Film Review: No Impact Man

This film documents Colin Beavan and his family in their efforts to see if they could have zero impact on the environment for one year.  Their no impact year was 2006 and the film was released in 2009. I watched it via Netflix in 2011 (a few weeks ago!) and so I am discovering the Beavans after much of the media buzz has died down about their no impact project. In the heyday, Colin was garnering attention from the likes of Good Morning America and the New York Times – both positive and negative. Many applauded their experiment while others criticized the seemingly ludicrousness of their lifestyle (no toilet paper, for example). I suppose, then, an interesting question is how sustainable are the lessons learned from their no impact year. Five years later, was it all just a crazy stunt that inspired environmentalists for a fleeting moment? No impact, indeed? Or was there a lasting positive effect in the aftermath of their project? I believe the release of the film three years later, Beavan’s ongoing blog, and the development of a no impact curriculum are signs that this project lives on…but to what end?

The cynical realist in me ends up somewhere in the muddled middle when reflecting on No Impact Man.  An absolute no impact year is ambitious to the point of nearly impossible. This gives critics plenty of material to attack the premise of the entire experiment. The film touches on this topic lightly, and probably could have strengthened its message even more by meeting it head on. Asking people to change their ways and especially to reconsider many of their comforts and conveniences is naturally going to be upsetting. Consequently, they will almost always look for faults as a way to then justify why they don’t need to change their ways. The classic example is how the Beavans were demeaned for not using toilet paper, while the rest of the positive lessons from their year were lost to media sensationalism. I applaud the Beavans for the experiment and forcing the question of how far is one willing to go to have no impact on the environment. And I think there are powerful implications not fully explored in the film about the interconnectedness of humans, technology and nature along with a greater sense of responsibility and the choices we make. For instance, Colin had to use technology and electricity (to his credit, he did eventually start using solar power) to type his blog entries and to make the film, right? There is a big carbon footprint and overall environmental impact to the production and the usage of computers. Can his noble goal to educate and to inspire change justify the environmental impact of using computers? This is just one of the many perplexing questions that are teased up in the film and ultimately unresolved. How far are we willing to go? Is it really possible to have zero impact? These are not easy questions with easy answers, and so we left to the ambiguous middle ground of personal choice.  I choose to go as far as I can knowing that there is always more I could do, which then puts me at the risk of being a hypocrite or, at the very least, imperfect. I console myself that my efforts to be green are better than doing nothing, and I am doing my part for a larger, sustainable movement. I am not a “no impact man”, but hopefully making a difference to the overall.

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