NPR logo Radical Change Writ Small, For The Planet's Sake


Radical Change Writ Small, For The Planet's Sake

Colin Beavan and his daughter Isabella shop at an organic market in New York City. No Impact Man chronicles the year Beavan's family spent trying to live with no net impact on the planet — without moving from Manhattan to some rural place. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

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Oscilloscope Laboratories

No Impact Man

  • Directors: Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Not rated: Nothing offensive, unless you're an oil, power or auto company

With: Colin Beavan, Michelle Conlin

No coffee, no elevators and no toilet paper — it's not easy being No Impact Man, the guy who tried to live a pre-industrial lifestyle for a year in Manhattan. It's even harder being the semi-supportive wife, which is what generates most of the electricity in this slight but entertaining documentary.

Colin Beavan took a lot of abuse for his ultra-eco project, but give the guy a break: He's not advocating that everybody surrender all their comforts. The goal of his 2006-2007 endeavor was simply to call attention to the high maintenance costs of the contemporary affluent American lifestyle.

And of course to yield a blog, a book and a movie. Like Julie Powell, whose blog-driven adventures are recounted in Julie and Julia, Beavan decided to transform both his life and his career with a yearlong conceptual project.

No Impact Man will scandalize a few SUV and mini-mansion owners, but sympathetic viewers are probably already doing some of the things done by Beavan and his wife, BusinessWeek reporter Michelle Conlin: composting leftover food, growing fruits and vegetables and substituting bicycles and scooters for taxis and subways.

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In a series of "phases," however, Beavan goes even further. Ultimately, he shuts off the electricity to the couple's ninth-floor apartment.

Along for this consciousness-raising journey are 2-year-old daughter Isabella, who's too young to complain, and Conlin, who does complain, but not all that bitterly. She misses shopping for clothes and drinking coffee, which is taboo because Beavan has banned all foods produced more than 250 miles from Greenwich Village.

Conlin follows the code, but not without good-natured sniping. When the family goes to visit an organic farm — breaking its own rules by taking the train — Conlin wrinkles her nose at "nature." And she confides that sometimes the only thing that keeps her in line is "the wrath of Colin."

Beavan, Isabella and mom Michelle Conlin worked their way up the green spectrum, "from making a limited number of concessions to the environment to becoming eco-extremists," Beavan writes. Conlin eventually described the strictest period as their "Swiss Family Robinson" phase. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

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Oscilloscope Laboratories

Beavan's spouse does benefit from the project: Changes in diet and added exercise make her feel healthier. Meanwhile, Beavan agrees to try to have a second child, and Conlin's quest to get pregnant becomes one of the central narrative threads.

Beavan won't surrender everything modern, which undercuts his experiment. He can hardly blog without a computer, so he erects a solar panel on his apartment building's roof to power it. And in a few scenes, the couple's home is lighted only by candles — and the flickering light of a cellphone screen.

Inevitably, Beavan became a media sensation, and directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein observe as Mr. No Impact does the infotainment dance with Stephen Colbert, a WNYC radio interviewer and a Good Morning, America crew. But they rarely show Beavan being challenged, which might have helped him define his position.

Beavan never gets to argue, for example, that some of the things he's doing wouldn't appear so silly if they were done collectively. His whole building could switch to solar or wind power, and then Beavan could restart his refrigerator without guilt. Or the building could maintain a communal compost bin, so Conlin wouldn't have to live with worms and flies in the apartment.

But those are issues for a film with a broader scope. No Impact Man ends not with a major environmental breakthrough, but with one video crew filming another video crew filming Beavan and Conlin as they reactivate their apartment's electricity.