If you read only one piece of long-form environmental journalism this month, make it Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker piece on the uncertain lessons to be learned from “eco-stunts,” the tradition of self-promotional experiments in green living that winds from Thoreau right on down through No Impact Man.
Colin Beavan, the central figure of the piece, has been successful enough in his experiment that by now you’ve probably heard of his family’s effort to live impact-free for a year in a Manhattan apartment. Maybe you’ve read the New York Times article, or seen the Colbert Report appearance, or subscribed to the blog, or bought the book, or seen the trailer for the upcoming film.*
Despite its focus on Beavan, though, Kolbert’s piece isn’t strictly about No Impact Man. Rather, the article stands on its own as a stunningly entertaining look at the tensions that have always existed between the various strands of the environmental movement. What does it mean to act sustainably in a society that isn’t, at root, sustainable? Is there any way through the paradox that criticism of consumption is, itself, a sign of enormous privilege? I’ve been thinking about these topics a lot lately while watching the dispiriting spectacle of our political system grappling with climate change, and the equally dispiriting spectacle of environmentalists’ retreat into doom-saying.
In a perfect coda, Kolbert writes:
> A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment….
> What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”
\* In the wake of Kolbert’s meticulous and somewhat brutal examination of eco-stunts, there’s been a bit of a pro-Beavan backlash on the interweb, so there’s one thing I should make clear: I really haven’t spent much time on the No Impact Man blog, book, movie, or other media appearances, but by every account I’ve read, Beavan is earnest, well-meaning, and dedicated advocate who fully understands that sustainability is more than just a lifestyle choice. Moreover, his book apparently contains plenty of good advice on community engagement. If his experiment has helped to raise awareness, then good on him. You should still read the New Yorker article, though.