No Impact Man Makes A Splash!

August 31st, 2009

Get ready for a rare sighting this September: a funny, feel-good environmental documentary. Did An Inconvenient Truth fill you with doom and gloom? Has Food, Inc.’s alarming exposé of our toxic food chain left you with that awful Agribiz aftertaste?

Have no fear, No Impact Man is here to cheer you up. The film, which opens around the country in mid-September, documents the year-long exercise in eco-extreme living that writer Colin Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin and their daughter Isabella undertook for the sake of a book, a blog and a better life.

Beavan’s No Impact project began, simply enough, as yet another entry in the increasingly crowded “stunt memoir” sweepstakes, exemplified by the glut of “My Year Of (insert self-promoting gimmick here)” titles. The project caught the eye of a pair of documentary filmmakers, and the result is an entertaining, empowering film that asks the question, “Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much?” The answer is a resounding “yes, we can.”

colin_beavan_and_daughterThe hook for Beavan’s book required the family to abandon – for a year, anyway – such cherished American traditions as driving, shopping, watching tv (or doing anything that uses electricity, for that matter), eating out-of-season produce from far away farms, and otherwise being a dutiful GDP-boosting consumer.

“Like Gilligan’s Island, only completely implausible,” was how Stephen Colbert summed up the No Impact family saga. I prefer to think of it as Green Acres meets Little House On the Prairie at the intersection of Sex And The City: it’s got a pair of sophisticated urbanites going back to the land, finding joy in the simple pleasures of hanging out with friends and family, and discovering that there is indeed Life After Shopping.

Conlin, aka Mrs. No Impact Man, emerges as the film’s true hero as she gamely (for the most part) goes along with Beavan’s drastic domestic do-over. Initially, Conlin, who is a senior writer at Business Week, suffers withdrawal from a laundry list of life’s little luxuries. But as the project lurches forward, her fashionista fever breaks and she finds herself more in sync with the bucolic than the bulimic.

Beavan’s attempt to live off the grid in gridlocked Manhattan will surely strike some folks as quixotic–or just plain idiotic. You may regard a life without carbon based creature comforts as a return to the Dark Ages. But, as No Impact Man’s co-directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein note, the No Impact experiment is, in fact, “a flash of light” that illuminates the intersection of all the environmental issues that threaten to overwhelm us. By focusing on one family’s struggle to live more sustainably, Gabbert and Schein take abstract, potentially paralyzing problems and scale them down to a digestible and, yes, local level, showing folks how to take a stab at whittling down their own impact.

No Impact Man is all about connecting the dots, weaving our frayed social fabric back together, and encouraging us to think of ourselves as citizens instead of consumers. Beavan makes a compelling case that we have the power to affect real change through our choices, both collectively and as individuals.

And one of the simplest but most significant changes that Beavan advocates is, of course, to drastically reduce or eliminate your consumption of meat. Before the advent of factory farming left us up to our necks in cheap chuck, meat was just one small component of our diets, which relied more on plant-based foods such as beans and nuts to meet our protein needs. So there are a few centuries worth of tried and true meat-free recipes to launch you on your climate-cooling culinary adventures. You’ll find them in abundance right here at Meatless Monday.

Kerry Trueman is an edible landscaping advocate who writes about real food, low-impact living and sustainable agriculture for the Huffington Post, AlterNet, the Green Fork, Air America, and Her latest project is, a website for farmers, gardeners and eaters who favor conservation over consumption.