In the documentary No Impact Man, New York author Colin Beavan sets out to discover whether he and his family can still have a good life without being so wasteful. His year-long quest means lifestyle changes that include becoming vegetarian, eating only locally grown food, not using cars, buses, or planes, no material consumption, no garbage and even a period living without electricity, as he tests what is possible to do without and what isn’t.
Already a concerned environmentalist, the effect these changes have on Colin are not as profound as on his wife, Michelle, a self-confessed shopping and reality TV junkie who can’t get through the day without espresso and who ‘doesn’t really like nature’. As the project progresses, No Impact Woman gains similar insights into her life as we did when we went sailing, and for me her awakening is one of the most interesting aspects of the documentary.
In giving up her addictions Michelle suffers the expected withdrawal symptoms, remarking sadly after a few months that she can feel the wanting part of her dying, leaving a hole where it used to be. But by the end of the year this ex-shopaholic looks at society with different eyes, and sees ‘rapacious consumption for consumption’s sake and the coma that that induces.’
Her relationship with nature is transformed during a holiday on a farm, when she unexpectedly becomes entranced by farm life, recalling that her own grandparents were homesteaders. By the end of her stay she feels as if she has woken up and reconnected with something that her family left behind.
No longer allowed to drive, she and Colin start to cycle around New York, even taking their two year old daughter along in a trailer. A year earlier she thought that cyclists made the streets of New York less safe for drivers. Giving up television and getting bikes got them out of their apartment into a world where the ‘days feel like they last forever.’ At the end of the project, the former reality TV addict doesn’t even want a television in the house.
It isn’t easy to see what’s wrong with something when you’re caught up in it – you have to break free. We did that by going cruising, and the Beavans did it by making drastic changes to the way they lived. What we all discovered is that not only is it possible to have a good life by being less wasteful, it’s possible to have a better one. And maybe if enough of us realise that, we can change more than just ourselves.