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It's not easy to be an environmentalist in the simplest of cases, whether it's trying to get the grocery store cashier not to give you a plastic bag or talking your household into composting. But when you dub yourself No Impact Man, start a popular blog about your efforts to have zero net impact on the environment for one year, and put your wife and toddler through the project with you, it's the kind of challenge that's bound to get made into a movie someday.
And thus we have No Impact Man, a documentary about New Yorker Colin Beavan's efforts to stop producing trash, stop eating non-local food, stop using carbon-producing transportation, and overall live as greenly as possible for an entire year. He documented the entire effort on his blog, as well as in the new book of the same name, but Justin Schein and Laura Gabbert's documentary offers an opportunity to see all the gritty details behind the scenes, from their first adventure with cloth diapers to intimate conversations between Colin and his wife Michelle about the trials and disasters of the project.
I spoke to Colin and Michelle last week as their daughter Isabella, now 5, ran around in the office next door. I asked them about the more personal details that get exposed in the movie, what their lives are like now that the project is over, and what kind of questions you get asked when you call yourself No Impact Man. No Impact Man the movie opens in New York and Los Angeles today.
When it came time to put the book together and when the film was coming out, were you OK with that more intimate look into your lives than what the blog provided?
Colin: We might feel a little bit differently about this. Personally I am somewhat uncomfortable with having there be a movie about me. Some of the stuff is more intimate than I would like. [But] I think it's a great movie. The movie serves one person, the book serves one purpose, the blog serves another purpose, so I think it all serves a purpose. But it's definitely challenging.
And Michelle, you have a different opinion?
Michelle: I guess I just decided at the beginning that I believed in getting the word out, and I believed in what Colin was doing, and I believed in the validity of the project. If part of getting that message out was that I was out of my comfort zone a bit in terms of the personal stuff, then so be it. I'm just a big believer in storytelling. I think when people tell the truth about themselves, it's a service to the world.
Michelle, it seems like you were onboard with the documentary before Colin was.
Colin: Absolutely. People will say all the time how I dragged Michelle through the No Impact project, but gosh, have you seen me being dragged through the silver screen? She was more comfortable than I was, but I'm with what Michelle said, which is that when any of us share truthfully about ourselves, then we do everybody else a service.
How much access did you give Justin and Laura into your lives? What were the ground rules?
Colin: The ground rules were that we would give them very intimate access, but if it turned out later that it was something we weren't comfortable revealing about our personal lives, we could say so. None of it turned out to be that we had to put our foot down-- they were really sensitive to us.
Michelle: The way that film came to be was that, yes, Laura was my oldest friend in the world, and Justin and Eden are friends of Laura's. Going in, we were doing this with friends. There was an immediate level of trust. I would never had said yes to some random filmmaker. We're great friends, and this could be great, and let's do it together.
In the movie when the New York Times article comes out, the internet goes crazy and is very critical. Do you feel like this is round two, with the movie coming out, or with the project completed do you feel more confident in the face of criticism?
Colin: First of all, there was a lot of noise, but the truth of the matter is I've had thousands upon thousands of e-mails from people who say they're changing their lives as a result. Not only that, but we have this thing the No Impact Project, where we basically help people look at their own lives and ask themselves, how might they find ways of living that are environmentally better but will also make them happier? We also have environmental non-profits that are partnering with us. What a media person says doesn't trouble me so much, because I understand the value of this.
Michelle: I guess this is where it comes in handy to have a personal mission and core values. There's a lot of noise in the world, about the stock market and mortgages about this, but I just come back to what my values are, and i believe in this.
Do you feel like that core value came out of the project, or was it something that was in you beforehand?
Michelle: I started in grad school writing environmental stories, so I've always been concerned about that. But honestly I jumped into this and said yes because I was trying to be a supportive wife. But when I had the experience and realized what all the benefits were, it became more about me.
Colin: Sometimes people say to me, it's easy for you, and you want everyone to be like you. I say, no, I don't want you to be like me. I want you to be like Michelle. Michelle was very skeptical about it, but she had an open heart and an open mind, and she just took the evidence of what was happening for herself.
What did you keep and what did you get rid of after the project was over?
Michelle: We kept the community garden, we kept the bikes, we kept the local food. We don't have an air conditioner, we don't have a dishwasher or a freezer.
Colin: There are no rules for us anymore. How we make our choices is what makes sense for us. A real waste of resources is if the resources that you use don't even make you happy anyway. So here's an example. To us, it makes us feel good to save $1200 a year, so we don't use an air conditioner. It makes us feel good to get exercise as part of our daily routine, so we continue to bicycle. We feel healthier if we're eating food that's produced by farmers we can trust, and it's fresh ,and it doesn't have a lo of chemicals in it, so we continues to try to eat locally. We continue to do those aspects that benefit us, and that's a lot of them.
You've been put into this position as No Impact Man, consulted as an expert. But when people ask you advice, how do you feel about being in that position?
Colin: Mostly I don't give people advice about their own lives. I'm a writer, and the talent that I enjoy using most is my writing talent. What I care about most is this big question about how we should live. How do we live in such a way that both we protect our planet and have a good quality of life? How I feel about being in this position is extremely privileged, because I get to use the talents that I love most in service of the things I care most about.
So there's no anxiety about it?
Colin: The things that I stand for are what I call engaged citizenship. To be an engaged citizen means that the way your live your life, both as an individual and as a community member, reflects your values. You're not asleep. you don't believe that all you can do is vote. You actually believe that you make a difference in the world. That's my main message.