging cultural phenomenons like movie-going and book-reading) through their book and movie deal , they could just as easily be writing a book and movie about their foray into dirt biking or RVing across America.

Beavan says on his blog, “No Impact Man is a year-long experiment to do with me and my family trying to see what will happen if we really put our money where our mouths are and try to live in a radical way according to our values. I am not and have never been an environmentalist. What I am is a schlub who got tired of despising himself for doing things that didn’t jibe with his political and philosophical beliefs.”

Isn’t that what it’s really all about, all this earth-saving business? It’s political, and philosophical and inevitably values-driven. And it’s personal. It’s about figuring out what you stand for, and getting out there and living it, regardless of who sees you or applauds you or criticizes you or pays you or hates you or loves you. It’s about living with integrity so that when you shut your eyes to sleep at night, you feel at peace in your life, in your mind, in your heart. It’s about being the living example, the physical emblem of the change you wish to see in the world, and taking inspiration and hope, not comparison or aggravation, from others who are out there doing the same.

To me, the Beavans’ decision to live this way is a startling display of strength and determination in a political and environmental climate that starts to feel like a whole lot of talk sometimes. To me, they are making a difference in the world simply because they are changing themselves and the way that they live. It’s not everything but it’s something, and to me, that’s what matters at the end of the day.