What would life be like without coffee? How would we cope without buying something new? What difference can be made by relying on local produce and can waste be reduced to virtually zero? Can life go on without electrical appliances? Is it possible, practical, and enjoyable to live this way? Such issues are at the heart of No Impact Man (2009) a docufilm recording 12 months in which New Yorker Colin Beavan and his family attempt to live without making an impact on the environment.
Implementing a strategy of radical reduction over several phases, Beavan strips life back to essentials in an attempt to live in line with his values. First to go are carbon-producing modes of transport, the use of elevators (which in itself is a challenge given the infrastructure of a city like New York) and the television. Adopting a strategy of `reduce, reuse, recycle,' he commits to buying only locally sourced food (within a 250 mile radius), purchasing as much as possible from the Farmer's Market, where produce is generally sold without packaging, thus reducing unnecessary waste. Food scraps are composted by worms. Determined to ditch goods that can't be recycled, domestic cleaning products are jettisoned in favour of sustainable methods that include home-made soaps, surface cleaners, and washing detergent using substances like white vinegar, baking soda, and borax. Even toilet paper becomes an unsustainable luxury. The final stage doesn't take place until six months have elapsed when power is switched off, rendering appliances such as the fridge and electrical lighting redundant.
The transition from consumerholic to No Impact Man is not without its hitches. Beavan's partner, Michelle Conlin, is a high-flyer in the media business, working for a major business publication. Initially she struggles to conform to the strict regime, citing caffeine withdrawal as a major hindrance to work efficiency. She also encounters hostile reactions in relation to personal hygiene. The experiment is, after all, an exercise in raising awareness and therefore attracts a good deal of media attention. Some people aren't so keen to shake your hand knowing that you probably wiped your arse with your fingers. At times she is understandably rebellious, sneaking out for coffee and refusing to let appearances slide to the extent of not applying peroxide at the hairdressers. When the electricity is finally turned off, Beavan himself questions the sense of his undertaking, appearing miserable and uncommunicative in a room barely lit by candles. There are problems keeping the couple's daughter Isabelle's milk cold using the Nigerian `pot-in-pot' method of refrigeration, and the composting box becomes an ideal breeding ground for flies. The gulf between idealism and realism becomes apparent.
There are, however, many positive outcomes. Without TV, social interaction increases, and some of the new methods of domesticity like walking up and down on the laundry in the bathtub seem enjoyable to the family as a whole. Less time is spent in the apartment due to a lack of entertainment options, leading to fresh discoveries of activities available in the great outdoors. Overall, quality of life appears to go up rather than spiral to depths of despondency.
Is the No Impact Man experiment a success though? Does Beavan manage to make no impact over the course of a year? In addition to Conlin's moments of rebellion, there are several other instances of rule-bending that we see on camera (not to mention what is concealed). The oven is used for making dinner, mobile phones don't disappear, Beavan `borrows' a solar panel to power his laptop which is also used to run an electric light in the kitchen, the family take a train to visit a farm where some of their produce is sourced, and a neighbour supplies ice for a cool-box when the refrigeration alternative goes awry.
Questions need to be asked about the sustainability of practices like lighting through candles. Whilst it proves that it's possible to manage without power once the sun sets, what impact would this have on the environment if we were all doing it? Cynics may also question the impact resulting from the media circus, both during filming and once the experiment was over. Beavan later publishes a book based on his experience and one can only imagine the carbon footprint generated by production and transportation costs, not to mention the publicity drive that accompanies such a venture. Then there's Conlin's desire for more children. Surely this desire alone, if achieved, would lead to an exponential rise in consumption?
As an exercise in what is possible to cut from our lives, and as means of raising awareness of green initiatives, No Impact Man leaves a positive impression. Beavan concludes that rather than `doing without' in an effort to reduce environmental impact, perhaps the way forward is to find a sustainable way of getting what we need. Such a conclusion seems common sense.
Given the serious subject matter, No Impact Man works well on screen. The cast are believable, there's a good balance of humour and audience members laughed aloud at Conlin's reactions to having her life turned upside down. The star of the film, however, had to be Isabelle, who was genuinely entertaining as toddlers can be. She seemed to thrive on the changes imposed upon her and was acquiescent of the altered lifestyle. In this case, ignorance is bliss, but perhaps her reaction also illustrates that we really can adapt if we want to change the way we live.