No Impact Man

Posted: 17th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
Before I start this review, I feel the need to explain my background when it comes to the topic of environmentalism. You see it is not my fault I’m screwed up. I am a child of the consumer culture of the 1980s. I have been brainwashed by branding, I know all the jingles, I like the packaging, and advertisers seem to have implanted a chip in my head that makes me want more, and more, and then throw it away in the landfill, and then get more. But then I headed into the 90s, and the message shifted on me to let’s start saving the planet, the charge lead mostly from the likes of Captain Planet and the Planeteers.

As an aside, I remember as a kid being cognizant of the threat of acid rain because it seemed to be big in the news, so when it would rain at recess, my friends and I would run and hide under the play structures, and then run out into the rain suffering horrible, acid-burning deaths. You have to make environmental problems fun. You know, make lemonade, right?

So anyway, now I know that Styrofoam is bad, I know I should cut up plastic pop holders because animals get caught in them, and I know the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. And has that changed my consumer lifestyle? No. I know that my lust for things is killing the planet, and I do feel really guilty about it.  But apparently not guilty enough to stop or do anything drastic about it.  It is just so embedded into my programming that I don’t know how to stop it. I want to try. Show me how to make a difference besides the little I am doing through recycling some stuff, composting some stuff, and turning off lights.

thought Al Gore could help me with his An Inconvenient Truth. He sold me on the fact that the planet is in trouble.  I believe global warming exists and think we need to fight it, mostly because I don’t like hot weather.  I’m a mild climate kinda guy, sorry.  Anyway, I thought he’d give us answers on what we could do to save the planet, but the movie came up short. I’m sure that really wasn’t the intent of the film, so I am interested when I hear of other films that might answer that question.

No Impact Man (2009) is a documentary which follows Coln Beavan, a man writing a book with a similar title, just a little bit longer, 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. In sum, Mr. Beavan decides that the premise of his above referenced book will be that he and his family (a wife and young daughter) will try to live their lives in New York City for a year without having an impact on the environment. Ah, perhaps this film with have the answers I seek.  He sets certain rules: buy local food, don’t buy new stuff, ride bikes, no elevators, reduce trash, compost, no toilet paper, no electricity, etc., which he phases in throughout the course of the year. So your telling me it is not truly a year with no impact? Already I feel betrayed.

Ultimately, to me the very premise of the experiment is flawed. Just through the simple act of breathing, or eating or pooping, a human has an impact on the environment. There is no way for the subject of the experiment to have zero impact unless he ceases to exist. Maybe it wouldn’t have bugged me so much if he called it “Low Impact Man,” but I assume that doesn’t sell books, does it?

And at the very least, if he was really trying to see if he could make zero impact, he should have gone out to the wilderness, abandoning his city digs which by their very existence have a huge impact on the environment. Instead he stays in the city, becoming a mooch, living symbiotically off of those around him, a parasite. At one point, his wife is forced to “borrow” ice from a neighbor in order to keep their food cold since “No Impact Man” insisted on giving up the refrigerator. He begins to work in a community garden that is already set up, and starts to talk about how easy gardening is, and the guy who runs the garden is like, “Ya it is easy. Because I already did all the F-ing work.”

I’m not sure what the directors of the film, Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, intended on conveying with this movie.  On one hand, the movie felt like a long trailer for Mr. Beavan’s book. But on the other hand, the movie shows Mr. Beavan with flaws which I appropriated seeing. He was shown as selfish for putting his family through this experiment with very little input from them. He requires that they be open and on board with the sacrifice, yet he could still use electricity when he was blogging. And they also showed scenes where, even though his wife wanted another child, he wasn’t open to the sacrifice that came such a change in lifestyle.

We do not get the sense of what impact the experiment had on the family other than a general grumpiness at giving up caffeine or air conditioning. And it is the little things that are left out that make you wonder, like did they give up hot showers, or to really have no impact on a water supply, forgo showers all together.  We don’t get the reaction shots of what people thought about their clothes since the clothes were washed in the bathtub, or how they smelled since I assume they gave up toiletries and toilet paper.

Furthermore, the film does not answer what impact his sacrifices made on saving the environment.  How much did he save the earth by not using electricity? How much was saved by eating locally?  We don’t know because the film just assumes the impact is apparent.

The premise played out no better than an extreme publicity stunt, à la David Blaine. This was highlighted by  Mr. Beavan’s several appearances on morning talk shows like Good Morning America, which last time I checked used electricity to broadcast. So how is that having no impact?

And we have seen these stunts before, with the guy who eats only McDonalds for a month, or the guy who tries to live the rules of Bible literally for a year. And to show us what? Fast food is bad for you? No kidding. To show you that taking the Bible literally is hard and sometimes outdated? You don’t say. To show us giving up electricity and toilet paper is hard? Wow!

My biggest concern with these experiments is that it reinforces the myth that liberals are out of touch with the rest of society.  It is all well and good that these guys can take a year out of their lives to make so many sacrifices all in the name of making a point, or saving others or saving the planet. But there are a lot people who would love to option of buying local, but can only afford to buy off the dollar menu. They give up on electricity but not by choice.

So was it just a ploy to sell a book that will, by the way, have an impact on the environment since I assume it is printed on paper? Maybe, but I think Mr. Beavan’s heart was also in the right place, and perhaps the book does a better job of giving us answers and explaining things. Ultimately, I appreciate that Mr. Beavan is trying to highlight something that I agree is a concern.  I’m glad that he is tackling this issue rather than trying to prove global warming doesn’t exist, or making “Huge Impact Man.” So taken in that light, the movie sparks discussion and controversy (as evidenced by a quick google search of the movie title), which is a big plus in my book, and therefore it gets a 3 out 5 from Mister Critic.