Examining the No-Impact Life

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Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Colin Beavan, the subject of the documentary No Impact Man

New York City–based writer Colin Beavan was casting around for a new book idea a few years ago — and fretting over the state of the planet — when he had an epiphany. He and his family — wife Michelle and baby daughter Isabella — would live for an entire year while making as little impact on the environment as possible. That meant no motorized transportation, no elevators, no nonlocal food, no caffeine and (eventually) no electricity. TIME talked to Colin and Michelle about the new book and documentary on their green year, No Impact Man, and why pulling the plug on modern life was the best thing that ever happened to their family.

For your year of living with no impact on the environment, what was the hardest thing to give up?
Michelle: For me the hardest thing was giving up the caffeine. The brutal and ugly and murderous caffeine withdrawal — that was tough. And I wasn't able to see my family because they don't live locally, so it was great on day 366 to be able to get on a plane with my daughter Isabella and go see my parents.

Colin: I find it interesting that everyone asks that question. But the surprising thing to me is that instead of how hard it was to live environmentally, we discovered how joyful it was. We found that by creating space in our lives in terms of letting go of stuff, cutting out the TV screens, we had more time for relationships — more time to spend with each other and with friends. More time just reading books or going to the park and going swimming. We were eating better and getting more exercise. That's what really struck me.

And what did you do with all that time that was opened up by the project? Was it hard to figure out what to do once the noise of electronic culture and consumer culture ceased?
Michelle: There was this weird moment when my consumer self kind of died away, and it felt like there was an empty spot. If you've heard of the slow-food movement, this was like the slow-life movement. It changed my perspective of time.

Michelle, all through this year, you kept your job writing for BusinessWeek. How did you manage to keep up that fast-paced lifestyle, and shift back and forth?
Michelle: It was like two alternative realities that I would have on the same day. But they were really complementary.

How so?
Michelle: BusinessWeek was my fast life, where I got my weekly adrenaline rush, doing this work I really love and really believe in, which is a huge part of having a happy life. And then I would go home, where the screens were off and it was very quiet and it was just my family. I was living in the moment then.

Colin, you mentioned before that there were environmental groups that, when news of what you were doing first broke out, were worried. They thought people already associated environmentalism with giving things up, and they worried that message wouldn't work with people. Do they still feel that way?
Colin: For me, there are two models for change. One is a model that works through collective action and politics. And then there is the model that works through individual action and lifestyle change. People in the environmental movement have been working so hard for collective action that when No Impact Man first started to get attention, they became very concerned that people would only think they had to change their lifestyle and didn't have to worry about collective action. I think some people are very ambivalent about the possibility of political action, but are wiling to change their own lifestyle, and once they have skin in the game, so to speak, they will get into politics.

Are we ultimately going to have to redesign our lives, make do with less, if we want to combat climate change?
Colin: The simple answer is yes. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that developed nations are going to have to change the way they live. But maybe there's a chance that we could actually gain something — a different kind of life that we might like more.

You talk a lot about how the year of no impact actually improved the quality of your family's life. How?
Michelle: Before the project started, I was really heavily into a diet of high-fructose corn syrup. My life was very much determined by having screens all around me, all the time. I was a major TIVO user, totally addicted to sugar and reality TV. I was just a high-consuming member of the high-consuming lifestyle. And I think that I was just asleep to the toll, in terms of my health, in terms of not being with my family, and to the literal cost in terms of debt. I also realized halfway through the project that it was a great joy to eat this way and live this way, and how much I'd been sacrificing without realizing it in my old life.

You started out this project in a state of despair over the fate of the planet and over your inability to do anything about it. After a year of no-impact living, how do you feel now?
Colin: You know, a couple of years ago, when the publicity over this first started, I tried to tread gently on this question, but the truth is that I believe we're in a gigantic crisis and it's a difficult one. I see a huge number of people trying to figure out the solution to the problem. I don't despair for the human race. I'm an optimist — I believe that people are good. I don't despair of our ability to affect change when we need change. But what is required is that we actually engage that ability. I believe we can solve the problem. We have to yet to find out, however, whether we have the collective will.