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No Impact Man

Kate and I both saw a "pre-release" showing of "No Impact Man."  Her reactions are here.

No Impact Man is Colin Beavans’ quirky, unsystematic, yet thought-provoking documentary film on his project to get his family to eliminate their environmental impact over the period of a year. The strength of this movie is that it asks, what would happen if we just stopped doing all these things that are destroying the planet? Not just giving up the easy stuff, but even some things which many of us consider essential, like toilet paper.

Toilet paper?

In fairness, the issue of toilet paper is hardly the only change that the film addresses. Colin, Michelle, and their toddler daughter Isabella give up things in stages. They are vegetarian from the beginning, and stop buying anything new — buying used or borrowing stuff, though, is allowed. They stop using planes, trains, or automobiles, including even mass transit and the use of elevators. They give up TV as well. But they only give up electricity after six months of their year, and we see them trying to read by candlelight. Later on heating is alluded to, as they are shown at the end of the project trying to huddle under blankets with the heat off.

But "toilet paper" seems to be the signature issue of No Impact Man. Colin just does some of the things that for many are sure to provoke the reaction, "surely you’re kidding, this sounds like a publicity stunt." This is a reaction, by the way, which is actually voiced in the film, and not entirely answered.

The obvious and indignant reaction to this movie is, why should toilet paper and composting worms get all the attention? Shouldn’t we focus on those activities which have the most impact first, rather than get sidetracked on difficult things with a marginal impact? 

But to be systematic and practical would defeat the quirkiness of the whole project, which is to show that you can try to do these things, even if the results are not guaranteed. The film is honest in showing that all does not go smoothly. There are some things, actually, which seem to work spectacularly well: the vegetarian diet, shopping at farmer’s markets, and getting rid of the TV. But Michelle can’t shake her coffee habit, and winds up borrowing ice from a neighbor to use in their ice chest. And this film is not going to inspire us to wash our clothes in the bathtub.

One of the strongest moments in the film was when they discuss some of the intense negative reactions to their project online — prompting one character to say that it’s clear that their project has hit a nerve. Another strong point is watching the reaction of Isabella, their toddler daughter; while Colin and Michelle agonize over the various changes, Isabella seems to adjust without a problem. On the other hand, I found it a bit puzzling that Colin and Michelle could have a very personal discussion of their possible pregnancy, without the whole question of the impact of reproduction ever clearly emerging. And they continue to use local dairy products, even though this requires refrigeration and antibiotics.

It was good that, in contrast to other environmental movies, the vegetarian issue was explicitly addressed. Colin is not a vegan, but he is vegetarian, and the whole global warming connection with diet is clearly mentioned. Michelle is still not completely convinced at the end — she’d still like to have a hot dog every now and then — but it has made an impact on her which is unmistakable. Hopefully viewers of this film will be challenged to try some of the same things for themselves and we can move the whole cultural question of sustainable behavior to a new level.

The web site is: http://noimpactproject.org/

Keith Akers
September 9, 2009