Book Review: “No Impact Man”

“No Impact Man”
By Colin Beavan

Imagine a year without toilet paper. For most people, that’s where author Colin Beavan’s bold experiment would end before it began. But Beavan and his family committed to spending a year, in their one-bedroom, lower Fifth Avenue New York City aparment, with a carbon footprint of zero. They wanted to live without negatively impacting the environment.

Some of what they did sounds like beatnik fun: buying from farmers’ markets, riding snazzy little basket bikes, hanging out with the performance artists in Washington Square Park. They talked, read books, and played after dinner, as opposed to watching television or surfing the Internet.

But a lot of what they did – and did in the largest, most active city in the nation – sounds shocking. For starters, they removed their apartment from the electric grid. No no dishwasher, no washer/dryer… no refrigerator or freezer. They gave up shopping, movies, and any food that didn’t come from somewhere within a 250-mile radius. They bought no new clothes, no Christmas or birthday gifts, nothing that they couldn’t create, grow or barter.

They say it gave them more time, better health, more fun, and a closer family. Their refrain over the year became, “Let’s see what happens,” a statement filled with anticipation and a sense of adventure.

And a lot of dirty clothes to wash by hand… but I digress.

The story of the year, and how it changed their lives and perspectives, is chronicled in the book But even for the bold Beavan and his family, the experiment ended after a year. And while they turned the electricity back on, they don’t use much of it. They may use a single light at a time. They still don’t use their dishwasher. And they continue to ride their bikes most of the time, taking the subway only when it rains. They’re still finding a balance between what they use and what the produce.

“No Impact Man.” It’s an easy read, a fascinating journey to follow. It’s a reminder of just how far Americans have come in the last 50 years, and how far removed we are from much of the rest of the world. And I was, frankly, humbled by it. However, I sit here with the sound of my clothes dryer thumping away in the other room.

What the book lacks is detail about how they accomplished going off the grid. Mostly, the book covers how they found what they needed to get around their carbon footprint in specific situations. Near the end of the book is a brief outline of a typical day in their household, but a preparation checklist or a needs-assessment guide would have been a very helpful addition. Perhaps he’s saving that for a future book.

Because even Beavan (ha, that rhymes) may negate all of his saved carbon emissions with this book and the accompanying documentary. But he and his family hope that the lessons and techniques that they learned, and their experiences in learning them, may impact others to have no impact at all. For more information and guidance, you can check out his blog, his website, and his documentary. Plus the book, the various media reviews, the non-profit No Impact Project, the…

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