Treading Lightly: An Interview with “No Impact Man’’ Colin Beavan

In 2006, Colin Beavan became “No Impact Man’’ by vowing to live for one year in New York City with near-zero impact on the environment. No electricity or fossil fuel transportation. No food grown outside a 250-mile radius. No trash, paper products or new purchases. Beavan wrote about the year-long project in the 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 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which has been translated into 13 languages. His related blog (http://noimpactman.typepad.com) has been similarly influential in eco circles. Beavan, who, along with his wife and young daughter were the subjects of a documentary, has since created No Impact Week, in which people practice no-impact living for one week. More than 20,000 have participated thus far. Here, Beavan talks about his journey.

E Magazine: What was at the heart of that year-long experiment?

Colin Beavan: I realized I was as much a part of the problem as anybody else. And then I asked myself: “What would happen if I took charge in my own small way?” Since I’m a writer, I wanted to use who I am as a service to my concerns. It was also a way of changing minds. At the root, I was asking: “How do I wake up myself and everybody else around me?”

No Impact is also about the principle of non-participation. We do not participate in things we don’t think are good for the world. This is at the heart of nonviolence. And we have a long history of nonviolent action that causes social change.

E: You’ve said that the institutions we’ve created in our society do not accurately reflect the human heart.

C.B.: I have a mostly optimistic view of human nature, so I see people wanting to do the right thing. The problem with corporations and political parties is that any social or environmental concern is secondary to their perpetuation. Oil companies cannot reflect the goodness of the human heart because their main job is to perpetuate themselves. The question then becomes: “Is there a way to structure institutions so that they may reflect the goodness of the human heart?”

E: How do you define progress?

C.B.: The type of progress I’m interested in means a better and more fulfilling way of life for a larger and larger number of people. Yet we usually define progress through the improvement of cell phones. Real progress would be if we got drinking water to a billion people in the global south who don’t have it.

E: What is biggest problem facing us today?

C.B.: The big problem that I’m passionate about solving is waking people up to the power they have in their own lives and in the culture. I want them to be engaged. We need to find a way to turn the vast assembly of human consciousness towards the common good.

E: You have said that at the heart of the environmental crisis is a crisis of community, a breakdown of community.

C.B.: It is hard to care about the environment if you don’t understand interdependence or community. The author and activist Derrick Jensen claims the majority of environmental destruction is caused by corporations and governments, and changing our individual lifestyles to solve this, he says, is like trying to stop Hitler by composting. That is not true. Individual action also means civic engagement. None of us knows where we will make a real difference.

DAVID JACKSON COOK is a writer and professor of peace studies in Tennessee. His work has appeared in The Sun and Utne Reader.

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