In 'No Impact Man', A Stunt To Save The Earth

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The Beavans

Colin Beavan walks with his daughter Isabella and wife Michelle Conlin in the documentary No Impact Man. The family spent one year trying to live without an environmental footprint. Oscilloscope Laboratories hide caption

itoggle caption 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 Impact Man is an environmental documentary that also works as a 21st century climate change comedy of manners. Its protagonist, Colin Beavan, is the latest in a line of idealist heroes who are both admirable and somewhat ridiculous, an Albert Brooks sort of character. In 2006, the Manhattan writer came up with a book proposal: He would live for a year "eco-effectively." That means, he said, having zero net impact on the environment.

So he stopped driving or taking the subway and biked around the city. He ate only locally grown, organic food. He bought no clothes. For the last six months he turned off the electricity in his apartment and he and his wife, Michelle Conlin, and their toddler, Isabella, lived in candlelight, trying to keep their food cold in an earthenware pot placed inside a larger pot, a device supposedly used with success in Nigeria — but not in Manhattan.

Beavan did do one thing high-tech: From an office outside the home he wrote a blog, which a New York Times journalist read, which lead to a mocking feature titled "A Year Without Toilet Paper." Soon, Beavan was on with Steven Colbert, and cameras from Good Morning, America were there to film him throwing the switch that shut off his electricity. It must have been a tight squeeze in that dark apartment with documentary cameras filming TV cameras. No Impact Man centers on a flight from technology, but directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein set it firmly inside a media circus.

Beavan's book, also called No Impact Man and just out from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is a different experience. His voice on the page is deeply earnest. He writes things like, "I became excited about the possibility of breaking through our socially endemic isolation and connecting to our community and to some larger sense of purpose as a replacement for the material things we'd be giving up." But onscreen, his wife Michelle makes a hilarious counterweight. Although it's not her project, she also has to live without lights or TV. She writes for, of all places, Business Week, and is an unapologetic materialist. Enduring withdrawal from her Starbuck's coffee, she incinerates Beavan with a stare.

There's a dramatic arc to the film — an opening out. Beavan sets off to report on the tons and tons of trash we generate. He interviews community gardeners, people who've attempted to be self-sufficient even in the urban jungle. And Michelle comes around. She tones up. She has an epiphany while working on an organic farm. She begins to feel more sure of this project, even as her husband is treated as a figure of fun, a limousine liberal.

Beavan's book was trashed a few weeks ago by Elizabeth Kolker in the New Yorker as a stunt — although she admits that Thoreau's sojourn to Walden Pond was a stunt, too. She writes, "The real work of saving the world goes beyond the sorts of action that No Impact Man is about." Yes — and no. Both the book and the movie focus on one man, but the film demonstrates his strong impact on the culture thanks to media coverage — and by that I include the film itself. That he's not perfect, that he's sometimes even a self-righteous jerk, makes him a less intimidating bearer of the movie's message: that our modern way of consumption has become unsustainable.

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