'No Impact Man,' Wife And Daughter

Colin Beavan embarked on a year-long journey to have zero impact on the environment, and got his wife, Michelle, and their daughter to go along with it. A documentary, No Impact Man, shows Beavan and his family eating locally grown food and living without electricity.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Many of us like to think of ourselves as conscientious consumers. We choose paper over plastic, patronize the local farmers market and replace our incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient fluorescents.

Colin Beavan went a little bit further. As an experiment, he decided to try to make no net impact on the environment for a whole year and he brought his wife and his two-year-old daughter, Isabella, along for the ride.

(Soundbite of documentary, "No Impact Man")

Mr. COLIN BEAVAN: One thing that's really, really hard is for a consumer to figure what's okay to buy and what's not okay to buy and what should be disposable and what's not disposable, right?

Ms. ISABELLA BEAVAN (Colin's two-year-old daughter): Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: So, that research is really, really hard to do. And nobody can do it all.

Ms. BEVAN: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: In fact, if you just cut out consuming the things you don't really need…

Ms. BEAVANA: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: …you've already done it.

Ms. BEAVAN: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: You don't have to do the research.

Ms. BEAVAN: No.

Mr. BEAVAN: So, if you discover that really you don't need toilet paper, you can just reuse cloth…

Ms. BEAVAN: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: …yeah. You don't have to buy toilet paper and you don't have to do the research about toilet paper.

Ms. BEAVAN: No.

Mr. BEAVAN: You get it?

Ms. BEAVAN: Yeah.

Mr. BEAVAN: Yeah.

CONAN: So, listeners, how far are you willing to go? Have your friends and family members been less enthusiastic sometimes? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul, Colin Beavan, and from our bureau in New York, Michelle Conlin. He's the writer and blogger. She works as a senior writer at Business Week where she covers the working life. They're both the subjects of the documentary, "No Impact Man," which opens nationwide tomorrow.

And thanks very much for joining us today.

Ms. MICHELLE CONLIN: Thanks for having us.

Mr. BEAVAN: Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Colin Beavan, I have to say that clip is just one example of, well, you carry the message but it's the women in your life who carry this movie.

Mr. BEAVAN: Oh, sure. I mean, sometimes, people say to me, well, you're not a consumer, anyway and you just want everybody to be like you but they're not going to be. But what I always say is, actually, what I want is for people to be like Michelle because Michelle was very skeptical about living environmentally and then what you'd see as the story progresses is she opens herself up to the choice of what happened because we let go of consumerdom and open up kind of our lives to more community, and what not. And so, I don't want people to be like me, I want people to be like Michelle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, Michelle, I must say, after seeing the movie, I was tempted to arrange to have a double latte there in the studio for you.

Ms. CONLIN: You're sweet. Thank you.

CONAN: We didn't do it. But there's a very affected scene where you are just desperate to meet a deadline and you really, really want to go out for some coffee.

Ms. CONLIN: That's right, I do. I want to go out. You know, it's funny. One thing I really learned was that a lot of my, kind of, wastefulness as a person…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CONLIN: …was just habits, right? So, by actually breaking that - I have to admit I'm back on the bean a little bit right now - but by sort of giving up everything, it was just amazing to see - by giving up everything and sort of dropping out of the culture and dropping off the grid, what would emerge. And we made some really amazing discoveries as a family as a result of that which really made, you know, a great adventure for us.

CONAN: It's interesting, Tony Scott - A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote a review that said that, basically this movie, as much as the idea of the movie is about this year-long experiment, it's really a movie about a marriage.

Colin, do you agree?

Mr. BEAVAN: Well, we inherit so many kind of social rules from the culture. And when two people come together in a marriage, they, you know, they kind of have agreed to abide by those rules. And what you don't realize is if you decide you're not going to consume resources, you're kind of breaking the social rules and you have to rebuild the rules of your marriage all over again.

So, it makes for stress, but it also makes for two people actually deciding how they want to live their lives together. So you get a little bit of stress in their marriage but also the chance to build together and to become closer.

Ms. CONLIN: So we had this amazing opportunity to redesign our whole life, to take our whole life apart and redesign it and author it. And that was pretty exciting.

CONAN: Yeah. We don't see the initial decision making. Michelle, there is something that was left out. I mean, we start when you start the project, but was there a family meeting, a vote? Was everybody on board when this started?

Ms. CONLIN: Well, what happened was Colin really wanted to start - he was a book writer and he wanted to start writing about global warming in his work. And he was so excited about this that I got so excited for him that I didn't fully think through what it would mean. But I was just so excited and also just really believed in the message and believed in the idea of the experiment. I just believed in it.

Mr. BEAVAN: Neal, we should mention that there - that "No Impact Man," the book is also in bookstores at the same time. And one of the things I talk about there is that I had been writing about history. But I was so worried in 2006 about global warming, I just couldn't keep writing about history anymore. And so, "No Impact Man" is a story that we hope will popularize the issues and remind people that we have to do something about our climate emergency.

CONAN: Back to the message there. It's also a film and an experience and a book about, well, dealing with celebrity in our society. In the course of this year-long experiment, there is a big piece about you in the New York Times. There's a wonderful scene, Colin, where you're playing back the messages where you've gotten calls from producers from various talk shows, including ours. You didn't play our message, but you are on our show in the midst of this as a result of that piece in the New York Times. But there was also some unanticipated fallout from that New York Times piece.

Mr. BEAVAN: Well, sure. I mean, I think what we were - I kind of didn't realize this when we started, but what we were talking about is that a lot of our problems come from the fact that we consume too much. You know, the average American admits five times the carbon dioxide as the average Chinese. So we need to do something about our lifestyle. And what we didn't expect - what I -as naive as I am, I forgot to say consume less in our particular culture, which is so much based around consumption, was highly controversial.

CONAN: And the - it came off, Michelle, sounding to some people a little judgmental.

Ms. CONLIN: It's funny, isn't it? I mean, think about that. Like, how crazy and insane is that is that that message just, hey, could you wake up a little bit and be a little less wasteful, would be a subversive message. It's just - it's pretty…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CONLIN: It's pretty insane when you think about it.

CONAN: And you were getting messages after that New York Times piece that you ought to leave this guy.

Ms. CONLIN: I was. I got - well, here's what I got. Here's what I got. There's a lot of venom on the Web, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. CONLIN: So, when you take a stand and you say something and you do something and, for whatever reason, people are interested in, you know, the -you're going to get a lot of - you're going to get everything on the Web and the Web includes a lot of amazing, wonderful things. And yes, yes, there are some venom, but I'm crazy about Colin and (unintelligible) on him. And the fact that we had such an adventure in our early 40s is just one of the many reasons.

CONAN: We want to get some callers in on the conversation. "No Impact Man" is the subject. It's both a book and now a film that opens nationwide this weekend. The stars, if you will, are Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin. They're both with us. 800-989-8255; email us: talk@npr.org. Mary(ph) on the line. Mary calling from San Antonio.

MARY (Caller): Hi. I have a question about the purpose or the environmental impact that you are seeking when using the choice of not using toilet paper. I recently had a baby and in doing some research on disposable diapers versus cloth diapers, I found that it could be more of an impact on the environment to use a cloth diaper because of the amount of water and then place it and cleaning them and, you know, introduce detergents. So what was your environmental goal?

Mr. BEAVAN: So, Mary, with the cloth diaper versus plastic diaper debate, one of the things we always have to look at when we do this kind of research is who is funding the studies. And you can believe that it wasn't the cloth diaper people that funded those studies.

And if you think about it, plastic diapers make up just the largest single item that goes into the landfills every day here in the United States. So we -without looking at the industry-funded studies, we just realized that the best thing environmentally for us to do is to use cloth diapers. But more importantly, my little girl who is old enough at that stage was able to tell me that she was much more comfortable in them.

CONAN: And, Michelle Conlin, I don't think there was anything involved in this whole project that drew more double takes and dropped jaws than the no toilet paper.

Ms. CONLIN: No. But you know what - you know what I think we should be talking about? We should be talking about the fact that we're simply cutting down too many trees. And it's just fascinating to me how people want to focus on this whole toilet paper (unintelligible), which is if you think about it, it's a giant distraction, right? It's a giant distraction from the real issue, which is that there's an environmental crisis going on. And I want us to talk about and put our energy into tackling that, and to get away from this culture of distraction that we're sensationalizing something like a toilet paper thing.

CONAN: Well, it's - I have to say that some people - you said it in the film when - just after that scene in which Colin talks to Isabella about that wonderful, in fact, you say, some people are going to hear this thing about no toilet paper and just think you're a whack job.

Mr. BEAVAN: Yeah. That's…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEAVAN: We - you know, first of all, at a certain stage, we were much more naive about media than we are now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEAVAN: And the thing about it is what we were trying to do with the experiment was to go - to cut down on all resources because there are so many resources that we, as Americans, use that are just plain waste. Because they're wasted because they don't even contribute to our quality of life. Like, who can say they would miss packaging? Forty percent of what we throw away is packaging. Who could say that we miss it? So we wanted to go the whole hog as an experiment to ask ourselves, like, where is there a give in our culture? Where are the resources that we don't need and that don't even make us happy?

Ms. CONLIN: Yeah. The point was to be radical because we weren't ever saying anyone else should do this. But we decided that we wanted to see what it would be like literally to kind of give up everything, right, and see what would emerge. So the point was to be radical so that we could kind of redesign things and see if better things emerged.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call. We're talking with Colin Beavan, writer, blogger, and one of the subjects of the new film, "No Impact Man." There's a book by the same name available in bookstores now. The film opens nationwide. Also with us, Michelle Conlin, the other subject - main subject of "No Impact Man." That, again, this film that made about their project of going extremely green, making no environmental impact on the world for the space of one year. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And there are also going to be people who said - and I've read some of the reviews of the movie, Colin - and that this is a project about self-promotion. And, indeed, that toward the end of the film, when you go full no electricity in the apartment, there's candlelight, but somehow there's electricity for the laptop and electricity for the cameras who are filming this.

Mr. BEAVAN: Sure. We were able to sneak one solar panel onto the roof of the building and we used that to - so that I could continue my blog and all. So we had a light to read to Isabella. You know, of course, people say it's about self-promotion, but it isn't. What it is about is finding a way to popularize issues that we need to be thinking about. And in some ways, it's kind of ashamed that we actually have to resort to sensational - doing sensational things in order to get the attention, but it was kind of a sacrifice we need to make.

By the way, just I would be remise because Michelle said she was crazy about me and I think it's important that I get it on the record that I'm also crazy about her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, thanks very much. Anybody who sees the film will be crazy about her. Anyway, let's go to Randy(ph). Randy with us from Madison.

RANDY (Caller): Yes. Michelles must be wonderful. My wife's name is Michelle, too. I had the very experience about having an impact on my children through having a lifestyle recycling. I think that's where you see the greatest fruit. My own child now, as an adult, who is a physician finds himself checking a Goodwill first rather than going to more expensive stores because he recalls the family calling me Recycle Randy.

Well, because when we built our house, we would straighten roof tin from sheds where wind had blown it off. And so, I would be explaining to these high school students, look, the fossil fuel it took to create this in the first place, we're not going to just hold this to the local dome or going to reclaim this first and we're going to keep reusing this wood from our old house and we straightened bed nails and so on. I didn't - I don't want to pretend I'm near as proficient as your guest, but I've heard him before and respect his goals.

And even though people recoil at some of the extremes, I think it's because they don't understand. As you have an impact on your own children, they take these on, these habits because they internalize them because they make sense. The economic money that's saved revolves back around in their own economy rather than exiting their economy. It revolves back around inside their own community and inside themselves, and they see the benefit to it. And so, I agree with you, sir. You have the greatest impact on my own family and they began still call me Recycle Randy, you know?

CONAN: Well, Recycle, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

Ms. CONLIN: What a beautiful thought. I love the dirty little secret is that you can live like a king or a queen out of Goodwill. I love it.

CONAN: This was a one-year experiment. This was a project. How much of the consumer world have you reentered? Michelle, you mentioned you're back on the beam a little bit. But I wonder, is there a television back in your house?

Ms. CONLIN: No, there's no - that 46-incher is gone. We gave it away. And it has not resurfaced. And I have to say, I thought the TV would be the most difficult thing because I was pretty addicted to it, but it actually was just a lovely joy the night after we gave away the TV to be talking about childhood stuff and entertaining each other. And I think that was one of the best things that we did. And that has stuck. That has stuck.

Mr. BEAVAN: And the other thing I should say, Neal, is that besides for, you know, how we live our lives, the project in a lot of ways has continued because now we started a nonprofit, which is about helping people to choose ways of life that both are can benefit them and/or good for the environment. And people can get involved by going to noimpactproject.org.

CONAN: And after the blog, can I ask you if there was one thing that you were delighted to get back to at the end of the project?

Mr. BEAVAN: The laundry machine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEAVAN: I was delighted to get back to the laundry machine. But I should say that during the project, the thing that I was most delighted about is that I think that it - I think Michelle would agree that it made us much better parents because as we gave up so many screens and so many consumer distractions, it taught us that we could spend a lot more time having fun with our little girl. And that kind of just continues for us. And I think we're both very grateful for that.

CONAN: And, Michelle, people who see the movie will want to know, did you go back and buy that bag at the end of the year?

Ms. CONLIN: I did not. No. I did not buy that bag. I didn't need one because I already had a bag.

CONAN: As was pointed out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you both very much. And good luck with the project and good luck with the film.

Ms. CONLIN: Thank you.

Mr. BEAVAN: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Colin Beavan joined us from Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. He's a writer, blogger, and the subject of the film, "No Impact Man," also a book. Michelle Conlin with us from our bureau in New York. She's the - also a subject to the film and a senior writer at BusinessWeek magazine.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR. We'll see you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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

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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