Planet Gore

Exaggerated Impact

The New Yorker is not terribly impressed with Colin Beavan’s 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). Its conclusion:

There’s something a tad disingenuous here. Beavan is, after all, a man whose environmental activism began over lunch with his agent. And it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in electrical engineering to see through his claims to experimental rigor. Indeed, in its own candlelit way, his project is almost as incoherent as Farquharson’s. When No Impact Man shuts off the power at his apartment, you might think that his blog would have to go dark (and along with it his compulsive checking of his ratings on Technorati). But every day Beavan bikes to the Writers Room, on Broadway at Waverly Place, and plugs in his laptop. Meanwhile, Michelle scooters off to work at the offices of BusinessWeek, and Isabella spends the day at the (presumably electrified) apartment of a sitter.

So committed is Beavan to his claim of zero impact that he can’t — or won’t — see the deforestation for the trees. He worries a great deal about the environmental consequences of Michelle’s tampon use and the shrink-wrap around a block of cheese. But when it comes to his building’s heating system, which is apparently so wasteful that people are opening windows in the middle of winter, he just throws up his hands.
A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.
What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that — a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. On the last page, he observes:
Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.

So, what are you going to do?
If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly — or perhaps happily — it isn’t. The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.
What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

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