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NONFICTION: Super Mindfulness Man

Colin Beavan
No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process
(Picador, 2009)

First, you have to get over the title. Colin Beavan’s project should have been called Minimal Impact Man or No Net Impact Man. Next, you have to get over the subtitle. Beavan, a self-identified megalomaniac, styles himself as a rickshaw-riding, Zen philosophy-spouting, cabbage stew-cooking comic book family man hero—out to save the world! But he manages to balance his bouts of highfalutin soap-boxing (“We need to develop new ways to take up and assert our responsibility”) with both honest self-deprecation (“I showed myself up to be a smug little fuck”) and enough ingenious and gritty details of eco-conscious living (“They got in a boat, rowed out into the middle of the bay, splashed a bucket into the sea and collected salt water. They rowed back and boiled the water away on a stove until all they had left was salt”) to make the reading of this earnest adventure not only bearable, but enjoyable. Lastly, you have to get over your own cynicism, sense of helplessness, and lack of faith. That’s the hard part. This book might help.

Colin Beavan, along with his wife and eighteen-month-old baby girl, spent a year trying to live with no net impact on the environment. “Could I, at least for one year, live my life doing more good than harm?” He divided his project into five stages: No Trash (that’s right, cloth diapers); No Carbon-Producing Transportation (hence, bikes, scooters, and yes, the rickshaw); Sustainable Eating (only local food, which means, in the winter, basically potatoes, cabbage, and rutabaga); No Consumption (that means not only no movies, but no toilet paper—don’t ask!); and lastly, No Electricity (in other words, no fridge for the baby’s milk). You might think a book like this comes with a “Do Not Try This At Home” warning, but of course the whole thrust is that we, the readers, should do just that.

For any human being, absolute zero impact is virtually impossible, which Beavan does acknowledge. In order to strike the no net impact balance, he includes an entire chapter on trying to do enough good to outweigh the harm (for service, he picks garbage, mostly plastic bags and plastic bottles, out of the Hudson River). Beavan’s particular impacting failures and compromises are noteworthy. At work, his wife forgivably rides the elevator 45 floors to her office. She also can’t quit coffee. Our three warriors have to travel long distances twice via plane or car to visit family during the holidays. Once, during the no electricity phase, when the baby twice soils the sheets with vomit, Beavan gives in and uses the washing machine. Lastly, despite all powers of will, they cannot give up olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Not bad. Not zero impact, but not bad.

Beavan’s tone is at turns wise and whimsical. He wields many facts and much research, but also often resorts to a kind of loose and dreamy optimism. At times, he comes off as so casually grandiose that one has a hard time evaluating his authority. For example, when he writes, “Suburbia, the great American experiment in the solitude of ‘a man’s home is his castle,’ is pretty much a failure,” I may nod in agreement, but I can’t help but think of the thousands upon thousands of readers who won’t be so easily convinced. And isn’t that the crux? Beavan’s thesis here is, in short, that in fighting the environmental crisis individual action is paramount. While he admits that political action too is important, he does not believe that the government is “good at leading larger cultural change.” An astute friend criticizes his approach, claiming his book will only make good people feel guilty about eating a slice of pizza off a disposable paper plate; meanwhile, big business gets away with murder and the government does nothing. Eventually, Beavan gives in a little. He visits his local Congressman. And he arrives at the easy conclusion that “Collective action is nothing more than the aggregation of individual action... They work together.” Still, the revolution that Beavan imagines is a revolution of individual hearts and minds—and behavioral patterns.

Beavan calls his readers to nothing less than a complete reevaluation of all values. He continually resorts to that murky phrase “quality of life,” arguing that the American way of life is not only destroying the earth, but that it is basically rotten to its core. That’s a tough stance to take, but Beavan takes it, asserting that this so-called American way lacks true “quality,” which he defines as health, family, and a kind of joyful mindfulness. He patiently and subversively, with humor and warmth and surprising force, attacks TVs, cars, prepackaged food, and our addiction to empty products and fleeting entertainments, pointing to a better life beyond these American staples. Without TV, there is more family time (including, incidentally, private marital time, if you know what I mean). Without cars, there are seize-the-day bike rides and leaner bodies. Without prepackaged food, there is not only hope for the sustainability of the earth and its fruits, but also a way of life centered around the kitchen table.

“I can’t stop thinking about the endgame,” Beavan writes. Indeed, he meditates gravely and often on death, and on the fact that soon, one way or another, we will all be dead. And he allows us, as a race, the choice of burning out hot and fast, so long as we consciously choose a destructive path. Ultimately though, Beavan has faith in our ability to wake up to the crisis. His book and his project will surely face much criticism and cynicism—it is showy in design, it reads too much like a blog, it fails to grapple with the power politics that ultimately do matter. But for anyone looking to achieve eco-mindfulness, it’s a heartfelt and helpful starter. I, for one, will never use a plastic bag again.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2009

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