No Impact Man
2009, NR, 90 min. Directed by Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 30, 2009
Author Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, was a newly converted environmentalist in 2006 when he began the No Impact Project, in which he vowed to leave his liberal complacency behind and adopt a lifestyle that aimed to create zero environmental impact on the Earth. It was to be a yearlong project and the source material for a planned book (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, which was published this September and is one of the works featured at this weekend’s Texas Book Festival). The project also required the cooperation of his wife, Michelle Conlin, a journalist at BusinessWeek, and the couple’s not-yet-2-year-old daughter, Isabella. These New York City dwellers elected to abandon material consumption and buy nothing new over the course of the year, eat only food that was grown within a 250-mile radius of their home, compost their waste, and abandon automated transportation and get around by bike, foot, scooter, or stroller. Six months into the project, they turned off their electricity, which made for a fairly spartan home environment. What makes this documentary work is that the Beavan family is so relatable. Though full of grand intentions, they are hardly saints, and we agonize with them over the disappointments and compromises they experience along the way. What does one do about all the flies in the apartment created by the compost box? How do you keep your baby’s milk from spoiling without a refrigerator? The Beavans’ day-to-day issues are the drama that keeps the film afloat. How can a journalist produce a cover story without a single cup of coffee (not allowed because no coffee beans are grown in the New York City area)? And for a vacation on an organic farm upstate, a train ride becomes allowable. Still, the documentary leaves a great many questions unasked. For example, what are the moral quandaries of having Good Morning America report on the project with their high-wattage cameras and vast publicity machine? Can a person take advantage of electricity, television, and book pulp to discuss one’s work while still remaining true to the ideals of creating zero personal waste? Beavan has received a lot of flak from observers on his website who regard him as a publicity monger, a self-deluded idiot, or worse. Yet, in the film, the only figure to address Beavan’s contradictions is the longtime activist, editor, and vegetable gardener Mayer Vishner. Still, whether this documentary’s questions are explicit or implicit, No Impact Man is certain to raise questions among viewers – questions about the Beavans, questions about ourselves, questions about degrees of sustainability. And asking questions is what it’s all about, isn’t it? (See "Brace For …," Oct. 30, for an interview with Beavan, who is attending the Texas Book Festival and will also appear in person at the 7pm screening on Friday.)