exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

No Impact Man

No Impact ManImage via Wikipedia

Colin Beavan's book No Impact Man still merits a wait list at my local public library, but in the spirit of thrift and conservation I got on the list a couple of months ago and waited my turn.

Beavan came to national attention in 2007 on the strength of a single New York Times article by Penelope Green titled "The Year Without Toilet Paper," and to his credit he' s managed the transition from adequately successful but minor author to blogger, lifestyle experimenter, and finally public figure pretty well.

No Impact Man is Beavan's story of his year-long experiment in personal transformation, devoted to the refinement and reduction of his environmental footprint, including:
  • Refusing to eat or drink anything in a take-out container
  • Using a mesh bag instead of either paper or plastic grocery bags
  • Taking stairs instead of elevators, biking instead of taking public transport or taxis
  • Eating local food (grown within 250 miles of his Manhattan apartment)
  • Turning off the electricity in his apartment
  • Using a solar panel to power his laptop
  • Composting
  • Using cloth instead of disposable diapers
  • Canceling or consolidating trips
  • Getting involved in local natural resource rehabilitation
He's very committed, involves his wife and toddler daughter, and admits the strain the experiment puts on his marriage. He also discusses the emotional, psychological, and dare I say spiritual foundation of his experiment.

I have to admit that while I found Beavan's experiment interesting, I didn't like him; while he wears his "guilty liberal" credentials on his sleeve, and I appreciated his honesty in that department, I found him self-absorbed, self-indulgent, and on the whole not at all likable.

By and large Beavan doesn't do the math: he often raises questions that have answers if he'd just do the math and doesn't answer them:
  • Is it possible for New York City to become a sustainable city?
  • Does it make sense to wash a dish rather than use a disposable alternative?
  • Which is better (or worse): paper bags or plastic?
He also fails to make helpful distinctions; while he's correct that the no-littering campaigns in the Seventies were funded by industrial concerns and misdirected attention from not creating waste in the first place to disposing of litter, and put the burden on consumers rather than producers, he doesn't distinguish between law-abiding polluters and law-breaking polluters. He never talks about the contributions organized crime has made to pollution in the New York City area, for example. And this is not just a quibble: efforts on the part of individuals are dwarfed by the decisions by corporations and industries, and the vast array of government regulations proposed to fix these problems are useless if the regulations are ineffective.

Beavan also tends to deal in soft generalities: everyone understands that market costs fail to capture ecological externalities, and GDP is a poor measure of aggregate quality of life, but the alternatives he proposes are inadequate. Tax-based approximations to real costs tend to leave a government in possession of a vast pile of money that will need to be reallocated for the benefit of future generations. I have to believe that one of the lessons of Social Security and Indian Trust Management is that the Federal government can't be trusted to manage what is effectively a giant pile of cash. The GDP alternatives Beavan moots (including the Happy Planet Index) are volatile subjective measures that don't actually measure what we'd like them to measure: they don't measure ecological capacity to produce happiness, and happiness itself doesn't really have a cash value. Fundamentally, any fundamental transformation of the way people live has political and economic dimensions, and these don't go away just because real prices are hard to measure and GDP is currently misused and misinterpreted.

Ultimately Beavan is engaged in something like a spiritual exercise, and by discussing his other spiritual practices (meditation, reading various religious texts, etc.) he hints at the fact that he's on some sort of spiritual journal and/or search for meaning through this experiment. Unfortunately his spiritual practice is turned entirely inward: he talks about how his appropriation of elements of various religions fit into his view of himself, help him understand himself, etc. and if anything his preoccupation with himself and his own guilt/satisfaction/whatever undercut the primary message of his experiment: he really is engaging in magical thinking about the connection between the paper plate he doesn't use and a polar bear who may or may not drown, rather than a useful discussion about the meaning of moral commitments and environmental policy. In other words, he doesn't care about the planet or even about his fellow-man; he only wants to feel less guilty or less responsible.

I'm grateful to Beavan for making the connection between his experiment (as a spiritual exercise) and e.g. his reading Buddhist teachers like Pema Chödrön (as a spiritual exercise) or his appropriation of Menominee people as spiritual heroes. When various Christians (and I suppose, various atheists) take exception to environmentalism as a religion they typically cast it in terms appropriate to their model of a religion: Christians see it as idolatry in the form of Gaia worship; atheists undoubtedly see it as latter-day cargo-cult style superstition. But Beavan isn't engaging in religion writ large; he's engaging in spiritual practice writ small.

This narrative is the only thing I can think of that explains how Beavan emerges from his experiment with some new habits and engaged in a new conversation, but he's ultimately unchanged: his false comparison between living in Manhattan and going "back to the land" still makes sense to him; he's ready to jump on a plane and travel to a speaking engagement; he turns back on the electricity rather than moving somewhere with more abundant natural light. He emerges thinking better of himself but not actually a better person.

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