No Impact Man

On Friday I went to a showing of the documentary No Impact Man that was put on as part of the school’s “family weekend” (remember, I work at a residential program for high school students interested in environmental stewardship, a.k.a. a boarding school). No Impact Man is also a blog and a book, but this was the first time I’d heard of it. It’s essentially the story of a family in New York City – husband, wife, and two-year-old daughter – who attempted to spend a year making absolutely as little environmental impact as possible. Not only did they give up exotic produce and gasoline-powered transportation, they gave up electricity. In Manhattan. It was a fascinating movie, not least because of the dynamic between the husband, the driving force behind the project, and the wife, who when the year began was addicted to reality TV, Starbucks, and designer fashion.

Of course, this movie about someone trying to truly live his values dropped into my brain at the same time that I’m still working my way through Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, a marvelous collection of essays in which she tackles, among other topics, her family’s ongoing attempts to live in an environmentally responsible way and be mindful of their place in the global ecosystem. And at the same time that I’m reading a report on ten years of surveys on environmental literacy in America that discusses the concept of “locus of control” – the difference between having an internal locus of control and believing that the actions and efforts of individuals can make a difference, and having an external locus of control and believing that meaningful change can only come from corporations and governments and other large organizations.

Anyway [I got interrupted halfway through writing this post and am trying now to regather my thoughts], the movie made me think about what it means to really live a life in line with one’s values. Isn’t there some value in that alone, whether or not one person’s actions really contribute significantly to building a sustainable society? (And there’s evidence to suggest they can and do.) I’m not planning on giving up electricity and toilet paper anytime soon, but there’s always more we can do. Buy less stuff. Eat less meat and more local, naturally-produced food. Only drive when it’s really necessary, and plan to do the most errands with the least possible driving when we do. Look for ways to reduce the amount of stuff we throw away (even if it’s recyclable – recycling takes resources too, and there’s a reason why “reduce” and “reuse” come before “recycle”).

A time is coming, maybe sooner than a lot of people would like to believe, when we’ll have to live closer to this way because there simply won’t be the resources left to sustain our current level of consumption. The more I understand the facts about climate change the more I believe I’ll see this within my lifetime. But who’s to say we can’t get a head start? For anyone interested in sustainability, I really recommend No Impact Man.

6 replies on “No Impact Man”

One thing many people will not be prepared to do is give up their pets, especially dogs and cats. I was watching QI (a British quiz show) the other day and compere Stephen Fry stated that an average dog’s carbon footprint is twice that of a Toyota Land Cruiser or another large SUV. There’s also a book called “Time to Eat the Dog?: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living.”, where the carbon footprints of all kinds of pets are calculated. As you can imagine, this has caused controversy in many circles.

That’s an excellent point. (The family in the documentary has a dog, and no mention is made of how they fed him during their year of no-impact living – with local, humanely-raised meat, I suppose.) I wanted (and got) a cat when I was a child, but now that I’m an adult I’m realizing how ethically murky the whole concept of keeping animals purely as pets is, and I don’t think I’d ever have a cat or dog now. (Maybe a snake… especially if I could justify it to myself by using it as an education animal of sorts…)

Some of the things the family did got me thinking again about how much completely unnecessary packaging we get with our food. They stopped buying anything that came in, say, a cardboard box or plastic bag, and instead took their own reusable containers to buy from the bulk foods section.

I recall reading about these people a few years ago and will see the movie and read their book. When my daughter was a Environmental Studies major, she gave us a quiz to evaluate our carbon footprint, and we were astounded to see how large a footprint our rural lifestyle entailed. While we got credit for raising some of our own food and using renewable resources for most of our heating needs, the lack of public transportation was an overwhelming debit. Living somewhere like Manhattan with its dense population and transportation infrastructure has considerable advantages.

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