When it comes to living a greener lifestyle, most of us have at least tested the waters. But for Colin Beavan, it’s been a total-immersion experience. Three years ago, Beavan, an author, environmentalist and passionate social activist, decided to bring attention to the need for change in order to save the planet, and felt that it should start with himself. The idea was to live a completely sustainable life for one year and write a book about it, and Farrar Strauss Giroux gave him a contract. His wife Michelle Conlin, a senior writer at Business Week, happened to be friends with filmmaker Laura Gabbert, and the two hatched a plan to document the experiment on film. The resulting documentary, No Impact Man, premiered in New York Sept. 4, opens in Los Angeles Sept. 11, and expands nationally Sept. 18 as Beavan’s book hits stores.
Celebrating his 46th birthday by doing interviews for the film with Gabbert, Beavan explains why he and his family ate only local foods, didn’t drive, bought no new clothes, avoided elevators (meaning a nine-flight climb to their apartment), canceled magazine and newspaper subscriptions, eliminated television, restaurant and take-out meals, made their own detergent, traded disposable diapers for cloth, quit using toilet paper, and six months in, shut off the electricity, which meant no refrigeration, heat or air conditioning.
I believe that what Michelle and I discovered were some different ways of life that were actually better,” he asserts, but admits, “There were bits that were hard.”
As the film documents, Michelle had trouble giving up shopping at first, and coffee (an admitted caffeine addict, she cheated more than once). Beavan didn’t mind taking the stairs, even when it meant 25 flights, but concedes that doing the laundry by hand was difficult, as was facing “the possibility, especially in the beginning, that I was making my wife miserable for no reason. Michelle’s challenge was that she had to change the way she was living. My challenge was that I moved into being part of a movement and having a lot more attention than I expected to have so quickly.”
Blogging daily about his experiences, Beavan received both praise and condemnation. “The criticism was hard but what was really harder is that people were looking to me for guidance, and I don’t know the answers. None of us knows the answers yet. What is important is that we all are looking for the answers,” he emphasizes, admitting to moments of doubt. “What if I said the wrong things?” he worried.
His daughter Isabella, now four-and-a-half, was oblivious to any hardship or inner turmoil her parents faced. “It may have been hard for us, but she thought it was a gas,” Beavan says, noting the piggyback stair climbs and rides in the bicycle-propelled rickshaw that reminded her of Santa’s sleigh. “If I was causing my daughter to suffer of course the whole thing would have been called off,” Beavan underlines.
While the cameras were not around 24/7, getting used to them was still a learning curve. “It was definitely more in Michelle’s nature than mine,” Beavan says of being on camera, “but it’s my great hope that the result will be worth it.” Naturally, the production itself was sustainable.
“We had one camera, a mini DV we already had. The cameraman, Justin Schein, did a lot of the tracking shots on bicycle. We used no cars. We used available light and we used four rechargeable batteries the whole year,” outlines director/producer Gabbert. “Colin wanted us to make as green a film as possible and he also asked us to make changes in our own lives. Of course, we did not go to the extremes that they went to but it was not hard to make changes, create new habits like composting or reading the newspaper online or traveling less.”
In the film, “You see them evolve as a couple, as a family, as parents and as individuals,” Gabbert says of the Beavans. “You see Colin become much more engaged in a movement and find a career that he feels is in concert with his values. You see them become better parents and enjoy each other more. It was pretty remarkable seeing them transform. Michelle had what she calls the conversion experience, where she really jumped over to the other side. For Colin it was a more natural kind of thing to embrace.”
Nevertheless, when the No Impact year ended in November 2007, suddenly being without the rules they’d lived by was difficult. “It was a very confusing time,” admits Beavan, but the benefits made it worth it. All that walking, biking, stair-climbing and organic eating made them healthier, and reversed Colin’s symptoms of pre-diabetes. And sans-TV, “That was nine hours less to devote to parenting. As a result of our No Impact year, we’re way better parents.” Beavan also learned “that to live environmentally is not about being deprived. And I learned that each citizen really does have a voice and really is important.”
While promoting the movie and book -- which was produced from post-consumer recycled material -- Beavan is challenging others to live the No Impact life for a week via NoImpactProject.org, the nonprofit he founded to “help people to choose lives that would make them happier and are better for the planet.” Although he flew to Los Angeles for his day of media interviews where he spent time with MNN, Beavan planned to donate $300 to a third-world renewable energy project, the Solar and Electric Life Fund, which enables African villages to refrigerate AIDS medicines. “We have a responsibility to transfer more resources to other parts of world in a way that can be sustainable and renewable,” he says. “And there is a good chance we can change in such a way that makes us happier.”
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